AUGUSTA — A state lawmaker who is also a Lewiston city councilor rallied with supporters of an amendment proposed for the U.S. Constitution that would strip from corporate donors the right to donate money anonymously to political campaigns.
Rep. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, said he will support a resolution coming before the Maine Legislature calling on the U.S. Congress to put forward an amendment, that, if approved by voters nationwide, would prohibit anonymous corporate political campaign donations.
The measure would have to be approved by voters in 38 of the 50 states to pass.
A constitutional change could negate the effects of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as "Citizens United," which upheld the rights of corporations to make anonymous campaign donations through a process known as a Super PAC.
"Indeed the road will be long but we've traveled this course before," Libby said, addressing those who believe passing an amendment to the Constitution is too difficult a process and task.
He listed several previously passed constitutional amendments including ones that freed African Americans from slavery, lowered the voting age to 18 and gave women the right to vote.
"There have always been naysayers," Libby said. "But our ancestors collectively proved them and the rest of the world wrong. The people of this country and our state have and will continue to take on the hard work, take on the forces that threaten our liberties and to take on the seemingly impossible."
Libby said, "When justice, equality and liberty are threatened the only course is the impossible and we've made that possible."
Other lawmakers joining Libby Tuesday included state Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick, D-Bangor, and Rep. Michael Carey, D-Lewiston. Both Libby and Gratwick spoke during a rally hosted by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.
Also on the line this session is $4 million state clean elections funding available to state House and gubernatorial candidates who decide to not self-finance their campaigns. A budget proposal being put forward by Republican Gov. Paul LePage would cut that much from the Clean Elections fund in the next two-year state budget.
Gratwick said during his State House race last fall both he and his opponent, incumbent state Sen. Nichi Farnham, a Republican, were both Clean Elections candidates but that did not stop outside interests from independently spending $450,000 on the race.
Gratwick said he likes to believe he defeated Farnham based on the value of his ideas, his passion for health care reform and his local campaign effort including knocking on more than 6,500 doors.
"But it was hard to tell whether we were having an election or an auction in Bangor last November," Gratwick said. "One could make a case for the fact that victory went to the highest bidder, that my opponent and I were mere pawns sold by the highest and most skillful bidder — like soap, beer, automobiles or cigarettes."
He said the local newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, in an editorial referred to both he and Farnham as "pawns." He called the concept "horrible."
"Because it means only those with a lot of money or those who agree to become pawns can run for elected office," he said. "The rest of us are shut out of the competition."
Andrew Bossie, the executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said cities, towns and states around the country were passing resolutions urging Congress to move on an amendment. He said they remained in contact with Maine's delegation in Congress and believe they have the support of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent, on the issue.
Bossie said both Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, remained open to conversations about the issue, but he did not indicate they would support the measure.
King campaigned heavily against outside spending, and his predecessor, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, has also said the Constitution should be amended to make U.S. democracy more transparent.
Late Tuesday afternoon, King released this statement: “Citizens United was a regrettable decision that now unfortunately frames the economic reality of campaigns across America, and as a member of the Senate Rules Committee, I look forward to engaging in a serious and vigorous discussion about reforming our nation’s campaign finance laws.
"I believe the first step in that process must require a complete and transparent disclosure of all contributions to help ensure electoral integrity. Additionally, as I said during the campaign, I am open to supporting a constitutional amendment, but as with all proposals, would have to review the specifics contained in any suggested measure.”
State Sen. Edward Youngblood, R-Brewer, attended Tuesday’s event.
A former member of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, which oversees public campaign financing, he supports a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and has submitted legislation to strengthen Maine’s Clean Election Act.
“There has to be a way to secure First Amendment rights to speech and still control the amount of dollars spent on campaigns,” he said. “It should be plain to everyone after the election we've just had, which broke records for spending, that the system isn’t getting better.”
Youngblood said he understands the challenge LePage faces in balancing the budget, but that the governor’s proposal to cut $4 million from the Clean Election fund runs counter to what his constituents tell him they want.
“A lot of my constituents are part of the silent majority, and when you talk to them on their doorstep, they are happy that you’re a Clean Election candidate,” the Republican senator said.
Bossie said he was pleased with the diversity of groups he saw turn out for the rally Tuesday and was optimistic they would move forward. He said the groups, despite party lines or political differences, seemed unified on the issue.
He said those in attendance all had the same goal, "which is to have a government that is truly of, by and for the people, and not wealthy donors and wealthy special interests," Bossie said.
Robert Long of the Bangor Daily News contributed to this report.