Not Just Clean Elections, But Squeaky-Clean Elections

Last week, advocates for “clean elections” held a rally at the Rhode Island state house. The term “clean elections” refers to a system of public financing for political campaigns, so far favored mostly by authentically idealistic liberal good-government types, intended to reduce the influence of money in politics. Ian Donnis of the Providence Phoenix proivdes a straightforward description of how the system would work…

“Clean” candidates would need to collect separate $5 donations from individuals — 50 to run as a state representative, 100 as a senator, 2500 for governor, and 1000 for lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state or general treasurer — to qualify for public financing. These aspirants would have a specified amount of time in which to collect “seed money” in bigger donations, up to $100 each, ranging in total from $500 for House candidates, $1000 for Senate candidates, $90,000 for governor, and $36,000 for other general officers. Qualifying candidates would then get the following primary and general election amounts from a taxpayer-supported Clean Elections Fund: House ($8000, $12,000); Senate ($16,000, $24,000); governor ($1.5 million, $2.25 million); other general officers ($600,000, $900,000).
I asked two Republican nuts-and-bolts guys (in other words, not bloggers or anything like that, but folks who actually do everything from collecting signatures to designing campaigns) what they thought of the clean elections proposal, and if they thought it would help or hurt their on-the-ground efforts. Even though they represent different wings of Rhode Island’s big-tent Republican party, their responses were strikingly similar. Here’s response #1…
Anything that doesn’t remove PAC money will be worthless, as it will allow the unions to continue to control the money. I’m not sure if this does.
Response #2 was a bit more detailed…
At first this idea looks promising but in the end I am a bit skeptical.
The small donor $5 requirements, i.e. 2500 individuals for Governor to 50 for House Rep will strengthen two types of entities, direct mail vendors and unions. Unions can quickly and effectively get union members to directly contribute $5. There are about 50,000 public sector union employees in RI. It will be quite easy for them to work this for their advantage. Republicans will have to go the direct mail route since the GOP doesn’t have grass roots organizations with large memberships in RI.
On the side note of corruption, $12,000 for house and $24,000 for senate are good amounts for a race but the leadership of legislature can out raise and spend those amounts when needed. They will not need to participate in the clean election requirement…and it is the leadership where the corruption occurs.
I find the last point of response #2 particularly compelling, because it coincides with something that I believe about the American political process, that the influence of money is less of a problem than is the dictatorial style in which many legislative chambers in he U.S. (including the U.S House of Representatives) are run. As such, you only need to “buy” a few politicians to take control of the legislative agenda.
But back to clean elections. You could argue, I suppose, that Republicans should stop whining and get themselves better organized, but the problem is not that simple. Union organizations are of legitimate concern to both Republicans and to those honestly concerned about the undue effects of money in politics, whatever the source, because current campaign finance laws allow huge sums of money, aggregated from union dues and funneled through PACs, to be placed under the control of a very small group of leaders. Fortunately, there’s a fair change in the law that can level the playing field — disallow unions from spending a member’s dues on political activities, unless that member first gives his or her express permission. This reform, already implemented in several states, goes by the name of paycheck protection
Labor organizations annually dump tens of millions of dollars into state and national politics. Unfortunately, workers often have no say in how the money is to be used. While paycheck protection does not take away a union’s right to spend dues on politics, it does something almost as bad in the eyes of union officials: it requires the union to get a member’s written permission before using his or her dues for political activity.
The first paycheck protection law was adopted by Washington state in 1992. Since then, five other states have enacted various forms of the law. The measure is based on the common sense idea that no one should be forced to support political causes against his or her will.
So how about this compromise for bringing together everyone concerned about the disproportionate effects that a small number of big-spenders can have on the political process: couple the “clean elections” proposal with the “paycheck protection” reform and create a comprehensive package of election reform. Advocate not just for clean elections, but for squeaky-clean elections! Any takers?

