The Clean-Elections Movement
by Laura Orlando
(an interview with Janice Fine)
Dollars and Sense magazine, July / August 2000
In the fragmented world of political reform, the dean-elections
movement makes a convincing 1 argument for its primacy in democratic
reform efforts. It says apostasy is not a precondition for radical
democratic reform in the United States. Cast your vote and know
it means something; but first take the private money out of political
campaigns. Clean Money Campaign Reform is working toward 100%
public financing of elections at both the state and federal level.
It has grown into a broad-based movement with appeal across the
political spectrum. But at its heart are progressive coalitions
like New England's Northeast Action. Janice Fine, the Organizing
Director of Northeast Action and an early architect of substantive
campaign-finance reform, has her finger on the pulse. Collective
member Laura Orlando interviewed her for Dollars and Sense.
D&S: What makes the clean-elections movement different
from traditional campaign-finance reform efforts?
JF: The traditional approach to campaign-finance reform had
two core problems: One was that it treated all organizations-including
political action committees (PACs)-and individuals that were involved
in contributing to politics the same. The other problem was that
it favored incremental approaches, which just open new loopholes.
The clean-elections movement represents an entirely new and
different strand in campaign-finance reform, both in terms of
the nature of the solution but more importantly in terms of the
nature of the organizations that brought it into being. It sees
money, specifically the private financing of campaigns for public
office, as one of the major reasons why political leaders do not
reflect the positions that are held by a majority of Americans.
Traditionally the groups that worked on campaign-finance reform
tended to extol the virtues of good government for good government's
sake. We see it as a really important way to achieve economic
and social justice and to make it possible for the needs and views
of average people to have equal standing in politics, not just
those people with big wallets.
D&S: Why won't solutions involving the private financing
of elections work?
JF: If a baseball player slides into home plate and, right
before the umpire rules if he is safe or out, the player says
to the umpire-"Here is $1,000." What would we call that?
We would call that a bribe. If a lawyer was arguing a case before
a judge and said, "Your honor before you decide on the guilt
or innocence of my client, here is $1,000." What would we
call that? We would call that a bribe. But if an industry lobbyist
walks into the office of a key legislator and hands her or him
a check for $1,000, we call that a campaign contribution. We should
call it a bribe. We are challenging the whole premise that elected
officials should solicit and accept contributions from private
parties, period. You have got to sever the connection between
private contributions and public policy.
D&S: Where did the urgency for reform come from? The problem,
private money in politics, has been with us for a long while.
JF: During the 60s and 70s, a lot of people gave up on the
electoral process; they basically decided it was a cesspool and
should have nothing to do with it. But the election of Ronald
Reagan in 1980 changed all that. The lesson was that we could
only ignore elections at our peril. And so a lot of organizations
that previously had not put a big emphasis on electoral politics
started to get into the game. So, for example, while you had trade
unions who had always done some form of politics, you now had
feminist groups, environmental and peace organizations, and citizen-action
groups that had never done electoral politics before getting involved.
In New England this took the form of statewide progressive coalitions-beginning
in Connecticut in 1981, and then spreading to Massachusetts, Maine,
New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, where constituencies came together
to run progressives for office and to try to pass and pursue progressive
D&S: When did the shift in thinking about campaign finance
reform, and ultimately the shift in organizing, happen?
JF: Randy Kehler, one of the founders of the nuclear freeze
movement, started a group called the Working Group on Electoral
Democracy in 1989. This was a group that was a kind of a think
tank of organizations and intellectuals, but mostly of organizers,
that considered this issue of democracy reforms. Randy was incredibly
frustrated by the fact that the agenda of the freeze movement
did not get translated into law. Polls showed, and its millions
of participants demonstrated, that it was overwhelmingly popular,
but it was completely stymied in Congress. The conclusion that
Randy drew was that this was the reform that would make all other
reforms possible. Another early organizer, Gwen Patton, who was
a veteran of the civil-rights movement, spoke of it as the unfinished
agenda of the civil-rights movement. Over a period of years the
Working Group fashioned a proposal which they called the 100%
Solution-a system of total public financing of elections.
I joined the group in 1991. A lot of what I tried to do was
to see what would happen if you really tried to get out there,
build a constituency for reform, and move it through states. And
because New England was unique in the country in terms of having
this tremendous infrastructure of progressive electoral capacity,
networked together through Northeast Action, and it was the movement
I came out of, I thought it was the place to begin.
That summer I traveled across New England and spoke to a cross-section
of constituencies, including: elected officials, organizations
of people of color, labor leaders, community organizations, environmentalists,
peace activists, feminists, and lesbian- and gay-rights activists.
