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Fund-Raising in Politics in Maine

March 26, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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HEDRICK SMITH: In Washington the President and Congress talk about finding ways to roll back the flood waters, the high tide of big money in American politics. But while Washington is stuck in debate and gridlock, the people here in Maine have taken things into their own hands. Folks down east are proud of their pristine nature, their clean environment, and they want their politics equally clean.

They think the political money game in Washington reeks like a five-day-old fish. And they don’t want that bad odor fouling up the clean air here in Maine. And so, last fall the voters in Maine launched a bold experiment in public financing of their own campaigns, that is attracting the attention of other states and forcing their own politicians to change their ways. Here at Becky’s in Portland, coffee and politics are always on the menu. Today the special is the Maine Clean Election Act. Voted into law last November, this citizens referendum provides full public funding to all candidates who make the choice to give up private fund-raising and to shorten their campaign season.

JACK ROGER, Prisoner Advocate: In Maine, we voted, what did we vote, fifty-six to forty-four in favor of campaign financing reform, I think. It seems to me that what that says is that in a state in which citizen voter involvement is very strong, that we also feel that there’s something really rotten about the way campaigns are financed and we better fix it. It’s got to be fixed. It’s broken.

BURT WARTELL, Machinist, Bath Iron Works: In this last election cycle, I helped a friend who was running for state Senate, it’s a scramble, unless you’ve got institutional backing or unless you’ve got, you know, someone with deep pockets bankrolling you, or have deep pockets yourself.

MALLORY HAFFENREFFER, Interior Designer: You have to be a media event to be a politician now – So if you’re an incumbent, you’re already a little star. Whether you’re a bad star or a good star, you’re still able to get time on the media and that’s so expensive.

CHARLIE POOLE, President, Brown Ship Chandlery: I look at what goes on in Washington and it doesn’t seem like it’s the same standard for myself. You know, that I see what the people do down there and the rules that they maybe create for themselves. I go to work every day, I put the key in the door, I open it up, I pay my people, I pay my taxes. I do the things that have to be done year in and year out, and we try to do it by the book. But I can’t say that’s the same down there.

HEDRICK SMITH: Getting campaign reform passed in Maine wasn’t easy. It had a few supporters in the state legislature like Senate Majority leader Chellie Pingree, who favored a bold step.

CHELLIE PINGREE, Senate Majority Leader (D): You either have to do something very dramatic to change this system or you don’t change it at all. Whether a legislator can accept funding during the legislative session from a lobbyist or after the session from a lobbyist won’t dramatically change the system in the way that public financing will. It will eliminate all need for raising money from the kinds of groups people aren’t so sure you should be raising money from.

HEDRICK SMITH: Most Maine politicians were no more in favor of radical reform than those in Washington. State Senator Leo Kieffer.

LEO KIEFFER, State Senate (R): I don’t like the use of public funds in campaigns, which this bill does provide for. I think we have other ways to spend our very much needed monies in education, in human services, in different ways, other than give it to candidates to run their campaigns..

HEDRICK SMITH: After the state legislature repeatedly rejected campaign finance reforms, a citizens’ coalition descended upon Maine’s secretary of state in January 1996, with sixty-five thousand signatures to put reform on the ballot.

BACKGROUND CHANTING: Maine is not for sale, Maine is not for sale…

HEDRICK SMITH: That set up a battle last fall between citizens groups and politicians and special interests. Pushing for reform were volunteers of all ages, a broad-based coalition representing the League of Women Voters, environmentalists, retired people, labor unions, and business leaders. To its director, George Christie, the biggest challenge was overcoming public inertia

GEORGE CHRISTIE, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections: I think the greatest opposition was in the mind of the voters. There’s such cynicism out there that voters can’t change the system, that they can’t take the system back from the special interests.

HEDRICK SMITH: Maine Citizens for Clean Elections activist Janice Fine.

JANICE FINE, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections: The way I talk about this issue is that if a baseball player was sliding into home plate and right after he hit the plate he stood up and said, Hey, ump, before you decide if I’m safe or out here’s a thousand bucks, what would we call that? We’d call it a bribe, right? And yet, we have a political system that’s essentially exactly that. We elect these people to sit in judgment on the most important issues of the day and the very interests that they’re regulating come in every day of the week and offer them large campaign contributions. I think that Americans probably believe that if you have more money, you should be able to buy a bigger house. If you have more money, you should be able to have a second car. If you have more money, you should be able to take nice vacations. But I don’t think people think that if you have more money it should entitle you to a second helping of democracy.

