By MARTY JEZER
Baseball has just started yet we're already deep into the election season. I like politics as much as anybody but, hey, this is way too early. Does anyone care -- or should anyone care -- what the candidates are saying at this point in the contest?
All across the country, incumbents and their challengers are pandering to special interests in order to hit them up for money. Candidates spent $1.5 billion in the 1998 congressional elections. With the presidency up for grabs, that total ought to approach $3 billion for this election cycle. A lot of schools can be built with the money politicians spend on consultants, polls, and 30-second attack ads. Is our democracy any stronger for all that squandered money?
Some candidates like fund-raising and are good at it. But accomplished fund-raisers don't necessarily make good public servants. That's why what is happening in Vermont right now is exciting and important. Candidates for Governor (and for the other statewide offices) are quietly going to their core constituents and asking them for small "Qualifying Contributions" (or "QCs") of $50 or less. The goal, in the race for Governor, is to collect $35,000 from at least 1500 registered Vermont voters. The candidates who can raise that money are then eligible for full public financing for the November election. There is one catch, however: candidates who raise these "Qualifying Contributions" and who choose the option of public financing cannot raise or spend any other money from private contributors. That means no more fund-raising from PACs, special interests, corporations, labor unions, rich people, poor people, out-of- state donor; no five thousand-dollar-a-plate chicken dinners (and no one-dollar-a-serving spaghetti suppers); no fund-appeal letters; no dunning phone calls; no additional fund-raising whatsoever.
Candidates who pass the qualifying threshold -- and thus prove that they have substantial popular support rather than, as in other most other states, the ability to raise large amounts of money -- will receive $300,000 to spend during the general election (less the money they raised and spent getting the "Qualifying Contributions"). Governor Dean, because he has the benefit of incumbency and is in the news simply by being Governor, will only get to spend $265,000.
For constitutional reasons, public financing is voluntary. Candidates can reject public financing (the "clean money option") and still go out, as they've done all along, and raise money from the wealthy, PACs, and special interest lobbies. But, under the new Vermont law, there are caps on what they can collect from any single source and, as with the clean money candidates, a limit on what they can spend for campaigning.
The public financing aspect of the Clean Money reform passes constitutional muster. The parts of the law that limit contributions and expenditures for candidates who don't take public money are under legal challenge, as is a clause that counts independent expenditures as a candidate expenditure.
Regardless of the outcome of the court's decision, candidates for Governor who can prove that they have popular support, will, from now on in, be competing against one another on a financially-level playing field. From now on in, Vermont Governors will come into office unburdened by the favors they owe their "big money" benefactors.
Three candidates are known to be raising "QCs" for public financing in the race for Governor. Howard Dean is sure to qualify with the grassroots backing of the Democratic Party. Progressive Anthony Pollina is also a likely qualifier. Pollina, who in 1984 ran for Congress as a Democrat and lost to Jim Jeffords, is a founder of Rural Vermont and a well known organizer for VPIRG on agricultural, health care, and environmental issues. He has a track record and a core constituency.
The Republicans have a primary contest. One candidate, William Meub, a Rutland lawyer, is raising "QCs" and will, if he wins the primary, run in the general election with clean money. His opponent, Ruth Dwyer, is rejecting the clean money option and will be raising money from private sources. Right-wingers have a good fund-raising apparatus and she'll not lack for money.
Many Democrats fear that Pollina will take enough votes from Governor Dean to throw the election to Ms. Dwyer. I share their concern but am convinced it cannot happen. First, Dwyer has to win the Republican Primary. This is a race for the soul of the Republican Party. Meub is a Republican in the Aiken-Jeffords tradition and I expect Republican moderates to mobilize to defeat Dwyer and take back their party. In 1998 Dwyer got 41 percent of the vote in her losing race for Governor. Given her intolerant and polarizing positions, there is no way she can increase that to 50 percent. Yes, if she beats Meub in the primary, she may end up with more votes than Dean or Pollina, but not more than Dean and Pollina. Under Vermont law, a candidate must get more than fifty percent of the vote to become Governor. If no candidate has a majority, the election is decided by the legislature where Democrats and Progressives (and perhaps even a moderate Republican or two) are likely to negotiate a solution to keep Dwyer from becoming Governor.
This year's Vermont Governor's race is a beacon into the future. Arizona, Maine and Massachusetts also have new clean money election laws and many other states are moving toward it. Get big money out of politics. Level the playing field so qualified candidates can compete fairly. Lift the burden of fund- raising that discourages so many otherwise qualified candidates from running for public office.
Candidates should be elected on merit, not on their ability to raise money. Legislation should be supported on the basis of public need, and not, as it so often is, custom-crafted to meet the demands of special interests as pay-back for their campaign contributions.
Marty Jezer is a free-lance writer from Brattleboro, Vt., and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. As a member of the Working Group on Electoral Democracy, Jezer helped draft the model legislation on which the Vermont clean money law is based.