DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH: The dirt on ‘clean’ elections

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Many people don’t know that legislative campaigns in Maine are paid for by the state – campaign signs, political mailings, brochures, etc., all paid with state funds. Full public financing of political campaigns for state offices in Maine, known as the Maine Clean Elections Act, has been in effect since being passed by the voters in 1996. Those candidates who are state funded are called “clean” candidates.

The “clean” candidates are not allowed to accept campaign donations from any other sources, including those “evil” corporations and unions who often are accused of trying to buy legislators’ votes. “Clean” suggests the opposite of, well, dirty.

The theory is quite simple – take special interest money out of campaigns and eliminate the leverage to influence legislators.

The word “dirty” is never actually used to describe candidates who don’t opt for publicly funded campaigns – only implied. You’re either a “clean candidate” or, you know, you’re not. On average for the past eight years, over 80 percent of legislative candidates opted for state funded campaigns. In 2012, each House candidate got $5,366 and Senate candidates each received $25,483 to fund their campaigns.

The new state budget that just passed includes money to pay for the 2014 campaigns. How much? Well, you better sit down, take a deep breath, grab something sturdy, and as the farmer shouted as he was running to the bedroom, “Brace yourself, Ethel!” Answer? $2.8 million.

That’s a lot of money, but you have to admit that trying to remove special-interest influence from government is admirable. We only have to look at the gridlocked and nonfunctioning Congress to see the disastrous results of money buying influence.

The intent of the Clean Elections Act is the good news. Now I must tell you the bad news.

The candidates who decide to be “clean” still get the benefits of the, you know, dirty money. It’s just that the public doesn’t know about it.

Here’s how it works.

The state political parties combined raise between $1 million and $2 million each election cycle to support legislative candidates. They use this money to pay for political mailings – you know, the ones you throw away the minute you get them – and for other campaign expenses to support their legislative candidates.

There’s more. There are individual legislators who are running not only for their legislative seat, but also for leadership positions within their party caucus, such as speaker of the House and president of the Senate. There are other leadership positions, too, like Republican and Democratic floor leaders and assistants in both the House and the Senate. If you’re counting, that’s 10 leadership positions that are elected by legislators.

Those leadership candidates desperately want their respective political party to win the majority of seats because of the significant political spoils enjoyed by the “majority party.” Don’t forget the party with the most members gets to pick the two most powerful positions – speaker of the House and president of the Senate. Therefore, they’re all raising money to help their party candidates win.

So the picture looks like this. The political parties and others are raising millions of dollars to support their candidates – most of whom are “clean.” Where do these millions of dollars come from? You got it – from those “evil” unions and corporations such as tobacco, chemical, power companies and many more. These are the very “dirty” dollars that “clean” candidates are supposedly avoiding.

It’s true, “clean” candidates don’t accept special-interest money to fund their campaigns. They don’t have to because the political parties and leadership candidates accept the money instead. The special-interest money still gets to the “clean” candidates, but instead of a direct contribution, it just goes to another pocket and then used to support the candidates.

The leverage and influence is still in play because the political parties and the elected legislative leaders understand two facts: where the millions of dollars came from for the current election and where the millions will come from for the next election. Results – special interests still firmly entrenched.

There’s even a greater hypocrisy. Remember the leadership candidates in both parties who raise money from special interests groups? Some of them also choose to be “clean” candidates. They can form a political action committee (PAC) that is separate from their legislative “clean” campaign and at the same time solicit money from the special-interest groups for their PACs that is then used to help other campaigns, thus totally negating the whole purpose of the Clean Elections Act.

It should be noted that what I’ve described above is legal and widely practiced by both political parties.

I have raised money from special-interest groups for my campaigns and PAC in the past, but I never chose to be a “clean” candidate. What’s the point?

Bill Diamond of Windham served as District 12’s senator from 2004-2012, and is also a former Maine secretary of state.

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