By Hans Johnson
Missouri's former Lt. Gov. Harriet Woods has seen the problem of big-money politics from both sides. In an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1986, she shook down wealthy contributors with finesse to amass a war chest of more than $4 million, much of which she spent on costly TV commercials. Now, with two Senate bids far behind her, Woods has become a leader in the drive to redeem politics by creating a system of publicly financed state races.
The effort in the Show Me State and a similar bid in Oregon are part of the growing movement for "clean elections" at the state level. New England registered the first wins when Maine approved a public financing initiative in 1996; legislators in Vermont followed suit in 1997. Voters in Massachusetts and Arizona adopted their own initiatives in 1998.
Missouri is a key test for campaign finance reformers. The swing state has voted for the winner in all but one presidential election since the New Deal, and clean election supporters hope a win this November will encourage federal lawmakers to take action they say is long overdue.
"We are stuck in a system in which it's safe to presume that the candidate with the most money wins," says Woods, who returned to Missouri after a stint in Washington as chair of the National Women's Political Caucus. In that post, she says, she often found herself asking female candidates, "Where are you going to get the money?"
Woods' feminist spin - that clean elections help women make viable challenges to old-boy insiders - is just part of the appeal of Missouri's Fair Elections Act. Sponsors drew on senior citizens and religious groups, as well as gay rights supporters, advocates for the poor and labor unions in gathering more than 100,000 signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot. "We're not tailoring the proposals to what a few allies in the capitols think they can get through their chambers," says Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign, a national advocacy group that promotes clean election measures. "Instead we are taking reform directly to the people and trying to create the possibility of bona fide grassroots democracy."
Hopes for reform run high in Oregon. Backers of the state's clean elections measure, called the Political Accountability Act, include the League of Women Voters as well as green and consumer watchdog groups like the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG). The drive also counts prominent Republicans among its chief petitioners, such as former Rep. John Dellenback and Norma Paulus, formerly Oregon's superintendent of schools. "The campaign here is very lively and includes people who hit the streets in Seattle to protest the WTO," says Maureen Kirk, OSPIRG's executive director. "It's just one step, but they see this measure as a crucial move toward deeper, more radical change."
Both states' measures exemplify the political fine-tuning that local coalitions have perfected with help from Public Campaign. Missouri's Fair Elections Act borrows from the Maine and Vermont models in setting thresholds for candidates, who must solicit a fixed number of $5 contributions to receive state funds. For would-be state representatives, contributions of $15,000 kick in during both a contested primary and a general election once the candidate secures 200 low-dollar donations. In the race for governor, the law requires the collection of 3,000 small checks, and outlays from the state are more generous: $1 million for a contested primary and another million for the general election.
The Missouri plan would offset the estimated $13 million cost of payments to candidates with a tax increase of one cent on every $100 in assets of corporations with more than $2 million in holdings. As Missouri Voters for Fair Elections spokesman Doug Gray emphasizes, this tiniest of tax hikes would only affect large enterprises, not small businesses, adding that "94 percent of employers in the state will pay nothing."
Under the Missouri plan, any candidate for state office must comply with disclosure requirements, but is not bound by the public financing system. Those who flout it should beware the added ammunition it provides its outgunned adherents. According to the proposal, candidates outspent by privately financed opponents can receive up to three times the original funding amount from the state to fight back more effectively.
The public financing laws that have inspired this fall's ballot bids are already a reality in Maine. Almost one-third of the 392 candidates who ran in the state's June primary were so-called clean candidates. They disdained big checks from private donors in exchange for preset amounts from a new state elections fund, about $1,100 for state House candidates and $4,300 for state Senate candidates in contested races. Funding levels from the state will increase threefold for clean candidates vying in this fall's general election. Though they lost six of seven spotlight races in which they went head-to-head with deep-pocketed foes who opted out of public financing, Maine's clean candidates complained little about the new era they helped inaugurate.
In Vermont, Gov. Howard Dean and Lt. Gov. Douglas Racine, both Democrats, have qualified for public financing, despite caps that allow incumbents seeking re-election only 85 percent of challengers' funding. Their GOP competitors have said they will bypass of the state's new system. The success of Progressive Party gubernatorial candidate Anthony Pollina in qualifying for public funding has boosted reformers' hopes that clean funding will flatten the playing field and end the duopoly on electoral politics. A competitive race by Pollina at the top of the ticket could help Progressive Party candidates build on their five-member delegation in the 150-seat state House.
In their bid to quash reform in the courts, foes of cleaning up elections have fared poorly. The Supreme Court this year reversed an earlier appeals court decision and, in a 6 to 3 ruling, upheld the constitutionality of $1,000 lids that an earlier Missouri law places on campaign donations to candidates. Maine's system also cleared a hurdle in February, when the First Circuit Court of Appeals allowed it to proceed. In Arizona, clean candidates lined up for funding after the state's highest court gave a green light to public financing in June. But that month a federal district judge rejected Vermont's caps on overall campaign spending for candidates. The public financing portions of the law remained intact, pending a second ruling due in August.
Even as they press for reform, clean election supporters must vie with the same big-money interests whose power they seek to curb. In Missouri, the state chamber of commerce, a longtime heavyweight in campaign spending, has vowed to turn back the clean election measure at the polls. Still, donations to the clean election campaign have been flowing in, including $150,000 from Public Campaign.
The groundswell at the state level has led Congress to adopt one minor reform. In July President Clinton signed a bill mandating public disclosure of contributors to secretive partisan groups known as 527s, after their federal tax code designation. The groups have underwritten expensive advertising campaigns while avoiding sunshine laws that are supposed to reveal contributors to candidates or established PACs.
This dram of reform comes amid ever more dour prognoses about the ills of the campaign finance system - and even more robust giving to candidates and the major parties. Federal Election Commission figures for the first 15 months of Campaign 2000 show congressional candidates raking in a total of $463 million, a 37 percent increase over the 1998 cycle and a 56 percent increase over four years ago. Meanwhile, gifts to the parties of unregulated "soft" money, much of it from corporations, have almost doubled since 1996 to $170 million. Combined with the $335 million raised by the presidential candidates, federal political races have already absorbed about $1 billion - with the most frantic giving still to come.
As Nyhart watches the movement for wholesale campaign finance reform grow stronger, he wonders what kind of populist outcry may at last prompt action from Washington. He asks, "How many states will it take?"
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