Cleaning up Maine's sleaze

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  March 18, 2009

Let's examine a couple of big causes of political sleaze — and explore a few possible cleansing remedies.

Loose campaign money
As smelly as it is, Maine government is probably no sleazier than many other state governments and less sleazy than some (think: Illinois). This is because there has been a substantial anti-sleaze movement in the state. Our good-government reforms generally haven't originated with legislators or other officials; they've been forced into existence by pressure from citizen groups such as Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, and the now-deceased Maine Citizen Leadership Fund — this latter group slain in 2005 by minions of Governor Baldacci (see "State House Democrats Stick It to Political Reformers," by Lance Tapley, January 13, 2006). In the 1990s the Leadership Fund organized a citizens'-initiative campaign to establish our nationally admired Clean Election Act, allocating public funds to finance gubernatorial and legislative campaigns, theoretically replacing the candidates' need for special-interest fundraising.

But the sleaze keeps oozing back. Especially in gubernatorial campaigns, the Clean Election Act is being rendered ineffective by the growth of "independent" expenditures — largely for TV advertising — in support of, or to defeat, a candidate. In principle, an independent group's advertising is not coordinated with candidates and, therefore, doesn't have to be reported to the state's Ethics Commission for most of the campaign period, unless the advertising expressly advocates a candidate's election or defeat. (The law requires reporting of all independent expenditures associated with a race only during the last 35 days before the election).

In 2006, Baldacci, seeking re-election, opted out of public funding and privately raised $1.3 million. But "independent" sources supported him, the Ethics Commission later concluded, with $1.2 million for TV ads alone, and there was possibly more unreported spending.

Chief contributor to the Baldacci independent ads was the Maine Democratic Party and, funneling money to the party, the Democratic Governors Association. In that same election, the Republican Governors Association "independently" spent $712,000 on behalf of GOP candidate Chandler Woodcock, a Clean Election candidate who received $1.3 million from the public to match Baldacci's spending. (A Green Independent candidate, Pat LaMarche, and an Independent, Barbara Merrill, received Clean Election matching funds but didn't benefit from "independent" spending.) The Democratic and Republican party groups collected much of their cash from corporate interests (and, on the Democrats' part, from labor unions).

The claim that the party money was spent independent of the campaigns is widely regarded as a fiction. One of Baldacci's closest associates, Patricia Eltman — now state tourism director — worked for the Democratic Governors Association promoting Baldacci during that 2006 race. (For more on this, see "Roll Your Own," by Lance Tapley, October 27, 2006.)

Even the bipartisan and cautious state Ethics Commission concluded in a 2007 report that its promise to supply money to Clean Election candidates to match a privately funded candidate is "an empty promise when a large portion of communications to voters is not included in independent expenditure reports."

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