HEDRICK SMITH: Maine Governor Angus King, as many politicians, doesn’t like the current system. But he doesn’t like Maine’s reform either. We asked him the cost of his last campaign.

GOV. ANGUS KING, (I) Maine: The total budget for the campaign was about a million-six, And I spent about eight hundred thousand of my own money and about eight hundred thousand was raised in the old-fashioned way of asking and having fund-raisers and everything else. I was lucky to be able to have the wherewithal. I had just sold my business. And that’s why I say the problem is we’ve got this situation where you either have to have your own money or you have to be beholden.

HEDRICK SMITH: What’s the problem with public financing?

GOV. ANGUS KING: It’s tax money and there’s a sort of visceral feeling we got a tax problem around here, we’re short of money for schools and everything else and there’s just sort of a gut feeling we shouldn’t be spending tax money on it. And I just think that it sounds good, it makes sense. We’ve got a serious problem we’ve got to address, but I’m just not sure that public financing is the answer. I wish I had the answer. I don’t know what it is. I think the answer is to encourage more people to contribute smaller amounts and to really tighten up and enforce the disclosure laws. That’s the best answer. If you’re taking questionable money and it appears in the paper a couple of weeks before the election, I think you should have to answer for it.

HEDRICK SMITH: Talking to people we get a sense that the one big question mark they have is public financing, taxpayer money, was that an obstacle?

GEORGE CHRISTIE: Well there’s no doubt that if you just ask voters if they want to use taxpayer money for elections they oppose that, but if they understand that their money, public money, is the means to drive out the special interest money, then they’ll support it. What we’re talking about is about four dollars per taxpayer.

HEDRICK SMITH: At the Bath Iron Works, Maine’s largest private employer, the public financing idea won some unexpected support from a key business leader, former CEO Buzz Fitzgerald, on the right. With him, another business backer, Sam Zaitlin, board member of the Maine Chamber and Business Alliance.

BUZZ FITZGERALD, Former CEO, Bath Iron Works: Money shouldn’t be the difference, Money shouldn’t be the reason why people run. And money shouldn’t be the reason why people don’t run. It has been a barrier, and it has kept many qualified citizens from deciding to run for office, because the first thing they have to decide is whether or not they can raise a hundred thousand dollars for a state race, or a million dollars for a state race, or two million dollars for a congressional race.

HEDRICK SMITH: Enough voters agreed with that point of view to pass the public financing referendum last November by a 12-point margin. And now everyone has been watching to see what the politicians in the legislature will do. House Speaker Libby Mitchell.

LIBBY MITCHELL, Speaker of the House: This legislature will take several steps to implement the campaign finance reform. Some are totally unrelated to the vote but rather to the message that came to us from the voters. And one is banning contributions from lobbyists during the session. That was a message that was given to us by the voters, we believe in terms of clean elections. We have to begin planning how we’re going to set up the elections commission and to fund it.

HEDRICK SMITH: And what do business leaders like Sam Zaitlin and Buzz Fitzgerald expect to see in Maine politics in the future?

BUZZ FITZGERALD: The year 2,000 we’ll have more people running for office, people will be more willing to toss their hats in the ring because they won’t be faced with having to raise a ton of money, in order to be a candidate and put their ideas forward.

SAM ZAITLIN, Business Alliance: It clearly will make a difference here in Maine. I think that there is simply an inexorable process that has been put in motion. I can’t tell you where that end point is going to be but I think that it’s going to take us to a place that’s better than where we are now.

HEDRICK SMITH: Another 16 states are joining in the spreading movement for reform. Among them: Missouri, where twenty-seven organizations, from Church Women United to the AFL-CIO to the American Association of Retired Persons, have banded together to push Maine-style reform in their state. Californians have voted to limit the contributions local and state candidates can accept from corporations, unions, and political action committees.

In Colorado, voters said yes to greater disclosure of contributions and to limiting contributions to candidates and political parties. Despite action on this issue from Maine to California, Washington is mired in gridlock. Many politicians like to say they favor reform, but they balk at taking action. Over the past several years, various reform bills have died in Congress. Why? Because incumbent politicians don’t want to dismantle the very system that helped them get elected.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: It’s our only chance to get anything passed. I accept–

HEDRICK SMITH: In 1995, President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich shook hands on a pledge to pass campaign finance reform before the ’96 election. But neither side pushed for it.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL, (R) Kentucky: The speech of political candidates cannot be restricted.

