Reform Gets Rolling

Last November, voters in Massachusetts and Arizona added the latest tiles in a growing national mosaic of state-based campaign finance reform efforts. It all began in 1996, when Maine voters passed a sweeping reform plan aimed at replacing special interest money with a system of voluntary public financing for state elections. In 1997, defying the conventional wisdom that politicians will never vote to replace the system of campaign contributions that elected them in the first place, the Vermont legislature passed a similar measure. Then in November 1998, two-thirds of Massachusetts voters opted for radical surgery rather than tinkering to cure their money-in-politics ills, putting into place a system modeled on the so-called "Clean Money" reform adopted by their New England neighbors. But the most consequential vote may have come the same day out West, when a bare majority of voters in the conservative but quirky state of Arizona proved that publicly financed elections were not merely the preserve of the liberal Northeast.

A pattern is emerging.

Quietly, with little fanfare and even less attention from the national media, a citizens' movement is making itself felt. With Congress stalling on ever more watered-down reforms of federal campaign laws, activists—a disparate coalition of labor unions, environmental groups, good-government reformers, women's and seniors' groups, and civil rights organizations—are targeting a dozen more states for Clean Money campaigns in 2000. They include a cluster of northwestern states—from Oregon to Washington to Idaho—along with Missouri, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Slowly but surely the movement is gathering momentum from its victories. "After the votes in Massachusetts and Arizona last year, activists from five different states called and said, 'Can we do it here?'" says Ellen Miller, executive director of Public Campaign, the Washington, D.C.–based organization spearheading the national effort.

Along with Public Campaign, there is also a growing political infrastructure of foundations and funders, large and small, coming together to sustain the effort. In Montana, the National Institute on Money in State Politics is busily collecting campaign contribution data from state after state and transforming it into in for m ation that can be used by activists to illustrate the corrosive im pact of money in state political races. Four regional organizations—based, respectively, in North Carolina, Wiscon sin, Oregon, and Conn ecticut—provide guidance, training, and talent for the state-by-state efforts. National organizations, including the AFL-CIO and the League of Women Voters, have also lined up in support. Polls consistently show support for public financing of campaigns in the range of 60 to 80 percent.



But the ultimate fate of all these efforts remains uncertain. Less than half of the states allow the sort of ballot initiatives that succeeded in Massachusetts, Maine, and Arizona, and in some—such as Michigan and, of course, Cali fornia—a campaign would involve enormous expenditures for media and public education. At the same time, despite the success in Vermont, an effort to pass radical campaign reform laws through state legislatures could easily get stuck in the kind of trench warfare that characterized the fight in Congress for a decade. There are also serious questions over whether victories won in the political arena can be sustained in the courts, whether state legislatures will be able to tinker with or unravel new campaign finance regimes, and even whether continued funding can be assured for government-run campaign war chests. And even if these efforts are successful, none of the state-based reforms affect federal elections, where many of the most important decisions of national policy are made. Ultimately, those involved in the work say that in addition to creating a self-sustaining movement in the states, the goal is to use the leverage from state victories to get Congress unstuck. "In the end," says Miller, "we've got to bring it back to Washington."


Volunteers vs. Money Men

So far, only a few dozen members of the House and a handful of senators are on record supporting bills that would establish public financing for congressional elections. But for different reasons, the victories in Massachu setts and Arizona last year have provided crucial evidence that the earlier actions in Maine and Vermont were not flukes.

The Massachusetts story shows that even in a fairly large state—which has a population three times the size of Maine's and Vermont's combined—it is possible to build and finance an organization that can push a public financing initiative over the top. In Massachusetts, a four-year organizing effort culminated in a stunning victory: 67 percent of the state's voters endorsed Question 2, the Massachusetts Clean Elections Law, sponsored by Mass Voters for Clean Elections (MVCE).

The measure, which takes effect with the 2002 state elections, provides state funds to candidates for the legislature, governor, and other statewide offices who voluntarily agree to fixed spending limits for their races. At the lowest end, a candidate for state representative would receive $24,000 in public funds, after first collecting a minimum of 200 contributions (ranging from $5 to $100) from registered voters in his or her district and agreeing not to spend more than $30,000 on the race. At the high end, a candidate for governor would have to raise 6,000 contributions of $5 to $100 and agree not to spend more than $3 million in order to become eligible for $2,550,000 in public funds. Other provisions of the law bar state parties from accepting unlimited amounts of "soft money" from national parties and provide additional matching funds for candidates whose opponents opt out of the system and spend money in excess of the specified spending limit.

