July 13, 2020

Maine activist still campaigning for clean election laws

Twelve years ago, a young man passionate about politics joined the campaign team for a Democrat hoping to become a U.S. senator in Maine. But what David Donnelly saw during that race made him lose faith in the system: Instead of courting voters, both candidates spent most of their time courting potential donors.

Day in and day out, Donnelly realized, the candidates sat in “dark rooms” on the phone, trying to persuade people they did not know to give them money. To Donnelly, this was not what democracy is about: “The communities the candidates came in touch with were those that had money – a small proportion of the electorate. The people that were not listened to were those who did not have the money. They had no voice in the election.”

Contact with the public during that 1994 race between Democrat Thomas H. Andrews and Republican Olympia J. Snowe (who won) was limited to what the money could be spent on – television and radio ads, prerecorded phone messages, and fliers. “Maybe I was naive back then, but I felt they were pulled away from the voters themselves,” he said.

Donnelly was angry enough to make a career change. “Clean elections,” ones that forced candidates to find out what voters actually wanted, were a cause worth fighting for, he decided. He has now spent more than a decade moving around the country campaigning for clean-election laws that do not “force candidates to make phone calls in dark rooms.”

He wants to see a system in which aspiring politicians who do not have wealthy donors can have access to public funds. “The candidate that raises a large number of small donations receives funds to keep pace with their opponent,” Donnelly said. In his view, only then will politicians need to go out and listen to voters.

Donnelly, 37, has gotten results: clean-election laws in a number of states. He is the national campaign director for the Public Campaign Action Fund, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve campaign finance laws, and is director of one of its key projects – Campaign Money Watch. Through it, Donnelly has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars exposing politicians and their financial backers.

He was described in The New York Times in 2005 as “perhaps the most famously zealous Ahab in pursuit” of the resignation of Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the former majority leader, and has been credited with helping end Republican Ralph Reed’s campaign this summer in Georgia.

“David is a remarkable political strategist and organizer,” said Nick Nyhart, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund. “On numerous occasions he has undertaken what people said was impossible and made it happen.”

His first feat was in Maine, where in 1995 he became campaign manager for the clean-elections referendum. People headed to the polls the next year and with a 56 percent majority voted for the Maine Clean Election Act – the first of its kind. The change had quick repercussions.

Deborah Simpson was a single mother, waiting on tables at TJ’s restaurant in Auburn, Maine, to get herself through college, when she decided to run for the state House of Representatives in 2000. “When people were trying to recruit me to run, the fact it was clean elections influenced my decision,” she said. Before, Simpson said, “I would not have known who to call. Instead I was able to go out and talk to people.”

She won that race and is serving her third term. “If only people who are well connected to people with money can run for office, then who represents ordinary people like me? Because our interests are different to theirs,” Simpson said in a recent interview.

After the success in Maine, Donnelly moved to a campaign in Vermont, where a similar act passed in 1997. From there he led a five-year struggle as director of Massachusetts Voters for Clean Elections. Although 1.1 million voters, a 67 percent majority, voted to pass an act in 1998, the state legislators refused to provide the funding. Donnelly and his team kept up the fight, but the legislators repealed the act in 2003.

He was not ready to give up. In 2004, the Public Campaign Action Fund spent $175,000 to target DeLay with articles on its blog the Daily DeLay and with television and radio advertising. An additional $100,000 was thrown at Reed – spent on polling, building a voter file, talking to GOP voters, and running television and radio ads pointing out Reed’s links to lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Reed – a former executive director of the Christian Coalition – lost the GOP primary for Georgia’s lieutenant governor in July.

More recently, Donnelly’s group spent $235,000 on television commercials attacking Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio. The ads showed a man from Big Oil thanking the politicians for supporting the energy bill and said Big Oil had given Burns and Pryce $546,000 and $103,000, respectively.

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