Cleaning Up Politics,
Clearing Out Big Money
by Abby Sher
Dollars and Sense magazine, July / August 2000
It is hard to predict when a real person will penetrate big
media and actually find her issues covered, but Granny D managed
it. She is the 90-year-old retired secretary from New Hampshire
who walked and even skied from Pasadena to D.C. to promote full
public funding of electoral campaigns.
April found Granny D on the steps of the Connecticut capitol,
asking Governor John Rowland to sign the "clean money"
bill just passed by the legislature. The bill would set up a voluntary
system of public financing for state campaigns that stick to spending
limits and refuse private contributions. "For every dollar
given to a candidate or a special-interest group, over ten dollars
in special tax breaks are given in return," Granny D. told
the governor. "This is nothing less than full public financing,
but is a poor system of public financing!"
Granny D is the tip of a reform iceberg that, while moving
slowly and without much national press attention, has managed
to transform the electoral landscape in Maine, Arizona, and Vermont.
The victories of public financing in those states show that there
are still some membership groups in this country, made up of real
people organized into chapters in their region or town, who call
their neighbors and sit at tables to win support for campaign
finance reform. This is not how politics works anymore, even on
the progressive side, where lots of folks are "checkbook
activists," as one League of Women Voters member put it to
me, writing checks to keep their lobbyists going but not doing
much of the lobbying themselves. And like Granny D, a lot of the
people doing the work are seniors, as a younger generation turns
away from electoral politics entirely.
THE STATE LEVEL: WHERE THE ACTION IS
While John McCain wins attention calling for campaign finance
reform at the federal level, the state level is where the action
is. And the fight at the state level is being waged, not by a
photogenic politician but by a coalition of the old and new-style
citizen lobbies. Behind these local coalitions are small "clean
money" nerve centers tied to strategists from the labor-
and foundation-funded Northeast Action, which provided key tactics
for winning so-called "clean money" referenda in Maine,
Massachusetts, and Vermont, and the D.C.-based Public Campaign,
a young nonprofit aiding state struggles, notably in Missouri
Frustrated by the logjams at the federal level, these strategists
set out to win comprehensive reform nationally by nurturing reform
at the state level. Campaign-finance politics also allows progressives
to ally with more moderate groups in a challenge to the corporate
control of government that is harder to hide. Corporations swimming
in profits from eight years of continuous growth are shoveling
millions more dollars into politicians' hands to win the laws
they want. Economists call this "rent-seeking behavior"
-corporations are using their monopoly profits to consolidate
their monopoly benefits through tax breaks and other goodies from
Half of the coalition partners in clean-money battles seem
to have garnered their energy and members in previous political
eras, except in Massachusetts, where young people had a hand in
passing a "clean money" referendum in 1997. The League
of Women Voters, whose membership has been skidding since the
1970s, American Association of Retired Persons, and Common Cause
provide core ground troops, mailing lists and legitimacy to the
state battles. Other key partners are the Nader-style groups Citizen
Action and Public Interest Research Group. The Sierra Club joined
in on the Arizona and Connecticut battles. Unions, the largest
membership organizations in the country, lent their names but
little else to the East Coast efforts, though they are more active
in the Missouri and Oregon campaigns.
These established citizens are at the center of the battle
because many younger people, even some politically committed ones,
are keeping their distance from electoral politics. Since 1964,
voting rates have steadily dropped until only half of the electorate
voted in the 1996 presidential contest (63% did in 1964) and only
one third of the electorate is voting in non-presidential elections.
The last time the United States saw this low a level of turnout
was in the 1920s. Then in the 1930s, the New Deal pulled wholly
new voters into the system by offering economic enfranchisement,
thus reviving electoral politics and voting rates. Those New Dealers
who are still alive are still voting. Those never politicized
are opting out entirely. In 1992 about 70% of retirees of all
races were showing up at the polls but only 38.5% of 18 to 20
THE CIVIL-RIGHTS APPROACH
Dodie Blanche, a retired high school teacher from Greenwich,
Conn., who is the election-law specialist for the state League
of Women Voters, put it this way: "Dealing with the problem
of money-who has it, who gets it-deals with the problem of low
turnout and registration. We felt the public is turned off and
that governments are corrupt -that something is drastically wrong."