HEDRICK SMITH: In fact, the House voted down one reform bill and the Senate filibustered to death another one that would have plugged major loopholes in the current law. That bill, the bipartisan McCain-Feingold bill, named for its co-sponsors Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, is up again before this Congress. It offers candidates free and discounted television time, and it strictly limits the flow of uncontrolled “soft money” to political parties.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: (State of the Union Address) Let’s work together to write bipartisan–

HEDRICK SMITH: President Clinton has given it his backing–

PRESIDENT CLINTON: –and pass McCain Feingold by the day we celebrate the birth of our democracy, July 4th. (applause)

HEDRICK SMITH: Senator McCain, you’ve tried before with this kind of reform and it didn’t work, is this time different?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN, (R) Arizona: I believe that the chances are best now than they’ve been in twenty years. Now whether we’ll reach critical mass or not is directly related to the kind of effort that the American people are exposed to and the kind of pressures that the American people bring to Congress because Congress will not willingly reform a system that keeps them in office.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD, (D) Wisconsin: Well, I think this is a golden opportunity. I mean, how often do you have a Democratic President of the United States just being re-elected, agreeing on a bill with a guy who nominated his opponent, Bob Dole?

HEDRICK SMITH: Almost all Republicans in the Senate oppose the McCain-Feingold bill. Their point man is Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL, (R) Kentucky: First of all, you need to understand what spending is in America. The Supreme Court nine to nothing, said spending is speech, and that it’s impermissible for the government to control that speech and to attempt to dole it out in equal amounts to candidates.

HEDRICK SMITH: In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled in a landmark decision, Buckley versus Valeo, that restricting candidate spending was restricting free speech, a ruling that has provided conservative Senator McConnell with an unusual mix of political allies.

HEDRICK SMITH: Senator Feingold has called you the grim reaper of campaign finance reform. What’s your response?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Well, over at the American Civil Liberties Union they think of me as the prime protector of the First Amendment, so I guess it depends on your point of view. The National Education Association, the ACLU, the National Rifle Association, the Right to Life, Christian Coalition are all highly organized, very much involved in this.

HEDRICK SMITH: Would you just as soon leave the status quo, make no change at all?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: A healthy political system in America means no government restraints on what parties can do on behalf of candidates. Second, we ought to raise the individual contribution limit. It’s been a thousand dollars since the mid-seventies. At a time when a Mustang costs twenty-seven hundred dollars, that’s nonsense, it’s absurd.

HEDRICK SMITH: New Jersey’s former Democratic Senator Bill Bradley talks about another route to campaign finance reform–nothing less than a Constitutional amendment.

SEN. BILL BRADLEY: The reason you amend the Constitution is because the Supreme Court has said that money is speech, in essence, that a rich man’s wallet is the equivalent in free speech terms of a poor man’s soap box, because democracy, itself, is endangered by the money that is now being spent in politics. When our democracy didn’t work in the past, we amended the Constitution to allow it to work more. Whenever women wanted to have a right to vote, that was a constitutional amendment, blacks the right to vote, a constitutional amendment, young the right to vote, constitutional amendment.

SEN. BILL BRADLEY: (on Senate floor) Until we take that step–

HEDRICK SMITH: What’s more, three terms in the Senate have convinced Bradley that Congress won’t do the job.

SEN. BILL BRADLEY: I don’t think this is going to happen inside the beltway, this has got to happen in the countryside. It’s not going to germinate inside the beltway.

HEDRICK SMITH: Back in Maine, folks agree with Bradley.

CHARLIE POOLE: If something is broken you fix it. You don’t like the way it’s working we will go and fix it. Get somebody in the state government who’s going to do something about it and make a change.

MALLORY HAFFENREFFER: Plus if you freeze up here, you got to know how to get those pipes unfrozen and moving real quick, and so we don’t freeze up, we keep moving.

HEDRICK SMITH: Out in the country, public frustration is leading to action. But here in Washington, campaign finance reform faces a steep uphill battle. Bill Bradley’s constitutional amendment would be a long time in coming. And so the political initiative has shifted to states like Maine. But Washington is unlikely to move until a lot more states follow suit. And so we’ll watch to see whether it still holds true that as Maine goes, so goes the nation.