November 7, 2012

Greg Kesich: The cost of legislative races is poisoning the system

The late Rodney Quinn, who died last month, wrote the book on winning legislative campaigns when it was a matter of knocking on doors, hand-writing postcards and the art of a well-placed lawn sign.

That was on a lawn, by the way, not by the side of the road near a busy intersection, recalled Dan Warren, one of Quinn’s proteges, in a gracious column in the Nov. 4 Sunday Telegram.

“Please explain to me why a political candidate of otherwise good sense, sound motives and logical thinking would want to put a lawn sign that cost them $7 in a public intersection at the same spot where Adolf Hitler or Mussolini could put one if they were running?” Quinn told Warren. “It just makes no sense. Lawn signs are for lawns!”

After Tuesday, we may have to throw Quinn’s book away, because legislative politics have changed, maybe for good.

Money, lots of it, has flooded into races for the state House and Senate in ways that we never could have imagined in the past. Attack mailers, robocalls and broadcast television ads have taken the place of the tried-and-true tools that Quinn perfected in his day. All of this is made possible by out-of-state interest groups that see winning control of the Maine Legislature as a bargain that could pay dividends if things break their way.

We don’t know the final vote totals in 186 legislative races at this writing, but we do know these numbers:

Not counting the money spent in the last-minute flurry, outside groups have spent $3.47 million in this cycle, up from $1.5 million two years ago.

These groups have spent more than $100,000 in eight state Senate races, including three races where they have spent more than $200,000.

One race – the Bangor Senate showdown between Republican incumbent Nichi Farnham and Democrat Geoffrey Gratwick – will end up consuming a cool half million dollars, for the right to hold a part-time job that pays $23,500 every two years.

We probably won’t end up with the best Legislature in Maine history, but we are certain to have the most expensive one, and that is going to be a problem over the next two years and into the future as well.

Mainers have to ask who is so concerned about our well-being that they are willing to dump millions of dollars into what were once low-key affairs.

According to research by Press Herald reporter Steve Mistler, the Republican money comes from the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group funded by insurance, pharmacutical and tobacco companies, along with other industries.

The Democratic money comes from organized labor, with the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee offering the biggest contributions. Funded by national labor groups, the Washington-based organization spent $405,000 in Maine this year, up from $81,000 in 2010.

Unlike campaign contributions, this money comes without the candidates asking for it, and they typically disavow the message. But don’t think that the money won’t affect how the Legislature operates.

Swinging control between the parties will have an enormous impact on the kind of legislation that makes it to the governor’s desk. Issues like health care reform, “right-to-work” laws and drawing the legislative district map will be decided on a partisan basis, and having the right partisan makeup will make money for the people on the giving end of these “contributions.”

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