Blanche, among other clean-election advocates, also sees campaign-finance
reform as a civil-rights issue: to her, providing public financing
of state races is about enlarging the voice of poor people in
campaigns, and diversifying the pool of people who can afford
to run for office so that it includes more women and people of
color. When the national League of Women Voters put comprehensive
campaign-finance reform on its agenda five years ago, it echoed
lawyer John Bonafaz of the National Voting Rights Institute in
saying that nothing less is at stake than the principle of "one
person, one vote." "The problem focusing solely on corruption
is that it doesn't go to the bedrock principle-the right of all
citizens to participate in the democratic process," says
Focusing on the "equality principle" pushes today's
effort past arguments about corruption and beyond the limited
rhetoric we've inherited from the last great era of electoral
reform, the Progressive Era. In that period, in the first
decades of the 20th century, the message was mixed about the impact
of elite-backed reform on breaking ties between corporate money
and machine politicians. While suffragists argued that reforms
like the referendum and recall would make room for them in the
political system, some socialists and unions feared losing hard-won
relationships within political parties-a feeling some unionists
But as in the Progressive Era, you'll find contemporary campaigners
who feel nothing less is at stake than the possibility of democracy
in the United States: "What this is in practice is not in
fact democracy. We call it that but it's not," says Betty
McLaughlin, part-time legislative director of the Connecticut
Sierra Club. "The big-money interests tend to be the ones
that are anti-environment. It's not just that they get legislation
passed. They get to set the agenda -what is considered at all.
Their priority becomes the government's priority."
Bonafaz coined the phrase "the wealth primary" to
describe the current system, since it enfranchises those with
money. This, he says, violates the equal protection clause of
the 14th amendment of the Constitution. Talking about inequity
"shifts the focus away from talking about the First Amendment
rights of the wealthy [as the Supreme Court did in restricting
campaign-finance reform in the 1970s]. People who don't have money
still have speech rights, but those are completely drowned out."
You can see the disparity in the statistics. Only 7% of the
members of Congress in 1997 were African-American, although that
group made up 11 % of the U.S. population. Three percent of Congress
is Latino and 11% is female.
Despite Bonafaz's rendering of campaign-finance reform as
a civil-rights issue, civil-rights-style organizations- such as
a coalition of black churches in Hartford-have not been very active
coalition partners, leaving the field to the older, good-government-style
organizations. Talking to citizen groups in Connecticut, you get
the feeling they agreed to ally with Northeast Action and Public
Campaign on the "clean money" strategy as a last-ditch
effort to retain some influence in their money-ridden legislature.
They were becoming quaint anachronisms of a liberal postwar era
where party politicians sometimes respected citizen expertise
(the League) or the moral suasion backed by numbers (Sierra Club).
There are reforms short of full public funding-more limited financing
is in place in almost two dozen states and Connecticut itself
outlawed soft money in state races a few years ago. But McLaughlin
of the Sierra Club, a late joiner to the battle, says it is inevitable
citizens' groups working on health care and other issues will
"The issue continues to get more attention as people
try to work for change within the political system and face these
roadblocks. You see government not able to set public policy the
electorate wants," said McLaughlin. She attended the April
rally on the capitol steps with Granny D two days after watching
the defeat of a club-backed state law forcing five "filthy"
power plants to meet modern emission standards. "It happens
all the time- usually when people aren't looking."
While the Sierra Club is a newcomer to "clean money"
campaigns, many of the coalition partners have been laboring for
years on various types of campaign-finance reform in the hope
that it would enhance their influence at the state level and limit
that of corporations. In Colorado in 1996, for instance, a coalition
made up of AARP, LWV, and Common Cause, among others, won a cap
on the size of contributions to gubernatorial and state-senate
candidates even lower than the standard set by the Supreme Court
in the 1970s. Thirty-four states have limited the size of campaign
contributions in state races. This strategy receives a new burst
of energy from Nixon vs. Shrink, a January Supreme Court decision
implying that states could enact caps even lower than the $1,000
limit it set in 1976 .
