Independents face funding challenge

Portland Press Herald
Press Clips
Susan M. Cover

press herald

Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

ROCKLAND - They sat holding coffee cups, listening intently as the candidate spoke. They asked questions and wanted to know how they could help.

One man said he has a history of supporting underdog candidates: Eugene McCarthy, Ross Perot, John McCain. Another man said he is a former Republican and is now happily unenrolled.

Others were noncommittal but came to listen to Barbara Merrill, an independent running for governor, as she described her philosophy and the need to raise money.

"The checks are going to be the more difficult piece," Merrill said to a group gathered in Minda McVetty's Rockland home. "We're working on mobilizing a small army."

McVetty, a friend of Merrill's, invited friends and neighbors to her home one evening last week to give Merrill a chance to talk about her campaign. At this early stage, Merrill is busy getting the 4,000 signatures necessary for an independent to get on the ballot. She also must get 2,500 $5 checks to qualify for state funding.

Merrill and four other independents running for governor are in the midst of what will be one of the biggest challenges of their campaigns: getting enough checks to qualify for the state's Clean Elections program.

"The group putting this together was looking for a hurdle that would be doable within the time span, but would also be high enough to ensure only candidates capable of running a real statewide campaign could get over the hurdle," said Alison Smith, a spokeswoman for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

And while three candidates - Green Independent Patricia LaMarche of Yarmouth; Sen. S. Peter Mills, R-Cornville; and Sen. Chandler Woodcock, R-Farmington - also are working to gather the same number of checks, they have the advantage of built-in party supporters.

Independents don't.

Two independent candidates who planned to use the public money already have decided to go a different route, saying either it was too hard or they don't like the way the system is set up.

Bobby Mills, a Biddeford independent, said he dropped out of the Clean Elections program when he realized that the $5 checks he was gathering might not end up funding his campaign. The money goes into one account and is doled out to those who qualify in amounts that vary depending on which office they are seeking.

"If someone wants to donate money to your campaign, it doesn't necessarily go to you," Mills said.

Gubernatorial candidates participating in the Clean Elections program get $200,000 for primary campaigns and $400,000 for the general election. If privately financed candidates spend more than $400,000, it triggers additional money for the Clean Elections candidates.

If an outside group spends money to support a privately financed candidate, that can also trigger additional money for Clean Elections candidates.

All candidates running for governor who want to qualify for funding through the state's Clean Elections program must gather 2,500 checks, which come with a form that must be validated by town clerks.

Independents get more time to collect the checks than party candidates do, a recognition that it's harder for those unaffiliated with any party to garner support.

For Nancy Oden, the Clean Elections program proved too time-consuming. The independent from Jonesboro said she felt trapped in her house because of all the work involved in gathering checks and forms, then getting the forms to a town clerk to be certified.

"I decided this is not how I'm going to spend the next four months of my life," she said.

Others say they are working hard to qualify for the money.

"If I can't get 2,500 checks, then I shouldn't be governor of the state of Maine, should I?" said David John Jones, an independent from Falmouth who has gathered "a couple hundred" checks so far.

Voters supported the Clean Elections program in 1996 to create a system giving statewide candidates a chance to use public money to run their campaigns. The intent is to get special-interest and corporate money - and the influence they may bring - out of the political process.

The fund is supported by a voluntary check-off on income tax forms, money gathered by candidates who want to participate in the program, and money from the state's general fund.

For one Maine candidate, the second time around might prove to be more successful.

John Jenkins of Lewiston tried four years ago to qualify for the program but couldn't meet the threshold. He said he entered the 2002 gubernatorial race too late but is better organized this time around.

A former Democrat who served as a state senator and as mayor of Lewiston, Jenkins said he knows it's harder for those who aren't enrolled in one of the major parties.

"Without a political machine in place, you truly are a grass-roots effort," he said.

Jenkins said there should be a significant threshold that requires candidates to show they are legitimate before they are able to qualify for Clean Elections money.

"The process gives someone like me a chance to serve on this level," he said. "I don't know whether it's too much or too little. You should have a significant amount of support."

Smith, who worked to get the Clean Elections Act passed by voters, said between the 4,000 signatures that independents need to get on the ballot and the 2,500 checks for public funding, it's a difficult task.

"For a lot of candidates, that's a big hurdle," she said.