More than 6,200 volunteers took part in the organizing effort on behalf of Question 2 in Massachusetts over the course of two separate signature-gathering drives and a high-energy election campaign; more than 65,000 petitions were signed on a single day, October 25, 1997, with a total of 130,000 collected by the December 1997 deadline. Backing the drive were the entire state congressional delegation, many state legislators, an advisory board of more than 60 business, political, and religious leaders and prominent citizens, and a broad coalition that included Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the AFL-CIO, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the Sierra Club, and a wide range of community groups.

In all, says David Donnelly, the veteran organizer who served as MVCE's campaign manager, the drive raised $1.2 million, which paid for a $475,000 television advertising blitz, $140,000 to collect signatures, and a staff of 17 full- and part-time workers. About half of the funds came from a handful of large ($100,000 or more) donors, including Public Campaign, with the rest coming from 2,000 individuals who gave in the $100 range and 5,000 more who contributed $35 or less. Though not lavishly funded, the campaign was professionally organized, with a hard core of 400 activists who, in turn, put together thousands of volunteers, a speakers bureau, a targeted direct mail campaign, and an aggressive presence at state and local events, including a ten-day bus tour that wheeled through dozens of towns in early October.

The organizers in Massachusetts took care early on to neutralize two potential sources of opposition: the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which often opposes campaign finance reforms on First Amendment grounds, and the business community. Organizers cultivated a relationship with the ACLU, sharing early drafts of the proposal and modifying the ballot measure—dropping, for instance, a provision that would have added matching funds to combat independent expenditures against a candidate who had opted into the system. Eventually, the ACLU voted to remain neutral. The Chamber of Commerce, too, decided to stay out of the fight, in part because the president of the Greater Boston chamber was a former politician who had been on record supporting partial public financing, and in part because the organizers succeeding in winning significant business support.

Subscribe to The American Prospect

ACE's High

In Arizona, meanwhile, the victory of Proposition 200 showed that the Clean Money campaign could eke out a 51 to 49 percent victory in a conservative western state as well.

Getting off the ground in July 1997, the drive in Arizona from the start relied less on volunteers and grassroots organizers that it did on paid staff, paid signature-gatherers, and paid media. Funded largely from out of state—by foundations and by Public Campaign, which kicked in about $350,000, according to Miller—Arizonans for Clean Elections (ACE) spent $920,000 with a coalition roughly the same as the one in Massachusetts. Unlike in the Bay State, however, Arizona organizers faced determined opponents and negative editorials from leading newspapers, such as the Arizona Republic. "We had significant opposition," says Kaia Lenhart, now political director for Public Campaign, who ran the Arizona campaign in 1998. "We did not have the political establishment behind us. We had most of the elected officials campaigning against us. And we had hostile media." A month before the vote, an Arizona Republic poll showed Proposition 200 ahead 60 to 25, says Lenhart. But a month of anti–Proposition 200 work by a group called Citizens Against Dangerous Initiatives and its "Not With the People's Money" campaign, which bought significant radio advertising, brought the numbers down sharply, she says, by warning that Proposition 200 would encourage extremist candidates and would raise taxes.

In the end—with the help of volunteers organized by the League of Women Voters, in particular, along with students, Sierra Club members, and organizers from the Latino community—ACE managed a narrow win, turning out 200 volunteers on election day in Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Tucson. "We didn't have years to prepare in Arizona," says Lenhart. "We put this together in a fairly short time. And what it shows is that whether it's a liberal or conservative state, voters, given the chance to pass campaign finance reform, will."


The Data Shack

Public Campaign, whose budget last year was $2.6 million plus a $600,000 Public Campaign Action Fund, hopes to increase its total spending for 1999 to around $4 million, two-thirds of which would go directly into state efforts. Meanwhile, coordinating the work of perhaps two dozen foundations and individual donors is the Piper Fund, which last year channeled about $1.8 million in grants to 53 organizations in 38 states working on campaign finance reform. Of that, about $700,000 went to support the work of four regional organizations that help make up the central nervous system of the emerging Clean Money organism—Northeast Action, Democracy South, the Western States Center, and the Midwest States Center. Another $300,000 went to the Montana-based National Institute on Money in State Politics, an informational clearinghouse often referred to as "the Data Shack."

"We're going like gangbusters," says Samantha Sanchez, who runs the Data Shack in Helena, Montana. From just a handful of states a few years ago, the Data Shack last year pulled in campaign contribution data from 40 states, often assembling the numbers from boxes of papers filed with state offices. State campaign records, laws, and disclosure rules are a patchwork of good, bad, and indifferent across the country, and in many states it has been difficult if not impossible for campaign reformers to make effective use of the numbers to prove their point about campaign finance abuses. But that may be changing: in Massachusetts, for instance, a team of 20 part-time data-gatherers is sorting through 70,000 records, at something like 15 cents per record. "We're doing the input from the last election," says Sanchez. "I've got data input people sitting at terminals putting this stuff into electronic databases." In Missouri, she says there are more than 100,000 records to go through; in Michigan, 150,000. Since 1996, the Data Shack's budget has quadrupled to about $800,000 in 1999.

