Question 1 won’t serve everyday people

The State House in Augusta. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

The State House in Augusta. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

In an editorial published Wednesday, the Bangor Daily News called for the passage of Question 1, saying that passing the referendum will “keep politics the domain of everyday people.”

Giving politicians tens of thousands of dollars in hard-earned, taxpayer money and requiring virtually no effort to get it gives power to “everyday people” in politics?

News to me. Here I thought it was a gift to the political aristocracy in Maine that they will use to dramatically increase the number of robocalls, junk mail pieces, and radio and television commercials used to harass me every election season. To say nothing of free laptops and “election parties.”

The argument that we are somehow ruled by a group of oligarchs, and that so-called “Clean Election” laws — including a dramatic increase in funding for those laws — will somehow return our politics to the hands of “the people” has always been a fabrication.

The 118th House of Representatives in Maine was sworn in Dec. 4, 1996, the year the Clean Election law passed in Maine. According to the House’s own records, the members consisted of 20 teachers and three education administrators, 16 businesspeople, seven attorneys, seven self-employed, four farmers, three social workers, two lobstermen, five health care workers, five workers in pulp and paper, three who worked in forestry and three homemakers. Thirty-two members were retirees.

In addition, 96 members had previous legislative experience for a combined legislative service of 340 years, and the average age of members was 50.1 years. Eighty-eight were born in Maine, 31 of them in the communities they represented. There were also 35 women in the House.

So, two decades later, what have we gotten for our investment in Clean Elections?

Well, the current membership of the state House is composed of 19 businesspeople, 13 educators, six education administrators, 10 health care workers, seven self-employed, six attorneys, three farmers, three carpenters, three consultants, two photographers, two workers in pulp and paper, and two in logging and forestry. Twenty-six members are retirees.

In addition, 98 members had previous legislative experience, which is more than there were in 1996, and that is with the institution of term limits! They have a combined experience of 453 years in the Legislature (term limits!), an average age of 54.2 years, 78 were born in Maine and 19 were born in the communities they represent. There are now 46 women in the House.

So, the Legislature has gotten older, with more politicians serving a lot longer (term limits!) in total and with fewer teachers and blue-collar workers, and fewer people born in Maine or the communities they represent?

Public financing of politicians sure did help bring politics back to the people, didn’t it? And they want more of your money to run campaigns?

The truth is, political fundraising at the local level has always been not only small, but a vehicle for engaging your community. Local state representatives are not getting giant checks from billionaires trying to buy off votes in the state house.

Almost to a person, they are from small contributions given to local candidates that come as a result of networking, bean suppers, church dinners, door-to-door campaigning and engagement with the community.

I challenge you to go to the website for the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, actually search through the campaign filings for state House and Senate candidates, and look at what contributions they are getting.

I can save you the time, if you like. You will find a House candidate getting checks for $25, $35, $50 or $100 from people who are in the community. Occasionally you might see a donation from a fellow state legislator. From time to time, you might see a small contribution from the local Democratic or Republican town committee, which raises its money locally in the community as well. No state legislator is selling his or her soul for $50.

More importantly, though, the practice of networking and talking to constituents, trying to get their support and speaking to what they care about so they can be engaged enough to invest in your campaign is a vitally important part of local politics. Fundraising isn’t evil, it is actually an expression of how hard a candidate is working to reach the people, and how much their message is resonating with the public.

That is the scourge that public financing attempts to snuff out and that proponents of Question 1 want to ensure is utterly destroyed.

To do it, they have sold you a lie and created a false mythology, trying to scare you into shoveling millions of dollars of your own money down your own throat every election day. As the editorial I mentioned earlier itself made plain, “Question 1 won’t excise money from politics.” It will make it worse, and it also won’t make the Legislature any better in the process.

So let’s not bother.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.