A Model Clean Election

While the impetus to remove big money from politics is weak nationally, it has accelerated on the state level. Maine, Massachusetts and Arizona have all passed campaign finance reform laws, and North Carolina, Missouri and Oregon may soon follow. Most strikingly, in Vermont this year the governor's race, which features a third-party populist who never would have stood a chance in the old soft money system, is quickly showing how immediate the impact of clean elections can be.

In June, 1997 Vermont passed one of the most comprehensive campaign finance reform laws in the country and the signing of the "Clean Elections" bill was a generally festive occasion. Democratic Governor Howard Dean was on hand for congratulations and photos with the bill’s main architect, Anthony Pollina, whom he enthusiastically dubbed ‘Mr. Campaign Finance Reform’. Little did Dean know that he might become the law’s first casualty.

This year the Vermont Governor’s race will be decided for the first time on a financially level playing field, and the state Progressive Party, which has selected none other than Anthony Pollina as its candidate, is mounting a serious blitz on Dean. With nearly 20 years of grassroots organizing in the state, Pollina is a familiar face in Vermont politics. In Vermont’s 1984 congressional race, Pollina ran as a Rainbow/PUSH Coalition candidate and won the democratic primary. He lost the election but garnered 20 percent of the vote. "He’s experienced and very well respected." remarked April Jin, longtime Vergennes Democratic Party Chairman who recently resigned her post to join the Progressive Party. "There’s no doubt he can pull over a good number of liberal democrats."

With the exit of John McCain from the national race, the only one left still seriously talking about campaign finance reform is Ralph Nader. Both Bush and Gore have far too much to lose by touching the issue and the general consensus in Washington seems to be that campaign finance reform is headed nowhere. But, while the impetus to remove big money from politics has slowed nationally, it has accelerated on the state level. Maine, Massachusetts and Arizona have all passed campaign finance reform laws, with support for similar initiatives growing in North Carolina, Missouri and Oregon. In Vermont, the governor's race is quickly providing further indication of just how immediate the impact of clean elections can be. By opening the election to a third-party populist who otherwise never would have stood a chance in raising enough money to run, Vermont's clean elections law has also already begun reinvigorating real democratic debate and restoring the principle of "one person, one vote".

Though clearly the underdog, Pollina is experienced with the issues. He spent 5 years as a policy advisor to independent representative Bernie Sanders working on agricultural and environmental issues, later going on to found Rural Vermont, a farm lobby group. For the last 6 years Pollina has worked as a senior policy analyst at Vermont Public Interest Group (V-PIRG), and besides pioneering the campaign finance law, he also led such efforts as the push to put a check on Vermont’s ever-expanding ‘factory farms’ and agro-businesses, and more recently, a bill that would make Vermont the first state in the country with an across-the-board price cap on all prescription drugs.

In June, Pollina became the first gubernatorial candidate as well as the first statewide candidate in the country to qualify for clean election funds. He did so by collecting $35,000 from at least 1500 individual in-state contributions of no more than $50 each-- no small feat in a state for which an election season on average brings in fewer than 1000 contributions for an incumbent. "It was extremely difficult. In some places we received checks as low as 60 cents. At times even I’m amazed that we pulled it off." commented Ellen David Friedman, Pollina’s campaign director. "With an all volunteer staff, we canvassed campuses, tabled the county fairs, went door-to-door in every district, held spaghetti dinners in town halls, walked parades, went to union locals. Really, we did it all..." David Friedman explained while standing in her kitchen alongside her teenage son who, with a team of other students, toured the neighborhoods signing up several hundred new voters. "The only things we didn’t do were mass mailings and newspaper inserts since the campaign simply didn’t have the money for that."

The campaign now has the money, $265,000 in fact. Aside from prying open the political spectrum to underfunded outsider candidates, Vermont’s clean elections law is taking politics from the hands of big donors and returning it to its proper place among voters. "It’s great. All of the sudden, office seekers actually have to campaign to win. They have to talk and listen to real people rather than just fund raise." remarked Garrison Nelson, UVM political science professor. "I think Dean had some serious learning to do." Clearly, Dean is a quick study, since he too qualified for the public funds. But in the process it forced him to reform his constituency from that of his 1998 campaign in which he received 1200 total contributions and 51 percent of his money out of state. No longer could he rely on fat checks, like those that he previously pulled in from health care interests totalling $44,000. Where airing statewide TV commercials used to suffice, the geographic distribution and small individual contribution requirements of the new law now required more canvassing and actual small-venue speeches. "Sure it was difficult." Governor Dean told me of meeting the qualifying standard. "It was also the right thing to do."

But doing the right thing just got risky and Dean is now forging a different path. In August, federal judge William Sessions III ruled against parts of Vermont's clean elections law, including limits on spending and out-of-state contributions. The case is being appealed but in the meantime those candidates who do not take public funding are free to raise and spend without restriction. Stating his regret, Dean announced that he would be returning the public money to raise private funds because he feared getting out-spent by his Republican contenders. "I am not going to fight this campaign with one arm tied behind my back" he remarked from his Montpelier campaign office.

