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Mister Clean
Tim Francis-Wright

One might think that Warren Tolman, one of the Massachusetts Democrats running for governor, had done something horrible to Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker—keyed his car, kicked his dog, or compared him to Red Sox relief pitching. One three occasion in the past two months, Walker has used his column to single Tolman out for criticism.

Tolman's crime was to have the gall to eschew most political contributions in lieu of using state funds under the Massachusetts Clean Elections law. In today's column, Walker complains, that Tolman's recent ads, a series of advertisements criticising Robert Reich and Shannon O'Brien, two of his competitors, are somehow seeped in "venom." There is indeed venom in political ads on the television airwaves in Boston, but it comes from the nasty fight between Craig Benson and Gordon Humphrey for the Republican gubernatorial primary in New Hampshire. Compared to these two reptiles, Tolman is an earthworm, not a cobra.

Today's column was no singleton. Walker used his columns on 29 August and 15 July for similar same sort of attacks on Tolman's use of Clean Elections funds. To Walker, public financing of elections is "political welfare" that will do nothing to stop the influence of money in politics.

A 1998 referendum established the Massachusetts Clean Elections public financing system. Under the law, candidates who agree to limit their campaign spending can receive public funds once they qualify for the ballot and receive a number of small contributions. Candidates can also receive additional funds over those spending limits if other candidates outspend them. Warren Tolman is the only statewide candidate in Massachusetts to qualify for Clean Elections funds in 2002. (The Green Party candidate for governor, Jill Stein, fell just short of the 6,000 small individual donations required to qualify for funding.)

A state agency estimated in 1998 that the system would cost some $10 to $12 million out of state budget that now totals some $24 billion. Until 2001, the legislature indeed funded the account in anticipation of use of the fund starting in 2002. But last year, the Massachusetts legislature voted to fund the law only out of the meager proceeds from a check-off box on individual income tax returns. And this year, the legislature stubbornly refused to release any Clean Elections funds, even those set aside from previous budgets, until Tolman and other Clean Elections candidates won court orders to auction off state property to fund the state's obligations.

For all of Walker's complaints about Clean Elections, another New England state is having a much better experience with public financing. In Maine, the second state elections cycle under its Clean Elections law is underway. Reformers in Massachusetts would do well to learn from Maine's successes.

First, Maine's system has a strict limit on the state's share of campaign funds of $2 million per year. Like Massachusetts, Maine also has a voluntary check-off on its income tax returns, but the state expects to receive only $250,000 per year or so from that source.

Second, Maine's system mirrors that of Massachusetts in providing mopre money to candidates who are outspent by their opponents. But the real safety valve in the law is that once outspent candidates receives the maximum amount of available public funds, they can receive private contributions like any other candidate. This safety valve makes public financing very attractive to legislative candidates who do not envision spending much on their campaigns in the first place.

Third, Maine had a stark increase in the number of contested elections in 2000. Clean Elections candidates included Democrats, Republicans, and Greens. Some Democrats in Massachusetts worry about Clean Elections because it opens the doors to Republicans and Greens. Democrats with ideas should not fear political competition.

Fourth, a significant number of incumbent legislators have opted for the Clean Elections system in Maine. To qualify for public financing in Maine, candidates accumulate $5 donations: 50 for state representative, 150 for state senate and 2,500 for governor. These contributions then go into the Clean Elections pool. Most Clean Elections candidates will not have to ask any donor for anything more than that initial $5 check. Many legislators like the system because it frees them from all but cursory fundraising, and prevents big donors from gaining untoward influence over legislation.

The Maine Clean Elections law has proven to be popular among both legislative and guburnatorial candidates. Of the five candidates on the general election ballot in Maine this november, only Green Independent candidate Jonathan Walker is a Clean Elections candidate, but four other Clean Elections candidates lost in the primaries.

Cynics like Walker are often wrong, but never in doubt. The Clean Elections law in Massachusetts may need mending, but not because it constitutes political welfare. Even the most cursory examination of Massachusetts politics shows why adequate public financing is a necessity. Most legislators will run unopposed this year, not just in their primary elections, but in the general election as well. The power of incumbency to strangle insurgent candidacies in their cradles is the worst feature of modern politics. Spending $10 million per year to make our government more accoutnable to voters and less accountable to big donors is an endeavor to be refined and perfected, not one to be discarded.

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