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 policy.

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 movement.

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 democracy.

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, and others.

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 was Maine.

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.

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