Maine’s clean elections system is awesome!
Passed in 1996, the Maine Clean Election Act (MCEA) provides qualifying candidates for state offices across Maine with enough money to cover basic campaign expenses.
The program is fairly simple in practice. If a candidate can collect enough $5 contributions from registered voters in their district (60 for State House, 175 for State Senate), the State of Maine will send them a check in the mail for anywhere from $500 (for an uncontested State House primary) to $20,000 (for a contested State Senate general election).
Under a new policy passed last year, candidates who continue collecting contributions throughout the campaign season can even continue receiving additional payments. It’s like Box Tops. Send in the contributions. Get back a fat check in the mail. Send in more, get even more money.
The deadline for the initial round of contributions is this Wednesday, April 20. Wherever you live in Maine, if you believe that folks who want to serve in office shouldn’t have to collect large contributions from the wealthiest people in your community just to buy lawn signs and send campaign postcards, now’s the time.
Do it. Follow the link below. Put $5 toward a couple campaigns in your area. It only takes a few minutes, and your contribution may make the difference between a local, independent person in your community qualifying for the money they need to run their campaign, or them coming up short and having no choice but to give up on running.
I ran for the Portland City Council last fall, and this whole process hits close to home for me. The MCEA only provides state money for state-level campaigns, so as a candidate for local office, I had to raise all my money myself. Fundraising was a huge challenge.
It meant calling my uncle who’s an accountant, and asking him for a couple hundred bucks. It meant Facebook messaging the singer for my punk band from high school who now works as an engineer for Apple. It meant asking all my friends and neighbors who wanted to see me on the council to dig deep and cough up twenty, fifty or even a hundred dollars.
To be clear, I totally believe that it’s possible to run a privately funded campaign ethically. As difficult as it was, raising my own money was often an exciting part of the process, and it was something that I learned a lot from, honing my community fundraising skills, which I know will serve me well in the future.
Sometimes it was fun. I might never have found the time to reach out to that friend from high school, and it was great catching up with him and finding out about his new life on the west coast. It was heartwarming to learn that after all these years, he still cared enough about me to support what I was working on.
Every time a neighbor gave me money, it felt exciting and inspiring, like we were in this together. They weren’t just signing a clipboard at the farmers market, they were investing hard-earned resources into building a better Portland.
They knew there was a good chance I wouldn’t win, which I didn’t, but they were still willing to take a risk and invest a piece of themselves into my campaign. They might not have had the time to volunteer, but they were bestowing responsibility on me, confidant that I would stand up for our community and use the position to help make life better for all of us in the neighborhood.
At the same time, it was easy to see how this process could be corrupting. What if instead of going to friends, family and neighbors, I had gone to Portland’s “special” interests?
What if I’d asked for contributions from the developers who are evicting hardworking Portlanders from their apartments and renovating those units into high end Airbnb rentals? What if I’d received checks from greedy employers who refuse to pay their workers enough to live on?
It’s not so much that those people would have “bought” my vote – that phrasing has always seemed weird to me – but had I used their contributions to win, I would have come away from my campaign feeling that I couldn’t ever win an election without them giving me money.
When potential progressive ordinances were brought to a vote, when the budget came up for discussion, when new corporate real estate developments were proposed, I would have had to think twice.
Most things that get put on the table in local politics can be rationalized. It’s not like the Portland City Council is voting on whether or not to build gas chambers in the Old Port. The things they are voting on – wage regulations, tax incentives for developers, school budget allocations etc. – are all pretty nuanced.
Sure, low income workers would be better off if they made more money. Who wouldn’t be? But, won’t a higher minimum wage “hurt” small businesses? If we don’t give that law firm a big tax break to move downtown, maybe they’ll go somewhere else, and Portland’s economy will take a hit? When you witness the vitriolic hatred that so many homeowners harbor toward their real estate taxes, it’s easy to wonder if there might not be some city services that we could afford to do away with?
If, as an elected official, you felt that the only way to win your future campaigns and stay in office was to keep getting those big checks, any action that jeopardized that support, even one that stood to benefit a lot of people in your district, would feel incredibly risky.
If, on the other hand, you voted for the things your important donors wanted, you could sleep soundly knowing that everything for your next campaign was still securely lined up. As the old saying goes, you can’t make all the people happy all the time, and if any of your constituents gave you a hard time, you could focus on the lines of thought, which are always available, that backed up your decisions. For a lot of people, it really wouldn’t be that hard. It’s just politics.
The MCEA changes that. While any candidate can choose not to take advantage of the system, if you do run as a Clean Elections candidate, you don’t ever have to ask anybody outside the district for money. No more awkward phone calls hitting up distant family and friends for campaign contributions. More importantly, your campaign doesn’t hinge on your ability to woo big league local donors or pry cash from your neighbors at a time when many don’t have much to share, let alone spend supporting political efforts.
Instead, your success depends solely on your going out and talking to as many people who live in your neighborhood as possible. You have to walk around in the evening and introduce yourself to folks as they’re coming home from work. You have to get a list of likely voters in your area and call everybody. You actually have to campaign.
I live in Portland, about a block from USM in Maine House District 40, which includes the city’s Bayside, Parkside and Oakdale neighborhoods. Ben Chipman, our much beloved current State Representative, has termed out after eight years in office and is now running for State Senate.
Ben has always funded his campaigns with Clean Elections money and is doing so again, competing against Diane Russell, the current State Representative for Munjoy Hill, who is not. It will be interesting to see how Ben’s publicly funded campaign fares against Diane’s privately funded campaign. Where will she find her money? Will she raise a lot more from individual donors than he can get from the government? Will she raise funds ethically, as I tried to do with my campaign, or will she succumb to temptation? Will voters care?
Back in our neighborhood, there are three people competing to fill Ben’s seat in the House, vying against each other in the Democratic primary, the winner of which will almost certainly take the election in November.
All three are decent candidates, and they’re all running clean. None of them have big corporate money behind them, and because of the MCEA, they don’t have to seek it out. It’s awesome.
Here’s that link again:
Click here to support Maine Clean Elections candidates in your area!
While full information on the three candidates running for State Rep in my district is beyond the scope of this piece, stay tuned to “From Below and to the Left” for upcoming interviews with them!
For now, here are some links :
Rachel Talbot-Ross (my pick)