To fund "clean elections,"
Massachusetts judge orders state property sold
by Micah L. Sifry
In These Times magazine, May 27, 2002
What if the people pass a law by initiative, and the legislature
refuses to implement it? That question has confronted Massachusetts
ever since November 1999, when, by a margin of 2 to 1, voters
enacted a "clean elections" system of comprehensive
public financing for all state campaigns. The victory was part
of a wave of clean elections successes that began in Maine in
1996 and spread to Vermont and Arizona within the next two years.
In Massachusetts, the clean elections law was supposed to
take effect in time for this year's elections. But House Speaker
Thomas Finneran and a pack of conservative Democrats have done
everything they can to strangle the law, leading to an extraordinary
constitutional crisis that has yet to be resolved.
At first, it seemed that Massachusetts was on course. In 1999
and 2000, the legislature set aside a total of $20 million toward
the implementation of the law, which was originally estimated
to cost $40 million for a full election cycle. As the 2002 cycle
began, a number of prominent candidates declared their intention
to participate and set about collecting the 200 to 6,000 small
contributions of not more than $100, depending on the office,
that they need to qualify for clean elections funding.
But trouble was brewing. Entrenched incumbents, used to little
or no opposition (70 percent of Massachusetts legislative races
go uncontested), started worrying that the law could undermine
them. Last spring, the man at the top of that pyramid of career
politicians, Finneran, pushed through legislation eliminating
further appropriations for the system. He claimed that voters
didn't know what they were doing when they supported the law (in
the face of polls that show an even greater number-70 percent-backing
When a few moderate legislators in the heavily Democratic
chamber dared to cross him by voting to fully fund clean elections,
one of Finneran's lieutenants retaliated by selectively cutting
projects in their districts. With the support of the state's Republican
governor, advocates fought hard for the money, but ultimately
the 2002 state budget passed with no additional clean elections
funds in it. Worse, the legislature refused to release the money
it had previously set aside, which now amounted to $23 million
thanks to interest accrued.
That's when Mass Voters for Clean Elections, along with a
group of prospective clean elections candidates, voters, and the
state's Republican and Green parties, turned to the courts. In
February, the state Supreme Court ruled that the legislature had
to either fully fund or repeal the clean elections law, under
the provision of the state constitution dealing with laws made
by popular initiative.
Since then, the legislature, under Finneran's firm leadership,
has refused to do either So the court, in a second ruling, has
given clean elections advocates the unprecedented power to seize
state property and auction it off to raise the money needed to
fund candidates' campaigns. The first auction, of two state-owned
2001 Ford Expedition SUVs, along with several 2002 Ford station
wagons, is taking place on April 28. "We're seizing late
model cars with a high resale value," says David Donnelly
of Mass Voters, "so as to cause as little disruption to the
taxpayers as possible."
Mass Voters and its legal counselors at the National Voting
Rights Institute are also exploring selling off state-owned furniture
in Speaker Finneran's office, as well as the furniture of two
of his top allies. "Taking a love seat is not a hindrance
to the legislative process," Donnelly told reporters. This
bit of populist revenge has garnered mostly supportive editorials
in the press. Even the conservative Boston Herald wants to see
the law implemented and blames Finneran for the spectacle. Finneran's
chief of-staff has counter-sued to protect his boss's upholstery.
Finneran himself has blustered that he doesn't need any furniture,
since he mostly works on his feet.
While Massachusetts deadlocked, Maine, Vermont and Arizona
all implemented their clean elections systems. As a result, all
three saw promising results in their first run-through in 2000,
including more contested races, more women and minority candidates,
more time spent in grassroots campaigning, and the election of
a substantial number of less-beholden legislators-one-third of
Maine's legislature and one-fifth of Arizona's.
Those changes, in turn, helped make even more significant
legislative campaigns possible. In 1999, Maine's legislature put
price controls on prescription drugs (not fearing retribution
from pharmaceutical companies in the next election), and last
year it moved closer to adopting a single-payer health care system.
In Arizona, the freshman class of "clean" legislators
was able to change a key rule that had kept some bills forever
stalled in committee, with the result that the state has finally
opted into a federal program subsidizing health insurance for
Now, about 75 percent of all candidates in Maine and Arizona
have signed up to run clean in 2002. The fact that they don t
have to take a dime from moneyed interests means that lobbyists
have to relate to them differently. "Their approach is 'May
we talk to you and share some information,' not 'I did something
for you, now you owe me,' " says Arizona state Rep. Jim Sedillo.
Or as Maine state Sen. Beth Edmonds, the chairwoman of her chamber's
Labor Committee, says, "When we're dealing with workers'
compensation, none of the 50 insurance companies lining the back
of the hearing room-none of them-have any ownership of me."
News like that has kept reformers in Massachusetts motivated,
despite the unbelievable intransigence coming from the legislature.
When the car auction was announced, Mass Voters' Donnelly pointed
out that all three branches of the state's government had the
power to step in and break the impasse over clean elections. The
legislature could release the $23 million sitting in the treasury
that it had previously earmarked for the system; the courts could
issue a ruling seizing that "cash property"; or the
governor could invoke her emergency powers and release the funds.
One way or another, the 30 or so candidates still seeking
to run "clean" will get their funds-though there's no
doubt in Massachusetts that Finneran's shenanigans have drastically
crippled the law for this cycle. Ultimately, the voters will have
to take their revenge at the ballot box.
Micah L. Sifry, Public Campaign's senior analyst, is the author
of Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America (Routledge).