Public Financing suffers from abuse and neglect

Lewiston Sun Journal
Karl Trautman

sun journal

Next November, Maine's Clean Elections Law will be celebrating an anniversary. It will be the 10th year since voters approved of publicly financed state legislative elections.

The law is effective, respected and praised. It is also very popular: 78 percent of the 2004 general election candidates ran clean.

Some recent news stories, however, reveal that it has been abused and neglected. This should be squarely addressed so the law can become even more potent.

Recent state ethics commission hearings have disclosed that several area political candidates in the 2004 elections have abused the law. The headline of a recent Sun Journal article said it well: "Pay, pot and politics." The neglect is coming from Gov. John Baldacci. For the second straight election cycle, Baldacci is apparently choosing private money for his gubernatorial campaign.

The 2004 contests where the misconduct occurred were in House District 96 and Senate District 14. House District 96 covers Hebron, Minot and Turner. Senate District 14 contains Jay and a lot of Oxford County, including Mexico, Rumford and West Paris.

The House race centers on the relationships between Green Independent candidate Sarah Trundy, political consultant Daniel Rogers and campaign treasurer Jessica Larlee. Trundy received more than $4,000 in public money and is unable to justify how most of it was spent. She claims that she never vigorously campaigned and that she was unaware of the political literature that was distributed on her behalf by Rogers and Larlee.

The Senate race has a similar cast of characters. Julia St. James ran for the seat as member of the Fourth Branch party. The name of the party is related to an effect that marijuana has on its users. Rogers was her campaign manager and Larlee was her treasurer. Larlee accused St. James of triggering her relapse into smoking marijuana after a five-year pause. St. James received more than $50,000 in Clean Election money. She is also unable to adequately account for how most of the money was spent.

The behavior of these people is reprehensible. The candidates were entrusted with more than $54,000 in public money and now can't satisfactorily tell us how most of it was spent. I hope that the Maine Ethics Commission acts with resolve when they decide these cases. If it is determined that laws were broken, they all ought to be prosecuted.

Although Baldacci says he supports the law, he doesn't seem to think that he ever needs to use it. In 2002, Baldacci turned down public money in his race for governor. Republican Peter Cianchette also turned it down. Jonathan Carter of the Green Independent Party qualified for public money and received almost $1 million.

It is apparent that Baldacci will not use public money for his 2006 race. In late October, Hilary Rodham Clinton came to Portland. She was the star attraction at a Baldacci fund-raiser at the Holiday Inn by the bay. His re-election campaign bank account was fattened by more than $100,000 by her visit.

Why is Baldacci shunning public money? He might be afraid of losing control of his image. Perhaps he's fearful of a blitz of privately funded, TV attack ads that could suddenly appear in the last weekend of the campaign. Even though Baldacci could get additional public money, he might be worried that he wouldn't have enough time to effectively counter them. If these ads tipped the balance in a tight race, he might lose.

The Ethics Commission has detailed provisions that anticipate the above scenario. They know that large sums of unanticipated, last-minute private money can harm a clean candidate. The regulations give a clean candidate plenty of timely money. Additionally, the media buys of independent groups or privately financed candidates would be known well enough in advance for a candidate to respond. Baldacci must know this.

Possibly the real reason he is shunning Clean Elections is simple: Baldacci has always ran, and won, with private contributions. So why change now?

Ironically, Baldacci may lose control of his image by not accepting public money. Imagine a picture of the eventual Republican gubernatorial candidate spending time meeting average citizens and talking about issues while Baldacci is at political fundraisers. That's a contrast that his re-election campaign would not want in the public's mind.

This scenario could conceivably occur. There are several Republican candidates who are either running as, or plan to run as, Clean Election candidates. They include Farmington state Sen. Chandler Woodcock, Steve Stimpson of Bangor and state Sen. Peter Mills of Skowhegan.

Overall, our Clean Elections law is working very well. If it is to remain effective, the recent abuse uncovered must be punished forcefully. Additionally, if it is to become relevant in future gubernatorial elections, both major party candidates should begin to use it.

Karl Trautman has taught political science for more than 20 years. He has been a policy analyst for the Michigan legislature and a research assistant for "Meet The Press." He chairs the Social Sciences Department at Central Maine Community College and can be reached at