Fire Sale

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 it now).

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 children.

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).

Political Corruption page

Index of Website

Home Page