After the Clean Elections fiasco, campaign finance laws leave politics to the rich and the long in office
gentlemen (and women), check your wallets. On your marks. Get set. Go.
It’s off to the races, with a stable of millionaires dominating the 2006 campaign for governor and pouring an unprecedented amount of their own money into their campaigns. While enormously wealthy self-financed election winners such as New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have snagged more attention from the national media, few races have featured as packed a field of big-money contenders as this one for governor of Massachusetts.
Four out of the candidates are millionaires many times over: Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey; Democrats Christopher Gabrieli and Deval Patrick; and independent Christy Mihos. The remaining Democrat, two-term incumbent Attorney General Thomas Reilly, has a campaign war chest so bulging with dollars (more than $4.2 million going into the state Democratic Convention in Worcester in June) that it more than makes up for his lack of personal wealth. Together, they are on pace to shell out nearly $40 million, a considerable jump from the $30.6 million spent in 2002 by Republican Mitt Romney and his rivals for the governor’s office, including Democratic nominee Shannon O’Brien.
“The people up on Beacon Hill wanted to get rid of Clean Elections, and this is the result,” says Tolman, who received more than $3.8 million in taxpayer funds for his campaign. “Now, if you’re not a statewide officeholder and you’re not a millionaire, it’s very difficult to get in the game.”
Skyrocketing costs in the Boston media market, coupled with the ability of self-funded candidates to match each other’s spending, have driven political aspirants of all persuasions into an ever-escalating financial arms race, political observers say. At the same time, strict limits on political contributions—$500 per person, per candidate, per year—make it increasingly difficult to finance a competitive race for the state’s top office by raising money from grass-roots supporters.
fund-raising events, such as the one featuring
US Sen. Barack Obama (right), but his initial
viability as a gubernatorial candidate rested
on his personal wealth.
The Clean Elections law, approved by voters in a 1998 referendum, was supposed to put an end to all that, or at least provide an alternative: Candidates who established their legitimacy by raising a required sum in small amounts would get substantial public funding, as long as they abided by certain spending limits. If non-Clean Elections candidates exceeded those limits, the publicly funded candidates would get additional public dollars to match—thereby providing an incentive for even self-financed candidates to limit their spending. Campaigns would be more competitive, candidates would be less beholden to moneyed interests, and politics would open up to aspirants who lacked the stomach for fundraising.
Or so the theory went. Instead, Clean Elections turned into a battle. When the dust cleared, Tolman was the only statewide candidate to benefit from the system in 2002, when Clean Elections went into effect, and only one candidate for any office (state Rep. James Eldridge, a Democrat from Acton) was elected using public funds. The Legislature repealed the measure altogether the following year.
Not only that, but the Clean Elections brouhaha seemed to stifle the entire discussion of campaign finance reform. Repealing the public financing provision left in place a campaign finance system that dates back to 1994. Even as that system increasingly produces a politics restricted to the well-heeled and the deeply entrenched, the calls for change have been few.
The Clean Elections era in Massachusetts was a short one: five topsy-turvy years of insurgency, legislative resistance, and farce.
In Massachusetts, voters approved the ballot measure by a convincing 58 percent to 30 percent, after a low-profile campaign, but the law ran into obstacles almost from the start. The public financing system was scheduled to go into effect for the 2002 election, but lawmakers, apparently spooked by the prospect of funding their own challengers, refused to appropriate the money to build up the Clean Elections coffer. Once the state’s fiscal crisis hit, in the fall of 2001, even supportive legislators began to get skittish about spending public funds on political campaigns. Two lawsuits ensued, one by Mass Voters for Clean Elections, the activist group that spearheaded the movement, and another by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tolman, asking the courts to compel legislators to provide funding. Uncertainty over whether the public financing system would be viable forced several major candidates, including eventual Democratic gubernatorial nominee Shannon O’Brien, not to participate. (Current GOP lieutenant governor nominee Reed Hillman, then one of the few incumbent state representatives who had planned to run under Clean Elections, also dropped out of the system.)
parade in Dedham. Democrats fear the Healey fortune.
