Why did McCain back someone who dislikes campaign reform?

Portland Press Herald
Jim Brunelle
press herald

Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona gave a big boost to David Emery's campaign for governor when he agreed to appear here in Maine at a fund-raiser for Emery over the weekend.

The question is why.

Why would McCain, who certainly is giving serious thought to running for the Republican nomination for president in 2008, choose to take sides in a three-way GOP primary contest in Maine? What's the point of alienating supporters of the other two candidates by jumping into the race at this point?

Loyalty and gratitude might be part of the explanation. Emery served as an honorary co-chairman in Maine for McCain's brief but blazing campaign for president in 2000.

Still, why would the senator choose to support the only Republican in a state race who has voiced opposition to Maine's version of campaign finance reform, an issue that has been McCain's No. 1 political passion nationally?

He was, after all, co-author of the McCain-Feingold-Cochran law designed to restrict the influence over federal elections by corporations, special interest groups and wealthy individuals.

Yet, here he was in South Portland helping to raise private donations for a gubernatorial candidate who not only chose to reject public funding through the state's Clean Election Act, but has gone out of his way to malign the process, characterizing it as welfare for politicians.

"With the fiscal troubles we face as a state," Emery has said, "how can your first official act in running for governor be to tell the people that you want state tax dollars to pay for bumper stickers and TV spots?"

This is how Emery manages - pointedly and indirectly at the same time - to take a potshot at his two primary opponents, state Sens. Peter Mills and Chandler Woodcock, both of whom are running as publicly funded Clean Election candidates.

But Emery goes beyond simply dismissing campaign finance reform as a raid on the state treasury. He has more or less pledged to work for repeal of the law, with respect to statewide races at any rate, if elected in November.

Was McCain aware of all this when he agreed to show up in Maine to promote Emery's candidacy over two pro-reform contenders? If not, he should have been.

It would be a shame if the Arizona senator were to play a role in repealing a state law that has already gone such a long way toward accomplishing his oft-stated goal of separating the election process from the grip of special interest money.

It has been fully a decade since Maine voters ratified the suitably named Clean Election Act. Since then, the system has grown steadily in popularity, making for a far more open and independent body of elected officials at the State House.

For one thing, the change has encouraged more people to run for office. The number of contested legislative primaries has burgeoned healthily.

Furthermore, the number of general election legislative candidates who have taken the clean election route went from 33 percent in 2000, the first year the law took effect, to 78 percent in 2004.

On the whole, this has led to a Legislature whose members can feel fully accountable to the people who elected them rather than to well-heeled campaign contributors - lobbyists, special interest groups and wealthy individuals - who bankrolled them in the past.

In short, Maine people have been taking back ownership of the election process from those with an ax to grind or a government favor to seek.

It's all well and good for candidates like Emery to reject public funding - it's a voluntary program, after all - but he has no cause to denigrate others who embrace this cleansing reform.

As for scoffing at the program as a waste of taxpayer dollars on "bumper stickers and TV spots," he knows full well that there's much more to a serious election campaign than that.

Candidates are expected to go on the road and meet voters in groups and individually. They must make speeches, appear with other candidates in public debate, give interviews and put out press releases, articulate a distiguishable philosophy, address issues that concern voters, offer rational solutions to identifiable public problems and otherwise make the best case they can for their election.

And if these effort pays off on Election Day, to whom should they feel most indebted - to "traditional" private financiers (especially big-money contributors) or to taxpaying voters in general?

Surely McCain understands and appreciates that idea more clearly than the candidate he has chosen to back for Maine governor.

Jim Brunelle comments on politics and other issues for the Portland Press Herald. He can be contacted at: jbrune@maine.rr.com