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 Hill.

"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 "The current situation, in which the Clean Elections Law has not been repealed but no money has been appropriated to fund it, does more than disadvantage clean elections candidates," the ruling read.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 Law.

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 Institute.

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 election campaigns.

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 limit.

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 limits.

"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.

Well, duh!

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).

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