In February 2002, Tolman won his lawsuit. But when a stubborn House of Representatives refused to release $23 million in allocated Clean Elections funds, the Supreme Judicial Court ordered up the auction of state property to fund the campaigns of Tolman and a handful of legislative candidates, including Eldridge. The struggle over Clean Elections funding descended into farce: An SJC associate justice rejected a demand from Clean Elections advocates to sell office equipment from the suites of House Speaker Tom Finneran and two members of his leadership team, Rep. Sal DiMasi (now House Speaker) and Rep. Joseph Wagner of Chicopee, then House chairman of the Election Laws Committee, to satisfy the court judgment. But the state did auction off state-owned SUVs and parcels of land, including part of an old state hospital property in Lakeville.
In the end, Clean Elections was killed off. Its executioner: the canny Finneran, an implacable foe of public campaign financing who once said state funds might go to “communists and socialists and crazy people.” The Speaker put a nonbinding referendum on the 2002 ballot with what he and other opponents said was a more honest definition of public funding. In a stark reversal of the 1998 vote, voters rejected Finneran’s “Taxpayer-Funded Elections” referendum 66 percent to 23 percent, an outcome then used by the Legislature to justify repeal of the law months later.
At the same time, lawmakers restored a prior system of partial public funding for campaigns. It had been around in some form since 1975, and in 1998 (before passage of the Clean Elections referendum), new limits on spending for each elected office were put into effect—provided that all candidates for that office agree to participate in the system. But funded by a trickle of taxpayer check-offs (only 8 percent of filers bothered to divert $1 of their state income taxes toward the system this year), the fund contained only about $1.5 million for the 2006 campaign season, for all statewide candidates, and for both the primary and general elections.
With this system reinstated for 2006, gubernatorial candidates Patrick and Reilly declared at the June deadline that they would seek the public funds, agreeing to the law’s primary campaign spending limit of (coincidentally) $1.5 million. Two Democratic lieutenant governor hopefuls, Worcester Mayor Tim Murray and Andrea Silbert of Harwich (founder of a nonprofit women’s entrepreneurial group), also joined, as did Democratic secretary of state challenger John Bonifaz.
But gubernatorial candidate Gabrieli and lieutenant governor candidate Deborah Goldberg, the Brookline Stop & Shop supermarket chain heiress—the most prominent self-funding Democrats seeking nomination for each office—opted out, along with incumbent Secretary of State William Galvin. This changed everything. Under the law, candidates who do not accept public funds are required to declare spending limits for themselves, of any amount, and those limits apply to their publicly funded adversaries as well, replacing the spending limits set by statute. Gabrieli got the headlines—and the brickbats from his primary opponents, as well as some editorialists—when he set his own limit at $15.36 million, an amount more than three times as great as that spent by any Democratic candidate for governor in the 2002 primary. Though receiving far less attention, Goldberg set a limit for her campaign, and those of her primary opponents, of $4 million, a figure only Gabrieli himself approached ($3.5 million) in the 2002 primary for lieutenant governor (and in contrast to the limit of $625,000 set by statute for the primary for that office). Galvin set a limit for himself, as well as Bonifaz, of $2.9 million.
So, in another strange side effect of Massachusetts’s quirky political culture, the state, in effect, imposed a potentially embarrassing requirement on candidates who wanted nothing to do with the moldy public campaign financing system, on the grounds that their opponents accepted public financing. (In fact, since Patrick and Reilly will split the full $750,000 currently available for the primary campaign, getting $375,000 apiece, the lieutenant governor and secretary of state candidates will not get a dime from public coffers for their primary campaigns. The $750,000 left for the general election will be divided among those remaining candidates who agree to spending limits for that campaign, with gubernatorial candidates once again getting first crack at the money.)
Gabrieli tried to make light of his sky’s-the-limit figure, calling it “arbitrary” and, since he based the number on the percentage of delegates whose votes he received at the Democratic Convention, trying to pass it off as a joke. It was not the first time an absurd figure had been set. In 1998, Libertarian Party candidates for governor/lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and state auditor all set their limits for the general election at $19.5 billion—the total amount of the state budget at the time. (That year, only the general election contest between Democrat Tom Reilly and Republican Brad Bailey for attorney general was governed by the statutory spending limit imposed by the public financing law, $625,000 apiece for that office.) The difference, of course, is that no one expected the 1998 Libertarians to outspend anyone.