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14 years ago

One thing this accomplishes: the choice to donate is made by rank and file members on their own instead of the union leadership, which is an ideal we can all support. As a union member (private sector), I prefer to make my own contributions – I sure as hell won’t contribute to the likes of Mollis, Montalbano, Ruggerio, etc., guys that I have issues with even if they’re considered union-friendly.
Then again, I’m a member of a union that, due to the nature of our profession, does not take positions in partisan political campaigns. We occasionally take positions on legislative issues, but don’t employ lobbyists.
As for PAC bundling at corporations or partisan law firms where management lays the muscle on nonunionized employees to donate to a certain candidate or cause, that needs to be discussed at the same time.

14 years ago

legislative issues*
ETA: particular to our professional duties and responsibilities

Ian Donnis
14 years ago

Here’s a link to an earlier story I wrote about “Clean Elections” which talked about how they worked out in Maine and Arizona:
It’s wise to have some skepticism about campaign finance reform, since money inevitably finds its way into the process.

14 years ago

You make management at corporations and law firms sound like stevedores, Rhody. I’m having difficulty with that image.
The point is that these employees are at least asked. With members of a unionized shop, it’s completely involuntary.

14 years ago

You’re right, Susan; they are “asked.” If they want the promotion or the corporate perks, they donate.
There are unions in the private sector that impose a checkoff system (the member can request the portion of dues that goes for political activities instead go to the general fund for benefits, membership activities, etc.). I’d take advantage of that.

Craig Dunkerley
Craig Dunkerley
14 years ago

With respect to PACs, if the RI system proposed is like the Arizona and Maine systems it will include a “matching funds provision.” This effectively neutralizes the effect of PACs by simply providing additional matching funds to any publicly funded candidate if they are outspent or attcked by a PAC or a privately funded candidate. This does two things. First it helps keep the playing field level so no one can simply buy the election by outspending their opponent. Second, it discourages such excessive PAC spending because they quickly realize that every dime they spend triggers more money for their opponent. Elections cease to be about money and become more about free and open competition in the marketplace of ideas. As for unions spending their members money I think there’s some confusion here. First, all union members know their dues will be used in part to advance the political agenda of their union. That’s a big part of why they joined. Corporations by contrast donate millions without the consent of their stockholders, employees or the ultimate source of their money, their customers. Unions at least are usually obliged to set up a PAC to collect the sums they want to use for political purposes and all contributors have obviously and implicitly given their permission for that use. Corporations on the other hand are profit-making enterprises which as a result have vastly greater resources, which resources they can allocate without such permission as they see fit. On a per-capita basis, that playing field is currently tilted way in favor of corporations. And as I recall our democratic system is supposed to be about who’s got the most votes, not who’s got the most money. Public financing is a decidedly non-partisan issue and such systems have proven to be very effective at… Read more »

14 years ago

Good points all, Craig.
The only question is how deep the funding can go – I fear corporate PACs can outspend the finite amount of money in the public financing fund, particularly if it’s extended to General Assembly races and not just statewide contests.
Or look what happened in Massachusetts, when you had conservative Democratic Speaker of the House and corporate prostitute Tom Finneran deny funding of a Clean Elections bill passed by referendum. In the ’02 gubernatorial race, only one candidate took Clean Elections money, and he didn’t drain the fund by himself.

14 years ago

There’s no confusion at all. If you start from the premise that money is a corrupting influence in politics, then a large sum of money under the control of anyone is problem. Under the current system, a few union leaders are able to exercise control over a great sum of political money. They don’t make profits, but they are allowed to spend their operating revenues (i.e. dues) on politics, by funneling them through PACs. (Corporations are not allowed to spend their profits, their operating revenues, or anything else directly on politics.) To exempt the special rules for union dues from the problem of money-in-politics is to assert that unions are led by angels, not subject to the same fallibility that the rest of us mere mortals are.
All “paycheck protection” requires is that a union get approval from a member before forwarding part of his dues to a PAC. If the employee really wants that money going to the PAC, that shouldn’t be a problem, right?
But really, less than making a comprehensive argument on the merits, I was suggesting a political compromise with some folks who, if not excited by the clean elections idea, don’t think it would hurt, and might be willing to support it as part of a broader package of election reform. But if the attitude within the clean elections movement is that you can only go as clean as the unions will allow you to go, it’s going to be a tougher sell.

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