I found that there was tremendous mistrust of traditional approaches
to campaign-finance reform, especially on the part of the labor
D&S: How did the actual clean-money movement take shape
in New England? And how did it convince reluctant coalition partners
and others to join it?
JF: We redefined the problem, both in the eyes of our own
constituents and the general public, because if you redefine the
problem you make room for a different solution. We established
ourselves, state by state, as authorities on the issue of money
and politics. And we took a populist approach to the problem and
broadened the constituency groups fighting the campaign reform
fight. We knew that the electoral constituency for clean-election
reform cut across all ideological _,, lines. Most Americans think
that if you have the means, you should be able to own a second
car or home, or take expensive vacations, but they do not believe
that having more money entitles anyone to a second helping of
We also learned how to follow the money trail in our state
legislatures. In addition to analyzing PAC contributions, we learned
how to "fingerprint" individual donors. If there was
sort of a revolution, l think, in the early days, this was it-because
it allowed us to tell a very different story about the source
of campaign contributions. When you took a comprehensive look
at money and politics you saw that PAC contributions accounted
for a relatively modest percentage-maybe a fourth of the total-and
the vast majority of money that was coming into state and federal
politics was from individuals. We proved the inadequacy of a solution
that only dealt with PACs.
In 1993, we released a series of reports that demonstrated
that money was exploding in state politics, that the majority
of it came from individuals, that it was highly targeted by special
interests-and by special interests I mean business and corporate
interests of all stripes-and, finally, that an overwhelming amount
of money was being contributed directly to committee chairs and
other legislative leaders. Today we have the most comprehensive
database of campaign contributors in every state in New England
and are looked to for our expertise by journalists, opinion leaders,
D&S: When was it decided to try to pass a clean-elections
law in Maine?
JF: I felt that there was a glass ceiling around what was
attainable. I thought it was really important to shatter the glass
ceiling and the only way to do that was to actually pass a state
law for public financing of elections. Not a partial system. Not
a matching funds system. And it had to be voluntary because of
the 1976 Supreme Court decision, Buckley v. Valeo. This is an
area that is really conditioned by legal precedents and by case
histories. The justices equated money with speech and essentially
said that if you put limitations on money, you are limiting political
speech. We are trying to enlarge speech, rather than limit it
by only allowing certain voices to be heard in the debate. And
also, if you've got no money you've got no speech.
We worked intensively in Connecticut, Massachusetts, ` New
Hampshire, and Maine. But the state that got out S front the fastest
In 1992-working with the statewide progressive coalition in
Maine, the Dirigo Alliance-we brought to the table a wide variety
of organizations, including the best of the good-government groups,
like the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, the AFL-CIO
the largest environmental group in Maine, lesbian and gay organizations,
feminist organizations, peace organizations, the Maine People's
Alliance, and the AARP. We literally wrote a law together by committee.
We also had to raise a lot of money. In Maine we raised $500,000
and in Massachusetts-where we passed a clean-elections law in
1998-we raised $1.3 million. We asked potential contributors to
"give us the campaign contribution to end all campaign contributions..."
We had pollsters, focus groups, and we made and ran TV commercials.
We were very committed to accepting the world as it is and not
as it should be and understanding that if we wanted to win this
we had to have a very compelling message and enough money to get
that message out.
In Maine something that was really inspiring was that there
was a tradition that had been pioneered by environmental and peace
organizations to try to get all of the signatures necessary to
put something on the ballot in one day. And so we asked all the
different organizations that were endorsing this to either call
their members or to give their membership list to a central phone
bank. Six months before the election, we hired organizers to recruit
volunteers to gather signatures. In November 1995, we gathered
all of the signatures that we needed in a single day; 1,100 volunteers
collected 65,000 signatures in 14 hours.
On election day, November 1996, we won with a 56% majority.
A new national organization was launched in the wake of this victory,
called Public Campaign. Activists and coalitions in 40 states
are working to advance Clean Money Campaign Reform. It's the law
in Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Arizona. It will be on the
ballot in two more states this fall and has the potential to pass
in as many as six in the next two to three years. It was the Maine
victory that sent a message nationwide to reformers that Clean
Money was winnable and not a pipedream.
Janice Fine is the Organizing Director of Northeast Action,
a doctoral candidate in political science at MlT and a recipient
of an Open Society Institute individual fellowship. Laura Orlando
is the director of the ReSource Institute for LowEntropy Systems
and a member of the D&S collective.