Once it's digitized and sorted this data becomes an extremely potent tool in the hands of reformers. Available for electronic searches by reporters, academic researchers, and activists, the data can be sorted by politician, industry, and donor—making it much easier for the public to learn about how patterns of giving influence decisions on public policy. Margaret Gage, the Piper Fund's director, says that activists in Ohio, Georgia, New Mexico, Massa chusetts, and elsewhere are using the numbers to demonstrate the role of money in politics. "And the public gets it," she says.


Battleground 2000

At this stage it's unclear exactly which states will be battlegrounds in 2000, but the states that have active coalitions in place include both those focusing on ballot initiatives and those coordinating lobbying efforts aimed at legislative action. One state likely to have a public financing measure on its ballot next year is Oregon, where organizers say they are making plans to raise $1.5 million and gather about 80,000 signatures by July 2000. Another is Missouri, where plans are underway for a petition drive this summer to gather up to 125,000 signatures to qualify for ballot status. Last year, after having already collected 120,000 petitions and raised about $500,000, Missouri organizers abruptly called off plans to make a run in 1998. "It was a very difficult decision," says Public Campaign's Lenhart, who was working in Missouri last year. "Raising money on this issue has been much more difficult than we expected." Ben Senturia, an organizer with the Missouri Alliance for Campaign Reform, says that the coalition just wasn't ready, especially since they expected stiff opposition from the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Missouri. "It was clear that we needed to do some serious voter education," he says, "and to do that we needed either more time or more money." More than 45 organizations—including the AFL-CIO, AARP, League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the Reform Party and United We Stand America, various unions, environmental groups, farm groups, clergy, disability rights groups, and more—led by a steering committee called Missouri Voters for Clean Elections, are currently making plans to raise $1.5 million and build a network of grassroots volunteers.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, with the help of Democracy South and Public Campaign, organizers are preparing for a multi-year campaign to win legislation modeled on the Clean Money reform plan, led by a coalition called North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections. Armed with polls showing that 66 percent of the state's voters support the measure, the coalition has hired a paid lobbyist and is organizing grassroots support, with plans to spend $500,000 a year for at least the next three years. Utilizing contribution data from the Data Shack, organizers plan to show how industries—including pig farmers, nursing home operators, and transportation interests—are using money to rig the system. "It's not a first tier issue for most people," says Peter MacDowell of Democracy South. "It's an issue that takes a little education." Much of that work, he says, will take place "below the radar," through house meetings and meetings with constituency groups, before moving to paid television and radio spots. "We realize that three-quarters of the effort has to be grassroots," he says.

In one sense, it's remarkable that in a single state like North Carolina organizers could envision spending half a million dollars a year on campaign finance reform. Yet the need to raise large sums of money to support campaign finance reform is more than a small irony tucked away in the effort to clean up our nation's politics. It's also a constant source of worry. Nationally, the movement is dependent, perhaps overly so, on foundations and other funders whose priorities often shift suddenly. The Schu mann Foundation, long a backer of money-in-politics reform, has largely gotten out of it, leaving the field to others, like financier George Soros's foundations—and Soros, involved in everything from Eastern Europe to marijuana law reform, recently cut back significantly on his support for Public Campaign. "The financing for money-in-politics work has always been uncertain," says Miller, who adds that Public Campaign has recently hired a pair of fundraising experts to help state-based coalitions learn how to raise money, create lists, write proposals, do direct mail, and organize house-party fundraising events.

Besides fundraising, organizers of the public financing drive are also confronting the challenges posed by special interest groups that thrive under the current system and by free speech groups like the ACLU. Legal challenges to Maine's 1996 law have already been filed by Maine Right to Life, and the ACLU is expected to mount a similar challenge. A similar legal challenge has been filed against Arizona's Proposition 200. In Massa chusetts, the coalition is engaged in a legislative push to ensure that the state appropriates the necessary funds—about $13 million a year—to create the kitty of public money that would be made available to candidates in 2002. "What we've learned is that winning these victories is just the first step," says the Piper Fund's Meg Gage. "We still have to protect them from being whittled away." She estimates that Massachusetts alone will need $400,000 for its legislative work this year. "We're working with Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts to implement these laws, which is a huge and very important task," adds Marc Caplan, director of Northeast Action. "If we can't get these laws to work, then we've won the battle and lost the war."

You may also like