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Vermont Campaign Finance Reform
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 governor's race will be decided for the first time on a financially level playing field and the Vermont 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 formidable contender. “He's experienced and very well respected,” remarked April Jin, longtime Vergennes Democratic Party chair who recently resigned her post to join the Progressive Party. “There's no doubt he can pull over a good number of liberal democrats.” Indeed, he can. In Vermont's 1984 congressional race, Pollina ran as a Rainbow Coalition candidate and won the democratic primary. He lost the election but won 20 percent of the vote.
Since then Pollina has been busy with public advocacy. He spent five years as a policy advisor to Bernie Sanders, working on agricultural and environmental issues, later going on to found Rural Vermont, a farm lobby group. For the last six years Pollina has worked as a senior policy analyst at Vermont Public Interest Group (V-PIRG), leading 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.
This 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. Aside from prying open the political spectrum to third party candidates, Vermont's clean elections law has also begun to take politics from the hands of big donors and return 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 [Governor] Dean had some serious learning to do.” Clearly, Governor Dean is a quick study, since he too qualified for public funds. But in the process it forced him to reform his constituency from that of his 1998 campaign in which he received 1,200 total contributions and tk percent of his money out of state. No longer could he rely on fat checks, like those that he previously pulled in from pharmaceutical industry totaling $tk. “Sure it was difficult,” Governor Dean told me of meeting the qualifying standard. “But it was also the right thing to do.”
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 Bernie Sanders is sure to glide to an easy sixth term as the only independent U.S. representative. 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 cancer ten years ago entailed heavy doses of estrogen, Karen, formerly named Charles, decided to have a sex change operation. Now the GOP is 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 1996 after becoming a she.
“This could be Fred Tuttle all over again” Vermont GOP chair 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 remarked.
Currently, four states—Vermont, Maine Massachusetts, and Arizona—have clean election laws, and support for similar initiatives is picking up steam in North Carolina, Missouri, and Oregon. Vermont's law is unique because it imposes compulsory limits on spending and contributions for all candidates, forces incumbents to spend 15 percent less than their challengers, and sets no floor on qualifying contributions. It's also the only law that was implemented by legislators and public interest groups rather than by public referendum.
But the strength of Vermont's clean elections law is also its weakness. The law's spending limit places a more radical check on the run-away cost of electoral campaigns, but at the same time makes it highly vulnerable to constitutional attack. “The spending limits were meant as a frontal assault on Buckley-Valeo,” remarked Rep. Terry Bouricious, referring to the 1972 supreme court case which struck down many state spending limits. “Legislators figured that if you were going to put up taxpayer money to fund electoral candidates, there had better be some limit or else we were just throwing money away. We knew it would go to the Supreme Court and that was part of the intention.”
In the meantime, the Vermont Right-to-Life, the ACLU, and the state's Republican party are attempting to overturn the law on the Federal level. While public funding is not being contested, the across-the-board spending limits are. If overturned, the spending limits might then only apply to those candidates who took public funding, thereby giving the Republican candidates a huge advantage in mid-race. “If it gets overturned, we could be outspent three to one,” remarked Dean. “That's not good.”
In broadening electoral options, Vermont's law has also sparked endorsement debate where there once was little. For example, the National Education Association (NEA), Vermont's largest labor union, recently composed a selection committee to interview and rate the gubernatorial candidates, which it had not done since 1992. But when the committee returned a near unanimous “favorable” rating for Pollina and ‘neutral' rating for Dean, the union's board of directors promptly overturned the vote and gave Dean the endorsement. Vermont's major newspapers covered the story but the endorsement stood. “I'm not surprised. I just wish (NEA) leadership had the courage to support change instead of the status quo. I'm well aware of how difficult it is getting leadership to endorse someone operating outside of the two-party system," Pollina commented.
The state AFL-CIO backed Dean last election but Pollina is making a strong bid for their support this time and the Vermont Labor Forum, a coalition of non-AFL unions, came out with an early endorsement for Pollina. “Among union members, Pollina will definitely give Dean a run for his money,” commented Fred Blakely, rank and filer from Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 693. “Pollina speaks a hell of a lot more for working people than a guy that finds millions of new money to build a state prison but not a cent when it comes time to throw down a local skateboard park so area kids have something to do while their parents work several jobs.”
absent from the discussion is Bernie Sanders. With funding of their own, the
progressives are finally able to pull themselves from under his shadow, and
while 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 waiting for things to pick up speed for Pollina.
Having played a pivotal role in implementing the state's Bovine Growth Hormone labeling law, Pollina can expect strong support from environmental organizations in the state. It also won't hurt that he comes from V-PIRG, which claims a membership of 30,000 and is the state's largest environmental and consumer advocacy group.
faces 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, the
likely Republican nominee. Dwyer, who in 1998 pulled in 40 percent of the vote
in her run for governor, has been handing out “Republican Women like Men”
bumper stickers and ‘Take Back Vermont” lawn signs, in hopes of riding a
recent wave of anti-civil union backlash.
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 would take a miracle for Dwyer to win. “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 Professor 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 provides further indication that campaign finance reform is the necessary first step not just toward a revitalized electoral system, but also toward progressive change more generally. “It's the reform that makes other reforms possible,” remarked Pollina. “Only after you allow for politicians that are not so beholden to corporate interests is it possible to start putting issues like universal health care, livable wages, and lasting environmental protection on the table.”