Late last month the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court threatened to cancel the 2002 elections in Massachusetts unless the legislature funded their Clean Election law. This was a law passed overwhelmingly by referendum in 1998, but never funded by the legislature. The voters clearly wanted clean elections, but the politicians didn’t. Either appropriate the money, the Court told lawmakers in January, or repeal the law. Otherwise¿ no elections. Under this threat, observers now believe the legislature will comply, opening the door to dozens of new local and statewide contenders.
In Vermont, a somewhat similar drama has been unfolding. Governor Dean presented a budget in January, which would strip all the money out of our own clean elections fund. He argued that times were tight, and the money was needed elsewhere. And certainly, there is some truth to that. But this was also a broadside attack on an existing law, an attack that would have ended public campaign financing and the promise it holds out for non-big money candidates to run for office. Against the Governor’s wishes, the Vermont House decided to retain a portion of the fund ¿ just enough to allow one candidate for Governor and one for Lieutenant Governor to run with public funding. But then, in the Senate, Democratic leaders once again threatened the funding. It was only after concerned citizens flooded the State House with phone calls, that the leadership relented and put the money back.
Meanwhile, with the Enron crisis erupting in Washington, and the General Accounting Office preparing to sue Vice-President Cheney over questions of improper influence peddling, our reluctant Congress has finally presented the first piece of federal campaign finance reform in twenty five years.
Politicians who oppose clean election laws, and politicians who claim to support them and then undermine them, seem to be missing something. At base, they seem not to trust the process of democracy. They argue that one can’t win without a very big budget. But listen to the words of Mark Spitzer, a Republican elected official in Arizona, where a clean election law is in place. This is what he says ¿ quote ¿ I am not a novice campaigner, having run for office successfully four times under traditional private financing and in 2000 under Arizona’s Clean Elections law. The comparison is stark. Clean Elections empowers the constituency, gives voices to thousands of voters, expands opportunities and enhances democracy. Clean Elections is about bringing back grass-roots, one-to-one politics, the way it used to be, instead of high dollar media campaigns financed by huge contributions from the well-heeled. Clean Elections is about the restoration of democracy ¿ unquote.
I’m Ellen David Friedman in East Montpelier.
–Ellen David Friedman is Vice Chair of the Vermont Progressive Party and has been active in the Labor movement for 25 years.