Leveling Politics
in the Green Mountain State

How the nation's most radical public financing law
brings ordinary people into political life

by Ian Urbina

The American Prospect magazine, September/October 2000


In June 1997, Vermont passed one of the most comprehensive campaign finance reform laws in the country, and the signing of the "clean election" bill was a generally festive occasion. Democratic Governor Howard Dean was on hand for congratulations and photos with the bill's main architect, Anthony Pollina, whom he enthusiastically dubbed Mr. Campaign Finance Reform. Little did Dean know that Pollina might make him the law's first casualty.

The clean-election law not only offered public financing, but limited private donations. It thus portended a governor's race with a level financial playing field. The state's Progressive Party has mounted a serious blitz on Dean-and its candidate is none other than Anthony Pollina. With nearly 20 years of grass-roots organizing in the state, Pollina is a familiar face in Vermont progressive politics. "There's no doubt he can pull over a good number of liberal Democrats," says April Jin, longtime Vergennes Democratic Party chair who recently resigned her post to join the Progressive Party.

In a 1984 congressional race, Pollina ran as a Rainbow/PUSH Coalition candidate and won the Democratic primary, but lost to the Republican in the general election. Since then he has advised Vermont's independent Congressman Bernie Sanders on agricultural and environmental issues, later going on to found Rural Vermont, a farm lobby group. For the past six years, Pollina has worked as a senior policy analyst at Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG). Besides pioneering the campaign finance law, he also led such efforts as the push to put a check on Vermont's ever-expanding "factory farms" and, more recently, a bill to make Vermont the first state with an across-the-board price cap on all prescription drugs.

Pollina's entry into the race suggests a little appreciated reason neither of the major national parties is all that enthusiastic about real public financing of elections: Populist candidates currently marginalized by the "wealth primary" suddenly become financially viable and can be taken seriously. By opening the election to a third-party populist who otherwise never would have stood a chance in raising enough money to run, Vermont's clean-election law has already begun reinvigorating real democratic debate and restoring the principle of one person, one vote. With the exit of John McCain from the national race, fundamental campaign finance reform is not figuring prominently in the presidential contest. But while the impetus to remove big money from politics has slowed nationally, it has accelerated on the state level. Maine, Massachusetts, and Arizona have all passed public financing laws, with support for similar initiatives growing elsewhere.

In June, Pollina became the first gubernatorial candidate as well as the first statewide candidate in the country to qualify for clean-election funds. He did so by collecting $35,000 from at least 1,500 individual in-state contributions of no more than $50 each-no small feat in a state where the average election brings in fewer than 1,000 contributions for an incumbent. "It was extremely difficult. In some places, we received checks as low as 60 cents," said Ellen David Friedman, Pollina's campaign director. Her all-volunteer staff canvassed campuses, tabled the county fairs, went door-to-door in every district, held spaghetti dinners in town halls, walked parades, and went to union locals. Her teenage son, with a team of other students, toured the neighborhoods, signing up several hundred new voters. "The only things we didn't do were mass mailings and newspaper inserts since the campaign simply didn't have the money for that." The campaign now has the money-$265,000.

Initially, Governor Dean also announced he would pursue the public-funding option. In his 1998 campaign, he received 1,200 total contributions, and 51 percent of his money was from out of state. No longer could he rely on large checks, like those he previously pulled in from health care interests totaling $44,000 - serious money. The geographic distribution and small individual contribution requirements of the new law now required more canvassing and actual small-venue speeches. "Sure it was difficult," Governor Dean told me of meeting the qualifying standard. "But it was also the right thing to do."

But doing the right thing just got politically risky, and Dean is now forging a different path. In August, U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions III threw out Vermont's limits on spending and out-of-state contributions. The case is being appealed, but in the meantime, those candidates who do not take public funding are free to raise and spend without restriction. Stating his regret, Dean announced that he would be returning the public money to raise private funds because he feared getting outspent by his Republican contenders. "I am not going to fight this campaign with one arm tied behind my back," he declared.

