Copyright © 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
When John Baldacci let it be known in January that he had every intention of running for a second term as governor, there were those who thought it a mite early to be making that sort of announcement.
The election, after all, is still nearly two years away. Furthermore, he has enough on his plate with two regular sessions of the Legislature to be completed between now and then to go around talking about his political plans this far in advance.
Still, it was probably a shrewd move on Baldacci's part to make the announcement just now. Call it the "game-bird theory" of political cover.
It puts lawmakers of both parties on notice that he is not to be treated as a lame-duck chief executive over the coming months - and years - of political maneuvering in Augusta. It also warns any likely pretenders to the throne within his own party not to consider him a sitting duck for a primary coup next year.
However, the real news here is not that the governor intends to run for re-election, but that he is considering doing so as a so-called "clean candidate" next time, depending solely on public funding to support his campaign.
That would make him the first major party candidate for statewide office to run under the Clean Elections Act, and it could give a big boost to the legitimacy of Maine's pioneering campaign reform effort.
In 2002, both Baldacci and his Republican opponent, Peter Cianchette, chose the old-fashioned method of financing their campaigns with private donations and special interest contributions. Only Jonathan Carter, the Green Independent Party candidate, took the clean elections route to the general election. (A fourth candidate, Auburn maverick John Michael, didn't qualify for public funding.)
Some may argue that the fact that Carter attracted less than 10 percent of the vote shows that the Clean Elections Act doesn't really work.
But winning or losing really is not the measure of the reform's worth. Someone, probably Baldacci, would have won anyway, even if all contenders for governor had been clean candidates last time around.
The act, launched eight years ago in a statewide referendum, was designed to take ownership of the election process away from the well heeled and the special interests and give it back to the people of this state.
It has taken time to catch on, but if success is to be gauged in terms of popularity, the program has been hugely successful: In the 2000 election just over 30 percent of the candidates for state office signed up for clean elections funding. Two years later, the figure grew to 50 percent and last year it was 78 percent.
But the real test of success won't come until major contenders for governor sign up as clean elections candidates. And it can't be regarded as completely successful until it is routinely employed at all levels.
Maine's Clean Election Act was necessarily framed as a voluntary program to avoid any clash with constitutionally protected rights both of candidates and their supporters.
Political candidates are still perfectly free to finance their own campaigns without limit (if they are in a position to do so) or to solicit the support of private individuals and groups if they choose. The trick is to apply moral pressure on candidates to choose public funding and the level playing field it offers all of them.
That's where the voters come in. We have to create a climate of equality and fair play for the election process, in which a stigma attaches to the candidate who chooses old-style private funding to mount a campaign.
There are still a lot of Mainers who think the Clean Elections Act is a big waste of the people's money and that the old system of private funding should be restored.
It's true there is a cost involved - an estimated $10 million next year - but it's not nearly as costly as having our elected officials beholden to wealthy individuals and special interests for the offices they hold.
There are loopholes in the law, to be sure, but the answer to that is to plug the holes as best we can when they show up. It's better to fix the law than to scrap it.
Other states are copying Maine's landmark election reform. It's up to us to continue to build on its initial success.
A campaign for governor in 2006 in which all candidates run as clean candidates would represent a terrific improvement.
Jim Brunelle comments on politics and other issues for the Portland Press Herald. He can be contacted at: email@example.com