What happens when elected leaders defy the will of the voters? The people come roaring back to win.
That's the lesson of the last week in Massachusetts, where the voters passed the Clean Elections Law by a whopping 67-33 percent last November, but, in a dizzying series of legislative moves, the top leaders in the statehouse nearly succeeded in gutting the intent of the law. What saved the day? Concerted action by grassroots activists led by Mass Voters for Clean Elections, who alerted the local media, rallied hundreds at the state Capitol, generated thousands of protest phone calls, pulled in support from "Granny D," threatened civil disobedience in front of the Governor's office, and ultimately convinced Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci to respect the will of the voters and restore the Clean Elections Law to its original form.
The story started on November 10, when Massachusetts House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran and Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham, both Democrats, pushed through a measure rewriting the Clean Elections Law as part of the state's final budget bill, and sent the package to Republican Governor Cellucci for his signature.
As originally approved by the voters, under the Clean Elections Law, candidates could opt for full public financing of their campaigns if they agreed to limit their private fundraising and spending for the full term in office. The law is scheduled to take effect beginning with the election of 2002, and the legislature had included $10 million in initial financing towards its full implementation.
Finneran and Birmingham attached a separate rider stipulating that the Clean Elections Law would only be in effect for the six months prior to each election, allowing officeholders and candidates to raise and spend large sums -- even millions of dollars -- before then, with the option of still joining the public-funding system. They said this was needed to allow incumbents to raise and spend money to run their district offices, but David Donnelly, director of Mass Voters for Clean Elections, charged them with undermining the basic purpose of the law, which is to end the money chase and break the corrupting connection between public officials and private interests. "It is against the spirit and letter of this reform to create a huge loophole that allows candidates for all offices to raise unlimited amounts of special interest money and then preserve the option to take Clean Money during the last few months of an election,'' Donnelly said.
Mass Voters was left with one hope: Gov. Cellucci, who did not support the Clean Money proposal prior to its passage, but had said he would implement the will of the voters after it won in a rout. Then, on November 11, came some bad news: the governor was leaning towards vetoing both the Finneran-Birmingham rider and the $10 million appropriation that was to begin the implementation of the Clean Money law. He also refused to meet with reformers prior to his veto announcement, which was set for Tuesday the 16th.
So Monday morning the 15th, Mass Voters decided to reactivate the same network of local and national allies that had helped drive the passage of the Clean Elections Law last fall. Thousands of supporters of the law statewide called the governor and lieutenant governor's offices. Fifteen activists decided to risk arrest outside the governor's office in the push to meet with him that day. Simultaneously, another 150 reformers tracked the governor to a scheduled event elsewhere in the Massachusetts statehouse, where they chanted loudly and demanded a meeting. The governor's aides said he'd meet, but not that day. Meanwhile, the group of activists outside the governor's office sat down, blocking foot traffic, while the others stood chanting "Clean Elections Now" in the halls surrounding them. Police and TV cameras soon gathered. After some negotiation, a five-person delegation from Mass Voters was granted a prompt meeting with Cellucci.
The meeting was open, frank and cordial. The governor heard directly from reform leaders arguments that he had not heard before. David Donnelly, Janice Fine of Northeast Action, former State Rep. Marc Draisen and others were able to home in on the governor's specific concerns. "One of the biggest things he was worried about was appropriating the funding for the law, but he was reassured when we pointed out that it was capped at one-tenth of one-percent of the annual state budget," said Fine. "And he absolutely agreed with us that the six-month provision was a clear gutting of the law." By the end of the meeting, the governor opened the door to pulling back from a veto of the funding.
On Tuesday, the reform movement won its first victory: Gov. Celluci stood by his state's voters, vetoing the loophole devised to limit the Clean Money system to only six months prior to the election. Celluci also kept the funding for the state Clean Money system in next fiscal year's budget. ''To substantially change what the voters have approved would be wrong,'' Cellucci said.
The final hurdle for the Clean Money movement was to stave off an override of the governor's veto of the loophole, which was possible as long as the legislature was in session. With the support of Public Campaign, Granny D -- the 89-year-old grandmother from New Hampshire who is walking across America in support of comprehensive campaign finance reform -- interrupted her walk outside Cincinnati to fly into Boston to lend support to the people of Massachusetts.
In the end, the people won and the legislature, which ended its session, did not try to override Celluci's veto. "Sources said House and Senate leaders had hoped to restore the language but could not muster the two-third votes necessary," reported the Boston Globe. Later, however, Celluci accused Democrats of killing a $45,000-a-year pay raise for the governor in retaliation for his veto.
"There are two important lessons from this victory," says Ellen Miller, executive director of Public Campaign. "One is that political incumbents of all stripes dislike real campaign finance reform and will try to do anything -- including flouting the expressed will of the voters in a direct referendum -- to prevent it from happening.
"The other lesson," Miller says, "is more heartening. And that is
that the people really do care about this issue, and they will not
stand for politicians who get in their way."
(from Public Campaign and staff reports)