To politicians on the left, only certain kinds of money are bad

I read with interest a recent opinion piece in the BDN authored by Sen. Justin Chenette, a Democrat from Saco, entitled “It’s time to get big money out of the State House, once and for all.”

In the column, Chenette identified “money in politics” as a primary evil that needs to be thwarted, and he uses his space to stump for a bill he has proposed that would seek to vanquish said evil. That bill would, in Chenette’s words, “ban lobbyists from contributing to candidate campaigns or PACs run by elected officials.”

I found this more than a little amusing. Chenette seems to have a problem with lobbyists contributing to political action committees and campaigns, yet he says nothing about special interest groups paying lawmakers directly, essentially setting up sitting members of the Legislature as paid lobbyists.

People like his legislative colleague from Orono, Democratic Rep. Ryan Tipping, who was paid thousands of dollars as a “consultant” by a political action committee called Citizens Who Support Maine’s Public Schools, a special interest-funded PAC pushing for Question 2 in November’s election.

Indeed, Chenette voiced no objection to House Democrats’ recent vote to kill House Order 23, an order sponsored by Assistant House Republican Leader Ellie Espling to send the question of Tipping’s inherent conflict of interest to the House Ethics Committee for review.

This is, of course, the type of selective outrage we have grown accustomed to on the left.

Illustration by George Danby | BDN

Money in politics is bad, you see, except when a liberal billionaire or well-heeled national advocacy group decides to drop millions of dollars on a liberal priority, especially as it relates to guns or the environment.

Money in politics is bad, except when you are talking about an army of left-leaning c(3) and c(4) organizations, most of whom have affiliated ballot question committees and political action committees, all of which dwarf their right-leaning counterparts in scope and budget.

Money in politics is bad when it is from corporations, of course, but doesn’t matter at all when it comes from unions, or quasi-governmental agencies that weigh in on liberal causes, or government-funded non-profits that exist primarily to advocate for liberal priorities.

Money in politics is bad, apparently, when an individual voter in a state legislative district decides to give a candidate who lives a block away a check for $50, but it is good when the taxpayers fund campaigns that are now suddenly three times the size they used to be, paying for buttons, bumper stickers, signs, and election night parties.

In short, money in politics is bad, unless it is the kind of money that is good for certain people and groups who just so happen to be supportive of leftist ideas.

For the record, I don’t have a problem with money in politics. I have a very simple, logical perspective on political campaign giving. There should be few restrictions on money given to candidates with regard to amount or source, but those donations should be brutally transparent so voters can evaluate whether a candidate is, as the saying goes, “bought and paid for.”

The trouble with Chenette’s approach is that it does nothing but drive political giving into darker, more troubling places.

This was the problem with Clean Elections. Publicly funding candidates doesn’t stop donors from wanting to give money to influence political campaigns. Instead it simply drives them to give their money to groups with shadowy, Orwellian names, which lack accountability to the candidate in question.

This is confusing to the voter, because now groups rather than candidates are the big money enterprise. Television commercials are run, and no one really knows their source, and campaigns and elections get a great deal more negative and dark, due to the lack of accountability.

I have run political races in 49 states — Mississippi is the last remaining one, if you’re curious — and the states that have the most healthy, accountable political environments are those that do not micromanage how people give to candidates, but demand transparency.

This puts money where it belongs — with the candidate, who will be running ads that say “I approved this message” at the end, making clear the source of the attack, rather than outside groups who are more interested in burning the opposing candidate alive than they are in having a real debate.

That is the environment we should strive for, and we won’t get it when we only care selectively about money in politics.

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.