Public money driving 2006 campaigns

Press Clips
Victoria Wallack

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State House News Service

REGIONAL: It will be Friday before the state elections commission decides if former state Rep. John Michael qualifies for up to $1.2 million in public money to fund his independent bid for governor – a decision that could affect public opinion on the viability of the Clean Elections Act.

Michael handed the required paperwork in one minute late on June 16, but there could be other problems with his request.

In order to qualify for public funding, Michael had to submit at least 2,500, $5-checks from registered voters in the state. It appears he handed in 2,673 checks, but may have missed some other deadlines in the process. The commission also is checking to see if all are from registered voters.

Paul Lavin, assistant director in the state's ethics and elections office, said the review won't be complete until this Friday.

Michael's eligibility for public funds has taken on special prominence this election year because there already are three people running as so-called Clean Elections candidates. Each is eligible to receive up to $1.2 million, and if Michael qualifies, the general election for governor will cost taxpayers $4.8 million – an unprecedented amount. That would be on top of $600,000 already spent on the primary.

House Speaker John Richardson, without mentioning any names, said Monday "a fringe candidate receiving as much as $1.2 million," in the governor's race could create a public backlash if the candidate receives only 2 or 3 percent of the votes.

"We may need to look closely and monitor this closely for changes that may be needed," to the law, Richardson said. Proponents of the Clean Elections Act already have suggested the number of qualifying checks may need to be increased for gubernatorial candidates in the future.

Michael could get hung up on an arcane rule that applies because he only handed in photocopies of the $5 checks and the accompanying paperwork by a June 2 deadline.

Most of the originals were with town clerks, who verify registered voter status.

The law says he has to bring in the originals to the state's elections office within 10 working days of dropping them off or mailing them to town clerks. If any were out longer than 10 days, they are not valid under the rules.

He also was supposed to mark when he dropped off the checks and paperwork so the state could verify how long they were out. He didn't and many clerks are now saying they don't keep track of when they receive the qualifying checks. The lack of proof that they were handed in within the 10-day window could also disqualify them.

That's on top of his other problem, which was he came into the state elections office one minute after 5 p.m. on June 16, so technically he missed the filing deadline.

Michael is a controversial figure who ran for governor as an independent in 2002. As a state representative from Auburn, he was censored by the House for using abusive language with two women senators, and when he last ran for governor he used a racial slur during a live radio interview. He did not qualify for public financing in 2002 and got 2 percent of the vote.

Those already qualified and running their campaigns as Clean Elections candidates are Republican Sen. Chandler Woodcock, Pat LaMarche of the Green Party and independent Rep. Barbara Merrill. Gov. John Baldacci is running a privately financed campaign.

Each Clean Election candidate gets an initial $400,000 to run and then up to $800,000 in matching funds, depending on how much Baldacci spends on his campaign.

Two other independents, David John Jones of Falmouth and Phillip Morris NaPier of Windham, also qualified for the gubernatorial ballot, but are running on private funds.

There also are 232 candidates for the House and 59 for the Senate running on public funds, or 77 percent of those in legislative races. Those campaigns likely will cost taxpayers around $4 million by Election Day.