Interview with David Donnelly: Clean Elections "Architect" will Keynote in Seattle

Al Gore writes in his new book, The Assault on Reason, that US entry into Iraq was not adequately debated in advance.  We critically needed legislators to examine the evidence on Iraq.  But the Senate floor was "silent" while legislators were elsewhere, fundraising for their next campaigns. (1)  James Hansen, Director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, referring to political interference in science, said in recent testimony to Congress that "the most fundamental government reform that could be taken to address climate change" is campaign finance reform.  (2)  

These days, the good news about campaign finance might also be the bad news -- things are so out of control that we're simply getting fed up.  Even the big-time funders are beginning to "cry uncle". (3)  And, according to David Donnelly, Public Campaign Action Fund's National Campaigns Director, legislators are much more likely now to see that we have a problem than they have been at any time in the past decade.  Donnelly, who began working on campaign finance reform in the mid-1990s and who is credited as the "architect" of Maine's successful public financing system, will be the keynote speaker at Washington Public Campaign's First Annual Awards Banquet on Friday, June 15.  He and I spoke by phone last week. The interview appears below**.

Photo of David Donnelly courtesy Public Campaign.

I recently read that you entered politics in 1994 by working on Congressman Tom Andrews' campaign for U.S. Senate.  This was in Maine and Andrews was challenging Olympia Snowe.  He couldn't get his message out to voters because of the big-money barrier.

David Donnelly
I realized through my experience in that campaign that there were some fundamental problems in American politics.  We would have had a fair race if it had been a contest of ideas instead of a contest who could run the most 30-second TV ads.  This was disturbing to me; it was difficult to see.  

Olympia Snowe is a moderate Republican and she was doing a good job representing the state.  The problem was not that she was elected but that there was a big difference between the candidates, that there was a real choice for voters to make, and that there was no way to get this message to them because the funding was so lopsided.  Tom Andrews was an organizer, a very solid progressive populist who really connected with people.   He would have been a great person to serve alongside Paul Wellstone.   But he was forced to play a game that took him away from his strengths.  

This is a system that narrows the field, that reduces voters' choices.   We have significant issues we're dealing with as Americans.  We need to be encouraging the best and the brightest to run, not just the best and brightest fundraisers.  The first question for any candidate shouldn't be "how much money can you raise?"  There are already so many barriers to serving in elective office, we don't need this one.

I was surprised to hear Washington's Secretary of State, Sam Reed, say at a conference recently that public financing of campaigns has failed in the states that adopted it.   I heard something very different from Maine Representative Linda Valentino (elected with clean funds) when she spoke at an event held by Washington Public Campaigns.  

David Donnelly
I don't know by what measurement it can be said that public financing of campaigns has failed in the states.   Obviously I'm not an objective observer.  But when a law has an 84% opt in rate among members of the state legislature (Maine), when it attracts more people to run for office, when voters approve of it by wide margins, when candidates receive more small contributions than ever before, when primaries are more competitive - then it seems to me we've had a success.  In Arizona, we have a Governor who was elected with public financing.   Nine of eleven statewide offices in that state were elected with public financing.  The law results in candidates spending time in neighborhoods that they would never go to otherwise.

I was disappointed in the Democrats here in Washington's legislature.   We had several bills and we didn't get public financing for any offices, not even for the judicial races, where hope was highest.   I heard one of the Democratic senators say that she was likely to oppose public financing because she'd worked hard to get her money and she didn't want people to have an unfair, state-subsidized advantage.  She seemed to see the need to raise huge amounts of money as a kind of filter that keeps out people who aren't willing to work hard to get elected.

David Donnelly
I agree with the senator that getting elected should take effort,  that candidates should demonstrate that they're willing to work hard.  No one says that it should be easy.   And I agree that it's hard work to raise money.  

Public financing doesn't make it easy.  To qualify to run under public financing, candidates need to get small donations from a minimum number of donors within a limited time.  In drafting the laws, legislators decide how high the barriers should be, how many donations a candidate should be required to get in order to win that primary.

Tell me a little about the Fair Elections Now Act. (The Fair Elections Now Act, S.1285, is sponsored by Senators Specter and Durbin, can be seen on Thomas.  I didn't ask Donnelly about the companion bill in the House, the Clean Money, Clean Elections Act, HR 1614, sponsored by Representatives Tierney and Grijalva.)

David Donnelly
It's very exciting to have the Senate Majority Whip and a well respected Republican Senator as leads on the Fair Elections bill.  There are also a number of other co-sponsors (Senators Feinstein and Obama), though there hasn't been a huge push on lining up co-sponsors.  There's expected to be a hearing this summer in the rules committee.

The single biggest change I've seen in how legislators see public financing - something I haven't seen until recently since I began a dozen years ago, is that legislators are now talking more about the amount of time they have to spend raising money.  This system robs them of the time they would otherwise spend doing their jobs.  Three years out from an election, here you'll have a legislator sitting in a small room for three or four hours at a time, making calls.

Poor guy.

David Donnelly
Yes. But also, "poor country".  Here are the people we want to run our country taking more time to ask for money from perfect strangers than most of them want to admit.

More than anything, elected officials "get" that this is completely unsustainable, the way campaign costs have gone up,

Al Gore recently wrote that US legislators never fully debated the facts and issues around our entrance into Iraq, that the Senate chambers were empty when these discussions should have been ongoing.  One of the reasons this happened, he wrote, is that Senators were off raising money while the Senate floor was silent.

