By JEAN HAY
I laughed when I saw the April 1, 2000, New York Times front-page story "Mainers Trying a Donation-Free Campaign." That's because the headline is dead wrong.
Maine's new "Clean Election" law does not ban private donations, it demands them -- dozens of them for each House candidate, three times that for state Senate candidates, thousands upon thousands of them in the aggregate for the 115 legislative candidates who have qualified under this law so far.
In fact, the collection of these private campaign contributions is the only way for a candidate to get public funding. There is no alternative. The way Maine's law is now written, a candidate must clearly demonstrate a strong fund-raising ability, and come up with more private donors than usually found in a traditional campaign, or forget the public funds.
It's the craziest, and most contradictory, requirement anyone could have devised. But there it is.
I recently finished jumping through all the legal hoops in Maine's new law, and I am now, officially, a Clean Election Democratic candidate for state Senate in District 10, a rural district that covers 17 towns. So I speak from experience.
To qualify for public financing, I had to do a couple of things.
I had to get my name on the ballot. For a senate candidate, that involves collecting 100 nominating signatures from registered political party members in my district. House candidates need 25 signatures. (Non-party candidates need twice as many, but any registered voter can sign.)
Second, I had to declare my intent to qualify as a Clean Election Candidate, and then to go out and find a minimum 150 registered voters in my district who were willing to write out a personal check in support of that campaign. (House candidates needed 50 checks.)
Each check was for $5, made out to the Maine Clean Election Fund. Each of those private donors had to then sign a form declaring that they had not been reimbursed the $5 or promised anything else for their contribution. These signatures, like the nominating signatures, had to be verified by the Registrar of Voters in the town where each voter lived.
This is my third political campaign. I can assure you that the time and effort involved in soliciting a campaign contribution is no less for a $5 check than for a larger donation. That time and effort is considerable.
This new law attempts to address that issue. It allows (but does not require) a state Senate candidate to privately raise $1,500 in "seed money" -- no more than $100 from each person -- to pay the expenses involved with collecting those $5 private contributions. House candidates can raise up to $500 in "seed money." Do the math. The law clearly anticipated that as much as $10 might have to be spent in order to collect each $5 check. All this is private money, from private donors, duly reportable on campaign finance forms.
One problem I have with this legislation is that it seems to assume that $5 is acceptable because it is a throw-away amount. For a lot of people in my district, people whom I consider a crucial part of my constituency, that is simply not the case. Quite a few senior citizens on fixed incomes told me "I'll vote for you, dear," but that heating bills that doubled this past winter, or drug costs that went up almost as much, eliminated any spare change they once had. One guy said he had five kids, would gladly sign my nomination papers, but he wasn't about to send $5 my way. I couldn't fault him his priorities.
But the basic question remains: Why should a candidate have to undertake a major fundraising effort, and beg dozens or hundreds of private donors for money, just like in the old days, in order to qualify for public funds?
The New York Times article explained that the cumbersome process was designed to weed out the frivolous candidates from those who are "serious." Apparently the drafters of this legislation sincerely believe that candidates who can't go out and convince a whole lot of people to give them money aren't legitimate, viable candidates, regardless of their stands on the issues.
Doesn't that sound painfully familiar? And more than a little bit arrogant?
Another part of the argument, which came out at public hearings on this law, went like this: If a promise to abide by spending limits were the only requirements for public campaign money, a flood of candidates would rush into the system. We can't afford that.
First, that argument flies in the face of Maine history. All it takes to become a Maine House or Senate candidate free-of-charge is a little leg-work and persistence collecting those freely-given signatures. And yet most years both major parties have trouble finding enough bodies to fill all the slots on the ballot.
But even if there were a flood of new candidates, isn't that the whole idea behind campaign finance reform?
The vast majority of declared Clean Election candidates this year are either Democrat or Republican. The primary contests would eliminate all but one contender from each party, and we would end up with the usual number of candidates on the ballot for the fall election. A lot of primary candidates would energize the system, and would not appreciably increase the costs.
It also made no sense to me that all of these private contributors had to be found, courted and nailed down between Jan. 1 and the filing deadline of March 16 -- in other words, before the campaign was even supposed to begin. That's 10 weeks in the dead of a Maine winter. So, where does one find 150 likely donors in those 10 weeks? From the same sources a traditional candidate found traditional donors -- groups with membership lists. Like church groups, service organizations, non-profit and activist outfits, people you work with, unions, political parties.
So much for taking special interests out of campaigns.
The good part is that I did meet a lot of new and wonderful people in this process. I deeply appreciate the 160 people who helped me test this new public funding law. I now have my $1,785 primary money from the Ethics Commission, with another $12,910 promised in June for the general election, and I can turn my attention to the issues and to getting my campaign underway.
But I have to say the private donation requirement in this law has left a really bad taste in my mouth. This law was supposed to eliminate the scenario of candidates begging people for campaign contributions. It does not do that
Maine's Clean Election Law must be changed to eliminate private donations as the trigger for public funding. The way it stands now, Maine's ground-breaking campaign finance reform law is not marching to the tune of a different drummer. It is simply playing a warped variation on the same old theme.
Jean Hay is a resident of Dixmont, Maine. She was a Maine Democratic primary candidate for Congress in 1994 and for US Senate in 1996.