Clean Election Act money too often funds marginal candidates

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Have you ever had a queasy feeling after swallowing a multivitamin on an empty stomach? If so, you know how I felt after reading a recent Bangor Daily News story about the first Maine gubernatorial candidate to qualify to receive Clean Election Funds for the 2018 elections.

Mine was a gut reaction. Actually, my reaction was a reawakened dislike for the Maine Clean Election Act, a first-in-the-nation law making it legal to dedicate millions of Maine sales and income taxes to pay for the campaigns of people running for Maine Governor, and also, for the Maine Legislature.

A few days before last Christmas I was asked to put my name on a signature petition to help a Maine gubernatorial candidate qualify to have his name on the ballot for the primary election. I did so. I was then asked if I would write a $5.00 check to help that same candidate qualify as a Clean Election candidate.

In my October 27, 2017 column I wrote of the Maine Clean Elections, in part, “[F]or decades.., people who wanted to serve in the Maine Legislature, had to first pass a common sense test. They had to go out in public, meet the people they wanted to represent in the Maine Senate or House, ask for their vote, and ask for money to run their campaigns.

“Even legislative candidates who could self-finance their campaigns usually did not. If, after sharing their political ideas with district voters, candidates were unable to persuade enough of” their would-be constituents to kick in a few bucks to finance a an election bid, then “common sense said the candidate could not win [either a primary or a general] election,” and they scrapped their plans to run that year.

If a prospective candidate was serious about serving their constituents in Augusta, they would take the next year-and-a-half after their initial rejection, and use the time to develop a better constituent network. That is, they would attend meetings throughout the district of all kinds of local clubs, associations, and one-on-one meetings. In short, the prospective candidate would use the time between elections to build a bigger fan base, so they would be better positioned to campaign for office next time.

In the late 1990s, the Maine Legislature couldn’t agree on how to handle the idea of a new law approving public financing of political campaigns. It was an idea favored by political activists who were having little success convincing people to support their political ideas.

Persuaded by the slogan, “Get The Dirty Money Out of Politics,” a majority of Mainers voting in 1996 approved the Maine Clean Elections Act. Even the not-so-subtle terminology always rubbed me the wrong way: If you run for political office on the taxpayer’s dime you’re a “clean” candidate.

What are you if you run for the same political office raising your own campaign funds? A “dirty” candidate?

I am conflicted. Some political candidates I agree with on policies are running this year as MCE candidates. Do I support these candidates this year? So far, I admit I have written two $5.00 Clean Election checks. I don’t think I will do it again.

Sold as a level-the-playing-field law, MCE is using millions of our tax dollars to subsidize many marginal political candidates, who too often become marginal lawmakers.

How much simpler it would be for candidates advocating smaller, more efficient government to just say no to Clean Elections money. And maybe we could return to common-sense campaigns where candidates are chosen by their constituents, first through their financial support, and then at the ballot box.

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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