Where it pays not to fundraise

Maine offers a case study of how dramatic campaign-finance reform alters politics.

When Marilyn Canavan first came to the Maine State House, she didn't have a thought of becoming a lawmaker.

A friend had told her about an opening for a clerk in the Senate office. Looking for something new now that all five of her children had graduated from college, Ms. Canavan took the post, unsure of where it might lead.

Today, 18 years later, the brown-haired and bespectacled Canavan has returned to the unadorned halls of this Spartan capitol. But instead of indexing bills in a tiny second-floor office, she's voting on them from the floor of the House.

Her story is a testament not only to hard work, but also to a pioneering law that helped her win a seat without raising a cent for her own campaign coffers.

As the US Senate votes today on the most sweeping federal campaign-finance reforms in a generation, Maine stands as a marker of how much further some states have already gone. From Minnesota to Arizona, they have taken bold steps to cut spending, increase accountability, and sap the influence of corporations and lobbyists.

Maine's experience, however, may offer the clearest view of how such radical changes can affect the whole election process - from the number of candidates to the size of their war chests. So far, most agree, the results have been favorable. And with larger states like Pennsylvania watching Maine's progress, this gray, granite-columned fortress of a capitol could prove to be the crucible for more-widespread reform.

"It's the first state experiment with entirely publicly funded campaigns," says Jennie Drage of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. "It stands as an example that [this kind of] system can work."

For years, many states have tinkered with various types of campaign-finance reform. Nearly every state now has a cap on donations, and seven allow some sort of public funding for legislative campaigns. Maine, however, pays for all of a candidate's expenses, so long as the candidate plays by strict rules.

All expenses paid

In essence, the system pays people to not fundraise. Candidates must collect a certain number of $5 contributions to show legitimacy, but that money goes to the Clean Elections Fund - along with $2 million in state money - to help pay for the system.

Once candidates qualify, the state pays them a set amount of money to stop fundraising. Last year, the first year the law was in effect, that number was $3,252 for House candidates and $12,910 for Senate candidates. If an opponent who has not opted into the clean-election system then spends more than that amount, the state will give matching funds to nullify the difference - up to a certain maximum.

In all, 352 candidates ran for legislative office last year, compared with 305 in the previous election cycle - a jump attributed to term limits and the public money made available through the Clean Elections Act. Some 116 of those candidates ran under the clean-elections banner, with 62 winning their races.

"We had some people running for office for the first time who were qualified but never would have done it before," says Alison Smith of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections in Portland.

Chandler Woodcock is one of them. Asked if the public money was the crucial factor in his decision to run for state office, the first-year senator hesitates, then laughs: "It was an important part of my decision, ... and it made my marriage more secure."

With two children in college, he explains, he couldn't take any risks. "There's always a temptation to commit your own money," says Mr. Woodcock, who is taking leave from his job as a high school English teacher to serve. "I simply would not be able to do that." Yet when he was contacted by members of the Republican Party and learned about the clean-elections law, the choice became easier. After all, Woodcock says, he's always been a bit of a political junkie.

While politicians like Woodcock agree the system works well, they also say it isn't flawless. For example, independent groups can tip a race with their ads, and candidates who don't participate in the program can spend large amounts of money late in a campaign, making it hard for "clean" candidates to get matching money in time.

Moreover, public funding hasn't brought an end to big spending. Although the 116 clean-elections candidates in last year's election spent only $975,000, one Senator spent a state-record $153,000 to win his seat.

No need for high spending

Still, in some cases, the law led some non-clean-election candidates to temper their spending. Rep. Tom Winsor (R) says he took it as a challenge to stay within the spending limits.

"Why would I want to give my opponent more money?" he asks.

He declined the public money because it "added another layer of complexity." But the fourth-term representative suggests that incumbents like him should benefit most from the law. What wins elections here, he says, is name recognition and grass-roots organizing, not money.

To be sure, Maine is a small state, with a part-time legislature. On one recent inclement day, duck boots could be seen beside wingtips, and several deer grazed across the street.

Whether this system could work in a larger state remains to be seen. Arizona had a similar full public-financing system in place in 2000, but court challenges blunted its effectiveness. Massachusetts is scheduled to begin its program in 2002.

"It would be hard for a state that had high-spending elections," says Ms. Drage. "It would require a major expenditure or a change in attitude."

Most politicians here say it's worth it. Waiting beneath the high dome of the rotunda for the next roll call, Canavan says the law has given her the ability to act freely, unencumbered by special interests. "As a legislator, it is a very good feeling knowing that I don't owe anyone anything."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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