THE $500 QUESTION
In the wake of the Clean Elections fiasco, there continues to be grumbling about the campaign finance system here, but little push to change it.
Mass Voters for Fair Elections, the lower-octane successor to Mass Voters for Clean Elections, is trying to keep the crusade alive, but it is barely kicking. The group has managed to put a nonbinding question on the ballot for next fall in four senatorial districts proposing a new law that would match each dollar a voter gives, up to $100, with three dollars of public money.
Peter Vickery of Amherst, executive director of the group, doesn’t sound overly ambitious when he lays out his agenda. “We’re not trying to get the money out of politics,” says Vickery. “What we’re trying to do is get more people to step up to the plate and run for office.”
But running for office takes money—more money this year than ever.
“What that money allows you to do is get your message across in a way that completely drowns your competition,” says Pam Wilmot, head of Common Cause Massachusetts. “I’ll be astonished if the governor’s race doesn’t set a record.”
Common Cause, a big backer of Clean Elections, does want to get money out of politics, at least in the form of big checks, and is responsible, at least indirectly, for the current $500 annual limit for personal contributions to any candidate’s campaign fund (lobbyists are limited to $200 per year). Contribution limits are intended to keep individual donors from having undue influence on candidates, but as the costs of being competitive in a statewide race rise, it becomes harder for candidates to raise adequate war chests on checks of $500 or less. Those generally seen as in the best position to raise money in this fashion are incumbent statewide officeholders, who can collect contributions over a four-year term in preparation for a run at higher office.
“The Legislature set it up that way so it would benefit incumbents and make it almost impossible for anyone other than a career politician to run for office,” says Republican political consultant Charley Manning. “That’s the way the system works. You can either do it the Reilly way and go back to the same people [over and over again] for money, or be fortunate and successful,” bringing your own money to the table.
Massachusetts has among the most restrictive campaign contribution limits in the country. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only a few other states have lower limits for gubernatorial candidates. Until its law was overturned by the US Supreme Court in June, Vermont was the strictest, limiting individual contributions to $400 per two-year election cycle. (See “Paying Up”) Four other states (Colorado, Florida, Maine, and Montana) limit personal contributions to $500, like Massachusetts, but other details differ. These states limit donations to two payments of $500 per election cycle, one for the primary campaign and one for the general election, allowing candidates to obtain as much as $1,000 from each contributor in the election year, but no more than that even if they started soliciting funds earlier. In the Bay State, personal contributions are limited by calendar year rather than by primary and general election, so a candidate declaring for office this year could accept no more than $500 from any contributor. But, for instance, a statewide officeholder (who can raise funds for either a reelection campaign or a bid for higher office) can get $500 contributions each year, for a total of $2,000 over a four-year election cycle.
Most other states have substantially higher contribution limits. Wisconsin sets the bar for statewide candidates at $10,000 per election campaign; California has a cap of $22,300 per election (primary and general considered separately) for gubernatorial candidates; and New York has a limit of between $5,400 and $16,200 for gubernatorial primaries, depending on the size of the party, and $33,900 for the general election. Thirteen states have no limits on contributions whatsoever.
If the $500 limit seems restrictive, it could have been even tighter, says John McDonough, a former state representative who is now head of the advocacy group Health Care for All. In 1994, McDonough was House chairman of the Election Laws committee, charged with heading off a Common Cause ballot campaign—fueled at the time by an influence peddling scandal, complete with Boston Globe photos of lawmakers on a Puerto Rico junket getting wined and dined by lobbyists—that would have imposed a contribution cap of $100.
“If you don’t like the $500 limit, tell me what you think about the $100,” says McDonough. “We didn’t dodge a bullet, we dodged a cannonball. If we hadn’t gotten the $500 limit, we’d be complaining about a $100 limit. That said, I think the [Clean Elections] episode is far enough behind us that the time is right for the next legislative session for folks to take a look at it.”