Still, it took a while for these groups to support the so-called
"clean money" approach to campaign-finance reform, which
promotes full public financing of state-wide or state legislative
races for those adhering to voluntary spending limits. The approach
is complicated, for one thing, as it tries to avoid Supreme Court
pitfalls. That's why the spending limits are voluntary; because
in the 1976 case Buckley vs. Valeo, the Supreme Court said limiting
spending is akin to limiting speech and thus violates the First
Amendment. For another, the "clean money' approach gives
money to politicians, who the public tends to distrust. Full public
funding of races is a hard sell to citizens who want to know why
their tax money should fuel the campaigns of the politicians they
loathe. Clean-money campaigners suggest we're more likely to have
better politicians and policies with full financing of campaigns
"People bristle because they don't want their tax dollars
going for this [campaign reform]," says McLaughlin, who is
the Connecticut Sierra Club's only paid staff person. "You
have to take five more minutes with them: 'if you don't do this,
you'll have your tax dollars diverted or your tax dollars increased
because it's going to tax breaks for special interests."
Making matters worse for attracting supporters, you've got
the campaign-finance groups "lobbing grenades at one another.
There are rifts that are getting ugly," says Nick Penniman,
director of the Alliance for Democracy, which is working on federal-level
reform. Set aside the American Civil Liberties Union, whose state
chapters are divided about whether to fight reform in the name
of free speech. Only some of Common Cause's state chapters have
supported "clean money" campaigns, and its previous
national president didn't put much muscle behind the reform in
its focus on regulating soft money at the federal level. PIRGs
were instrumental in winning referenda in Vermont and Massachusetts,
but also back $100 contribution limits that would spark a Supreme
Court battle that leading clean money strategists hope to avoid.
People vaguely know the United States has clean-election laws
at the federal level and may wonder given their track record whether
regulations really work. Those laws, capping individual contributions
at $1,000 and creating a matching funds-style public financing
system, were won after Watergate in the 1970s in a struggle led
by Common Cause. The law covers only presidential campaigns, not
congressional ones, and targets particular candidates and not
parties, while allowing unlimited "soft money" donations
to the political parties. The loopholes left by that round of
reform were big enough for campaigns to drive all the way to the
bank. Unlimited soft-money donations to parties (not candidates)
remain unregulated, making meaningless any limits on contributions
Blanche, of the Connecticut League of Women Voters, argues
the public-financing system at the state level will succeed where
it failed at the federal level because those at the state level
are doing more groundwork. "We started off incrementally,
closing the loopholes: banning soft money, regulating issue ads,
requiring disclosure. At the federal level, they did it the other
way around-they put the money in but didn't close the loopholes.
We closed the loopholes, and now want to put the money in."
THE MAINE EVENT
Full financing of state elections with voluntary spending
limits is not the only way to control money in politics but it
has two benefits: it replaces the money once provided by business
lobbies, so the campaign war chests of the legislators who must
vote for or fund the initiative won't remain empty; and it avoids
the mines laid by years of court decisions and especially Buckley
The reform law enacted in Maine in 1996 became the model for
the measures passed in Vermont in 1997, and Arizona and Massachusetts
in 1998, and now being pursued in six other states. With strategists
from Northeast Action (who also brought polling and direct mail
techniques to the campaign), the Maine coalition cannily sidestepped
the First Amendment issue by making spending limits and public
funding voluntary, a tactic allowed by Buckley. It survived court
challenges from groups backing Buckley-the American Civil Liberties
Union, which argued in the original case, Americans for Tax Reform,
and the Right to Life Committee.
"We're trying to play baseball and there's a tree growing
in the middle of the field and it was Buckley vs. Valeo,"
said Allison Smith, part-time co-chair of the Maine Citizens for
Clean Elections who became active in the cause through the LWV.
"We decided to try to play ball with a tree in the middle
of the diamond. We had some sophisticated thinkers working with
us. We knew there were real legal issues."
The results from Maine, so far, are good. Almost one third
of the candidates in this year's state elections-1 15 people-
accepted spending limits and signed on to the public money. To
qualify for public financing, the candidates needed to gather
150 donations of $5 each if they were running for the Senate-50
for the House-to prove interest in their race. But while "clean
money" candidates just have the public money, plus the limited
amount of seed money they gathered from individuals when trying
to qualify, the other candidates could keep gathering donations
(up to $250 from individuals, PACs, or corporations).
