Spring cleaning 

Campaign finance reformers make their move

Corruption was the theme of the contentious 2006 midterm elections that saw Democrats take back both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. Montana’s own former Sen. Conrad Burns was caught up in that tide thanks to his connections to disgraced Washington, D.C., lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which made Burns a national political target and the poster boy for Republican influence peddling.

Now a local nonprofit group is hoping to capitalize on that momentum to energize activists to start pushing for clean election reforms. Even though it’s a full year before voters get to cast a ballot in the next federal election, they say there’s no better time to address the topic than the present.

“One of the big things we think drove youth turnout in the last election was a real frustration with corruption,” says Matt Singer, CEO of Forward Montana, a Missoula-based progressive nonprofit organization. “That’s not just here in Montana, that’s across the country. Young people we talk to show a real interest in finding ways to get rid of corruption in politics.”

The place to start is the financing of campaigns, says Singer, and that’s the message at the heart of a Forward Montana-sponsored event in Missoula next week. “The Naked Truth: Political Corruption” will bring together state Sen. Diane Sands; David Donnelly, national campaigns director for the Public Campaign Action Fund; and David Sirota, a Helena-based political strategist and author of Hostile Takeover.

“In recent years we’ve seen fundraising going through the roof and we really believe that senators, especially, are looking at how much time they have spent raising money and not doing the jobs they are elected to do,” says Donnelly, a longtime advocate for campaign finance reform and one of the masterminds behind a 2006 political campaign ad that accused Burns of taking more than a half million dollars from Big Oil in exchange for favorable votes. Donnelly, whose Public Campaign Action Fund created that commercial, says that the best way to ensure that politicians aren’t put in positions of trading campaign funds for congressional votes is to publicly finance elections.

Clean elections reforms have been popping up all over the country in recent years. In Maine and Arizona qualified candidates receive full campaign funding that essentially frees them from the need to raise private contributions. In New York City, candidates have the option of qualifying for matching subsidies on small contributions as a means of reducing the emphasis on private funding. At the heart of most clean campaign reforms is a voluntary public finance system in which candidates agree to an overall spending limit, agree not to take any private money to run their campaign, and qualify for a set amount of money from a publicly financed fund by raising a large number of very small contributions—typically around $5 per contributor—from their supporters. According to Donnelly, 84 percent of the members of the Maine Legislature and nine of the 11 current statewide officeholders in Arizona—including the governor—were elected under clean campaign laws.

In Montana, Rep. Diane Sands has been working to pass election reforms for more than a decade.

“The first one we did was a broad bill that would have provided public financing for all statewide elected offices,” Sands recalls. “Then we reassessed that and decided that that wasn’t really practical, and so we decided that where it would make the most sense with limited money was for public financing of Supreme Court elections.”

That’s where Sands has focused her energy for most of the last decade.

“I believe in public financing in elections, and I think the priority is ensuring that we have an independent judiciary,” Sands says. “And what that means is removing any potential conflict between campaign contributions and judicial decision making. Or even perception of it.”

According to a 2003 report by the Helena-based Institute on Money in State Politics, about 63 percent of cases heard by the Montana Supreme Court between 1991 and 1999 involved a campaign contributor.

“The importance of an independent judiciary is one of the most fundamental requirements of a democracy,” says Sands. “The public has to be absolutely convinced of integrity and independence of that body.”

In 2005 the Legislature nearly passed a bill that would have set up a public campaign financing system for Montana’s Supreme Court race. The bill passed overwhelmingly in the Senate, and nearly passed the House before it died on its third reading in the final week of the legislative session.

“It takes a while for an elected official to understand that changing the rules they got elected under might be a good deal for them,” Donnelly says.

Local reforms won’t happen before 2008, but Donnelly and others are urging congressional representatives and candidates to support the federal “Fair Elections Now Act,” which was introduced earlier this year by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. and co-sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. Sen. Max Baucus hasn’t indicated whether or not he’ll support the bipartisan legislation; early numbers show the four-term Democratic senator has raised more than $1 million in the first quarter for his re-election campaign and has more than $3 million on hand already with no challenger in sight.

“I just think this current system is simply unsustainable,” says Donnelly. “We have a moral imperative to change it. It’s anti-democratic and it doesn’t live up to principles on which the country was founded.”

However, Donnelly, Sands and Singer know that changing the current system of campaign finance isn’t going to happen overnight.

“Reform is not a sport for the short-winded,” Donnelly says.

Singer is hoping that the June 6 event will raise awareness of the issues and motivate individuals who might help support future reforms in Montana and at the federal level.

“The only way this is going to happen is if senators and representatives hear from Montanans about these issues,” Singer says. “The only way that people are going to be well-informed enough to talk about these issues is if they’re learning more about them.”

“The Naked Truth: Political Corruption” takes place Wednesday, June 6, at the Badlander at 7 PM.
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