Virtue and vice

The Maine Clean Election Act plays the errant-strumpet trumpet
By AL DIAMON  |  December 9, 2009

The problem with being virtuous (or so I'm told) is that it has almost nothing to do with actual virtue.

But let's give the virtuous the benefit of the doubt. Their aversion to the quality from which they derive their name may be well-founded. "Virtue is an errant strumpet," according to Horace Walpole. "She will set men to cutting throats, and pick their pockets at the same time."

Walpole wrote that in 1761, so it's unlikely he had the Maine Clean Election Act in mind. But that law, designed to use public funding to curb politicians' natural tendency to pander to the powerful, has instead created enough errant strumpets to leave no throat in the state safe from slitting and no pocket secure from picking. And in an ironic twist, it's inspired a new class of candidates who claim to be virtuous by virtue of having rejected this supposed virtue.

Chief among those who've declared "clean" money to have the dirty taint of vice is Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Rosa Scarcelli. Scarcelli, a successful developer of low-income housing, happens to be rich and to have lots of wealthy friends, so she can afford to run a privately financed campaign. But you can ignore the claims of certain cynical pundits (not me, but certain other cynical pundits) that she's doing this because it allows her to raise a hell of a lot more dough than the paltry $1.6 million maximum the Clean Election Act could provide. It's clear she's doing it because it's the virtuous thing to do.

Scarcelli told Maine Public Radio she finds it "troubling that we're paying for funding for campaigns, rather than paying for programs, when we're going to cut another $400 million out of our budget."

In an interview with the Maine Politics Web site, she said, "For me, it's very black and white. This is not an appropriate time, with our economy suffering and cuts happening, to take taxpayer money to run a campaign."

She added that other candidates would have to make their own "moral judgments" on the issue, thereby subtly smearing her publicly funded opponents as spendthrifts with warped priorities. This approach also serves to insulate her from criticism concerning any donations she might receive from questionable private sources, because it's more morally uplifting to obligate oneself to pyramid-scheme operators than it is to take food stamps away from hungry kiddies.

All this is enough to leave the average cynical pundit (not me, but other average cynical pundits) in an uncomfortable position. He finds himself agreeing with what Scarcelli is doing, while doubting the sincerity of her intentions. But I suppose that just goes to prove how virtuous she is.

Hey, where's my wallet?

But hark! Do you hear that sleazy sound? I think it's someone playing the errant-strumpet trumpet.

That morally questionable music is emanating from the vicinity of state Senate President Libby Mitchell, one of Scarcelli's rivals for the Democratic nomination. Mitchell is running as a Clean Election candidate (tough luck, hungry kiddies), but she's worried that state budget constraints may leave the fund that's supposed to supply her with cash for TV spots, lawn signs, and press secretaries (who'll anonymously tip off the news media about the odious sources of donations to Rosa Scarcelli's campaign) may run dry before she gets all the moolah she's legally entitled to.

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