Some are ready to, including state Sen. Ed Augustus, a Worcester Democrat and current Election Laws co-chairman, and Senate President Pro Tempore Stan Rosenberg, Democrat of Amherst, who was Senate co-chairman across from McDonough in writing the $500 limit. Augustus thinks that the rash of millionaire candidacies points to the need for “an updating” of campaign finance rules. Raising the limit to $750 or $1,000, he says, would help candidates who can’t reach into their own pockets.
“It’s a way to equalize it a little, and I think most people support it,” Augustus says. “Look at a guy like Tim Murray, who has gotten a lot of contributions but is facing Deb Goldberg, who can write herself one check after another.”
Wilmot was not at Common Cause Massachusetts when the $500 limit was set, but she stands by it today. “We support public financing of elections,” says Wilmot. “We don’t support bringing more special-interest money into elections, and that’s exactly what would happen if we raised the limit.”
Scott Harshbarger agrees. Among campaign-finance reformers, Harshbarger stands out. Not only has he crusaded for public financing and tight restrictions on campaign contributions on both the state and national levels, as president of national Common Cause during the McCain-Feingold debates in Washington, but he hosts occasional fund-raisers for candidates he supports, as he did recently for Democratic lieutenant governor hopeful Andrea Silbert. He supports the current $500 cap, and suggests that the way to limit the role of money in politics is to elect candidates who support public financing—candidates like him, when he was Democratic nominee for governor eight years ago.
“There’s no evidence whatsoever that if we raised [the limit] to $1,000, anything fundamentally different would happen here,” Harshbarger says. “If we don’t want money to be the primary way to get on the ballot, there is an alternative. Voters should ask every candidate where they stand on this. One thing in ’98 that voters forgot was to elect a governor who supported them on this.”
Among this year’s gubernatorial candidates, Gabrieli, Patrick, Reilly, and Mihos all say they back public campaign financing, though Gabrieli also favors higher contribution limits. Green Rainbow nominee Grace Ross wants to reinstate the Clean Elections law and opposes any increase to the $500 contribution limit. But Healey opposes using public money to finance campaigns unless taxpayers specifically earmark money for that purpose on their state income tax returns, as they do now.
PAYING THEIR OWN WAY
With the demise of the Clean Elections law, the best way to demonstrate independence from special interests may not be public financing, but self-financing. “You can’t be beholden to yourself,” observes Denis Kennedy, of the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
Nor can you be prevented from financing your campaign out of your own pocket. The landmark US Supreme Court decision Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 established that restrictions on a candidate’s use of his own funds for campaign expenditures are unconstitutional.
“No campaign finance reform really limits millionaire candidates,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Is it all bad? I don’t know, but let’s face it, multimillionaires are not terribly in touch with everyday people.”
Well-heeled pols may be out of touch, but that doesn’t mean they rub voters the wrong way. Sabato says that voters appear to respect the independently wealthy who put their own money on the political line.
“Most voters don’t really have much of a problem with rich candidates,” he says. “If you ask [voters] about them, they say, ‘good for them.’”
In the 2006 Massachusetts governor’s race, rich candidates come in many flavors. Republican nominee Kerry Healey, who is married to money manager Sean Healey, CEO of Affiliated Managers Group of Beverly, put $1.8 million into the campaign that made her lieutenant governor four years ago. And when Sean Healey cashed in $13 million in stock options last year, the proceeds were widely seen as a reservoir of campaign cash, enough to swamp the record set by her predecessor, Gov. Romney, who kicked in $6.3 million of his own on the way to spending $10.4 million in 2002, according to GOP figures.
deep pockets, and the willingness to dig into them.
On the Democratic side, Chris Gabrieli sets the standard for deep pockets, and the willingness to dig into them. The 46-year-old entrepreneur and venture capitalist used $5.4 million of his own cash in an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor four years ago, after largely financing an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1998. Gabrieli has also spread around his money as a philanthropist, supporting his nonprofit foundation, Massachusetts 2020, which promotes after-school education, as well as other causes (including MassINC, publisher of CommonWealth). Now he calmly says he’s ready to spend what it takes to take on the Republicans.
