October 6, 2012

Maine Clean Election incumbent now a 'sitting duck'

Critics say District 11 shows the downside of altering a program meant to minimize big-money's influence.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

State Sen. Dick Woodbury won't say that he regrets running for re-election this year as a Maine Clean Election candidate. He doesn't have to say it.

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Dick Woodbury

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Chris Tyll

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The independent from Yarmouth has been elected to the Legislature four times in the last decade, defeating Democrats and Republicans. This year, he faces a determined Republican opponent, Chris Tyll of Yarmouth, and campaign spending by outside groups that are flooding District 11 with mailers, push polls and, beginning this week, television ads.

So far, political action committees have spent close to $26,000 bolstering Tyll or opposing Woodbury. It's not a huge amount of money -- yet -- but combined with the $41,744 that Tyll has raised to date, it could be enough to unseat Woodbury.

And he knows it.

"I believe in the objectives of the Clean Election law, and that's what makes this so discouraging and disheartening," said Woodbury, who has been a Clean Election candidate in all five of his races.  

The state's Clean Election Act, ratified by voters in 1996 to discourage the influence of money in elections, gives qualifying candidates a set amount of public funding for their campaigns.

Until this year, the program awarded additional funds to help those candidates match donations to privately financed opponents or counter spending by outside groups.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar matching-fund provision in Arizona's election law. The Maine Legislature followed suit this year, and in a party-line vote by the Republican majority, spurned changes that would have allowed Clean Election candidates to get more money.

Supporters of the law warned that the decision threatened the viability of the program because Clean Election candidates would be vulnerable to outside spending or well-heeled opponents.

Exhibit A: Woodbury.

He can spend no more than $20,454 on his race, no matter how much is raised or spent supporting Tyll. There is no Democrat in the race.

"This is exactly the kind of scenario that we warned lawmakers about," said Andrew Bossie, director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. "They did nothing, choosing instead to weaken the law and strengthen the influence of big money.

"These PACs know that Clean Election candidates can't respond to attacks paid for by big-moneyed, outside interests," he said. "These candidates are sitting ducks."

Maine Citizens for Clean Elections is a nonprofit organization that receives private donations to conduct its advocacy. S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, has contributed to the organization.

Recently, a group named the Maine Conservative PAC began circulating mailers in Woodbury's district, which covers seven towns stretching from Long Island to Gray, claiming that he supports raising taxes on dozens of services.

The source of the claim is a bill that Woodbury co-sponsored in 2007. But Woodbury ultimately joined his colleagues on the Taxation Committee in voting unanimously against that bill, which died.  

The mailer appears to attempt to link Woodbury with the tax reform bill that the Legislature passed in 2009 and voters overwhelmingly repealed in 2010.

Republicans, who opposed the bill, ran on their efforts to repeal the law and are doing so again in 2012.

The Maine Republican Party is circulating a mailer claiming that Tyll worked to repeal the "tax hike" law.

Tyll, a former Navy SEAL, was serving in Iraq when the 124th Legislature began considering the bill. He said Friday that he had no official role in the repeal campaign but supported the effort by talking to voters in his district.

Woodbury's connection to the tax reform law is equally tenuous. Although he has advocated for tax reform and written opinion pieces on the topic, he wasn't serving in the Legislature when the tax reform measure passed.

(Continued on page 2)

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