When tourists admire Maine's picturesque waterfronts, they aren't close enough to smell the barrels reeking with rotting lobster bait. When they gaze upon our bucolic landscapes, they're too far away to smell the manure piles behind the barn. And many Maine residents — certainly most tourists — are unaware of the sleaze lurking within our handsome granite-and-marble State House.
Applied to government, sleaze connotes disreputable, shabby, probably unethical activities — a violation of public trust, but not necessarily illegal. Outright corruption, of course, exists in Maine. In the 1990s, Democratic house speaker John Martin's top aide went to jail for ballot-box tampering. In the 1980s, a Democratic legislator tampered with absentee ballots — for which he, too, went to the slammer. Governmental corruption at its nastiest is responsible for the physical, sexual, and mental abuse chronically prevalent in state institutions, directly and through careless oversight.
Ugly stuff. Mere sleazy activity, on the other hand, would include things like a gang of Maine Turnpike Authority executives regularly wining and dining each other lavishly, at public expense, or cheerfully letting turnpike contractors pick up their tabs (see "E-ZPass on Ethics," by Lance Tapley, August 3, 2006).
Capitol-watchers have frequently drawn my attention to what they see as suspicious friendships between Governor John Baldacci and lobbyists-campaign fundraisers Severin Beliveau and James Mitchell. A real-estate company partly owned by Beliveau has obtained a lot of state-office rentals. The administration sold the state's wholesale liquor monopoly to a Beliveau client in a deal that possibly cost the state treasury hundreds of millions of dollars. And the governor keeps trying to get the Legislature to send prisoners to an out-of-state corporate lockup represented by his cousin Mitchell. I've never found anything illegal in these matters, but they smell pretty high to a lot of people.
Maine government smells most where special interests hold sway, the odors usually arising from the corrupting influence of money. Books have been written about the subservience of Maine government to financial power, notably William Osborn's The Paper Plantation: The Nader Report on the Pulp and Paper Industry in Maine, which in the 1970s described the forest industry's historical political dominance.
Ever wonder why the corporations and the rich folks who own them are continually rewarded with tax breaks while state services are slashed for the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the disabled? Ever wonder why the Legislature hasn't fashioned a more equitable tax system despite decades of public outcry? For the same reason both Democrats and Republicans in Washington continue to reward Wall Street's greedy incompetents despite colossal public anger: politicians, lobbyists, corporate leaders, top bureaucrats, and some just-plain-rich people constitute a self-dealing private and public elite, Democrat and Republican, that controls the government — an elite that plays musical chairs. Just like in Washington, in Augusta there's a revolving door between the public and private sectors. Politics isn't so much ideology as influence.
Let's examine a couple of big causes of political sleaze — and explore a few possible cleansing remedies.
Loose campaign money
As smelly as it is, Maine government is probably no sleazier than many other state governments and less sleazy than some (think: Illinois). This is because there has been a substantial anti-sleaze movement in the state. Our good-government reforms generally haven't originated with legislators or other officials; they've been forced into existence by pressure from citizen groups such as Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, and the now-deceased Maine Citizen Leadership Fund — this latter group slain in 2005 by minions of Governor Baldacci (see "State House Democrats Stick It to Political Reformers," by Lance Tapley, January 13, 2006). In the 1990s the Leadership Fund organized a citizens'-initiative campaign to establish our nationally admired Clean Election Act, allocating public funds to finance gubernatorial and legislative campaigns, theoretically replacing the candidates' need for special-interest fundraising.
But the sleaze keeps oozing back. Especially in gubernatorial campaigns, the Clean Election Act is being rendered ineffective by the growth of "independent" expenditures — largely for TV advertising — in support of, or to defeat, a candidate. In principle, an independent group's advertising is not coordinated with candidates and, therefore, doesn't have to be reported to the state's Ethics Commission for most of the campaign period, unless the advertising expressly advocates a candidate's election or defeat. (The law requires reporting of all independent expenditures associated with a race only during the last 35 days before the election).
In 2006, Baldacci, seeking re-election, opted out of public funding and privately raised $1.3 million. But "independent" sources supported him, the Ethics Commission later concluded, with $1.2 million for TV ads alone, and there was possibly more unreported spending.