By Ann Luther
What a deeply cynical argument The Ellsworth American made in its editorial last week for eliminating Clean Elections funding for gubernatorial candidates. While the editorial first identifies gubernatorial candidates as “fat cats” who have no trouble raising money from lobbyists, corporations, unions, political action committees and wealthy individuals, the editorial then goes on to say that we should repeal the only tool available to gubernatorial candidates — candidates for the most powerful office in the state — who might choose to separate themselves from big-money donors. I believe, to the contrary, that failure to retain Maine’s Clean Election option for candidates for governor would be a breach of public trust and an enormous loss to the public good. Here’s why our democracy needs publicly financed elections now, more than ever before, and why we need it for the top office as much as for the down-ticket races. Today in our country, we have more concentrated wealth and income than at any time since the beginning of the last century. There is nothing more antithetical to the rights of citizens in a democratic republic than concentrated wealth and power. Research at the federal level shows that legislators and policy-makers are vastly more attentive to the interests of the affluent than they are to those of everyone else. Affluent donors get what they want. The rest of us get what we want when, and only when what we want is what they want. American democracy is failing to serve the needs of the vast majority of its citizens. The 2016 presidential election could be read as a cry from the heart of those left behind.
The political machine is skewed toward the very wealthy, and it’s not too surprising that we wind up with public policy that benefits them. This is just as true for the Governor as for the Legislature: the demands are higher, the stakes are higher, and the consequences are more far-reaching.
In the 2014 gubernatorial election in Maine, the leading candidates raised the vast majority of their campaign funds from donors who gave $500 or more.
Publicly financed elections like the Maine Clean Election Act are a big part of the answer. Although a strong plurality of Maine people wish that gubernatorial candidates were required to run with public funding, that is not the system we have.
But neither should we have a system that requires candidates to jump into the deep-money end of the pool. Let’s give gubernatorial candidates the opportunity to run even if they don’t want to spend countless hours dialing for dollars, even if they don’t have connections to wealthy donors, even if they are not wealthy themselves, even if their policies are not endorsed by big-money interests. Let’s encourage those candidates to run, and let’s give them a fighting chance to win.
We’re very fortunate to have the Maine Clean Election Act. Maine people worked hard to get it, and we must fight to keep it. The Legislature should preserve full funding for a robust Clean Elections system that allows candidates for governor to run and win without raising money from wealthy private interests.
Ann Luther of Trenton is treasurer of the League of Women Voters of Maine.