"They will come in and spread lies": How organizers in Maine are preparing to take on the plutocracy

A clean elections initiative might have to survive a dark money attack, Maine campaign finance reformer tells Salon

Published October 5, 2015 4:05PM (EDT)

  (AP/Reuters/Dennis Van Tine/Richard Drew/Shannon Stapleton)
(AP/Reuters/Dennis Van Tine/Richard Drew/Shannon Stapleton)

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders have both made the undoing of Citizens United central elements of their presidential campaigns. Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig is running for president on little else. And it makes sense, really: the issue animates liberals and the Democratic base like few others, and even garners real support among Republicans and Independents. For those who believe the Constitution was made to do more than enforce laissez faire economics, campaign finance reform is a rare topic that's a no-brainer both politically and on the merits.

But if you talk to folks in the weeds on campaign finance reform — or experts on campaign finance law or campaign finance, period — one thing becomes abundantly clear. Regardless of how often the Democratic Party's presidential nominee may rail against Citizens United in 2016, the chance of reform coming out of Congress any time soon is essentially zilch. On the contrary, if the campaign finance reform movement ultimately succeeds, when the histories are written, they'll start in the states.

And that's why Salon decided recently to call Andrew Bossie, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. This fall, an initiative called the Maine "Clean Elections" Initiative — a.k.a. "Question 1" — will be put before voters in Maine. And the goal will be to not only fix what the Supreme Court has broken, but to set an example for the rest of the states to follow. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

So, to start at the beginning, what is Question 1?

Question 1 gives Mainers the opportunity to build a government that is accountable to everyday voters instead of one that depends on wealthy special interest to fund our politics. It will do three important things:

1) It will restore and strengthen Maine’s Clean Election Act, which allows candidates to run for office based on local support and get a grant of public funds to run their campaigns — as long as they agree not to take any money from special interest [groups]. That law has been weakened, and this initiative would strengthen it.

2) It will improve disclosure by listing the top three donors on certain political ads, so voters know who is spending money to try to influence their vote.

3) It will raise fines and penalties. Right now, we’ve got a lot of political interest groups that are breaking the law intentionally because the fines and penalties are so low that they see them as a cost of doing business.

Tell me more about the state's clean election law? How has it been weakened?

Maine was the first state in the nation to implement a full system of public financing for state office. [It] went into effect in 2000. At its peak, 85 percent of sitting legislators used the clean elections law to finance their race.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court made a ruling in 2011 that invalidated the part of our law that dealt with keeping candidates competitive with wealthy, privately financed candidates and/or outside groups. We've gone to legislature twice now to strengthen that provision within the new Constitutional landscape. But that failed; so now were bringing this effort back to Maine’s people.

We’ve unfortunately seen a drop in the use of the clean elections law [by candidates] to 51 percent in 2014. We are fearful that big out-of-state or wealthy special interest money is going to take a foothold back in Maine, and make it hard for everyday people to be heard in the policy debate that affects all of our lives.

Is it true that there really isn't any coordinated or significant opposition to the measure yet?

There is very light opposition, but we’ve always been of the mind that opposition will come late, that it will probably be a secret money group of whose true funders' identity we may never know. And they will come in and spread lies and misconceptions about what this bill will do. We’re about five weeks out 'til Election Day and that’s what we fear will happen.

What arguments — or misinformation, if you prefer — do you expect to hear from opponents, assuming they do show up around Election Day?

I think the chief argument that we'll hear is that this is "welfare for politicians." My counter to that is: Look, someone is going to own our government. It is either going to be us – the public, the taxpayer – or it can be wealthy special interests.

What about Governor LePage? What role has he played thus far?

Governor LePage is opposed to putting Question 1 on the ballot. That doesn’t mean that all Republicans are opposed. In fact, some of our strongest supporters – State Senator Roger Katz, as well as a former state senator by the name of Edward Youngblood are Republicans.

The clean elections law has been used by Democrats, Republicans, Greens, and Independents over the years, and that has allowed us to have everyday people — like teachers, plumbers, convenient store clerks, even my own high school teacher — serve.

Of the three provisions, is there one that you think is important than the other two?

I think of them as three legs of a stool. So, you got our candidates running voter-based campaigns that are about good ideas, hard work, and what people of that district want. That is one leg — strengthening clean elections.

The other is to make the public see who is trying to influence their votes by having stronger disclosure and transparency laws.

And the third leg of the stool is making sure people abide by the law and that they are accountable to it; and that’s [done] through the penalties. I think they all go together and the stool falls over if you don’t have those three strong legs.

Do you hope the Q1 campaign can be a model for people in other states to follow? Or is the politics here too uniquely Maine?

I think this is a fantastic opportunity not only to improve democracy in our state, but also to show people across this country — who are so concerned about money and politics and often cynical — that something can and will be done.

Our state motto is “Dirigo,” meaning I lead or I direct. My hope is that when we win this campaign, that that’s the beginning of a movement that would sweep this country to give U.S. citizens what they deserve, which is a government that works for all of us.

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By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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