Wednesday, April 23, 2014
By NEIL GLUCKMAN Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting
From 1994 to mid-2011, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree’s total contributions to candidates running for national office were $2,950.
In this November 2012 staff file photo, U.S Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, celebrates her victory at the Bayside Bowl in Portland. Maine's 1st District congresswoman went from giving to fellow politicians about $180 a year to about $67,000 a year.
John Ewing / Staff Photographer
But from June 2011 to last November -- a period of only 17 months – the Democratic congresswoman from Maine’s 1st District donated $105,600 to Democratic candidates to Congress and to the party committees that funnel donations to candidates.
That means Pingree, who has long criticized the effects of big money and politics, went from giving to fellow politicians at an annual rate of about $180 a year to about $67,000 a year.
“I guess what changed,” Pingree said in a recent interview, “was I got married.”
Before her June 18, 2011 marriage to billionaire financier S. Donald Sussman, she said, “I didn’t have that level of resources to be able to support my colleagues personally.”
Pingree’s newfound wealth allows her to improve her status among her 434 congressional colleagues – especially Democratic leadership – and puts her on a path to become a bigger player in Washington politics, according to political scientists.
Pingree agrees the money enhances her position.
“Members are asked to pay dues,” Pingree said. “The better your committee assignment the more you’re asked to pay in dues. That’s not a secret. That’s just standard.”
In December, Pingree was assigned to the Appropriations Committee – a committee that has traditionally been considered one of the power committees because its members control how federal dollars are spent throughout the country. Getting assigned to this committee is competitive because members are well positioned to channel money into their own districts, political scientists say.
Pingree likened the practice of paying “dues” to her congressional community to being a member in good standing of your local community.
“When the grange has a fundraiser in my town they expect everybody to bring a pie to the bake sale and it’s like kind of your duty,” she said.
Political scientists say that Pingree’s behavior does not make her unique: Candidate-to-candidate contributions have gone up in the past 20 years, according to Bruce Larson, a professor of political science at Gettysburg College and the author of “Congressional Parties, Institutional Ambition, and the Financing of Majority Control.” Lawmakers are now expected to financially prop up their colleagues who are in tight races if they want to gain clout within the party.
“If you want to be a whip, if you want to become a majority leader, if you want to be on a good committee, if you want to be the chair of a good committee, you basically have to do this now,” Larson said.
KNOWN TO OPPOSE BIG MONEY
Pingree, who began her political career in 1992 in the Maine state Senate, sees no contradiction between her six-figure campaign donations and her longtime opposition to the damaging effects of big money in politics.
Before her successful run for Congress in 2008 she was the president of Common Cause, a Washington D.C.-based group that lists campaign finance reform as one of its top priorities. Once in Congress, Pingree helped author the Fair Elections Now Act, which would allow candidates in federal elections to opt into a system of publicly financed campaigns.
“We should take the lessons we learned in Maine to Washington and create a public finance system for Congressional elections that levels the playing field and focuses on small donors,” Pingree said of the Fair Elections Now Act in January 2013. Maine already has an election system that allows candidates to opt for public financing.
The Fair Elections Now Act has never been voted on. Pingree said that in order to pass a national campaign finance reform bill, her party needs more like-minded people in power, hence the contributions to fellow Democrats.
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