"We won't know if clean-election candidates are drowned
out until the primaries," said Smith. The primaries were
June 13 (after this article was written). To try to prevent
the "clean money" candidates from being drowned
out, the campaign fund keeps tabs on the amount raised and spent
by the privately funded candidates. If they raised or spent more
than the "clean money" limits-ranging from $1,141 for
a contested House primary and $4,334 for the Senate-extra money
was triggered for "clean money" candidates.
Other good news: There were more contested primaries than
in the last primary election year, and more people ran, reversing
the steady drop of previous elections. Maine has a citizens' legislature
governed by term limits and paying only $9,000 a year, so recruiting
candidates is difficult. "Clean Elections reversed the trend,"
said Smith. "There are a lot of barriers. This took away
"Without Clean Elections, I couldn't even think about
running for office. I just couldn't afford it. It's a real opportunity
for me," sculptor Shlomit Auciello told Smith in her interviews
with "clean money" candidates. Auciello is running as
a Democrat for a House seat against a Republican also financing
his race with public money.
Donald Gean, director of a homeless shelter who is running
for the Senate as a Democrat, told Smith, "At first I thought
using the Clean Election Act would be a great way to look good
while committing political suicide. Two things made me change
my mind: One, a conversation with a solid political insider who
said, 'you've got to do it -we've been waiting for years for this.'
The other was that when I started making the necessary phone calls
to raise money, I got all those crummy feelings back-being controlled,
having to wait for calls back, just the feeling of being on the
hook. I didn't want to go through that kind of misery again.
Many of the candidates testified that gathering the $5 nominating
donations helped them organize supporters at the outset of the
campaign, giving it more of a grassroots presence.
As promising as Maine's experience is, no one thinks it will
automatically be replicated by bigger states. The Massachusetts
"clean money" group is still struggling to convince
the state legislature to fill the public campaign fund in time
for the 2002 election season. Under state law, the 1997 referendum
was legally prevented from appropriating money for the project,
and the legislature is balking.
And in states that don't allow referenda, like Connecticut,
groups must convince their state legislature to enact and fund
the law. On April 17, the Connecticut legislature barely passed
a bill lowering contribution limits and imposing limits on campaign
spending for those agreeing to public financing of their statewide
race starting in 2006. The law also required disclosure of donors.
The law passed in the wake of a scandal involving a former state
treasurer who issued state investment contracts to those who made
payoffs to his friends. Although the legislators at first balked
at providing funding to third parties, even third-party candidates
for five statewide offices-governor, attorney general, treasurer,
controller, and secretary of state -could receive full financing
of their campaigns if they gather enough small, initial contributions
Despite the rallying of Granny D and her Connecticut allies,
however, the governor has said he won't sign the bill, forcing
the groups to start again. This time, the citizen lobbies must
build a movement, advise old hands in neighboring states, who
paid canvassers to promote their referenda efforts. But next time
around the bill may not look like the law crafted in Maine. The
obstacles for reformers may have eased following the Supreme Court's
Missouri decision that upheld $1,000 contribution limits passed
by that state's legislature in 1994. The Court even suggested
the cap could be lower as long as the limit does not make the
contribution meaningless. "Money is property; it is not speech,"
wrote Justice John Paul Stevens in defending the decision, challenging
the heart of Buckley.
The Alliance for Democracy and the PIRGs are already going
after the reform they want, the Supreme Court be damned. The Alliance
argues for a complete ban on private contributions along with
full public financing of federal elections and is eager for a
Supreme Court fight. "Judges are not allowed to take contributions
from interests with cases before the court so why should politicians?"
asked Penniman. But we've been here before. Simple solutions to
public crises like single-payer health care get lost amidst realpolitik.
Absent a mass movement much broader than that mustered to date,
it is doubtful simpler reform will have any better luck before
bloated state legislators who fear equal funding for their future
opponents, including third-party candidates.
Nor will "clean money" laws entirely remove the
influence of money from politics, as many campaigners readily
admit. Corporations manage to get their way in more ways than
by funding politicians. They promote ideologies of small government
and privatization of public services by funding influential think
tanks-before bidding on providing those services. They threaten
to move out of state or off-shore if they don't get their way
in battles over laws. And, on the federal level, businesses promote
policies regulating the money supply that favor them. As previous
reform eras have shown, money has many ways of getting its way.
Citizen lobbies are hoping greater democracy will slow it down.
Abby Scher is New York program director of the Independent
Press Association. She was Dollars & Sense co-editor until