He’s spending plenty already. After jumping into the race in March, Gabrieli quickly wrote his campaign operation checks totaling nearly $2 million and spent most of it on an early spring advertising blitz.
Gabrieli says financing his own campaign, rather than seeking donations from individuals and groups with agendas of their own, makes him more independent. (Indeed, he even offers a bit of praise to another businessman-outsider, Gov. Romney, for acting independently of his backers to close some business tax loopholes.) Putting his own money behind his campaign “certainly gives people a sense of my own commitment to this race, that I’m willing to part with significant personal money,” he says.
But Gabrieli also says he supports public financing of campaigns. Politics shouldn’t become solely the domain of the rich, he says.
“I’d never argue that we’d be better off with only wealthy people in office,” he says. “There are a lot of awfully talented people who are not in that position.”
Gabrieli won’t be funding his entire campaign out of his own pocket. (Neither, for that matter, is Kerry Healey, who has made a point of not being a self-funded candidate, at least in the early going. Healey had $831,000 in the bank at the end of May.) In May, a kick-off fund-raiser garnered $80,000 for the campaign, and in June, a “Women for Gabrieli” event raised $40,000, according to campaign staff. But it is widely acknowledged, by the candidate as well as others, that he could never have jumped into the race deep into the election year without being able to prime his own campaign pump.
The same is true of Christy Mihos, who considered challenging Healey in the Republican primary before declaring himself an unenrolled candidate for governor. The convenience-store magnate jump-started his insurgent campaign with a spate of radio spots performed by Boston comedian Steve Sweeney, lampooning Massachusetts’s insider political culture (beginning with the annual St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast) and ending with the tag line, “declare your independence.” As of mid-spring, Mihos had already injected a quarter of a million dollars into his independent candidacy; in June, he wrote his campaign checks for $300,000. By contrast, 2002’s unenrolled gubernatorial candidate, Barbara Johnson, raised and spent less than $38,000, while the Green-Rainbow Party’s Jill Stein ran on just $124,000.
Like Gabrieli, Mihos has also been raising funds the conventional way, by asking people for donations. But in keeping with the anti-special interests theme of his campaign, he says he won’t accept money from political action committees, contractors doing business with the state, state employees, or lobbyists. Fashioning himself an anti-establishment maverick, he says he has no choice but to use his own wealth—in service of the little guy.
“You’re forced to match them dollar for dollar if you do what you need to do, if you’re a serious candidate,” Mihos says. “We’re going to have to spend what we have to spend to win, and we think we’ll be well-funded enough.”
More than Democratic opponent Gabrieli or unenrolled upstart Mihos, Deval Patrick is having it both ways in the campaign-finance department. His campaign makes a big point of noting that he has more small contributors than his rivals do. Employing a Howard Dean-like strategy, Patrick has raised $700,000 through his campaign Web site alone, not to mention dozens of small meet-and-greet sessions.
“He’s really wanted to run a grass-roots campaign, reaching out person to person,” says Patrick spokesman Libby DeVecchi.
And it’s working, at least in dollar terms. The Patrick campaign announced that it raised $470,000 in May alone, following $391,000 in April, bringing the campaign’s total raised to date up to $3.7 million. On June 1, Patrick brought to town Democratic Party celebrity Barack Obama, the African-American US senator from Illinois, for an evening of dunning: a $50-per-ticket rally at Hynes Auditorium, a $500-per-head reception, and a $2,500-minimum VIP dinner ($500 goes to the Patrick campaign, the rest to the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s Victory ’06 fund, which will funnel money back to the eventual nominee).
But Patrick’s viability as a candidate, particularly starting far behind Attorney General Thomas Reilly in the fund-raising race, has always been predicated on his own bank account, swollen by years as a corporate attorney for Coca-Cola and Texaco and as a corporate director, following his stint as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the Clinton administration. In May, Patrick voluntarily disclosed income of $3.8 million in 2005.
