Thursday, July 30, 2009

Campaign planning: Greens see red, must seek more green

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In a move Maine Green Independent Party leaders say unfairly targets them, but that Maine Democrats say is simply protecting taxpayer money, the Legislature last month passed a law requiring gubernatorial candidates to raise tens of thousands of dollars from private donors before qualifying for public support.

The rules, laid out in a bill sponsored by House Speaker Hannah Pingree of North Haven, create a new requirement that would-be governors who want to use the state's Clean Election Fund (no matter the party or if she is independent) must first raise $40,000 in "seed money," with individual donors giving no more than $100 each. The previous requirement for $5 contributions from individuals has also increased, from 2500 to 3250. Only by meeting both demands can a gubernatorial candidate become eligible to receive as much as $1.8 million in campaign financing from the state's Clean Election Fund.

Pingree, who is heading to Washington DC this week to testify before Congress about a federal clean-elections law, says the move was intended "to make the system more attractive for major-party candidates" — though of the six gubernatorial contenders who have used Clean Election funding since the system was set up, three have been Republicans; one was an independent and two were Greens. No Democrats have used the system to run for governor.

While it may be intended to become "more attractive," the task is actually made more difficult for all candidates — including those in major parties who want to use clean funds. Pingree says the reason for raising the barrier is because "this is a significant amount of taxpayer money," and so a candidate must "show that you have a wide base of support for your candidacy."

Diane Russell, a Portland Democrat who serves on the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee that worked the bill, says "it's not just a system for candidates who want to send their message out there," but rather for those who have a serious shot at winning the state's top office. She says she wants to avoid having "the Clean Election system be the system of losers," and asks, "are you really a viable candidate if you can't raise $40,000?"

But John Rensenbrink, a founder of the Maine Green Independent Party and the national Green Party, sees what he calls a "carrot and stick" strategy to take the wind out of third parties' sails. On the same day as the fundraising change passed, lawmakers also unanimously removed a requirement that to remain an official party in the state, a party's candidate for governor or president must receive at least five percent of the popular vote, replacing it with a demand that 10,000 members of the party vote in a general election.

That actually does make it easier for the Greens to keep official party status. Founded more than 25 years ago, the party has struggled to gain and hold elective office on a statewide level. Despite several successes in local government (mostly in Portland city and school elections), the Greens have had no members in the State House since 2007. And the party has only ever managed to get one person sent to Augusta: John Eder, who won a seat representing Portland's West End in 2002, and was reelected in 2004. But Eder lost a second re-election bid in 2006 to Democrat Jon Hinck, who argued during his campaign that he was just as progressive as Eder and would be more effective in the Legislature.

Rensenbrink says the new rules make it "more difficult for us to arouse our own forces" to back a Green gubernatorial bid, and says the effort shows that the Democrats are afraid of facing a Green candidate next year, when the governor's seat will be vacated by John Baldacci.

Lynne Williams, the Bar Harbor attorney who has already declared she will seek the governorship for the Green Party, says the new rules are "a paradox," in that the Clean Election system exists to take money out of politics, but now requires fundraising. "All the time that I could be meeting with voters, I'm calling people and asking them for money," she says.

Anna Trevorrow, chairman of the Maine Green Independent Party, says "Maine has always been looked at as a leader" in leveling the playing field for third-party candidates, creating a system where "candidates could compete based on their ideas and not on their ability to raise money." She says the new goals are "just above what the Greens have been able to achieve in the past."

Pingree and Russell, though, think setting high goals is a good idea. "I think it's hard, but I think it's fair," Russell says.

And for the Greens, who have always based their work on grass-roots efforts, there may be some hope. Williams says her campaign has already established offices in eight counties and is readying plans for the other eight; she hopes that level of outreach will create "the skeleton for post-election activity."