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.


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 and Oregon.

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 the government.

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 year olds.


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 Bonafaz.

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 share today.

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 join too.

"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 than without.

"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 to candidates.

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."


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 vs. Valeo.

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 one barrier."

"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 to qualify.

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 April.

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