Thus Patrick thought nothing of writing a $40,000 check in May to cover a Fanueil Hall thank-you event for supporters. Through late spring, he had ponied up about $350,000 from his own coffers for his self-styled progressive outsider’s campaign.
As for Reilly, who lives in a rented two-decker apartment in Watertown, his campaign is trying to position him as the everyman in the race, rather than as an entrenched insider who has exploited years of incumbency to stockpile cash.
But exactly from whom the incumbent AG has drummed up his money has fueled criticism, from both his right and left flanks, that he is a creature of “special interests.” In Reilly’s case, the donors in question were mainly Big Dig contractors his office was investigating. (Some of these donors gave to him and other politicians, including Romney and Healey, who gave back money they got from one firm whose executives were indicted, Aggregate Industries.) And Reilly took a hit early in the campaign, in January, when it was reported that he advised Worcester District Attorney John Conte not to release autopsy results that might have revealed alcohol as a factor in a car crash in Northborough that killed two daughters of a campaign contributor.
“If Gabrieli is the guy who doesn’t owe anybody, then Reilly is the one who owes everybody everything,” says Nate Little, a spokesman for the Healey-Hillman ticket.
But at least campaign contributions get reported, along with where they come from. Reilly regularly makes the point that he is the only one of the major candidates who has released his income tax returns. (For non-incumbent candidates, state ethics laws require only limited financial disclosure.) While Reilly’s personal finances are transparent, he says, the public can’t clearly see the others’ sources of income—which, in the case of self-financing candidates, is also the source of their campaign cash.
That hasn’t stopped Reilly from slamming Patrick for one high-profile income source: the parent company of subprime mortgage lender Ameriquest, on whose board Patrick served until he resigned this spring. Responding to Patrick’s voluntary disclosure that he received $360,000 last year as an ACC Capital Holdings director, Reilly charged that Patrick “reaped a big payout on the backs of the very people who were scammed by his company.”
“As millionaires, it’s even more incumbent on them to release their returns,” says Corey Welford, Reilly’s spokesman. “But as four out of five of the candidates are self-financing, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they’re not.”
One Reilly organizer in central Massachusetts, William Eddy, chairman of the Worcester Democratic City Committee, says there’s another benefit to traditional fund-raising: demonstrating a wide base of support among ordinary people.
“There’s a big difference between raising money slowly over the years from donors all over Massachusetts and writing yourself a check,” Eddy says.
Whether traditionally financed or self-financed, the Democrats see themselves as girding for a Republican spending onslaught, financed by Sean Healey’s millions, plus as much as $2 million from the state GOP. Phil Johnston, the state Democratic Party chairman, has been touting the party’s Victory ’06 Fund as their antidote to the party’s traditional “morning after” problem, when the party’s nominee wakes up broke the day after a bruising and expensive primary. Johnston says that he and high-powered Democratic fund raiser Alan Solomont have been working to give the nominee some funds with which to hit the general-election ground running. He said they raised $700,000 at the Dems’ recent Roosevelt dinner, and Bill Clinton is booked to come to Massachusetts for a fund-raiser September 25, a week after the primary. These efforts are expected to net $2 million for the general election effort.
“We’re going to hand the nominee a check for $2 million right after the primary,” Johnston says. “We’re determined to avoid the problem we had in ’02. We’re not going to let that happen in ’06. We will be competitive with Healey. If it’s Reilly or Deval, I’m not saying we’ll have as much as she will, but we’ll be competitive.” Gabrieli, it is implied, can take care of himself.
Healey’s campaign manager, Tim O’Brien, says the Democrats are disingenuous when they plead poverty, especially this year, when the Democratic hopefuls are “either self-financed candidates or folks who have spent a career on Beacon Hill.” In addition, he says, Democratic candidates get the benefit of expenditures by supporters outside the party structure, such as advertising paid for by the Massachusetts Teachers Association.
In 2002, Shannon O’Brien spent $6.3 million, but she was helped out by the $834,100 spent by the teachers’ union and other groups, Gabrieli’s $5.5 million, and $1 million from the state Democratic Party. In total, the GOP says the Republican ticket outspent the Democratic nominees and their allies just $15.5 million to $13 million—hardly a blowout.
