Minor Party Hopeful Aided By Vermont Campaign Finance Law

 

Three years ago, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean stood next to Anthony Pollina and praised him for helping pass a sweeping reform of the state's campaign finance system.

Today, thanks to that law, Pollina is gunning for Dean's job with the state picking up most of the tab for both of their campaigns.

Today, thanks to that law, Pollina is gunning for Dean's job with the state picking up most of the tab for both of their campaigns.

"People are excited by the possibility of a campaign being run without corporate money or special interest money. We want candidates to spend less time talking to large wealthy contributors and more time talking to average Vermonters, " says Pollina, a lobbyist for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

Three years ago, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean stood next to Anthony Pollina and praised him for helping pass a sweeping reform of the state's campaign finance system.

Today, thanks to that law, Pollina is gunning for Dean's job with the state picking up most of the tab for both of their campaigns.

"People are excited by the possibility of a campaign being run without corporate money or special interest money. We want candidates to spend less time talking to large, wealthy contributors and more time talking to average Vermonters," says Pollina, a lobbyist for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

The gubernatorial candidate of Vermont's nascent Progressive Party, Pollina announced June 14 that he was the first statewide candidate in the country to qualify for public funding in his run for office. Dean and Lt. Gov. Douglas Racine, both Democrats, are seeking public funding as well.

"It's already focused my efforts on grassroots campaigning," says Racine. "It'll mean that I'm not on the phone trying to find the large $1,000 and $2,000 contributors. It'll mean that I'm not looking out of state for money."

Public financing in Vermont is winning praise from campaign finance reformers, who say it removes the corrosive influence of big donors from politics while also giving people a realistic chance to run for office even if they don't have a fat campaign bank account. The new law has generated some problems, though, and some candidates say they're fundamentally opposed to using tax dollars to fund their campaigns.

"It would be easier to take the money, because I think I could easily qualify for it. But I don't believe in it, I don't support it, and I won't accept it," says Ruth Dwyer, one of two Republicans running for governor.

To qualify for public funding, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor must prove they have grassroots support by raising a large number of small contributions. In the governor's race, that means raising at least $35,000 in donations of no more than $50 each, from at least 1,500 registered voters.

Qualified candidates will receive up to $300,000 to run for governor and up to $100,000 for lieutenant governor minus the small donations they have already received. Incumbents will get only 85 percent of the total, to offset their existing advantages.

The money comes largely from a tax on corporate registration fees, though Vermonters have donated $10,153 to the campaign fund through a check-off on their income taxes. An earlier plan to levy a $1 surcharge on every state income tax return was dropped by skittish lawmakers. A tax on lobbying was included in the law that passed but was ruled unconstitutional.

Legal challenges are also pending against other sections of the law, which imposes new caps on contributions and campaign spending. Already, a federal appeals court has thrown out the law's restrictions on some forms of issue advertising paid for by third parties.

Despite those setbacks, the law is a landmark for reformers, who say big donors can get their way with politicians just by opening their checkbooks. Despite widespread calls for change, Congress has failed to restrict the flood of special-interest money that inundates national campaigns, so reformers have turned their attention to the states.

In Maine, for example, 119 of 390 House and Senate candidates qualified for public financing this year by raising qualifying contributions of no more than $5. Massachusetts and Arizona also have public financing systems in place.

The Vermont law proved too difficult to follow for Republican Bill Meub, who planned to seek public funding in his run for governor but ran afoul of its restrictions on how much he could raise and spend before the qualifying period began. He announced June 22 that he would turn instead to traditional private donors.

"Dealing with this law has taken a lot of time from my campaign," Meub says. "I just want to be a candidate, running for governor."

For Pollina, whose left-leaning Progressive Party has never run a statewide candidate for office, the public money levels the playing field against his major-party challengers, which was the law's intent.

"What I'm hearing from people on the street is, 'Why give money to Anthony Pollina when he couldn't possibly win on his own?'" says Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz, who administers the law. "The whole purpose of public financing is opening the doors to new candidates and new ideas. And it's succeeded in doing that. $300,000 in a Vermont election is a lot of money."

Dean, who spent $657,000 in his last election, had $260,000 in the bank this year but decided to seek public financing anyway. He said he did so because he supported and signed the law, but that governors in other states don't understand his decision.

"I've voluntarily disarmed as an incumbent. They think I'm crazy, "says Dean.

 
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