David Donnelly
Freshman Democratic Representatives, as soon as they were elected last year, were told that they'd have to raise $1 million by June 30 (of this year) if they wanted to be re-elected.   These are people who are dealing with a tremendous amount of change.  They've just moved to a new city.   They're relocating families and getting staff into place.  They're learning how Congress operates.   They're putting together proposals for legislation on war, drug policy, ethics in lobbying, minimum wage.  They can't do all this - and raise a million dollars.  But if they don't do the money part, they're not going to get re-elected.   A number of legislators in the freshman class are incredibly supportive of public financing for campaigns for both moral and personal reasons.  This is the single biggest change I've seen in the years we've been doing this work.  It's such a top line issue for elected officials.  It's not as bad for the state legislators now.  But we'll get there.  

The other big objection I've heard is that, here in Washington, outside groups are targeting our elections and are willing to pour in tremendous amounts, really extraordinary amounts of money.  Even with "fair fight" funds, there's a ceiling above which the state is not going to match those huge donations.  Some of the races in Washington are really national targets to shape and change what's going on in our state.  I'm concerned that our governor's race is going to be one of these.  So I've heard it said that many candidates are going to feel that they're not going to take on the responsibility of risking a publicly funded campaign in this political environment.

David Donnelly
Public financing is not an end in itself.  It's a tool.  Candidates and organizations need to look at this strategically -- at what is needed for a candidate to succeed and also at their recruiting and training objectives.  

There are some organizations that have figured out how to get candidates elected in the current system.  They're a little bit upset about new rules and may see them as barriers - instead of embracing them.   Other organizations realize that, with public financing, they can recruit candidates from non-traditional backgrounds.   It's an additional way to run for office, without having to spend all that time raising money.

If you choose public funding, you're not flying without a safety net.  There are fair fight funds, which give a candidate up to two or three times, additional public financing if they're targeted by an influx of money for their opponent.  Even beyond the safety net level of funds, anyone who does fundraising understands that it costs money to raise money.   And from a political standpoint, it's an advantage for a candidate to own this issue of reform.  Our national survey work show that candidates who take a good position on reform get almost a 15-20% shift in support (4).  This support comes almost entirely from independents.   So it's not just the progressive wing that's disgusted with "politics as usual."  

In terms of what's going on in Washington state - it's true that,  in the judicial campaigns last year we had this influx of out-of-state money for certain candidates that would have overwhelmed any "fair fight" money from the state.  But this actually worked against those judicial candidates.  It made them look "bought and paid for" and they lost.  Many people even attributed their losses to the special interest money itself.  When the special interest money gets so extreme for certain targeted races that even the mainstream newspapers  can't ignore it, voters do pay attention.

Do you have any observations on what's been learned from Massachussetts Voters for Clean Elections -and what's happened in Maine and Arizona - that might help us Washington State?  

David Donnelly
There are lessons from all these campaigns that can be useful for other states.   In Massachussets (1998), voters approved public financing of campaigns by 2-to-1 on a ballot initiative.   But the legislature had to appropriate the funds to pay for it.  In a way, the legislators were being forced to put up the money to fund their own opponents.  And they never did.  

The Speaker ran out the clock without funding public campaigns.  The Republican Party and the Green Party and other plaintiffs sued the state.  And they won. The Massachusetts Supreme Court found the legislature to be in violation of the state's Constitution.   But, even under that judgment, the legislature wouldn't budge.   They sat on their hands and they decided to be in violation of a court order.   This was an extreme case of political intractability.  

I learned from this that, as long as public financing is a perceived threat to overturning the current political order, you're going to need to convince at least part of the political establishment that the system will be better for them.

In Massachusetts, we ran up against leadership that didn't see public financing as an opportunity, but as a threat.  Early work with lawmakers can be critical.  Maine was a different story.  Legislators there saw public financing as a potential tool for recruiting candidates.  In the first year of implementation, the Republican Senate caucus was able to recruit a candidate for every primary race.  

Were the Democrats in the majority in the Maine legislature, then?

David Donnelly
Yes. Lawmakers are stakeholders in the impact of public financing.  If we have 100 legislators, we have 100 experts on campaign finance. Every single lawmaker is an expert on this issue. It is very important to figure out how to work with the legislators, to build support within the political establishment into your campaign.

I look forward to hearing you speak at the Washington Public Campaigns Awards Banquet on June 15.

David Donnelly
I'm very much looking forward to hearing about the situation in Washington and meeting people.  I hope a lot of people will come out and support the organization.

**No tape was made of this interview; this account is a reconstruction from my notes, not an exact transcript.
  1. Book Excerpt: The Assault on Reason, by Al Gore.
  2. Testimony of James E. Hansen to the Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, US House of Representatives, March 19, 2007.
  3. Our View: Even big-time political donors know it's time for more finance reform., Fayetteville Observer.
  4. The telephone survey of 1000 likely 2006 voters nationwide was conducted June 8-15, 2006, by Lake Research and Bellwether Research. The margin of sampling error is +/-3.1%. This survey was conducted for Public Campaign Action Fund and Common Cause.
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of the issues in this interview.

At the last 34th District Meeting, our 3 legislators (cody, McDermott, Poulsen) presented their annual wrap-up of of the session, and took questions. All were on record as pro-public campaign funding. Joe McDermott, especially, stuck his neck out for WPC.

The three were asked a pointed question: WHY none of the public funding bills passed, even though our governor has been outspokenly pro-public judicial campaigns.

All Joe could say was: every one of the legislators had been elected using the present sytem, and felt they understood how it works.

He said it takes persistence to get a novel idea accepted and codified into law, giving examples from past issues. In other words, we have to keep pushing.

by dinazina on Wed Jun 06, 2007 at 07:56:36 AM PST

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