It’s time for a municipal clean elections program.
I want to bring a public financing clean elections program to Portland to prevent special interests, wealthy donors, and kingmakers from having undue influence.
In the last five months of being an at-large candidate for the Portland City Council, I have been shocked by the amount of money involved in municipal campaigns.
Lawn signs, palm cards, websites — it all costs money. Some candidates produce flashy videos and glossy brochures. Other candidates even hire staff.
Political “veterans” encouraged me to raise $50,000 for my campaign, citing recent Mayoral and State-level campaigns that raised over $100,000.
All that money has to come from somewhere — and that’s the rub.
The traditional way to fundraise is to identify certain wealthy or generous individuals and ask them for large contributions. Usually these donors are in real estate, law, business, or they’re otherwise independently wealthy.
But this introduces an opportunity for special treatment and for influence-purchasing. After all, if a benefactor singlehandedly funds the printing of a hundred lawn signs, how could you not give special attention to their calls and emails?
One Portland elected official told me that, after he won his election, he was approached by some real estate developers who offered to help pay off his campaign debt. With Portland’s real estate market red-hot right now, I doubt these developers wanted to donate purely out of the kindness of their hearts.
Are there other ways to raise big money? Sure. Shortly after I decided to run late last year, I was approached by at least one person who suggested that they could help me raise money using a national email list that they controlled.
This is a relatively new innovation. For the few who control such email lists, raising money is as easy as turning on a spigot.
But this too has perils: the ability to produce tens of thousands of dollars from strangers on the internet has created a new class of political power-brokers. With unchecked piles of cash that they can apply to their favored candidates, they too can buy undue influence and dramatically affect who wins and who loses. It’s not so different from corporate fundraising bundlers.
We’ve already seen unheard-of sums of money raised for local Legislative and even City Council campaigns this way — and we’ve seen how the tenor of those local campaigns has changed as a result.
If we want our local elections and democratic norms to remain clean and healthy, we have to get a handle on this kind of national fundraising.
Here in Maine we understand that both these old and new fundraising methods have dangers, and we understand the importance of clean elections.
We keep an eye on our neighbors to the south — Boston, New York, and Washington D.C. — and we see how money can influence politics, and we don’t want that here.
We know that when campaigns are fueled by big money from corporations and special-interests, the candidates and elected officials stop representing the people, and they start representing only the biggest donors.
That’s why Maine was the first state in the nation to approve public financing of elections in a ballot referendum in 1996, and why Portlanders voted overwhelmingly to strengthen the Maine Clean Elections Act in 2015.
Candidates who participate in the Maine Clean Elections program pledge to not accept money from large donors or special interests. Contributions must be made by the people they hope to represent — not corporations, PACs, or donors out-of-state.
But the Maine Clean Elections program only applies to State-level campaigns: State Legislature, State Senate, and Gubernatorial races. Local elections for City Council or School Board are not able to participate.
It’s time we bring our tradition of people-powered politics to municipal elections.
The city of Seattle, Washington voted a few years ago to implement a municipal clean elections program, and I think we should follow their lead and implement a similar system in Maine’s largest city.
But until that time, I will practice what I preach with my own campaign:
1. I will only accept money from individuals — not corporations or PACs.
2. I will not accept any money from out-of-state.
3. I will not accept money from real estate developers.
Unchecked piles of money are perilous no matter whether they come from wealthy donors, special interests or bundlers with national email lists. Over the years we Mainers have recognized that danger and have taken innovative steps to combat the influence of money in politics and strengthen our democracy, but there’s more work yet to do.