Clean Money Repo Men
by John Nichols
The Progressive magazine, June 2002
Remember the old posters that read, "What if schools
got all the money they needed and the Pentagon had to hold a bake
sale?" How about this for a variation: What if politicians
had to give up their official cars, office furniture, and prime
parking spots to pay for clean campaigns?
Equally absurd, right? Not anymore. In Massachusetts this
spring, campaign finance reformers won court authority to come
for the cars, the furniture, and the prime parking spots that
have long been the perks of political power on Boston's Beacon
"We have complete discretion to seize any property of
the Commonwealth," announced John Bonifaz, a lawyer for the
reformers. And within days, the seizures had begun. To kick things
off, a pair of state-owned 2001 Ford Expedition sports utility
vehicles and eleven 2002 Ford Taurus station wagons were put up
for auction to the highest bidder at a raucous public sale in
late April. As the cars were being dispatched, there was talk
that the desk of the Massachusetts Speaker of the House, the leading
obstructionist, would soon appear on the auction block.
How did campaign finance reformers become repo men?
Here's the short answer: In November 1998, Massachusetts voters
passed a clean money law by a 2-to- 1 margin. But the legislature
refused to release the $23 million set aside to provide public
funding for campaigns in statewide and legislative campaigns in
Massachusetts this year. So the reformers sued, along with Warren
Tolman, a Democrat seeking to win his party's nomination for governor.
They thought they were on solid ground, since the state constitution
says the Commonwealth must appropriate "such money as may
be necessary to carry such law into effect."
But in a decision that even reformers described as "incredible,"
the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in January that
the legislature was violating the Constitution by failing either
to fund the "clean money" candidates or to repeal the
law. "The current situation, in which the Clean Elections
Law has not been repealed but no money has been appropriated to
fund it, does more than disadvantage clean elections candidates,"
the ruling read. "It frustrates the will of the majority
of the people who elected to provide an alternative, assertedly
more democratic system of campaign financing for Massachusetts
electoral offices than the current private financing scheme.
The court went a step further. It remanded the case to Justice
Martha Sosman, who was charged with assuring that qualified candidates
got the public funds they were owed. Sosman bluntly declared:
"Tolman is owed $811,050, and is entitled to a judgment in
his favor in that amount." Tolman quickly received a check
for $582,093 from a special state fund for payment of legal settlements.
But that emptied the fund, and Tolman was still owed $228,957.
Additionally, "clean money" legislative candidate James
Eldridge, of Acton, was due more than $8,000. Green Party candidates
were also heading toward qualification under the Clean Elections
Lawyers for the reform groups sought to get Sosman to begin
ordering payments from the $23 million Clean Elections Fund. With
Speaker Thomas Finneran and Attorney General Thomas Reilly screeching
about how the court would be overstepping its bounds if it began
allocating money, Sosman came up with a novel compromise. If the
legislature would not release the money to fund the law, she decided
in April, then state assets would have to be auctioned off to
raise the money.
Sosman explained that she had reached her dramatic decision
because the legislature had acted in "bad faith" even
after the Supreme Judicial Court's January ruling. "The legislature
stands in blatant and flagrant violation of a clear constitutional
mandate," the justice wrote. "The legislature has, for
whatever reason, chosen to respond to this 'constitutional crisis'
with brinkmanship rather than statesmanship.
Auctioning off state property at "distress-sale prices"
might be unfortunate, Sosman admitted, but it was an unavoidable
consequence of the legislature's refusal to respect the will of
the people. "This unquestionably inflicts needless damage
on the Commonwealth," Sosman wrote. "However . . . the
only way to break this impasse is to let the auctioneer's hammer
fall again and again."
Reformers have made it quite clear that obstructionist legislators
can expect to feel the sting of that hammer. "We are moving
forward on choosing property of the Commonwealth that will satisfy
these judgments, as well as making it clear where the accountability
lies for having placed the state in this position," announced
John Bonifaz, the executive director of the National Voting Rights
Inspired by a successful clean money effort in Maine in 1996,
Massachusetts activists began organizing a similar initiative
campaign in their state. The Massachusetts campaign focused on
basic democracy issues, noting that the state's existing private-money-driven
campaign finance structure had tipped the balance so much in favor
of incumbents and insiders that 70 percent of legislative races
in 1998 were not even contested. The promise of a politics in
which voters would actually be offered choices proved appealing.
In November 1998, the reformers won big-securing a two-thirds
vote in favor of a "Clean Elections Law" that would
allow candidates who agree to fixed spending limits and $100 contribution
limits to receive public money to pay for their primary and general
David Donnelly, the director of Massachusetts Voters for Clean
Elections, summed up the goal of the Massachusetts law when he
announced after the vote, "The people of Massachusetts have
spoken loud and clear; they want to end big money's dominance
in the Bay State's election campaigns."
The easiest way to understand how the law was intended to
work is to put yourself in the shoes of James O'Keefe, the Green
Party candidate for state treasurer. O'Keefe is not a typical
candidate for the office. He talks about using the position to
battle corporate welfare.
