Citizens Make Campaign Finance
Priority in Local Elections
By Karen Winner
After months of pressure, congressional leaders have agreed to consider campaign finance reform this fall, but citizen-led groups are no longer waiting for leadership from Washington. They have already set their sights on the states and Massachusetts is the next target of a quiet revolt in electoral politics.
A massive petition is planned in Massachusetts on Oct. 25 and if the one-day campaign is successful, Massachusetts voters will then have a chance to vote on a comprehensive finance-reform bill that gives candidates public money if they agree to spending limits. Private contributors would be limited to contributions of $100, and such contributions could not exceed 20 percent of the spending limit.
Massachusetts organizers are hoping for a replay of the dramatic victory in Maine, where grassroots advocates of campaign reform gathered 65,000 signatures, or about 12 percent of Maine's voters, in one day. The Maine drive paved the way for a state referendum last year and the most sweeping and comprehensive campaign finance-reform measure in the country, according to campaign-finance experts.
In other states, activist groups opposed to big money in politics are pushing Maine's "clean money" option as a national model.
"Citizens believe that politicians accept too much money from special interests," said Ellen Miller, director of Public Campaign, a nonpartisan group in Washington that advocates public financing of elections. "The clean money option frees candidates from the money chase and ends their dependency on special-interest contributors."
Under the key provisions of the Maine Clean Election Act, state candidates who refuse private campaign contributions can obtain state funding up to 75 percent of the average cost of the previous two races for the same office.
The Maine law, enacted in November 1996, also sharply reduces the size of campaign contributions allowed to candidates who don't opt for public financing. The new limit is $500 in gubernatorial races and $250 for all other candidates, down from current limits of $1,000 from individuals and $5,000 from corporations and political action committees.
The Massachusetts proposal, if enacted, is likely to trigger the same court battles that Maine now faces. The National Right to Life Committee and the Maine Civil Liberties Union have filed legal challenges on the grounds that the Maine Clean Election Act is unconstitutional.
In August, U.S. District Court Judge D. Brock Hornby dismissed key portions of the federal lawsuit brought by the Civil Liberties Union, saying it was premature and could not be litigated until after the 1998 elections. Most of the new law becomes effective in 1999, for the 2000 election year. The Maine Civil Liberties Union is appealing the decision, said executive director Sally Sutton.
Organizers in Massachusetts do not seem intimidated by the legal wrangling that has come with the measure adopted by their neighbors to the north. "We're recruiting at meetings, at fairs, and making a lot of phone calls," said David Donnelly, a campaign manager for Mass. Voters for Clean Elections.
According to the plan, more than 1,500 volunteers on Oct. 25 will be stationed at post offices, supermarkets and parks, among other public places across the state, to gather 65,000 signatures for a ballot initiative in 1998.
Supporters from Maine and New York will also assist in the signature-gathering effort, joined by Alec Baldwin, the actor and president of the Creative Coalition, an organization of entertainment professionals in New York that advocates on various social causes. "We hope to get between 200 and 300 people on the bus to Massachusetts led by Alec Baldwin," said Sharon O'Connell, executive director of the Creative Coalition.
After the signatures are collected, local town clerks and the Massachusetts Attorney General's office will review the signatures to make sure they are valid. If the signatures are approved by authorities and the organizers gather roughly 11,000 more signatures next year, the campaign-finance-reform proposal could be on the ballot for voters in 1998.
Campaign-reform efforts based on the Maine model are also under way in Washington, Missouri and Wisconsin, according to George Christie, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, which has taken a national role in the campaign-reform fight.
Last spring, Vermont's legislature passed a campaign-finance-reform bill similar to the Maine law that offers public financing to candidates in gubernatorial races. The new law also sets limits on candidates' expenditures in the races and the size of campaign contributions in all general elections.
A similar bill was defeated in Connecticut last spring by two votes.
While the state reforms don't affect national elections, which are governed by federal election law, campaign-finance-reform groups hope the citizen-led state reforms will pressure federal legislators to follow the states' cue.
"We would like to demonstrate the power of the clean money solution at the state level to pave the way for its enactment at the federal level," said Miller of Public Campaign in Washington.
Miller and other advocates of campaign-finance reform say the campaign-money scandals besieging the White House and Congress still haven't resulted in passage of any new federal reform measures.
The presidential money-for-access debate has recently centered on allegations that fund-raising telephone calls made from the White House by Vice President Al Gore and President Clinton may have run afoul of campaign-finance laws.
On Sept. 24, congressional leaders announced that they will consider federal legislation that places limits on so-called "soft money," funds used extensively for party building, which are at issue in the current White House controversy.
But Becky Cain, president of the National League of Women Voters, says that members of congress are unlikely to commit to the kind of far reaching reform envisaged at the state level. For that reason, Cain said, the League is also looking toward the states as a long-term solution to the problem of money in politics.
"By and large most of the opposition, if there is opposition, comes from members of Congress. The same system has worked for them," said Cain. "It's very hard for incumbents to look at this, but it really doesn't work very well for anybody."
Resistance to the Maine model has also come from civil liberties advocates. "We're opposed on the basis of First Amendment rights -- that the Clean Election Fund restricts speech. It will limit the candidates' ability to get their message out to the voters," said Sutton of the Maine Civil Liberties Union.
Critics predict that the Maine law will have the unintended effect of favoring incumbents, who usually benefit from free media exposure through mailings and press conferences, in and out of election season. Challengers, on the other hand, have less visibility and will now be restricted in how much they can spend on advertising, Sutton said.
The Maine Civil Liberties Union also opposes part of the law that provides a government certification of publicly financed candidates as Maine Clean Election Act candidates. This amounts to a government endorsement, according to Sutton. "Those who aren't publicly financed can essentially be labeled as 'dirty candidates' by opponents," she said.
No one really knows if candidates anywhere will take the "clean option," but organizers nationwide say something has to be done to stop the influence of special-interest money on campaigns.
Robert Feuer, a Massachusetts attorney who has volunteered for the Oct. 25 signature sweep, expressed the discontent of some activists who are demanding campaign-finance reform. "Corporations have no laws that control their morality or ethics. You can't have the machines, I'm referring to the corporations, running the people. When the people become complacent, the machines run right over them."
Posted October 3, 1997
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