Do we really get the common good through ‘clean’ elections?

Cynthia: Maine’s Clean Election law is on the ropes, with battles raging in the Legislature and referendum questions expected on the ballot. Some lawmakers want to beef up publicly funded candidates’ ability to compete in races while others want outright repeal of the law that was supported overwhelmingly by the public in 1996.

Maybe the solution to politics bought by special interests is publicly funded news. A citizenry informed by watchdogs instead of bombastic press releases by partisan operatives. What do you think, Mike?

Mike: I remain skeptical that a media funded by government can effectively perform “watchdog” duties over their funding source. Instead, maybe we just need more gumshoe reporters who are willing to challenge both government and their organization’s owners, since they can land on their feet in the private media market if they anger a “power-that-is.” Look at the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting — they do great watchdog work on controversial political issues like the wind industry’s power over Democrats.

Cynthia: If you believe reporters paid by a for-profit company owned by a hedge fund manager have less gumption than reporters paid by a non-profit funded with contributions from hedge fund managers, then surely you must believe clean election laws make sense.

And your point about the wind industry’s alleged “power” over Democrats is the point. Lawmakers — Democrats, Republicans and unenrolled — appear to be beholden to the large donors who fund their campaigns. Wouldn’t you agree?

Mike: I don’t think there is a material difference between those two approaches, as they are both in that dreaded private sector and not beholden to government support. And appearances can be deceiving; most lawmakers are not beholden to donors. An individual makes a donation — large or small — when they support someone’s goals and vision. Were you beholden to Roxanne Quimby in your Senate race? Or did she merely support a kindred spirit?

Cynthia: Nobody I know dreads the private sector, Mike. Straight-talking successful people embrace it but realistically accept that fair rules, enforced fairly, make a level playing field. People who write huge checks expect to be the exception to the rule.

As a state legislator, Maine’s Clean Elections law enabled me to focus on meeting and listening to lots of people to win four successive races and then vote my conscience. I had never met Roxanne Quimby when I cast a vote in support of a national park in Maine’s North Woods. It made good sense then, and it still makes sense. Later, in my federal race, it was ridiculously time-consuming and degrading to beg for money.

“We the People” of Maine voted to have publicly financed campaigns, yet many Republicans are threatened by that concept. Do you know better than the taxpayers how to spend their money?

Mike: Come on Cynthia. By that logic, the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society should’ve been prohibited from asking the Legislature for a ban on bear hunting methods since “We the People” had turned it down before. If things change, our laws must change with them. But some things don’t change, as we saw with the bear referendum.

And, for “clean” elections, things have changed. Even Democrats are now admitting massive holes exist, with candidates running “clean” and then raising private funds anyway. And, yes, most Republicans believe there are better uses for $2 million each year than providing taxpayer subsidies to politicians. I’m sure it is much easier for a candidate to get a big government check in the mail instead of having to ask people for money. Yet schools, hospitals, and other charities all fundraise and still succeed.

Cynthia: The bare truth is America is becoming a plutocracy. Concentrated wealth and income inequality have hijacked our democracy. Elections are an arms race between special interests and the super wealthy. Only those who can afford to make large donations gain access to power and perpetuate a legislative agenda that reflects donors’ priorities over the public good.

Publicly funded campaigns aren’t “subsidies.” They are a collective effort to give regular people the opportunity to run for office and serve free of strings. Clean elections give the “little guy” a seat at the table, and if you aren’t at the table, you’re usually on the menu.

Mike: If you believe in monolithic distinctions and class warfare, you’re right. Fortunately, it is a false narrative that successful people are solely concerned with their own narrow self-interest. Americans have historically been able to avoid such destructive tendencies. Political coalitions are built around shared ideals and goals, sometimes pragmatic, often aspirational.

Jefferson, Washington, and Hancock were some of the richest men in the colonies, risking it all in search of a more just society. Tom Steyer’s priorities on environmentalism reflect Democratic beliefs on “the public good.” And Sheldon Adelson left the Democrats for the GOP for a number of reasons, including concern over the danger of unrestrained spending.

Yet all of this is immaterial — votes decide elections, not money. If dollars were all that mattered, we’d be currently writing about Gov. Michaud’s massive tax increase!

Cynthia: Thomas Jefferson said “wherever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” and conventional wisdom is that money talks. Sheldon Adelson spent more than $93 million on the 2012 elections! Americans are doomed if guys like him are doing the informing. For a just society, we need both a robust press and the elimination of pay-to-play politics.

Cynthia Dill

About Cynthia Dill

Cynthia Dill is a civil rights attorney with the Portland firm Troubh Heisler. She has served as a state senator and representative, and she is the former Democratic nominee in Maine's 2012 U.S. Senate race. She holds a BA from the University of Vermont and a JD from Northeastern University. She is admitted in the U.S. District Courts for Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans’ Claims. Dill lives in Cape Elizabeth with her husband Tom and their two children.