RULES OF THE GAME
Not everyone laments the role of big money in modern elections. Republican strategists here see it as a critical tool in their arsenal, one they need to deploy against a pervasive Democratic Party, with their deep bench of issue activists, labor unions, and other interest groups. Others say the financial arms race is simply a fact of life in the rough-and-tumble world of campaign politics.
And the many restrictions on political money billed as “reform” of campaign finance have their critics, including some who see them as encroachments on constitutionally protected free speech. One of these is Bradley Smith, a professor at Capital University Law School in Ohio, who also thinks the rise of self-financed campaigns is a direct result of limits on political contributions.
“There’s no doubt that campaign finance reform has created an incentive for millionaires to run for office,” says Smith, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. “Wealthy people can’t spend their money on other people, so they have to become the candidates themselves.”
Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign in Washington, DC, says self-financing by wealthy candidates is not confined to states with strict contribution limits, like Massachusetts. “Across the country, you’re seeing the same phenomenon of people essentially bidding for office, and that’s true in states with relatively low limits and states with high limits,” he says. “If you don’t have a network of well-connected friends, don’t have celebrity, or don’t have your own money, it leaves you out of the running.”
Still, Boston Globe Magazine columnist Thomas Keane Jr. wrote this spring that, in campaign finance, “every new rule…produces a perverse result.” Limits on contributions, he noted, “turn fund-raising into a full-time activity.” With the $500 limit here, “a $10 million gubernatorial campaign would require a candidate to call and persuade a minimum of 20,000 people to write a check. No wonder politics has become a preserve of those wealthy enough simply to spend their own money.”
Smith points out a number of advantages for self-financed candidates. They can dispense with fund-raising consultants, direct mail appeals, and phone banks. Perhaps most important, they can skip much of the time on the phone that traditional candidates spend calling people for donations.
Of course, Clean Elections proponents say public financing would do the same, only not just for the wealthy. “What Clean Elections would have allowed is the ability for other candidates who are not millionaires to get in races and compete on an equal footing,” Wilmot says.
While the Clean Elections system is road kill in Massachusetts, it has become established in some states, and is spreading, however slowly, to some others. In Maine and Arizona, the public financing scheme has been in place since 2000. The only governor thus far elected under Clean Elections, Arizona Democrat Janet Napolitano, is seeking reelection this year, once again with public funding. Proponents say the system there, which is funded by a $5 voluntary check-off on state income tax forms and a 10 percent surcharge on civil penalties and criminal fines, has been a big success in spurring competition for legislative and statewide seats. In Connecticut, the Legislature passed a sweeping campaign finance law in December, setting up a voluntary state campaign financing system tied to spending limits that would be in place for legislative elections starting in 2008 and statewide races in 2010, then in May closed several loopholes that could have been its undoing.
The spread of public campaign financing in other states makes Jamie Eldridge, the Clean Elections lawmaker from Acton, look back more than a little wistfully at his successful first run for public office, when he collected enough contributions—none over $100—to qualify for public money. He used $43,800 in public funds—mostly derived from the sale of those state SUVs and station wagons—to defeat four Democratic primary opponents and a Republican in the general election to become the first, and only, Clean Elections winner of a Massachusetts election.
“It seems more and more likely that if you want to run for statewide office you have to have personal wealth,” says Eldridge.Eldridge is supporting Deval Patrick for governor. But he might have been behind someone like US Rep. Michael Capuano, the Somerville Democrat, had Capuano not apparently been daunted by such deep-pocketed foes, he says. “One of the values of public campaign financing is leveling the playing field,” he says.
With that, Eldridge excuses himself. He has some calls to make, to raise money for another candidate he supports, lieutenant governor hopeful Tim Murray. But if he weren’t dialing for dollars for Murray, he’d be doing it for somebody else—if not for himself. Back in 2002, he had fewer of these calls to make. Now, he says, “I set aside one night a week to ask for contributions.”
Shaun Sutner is a reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.