Dean's primary concern is Ruth Dwyer, the likely GOP nominee. Dwyer, who declined public funding from the beginning, has already amassed more than three times her Republican opponent William Meub, and will draw heavy financial support out-of-state from anti-gay and pro-life organizations. In 1998 Dwyer pulled in 40 percent of the vote in her run for governor. This season she hopes to ride a wave of anti-civil union backlash in the state, and has been handing out "Republican Women like Men" bumper stickers and ‘Take Back Vermont" lawn signs, while also accusing the National Education Association (NEA) of advancing the homosexual agenda.

It’s an opportune moment for Vermont Progressives to make a move on the state level. The party already has four state representatives as well as the Burlington city councilman and mayor. They’ve also got the time and energy to spare this electoral season since Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders is sure to glide to an easy 6th term in Congress. The Democrats won’t dare mess with Sanders, and so far Vermont Republicans have had their hands full figuring out what to make of their own candidate. Karen Karin, a fiscal conservative from South Royalton, plans to run for the Republican nomination on the issues of tax reform, anti-gun control and the creation of a petroleum reserve in the Northeast. The complication is that Karen used to be a male. After a bout with urinary tract cancer ten years ago entailed heavy doses of estrogen, Karen, formerly named Charles, decided to have a sex change operation. The GOP is now wondering whether it will be able to keep a straight face while making civil unions its lead issue, especially since Karen, who has stated firm opposition to same sex unions, somehow managed to marry a woman in ‘96 after becoming a she.

"This could be Fred Tuttle all over again" Vermont GOP chairman Patrick Garahan commented, referring to the affable 79 year-old dairy farmer who in 1998 mounted a successful protest campaign for the GOP nomination against Jack McMullen, a millionaire management consultant and carpetbagger from Massachusetts. Tuttle, who ran with no funding, a campaign slogan of "Why Not!" and bumper stickers that read: "Spread Fred", sent McMullen packing after publicly embarrassing him with a quiz on how many teats a cow has. "The Republicans are in a complete panic about the Karen situation" April Jin told me from the Pollina campaign headquarters, a downtown Montpelier office that the Progressives took over from Operation Rescue when they pulled out of the state after losing the civil union vote. "Even if the state GOP can drum up someone better to run against Sanders, they know that a bunch of democrats will cross over simply to give Karen a win in the primary."

In broadening electoral options, Vermont’s law has also sparked endorsement debate where there once was little. The National Education Association (NEA), for example, Vermont’s largest labor union, recently composed a selection committee to interview and rate the gubernatorial candidates, something it had not done since 1992. But when the committee returned a near unanimous ‘favorable’ rating for Pollina and a ‘neutral’ rating for Dean, the union’s board of directors promptly overturned the vote, giving Dean the endorsement. "Both the membership and the committee were furious." commented an organizer who attended the meetings but requested anonymity. Vermont’s major newspapers covered the story but the endorsement stood. The state AFL-CIO, which backed Dean last election has yet to make any announcements, but the Vermont Labor Forum, a coalition of non-AFL unions, came out with an early endorsement for Pollina.

The debate is by no means limited to labor. "Among environmental groups there is a lot of controversy" remarked Mark Sinclair, senior attorney at Vermont's Conservation Law Foundation. "Pollina has the better record and great credentials coming from the largest environmental and consumer advocacy outfit in the state (V-PIRG), but he's still a long-shot candidate." Likewise, when the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, the state's largest pro-choice organization, announced its endorsement of Dean, two members of its top leadership resigned in protest.

So far, Bernie Sanders has hesitated to enter the fray. But with funding of their own, the Progressives can now afford to pull themselves from under his shadow. Despite the fact that many of his staffers and much of his support base is working on the Pollina campaign, Sanders says he’s made no endorsement decisions yet. Most Vermont political insiders speculate that Sanders is simply waiting for things to pick up speed. "Bernie is self-absorbed and probably nervous about alienating the democrats, but he’ll come around when the time is right." remarked one grassroots organizer close to Sanders’ office who requested anonymity.

Pollina will face an uphill battle as many Vermonters fear that he could act as a spoiler, drawing enough votes away from Dean to grant the victory to Ruth Dwyer. Fortunately, Vermont’s constitution makes a spoiler scenario highly unlikely. A gubernatorial candidate must receive over 50 percent to win office. If no candidate gets an absolute majority, the decision automatically goes to the legislature which decides the matter in a secret ballot. With the democrats currently holding a firm majority in the legislature it's unlikely Dwyer would come out ahead. "Even if there is a reactionary swing from the civil unions bill, there’s no way it would put Dwyer over the top since a lot of her own Republicans think she’s too far right to vote for" commented Garrison Nelson. But Dean is not so sure. "I’m not prepared to say that the Democrats will lose the legislature, but it’s definitely going to get more conservative."

Regardless of the outcome, the Vermont governor’s race is a clear sign that campaign finance reform is the necessary first step toward restoring political accountability and thereby revitalizing the electorate. Furthermore by making issues not fund-raising the key to getting elected, the law is opening the way to underfunded grassroots candidates who can push the agenda in ways that politicians beholden to special interests never would. As such, clean elections promise to be the reform that makes other reforms possible.

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