"The state treasurer's office must ensure that values
such as social justice, nonviolence, democracy, and ecology are
reflected in the state's investments," he says.
That's not a recipe for collecting lots of special interest
money from the brokers and bankers who usually fund campaigns
for such positions. But O'Keefe is running as a "clean money"
candidate, which means he has to collect 3,000 contributions of
less than $100 each to qualify for public financing of his campaign.
Small contributions of $5 are encouraged and count toward the
3,000 total. If O'Keefe gets the 3,000 contributions by the early
June deadline, as he almost certainly will, he should qualify
for $600,000 in Clean Elections funding from the state. Additionally,
if one of his opponents refuses to abide by the Clean Elections
Law spending limit for the race, O'Keefe would be entitled to
receive additional funding from the state- up to twice the spending
For a candidate like O'Keefe, the law promises a level playing
field that Greens rarely have access to in American politics.
Indeed, if the law works as-intended, Massachusetts Green Party
gubernatorial candidate Jill Stein could qualify for initial public
funding of $2,550,000 and millions more in matching funds if Mitt
Romney, the wealthy Republican candidate, exceeds the spending
"The prospect of running a campaign with clean money
is really what drew me into the campaign," says Stein. "The
idea of connecting public interest ideas with public financing
is just incredible. I think that one of the reasons that the Democrats
who are in charge of the legislature have fought so hard to block
this is because they recognize that the potential for a political
breakthrough by the Greens is enormous."
But enormous potential ran up against an enormous roadblock.
On victory night, 1998, Donnelly said, "The Massachusetts
state legislature should listen to this overwhelming mandate from
the voters." While many legislators were willing to do just
that, the man who controlled the flow of legislation and money,
Speaker Finneran, was definitely not on board. An old school Democratic
politician who delights in wielding the power of his office to
reward friends and punish foes, Finneran was smart enough to see
the threat to his reign that was inherent in a law designed to
thwart the influence of the special interest groups.
As candidates began gearing up for this year's contests for
governor, down-ticket statewide offices, and the state legislature,
Finneran and his circle of allies made no secret of their determination
to deep-six the Clean Elections Law. The Speaker derided public
financing of campaigns as a "welfare program for aspiring
politicians, most of whom are so pathetic that they can't even
stand on their own two feet." He spewed venom at candidates
who sought to qualify for the program, especially those from third
parties. And he complained that the law's very name was an insult
to "honest politicians" because it suggested that money
collected from private donors was dirty.
Finneran and his allies tried to gut the Clean Elections Law
with a variety of legislative maneuvers last year, but Massachusetts
Governor Jane Swift, a Republican, promised to veto the moves.
So Finneran simply adopted the strategy of sitting on the money.
Even though $23 million had been allocated to the state's Clean
Elections Fund in 2000, Finneran used his iron-fist control of
the legislature's lower house to prevent moves that would have
allowed the money to be released to candidates.
The uncertainty about whether the funding would be available
caused most candidates in Massachusetts to abandon the plan. A
few relatively high-profile candidates refused to buckle, however.
Tolman, a former state senator, followed all the proper procedures
to qualify as a "clean money" candidate, secured the
required 3,000 small contributions, and demanded the public financing
grant that was due his campaign under the law.
Tolman and other "clean money" candidates joined
Massachusetts Voters for Clean Elections and Common Cause Massachusetts
in filing their landmark suit against the state.
Conscious that their new role as reformer repo men could put
them in tenuous circumstances, Clean Elections Law advocates have
acted judiciously. In making up lists of items for auction, Common
Cause Massachusetts Executive Director Ken White said, "We're
targeting things that have little or no value to the citizens.
It does no harm to the taxpayers, who, after all, are the ones
that passed this law."
Even as the auctioneer's hammer was being dusted off, Donnelly
offered legislators an out. "With quick action, honorable
men and women in the legislature can vote to release $23 million
previously set aside in the Clean Elections Fund," he said.
"This money has been sitting dormant in this fund, gathering
interest and dust, since the summer of 2000.
The state legislature, with newfound leadership, can take
the constitutionally mandated steps to stop this auction.
With Finneran standing firm, the auctions began. And reformers
such as Green candidate Stein-who is well on her way to qualifying
for "clean money"-are still eyeing the Speaker's desk
and the parking spots of top legislators, some of which are said
to be worth as much as $100,000 because of their prime locations.
The weeks and months ahead could see some of the most remarkable
sellathons ever witnessed in America.
In this everything-must-go moment, says Donnelly, people may
be amazed by what appears on the auction block. However, not everything
will be for sale. If all goes according to plan, he explains,
"Democracy itself will no longer be sold to the highest bidder."
John Nichols writes about politics for The Capital Times in
Madison, Wisconsin, and for The Nation. He is the author of "Jews
for Buchanan: Did You Hear the One About the Theft of the American
Presidency?" (The New Press, 2001).