Ruth Dwyer, the likely GOP nominee, declined public funding from the beginning. Dwyer has already amassed more than three times her Republican primary opponent, William Meub, and will draw heavy financial support out of state from anti-gay and anti-abortion organizations. In 1998 Dwyer pulled in 40 percent of the vote in her run for governor. This season she hopes to ride a wave of anti-civil-union backlash in the state, and has been handing out "Republican Women Like Men" bumper stickers and "Take Back Vermont" lawn signs.

Vermont Progressives already have four state representatives as well as the Burlington city councilman and mayor. They've also got the time and energy to spare this electoral season since Bernie Sanders is sure to glide to an easy sixth term in Congress. The Democrats don't mess with Sanders, and so far Vermont Republicans have had their hands full figuring out what to make of their own candidate. Karen Karin, a fiscal conservative from South Royalton, plans to run for the Republican nomination on the issues of tax reform, anti-gun control, and the creation of a petroleum reserve in the Northeast. The complication is that Karen used to be a male. After a bout with urinary tract cancer 10 years ago entailed heavy doses of estrogen, Karen, formerly named Charles, decided to have a sex-change operation. The GOP is now wondering whether it will be able to keep a straight face while making civil unions its lead issue, especially since Karen, who has stated firm opposition to same-sex unions, somehow managed to marry a woman in 1996 after becoming a she.

"This could be Fred Tuttle all over again," Vermont GOP Chairman Patrick Garahan commented, referring to the affable 79-year-old dairy farmer who in 1998 mounted a successful protest campaign for the GOP nomination against Jack McMullen, a millionaire management consultant and carpetbagger from Massachusetts. Tuttle, who ran with no funding, a campaign slogan of "Why Not!', and bumper stickers that read "Spread Fred," sent McMullen packing after publicly embarrassing him with a quiz on how many teats a cow has. "The Republicans are in a complete panic about the Karen situation," April Jin told me from Pollina's campaign headquarters, a downtown Montpelier office that the Progressives took over when Operation Rescue pulled out of the state after losing the civil-union vote. "Even if the state GOP can drum up someone better to run against Sanders, they know that a bunch of Democrats will cross over simply to give Karen a win in the primary."

In broadening electoral options, Vermont's law has also sparked endorsement debate where there once was little. The National Education Association, for example, Vermont's largest labor union, recently convened a selection committee to interview and rate the gubernatorial candidates, something it had not done since 1992. But when the committee returned a near unanimous "favorable" rating for Pollina and a "neutral" rating for Dean, the union's board of directors promptly overturned the vote, giving Dean the endorsement. Among environmental groups, "there is a lot of controversy," according to Mark Sinclair, senior attorney at Vermont's Conservation Law Foundation. "Pollina has the better record and great credentials coming from the largest environmental and consumer-advocacy outfit in the state [VPIRG], but he's still a long-shot candidate."

So far Bernie Sanders has hesitated to enter the fray. But with funding of their own, the Progressives can now afford to pull themselves from under his shadow. Despite the fact that many of his staffers and much of his support base are working on the Pollina campaign, Sanders says he's made no endorsement decisions yet.

Pollina will face an uphill battle as many Vermonters fear that he could act as a spoiler, drawing enough votes away from Dean to grant the victory to Ruth Dwyer, the likely Republican nominee. But Vermont's constitution makes a spoiler scenario highly unlikely. A gubernatorial candidate must receive over 50 percent to win office. If no candidate gets an absolute majority, the decision automatically goes to the legislature, where Democrats currently hold a clear majority.

Regardless of the outcome, the Vermont governor's race shows the link between campaign finance reform and a revival of grass-roots politics. By making issues rather than fundraising the key to getting elected, the law is opening the way to grass-roots candidates who can push the agenda in ways that politicians beholden to special interests never would. In that regard, it promises to be the reform that makes other reforms possible.


Ian Urbina is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist. He is working on a doctoral dissertation in history at the University of Chicago.

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