This fall, Portland voters may have the chance to make local elected offices more accessible to everyone by adopting a public campaign financing program. This program, proposed by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and the League of Women Voters of Maine, may appear on city ballots as a referendum question if enough signatures are collected.

This program would guarantee that anyone who wants to run for local office will have access to enough campaign funding to have a fair shot. Participating candidates would not need to raise huge sums for their campaigns, the way they do today.

This is not a new concept for Mainers: We already have a very successful statewide public financing program (commonly known as the Clean Election program) that has allowed dozens of people from all walks of life to be elected to the Legislature.

For example, Portland state Sen. Ben Chipman and state Reps. Rachel Talbot Ross and Michael Sylvester were all Clean Election candidates.

But that program is only for state offices – there is no equivalent program for people who want to be city councilors or school board members. It’s time we change that and make local elections just as open and fair as state elections.

In the last few years, we’ve seen a number of City Council candidates raise previously unheard-of sums for their campaigns by soliciting massive donations from a small number of wealthy donors. This has made it nearly impossible for other candidates to compete, and actually discourages a lot people from even trying.

I have tried to encourage many smart, passionate, dedicated members of our community to run for City Council or school board, but very few have. Why? “Because there’s no way I could raise all that money,” they say.

That’s a valid concern: If you don’t have connections who can write you some fat checks, sorry – you don’t stand a chance in a Portland City Council race.

It didn’t used to be this way. Just five years ago, municipal campaigns were run on $5,000 or $10,000, or even – in some rare cases – less than $1,000.

But that has changed: In 2016, at-large City Council candidate Pious Ali broke all records by raising almost $31,000 for his campaign. The next year another at-large candidate, Bree LaCasse, shattered that record by raising almost $45,000, in large part from wealthy donors contributing the maximum amount allowed by law.

In 2018 an incumbent district councilor, Spencer Thibodeau, raised over $21,000, and an incumbent at-large city councilor, Nick Mavodones, raised almost $42,000 – over half of which came from just 20 donors, their families and the businesses they own, according to my analysis of publicly available candidate finance reports.

Is this how our local democracy is supposed to work? Are 20 wealthy families supposed to have this much power over our local elections? I don’t think so.

The problem is not any specific candidate, but the system that gives them no other path to victory than this kind of fundraising. Campaigns should not be contests of who is better connected to wealthy donors. They should be about who has better ideas to improve the lives of all Portlanders.

In an April 15 Press Herald article, City Manager Jon Jennings is quoted as saying, “The effort to require a clean elections process at the municipal level will lead to the further crowding out of necessary and core functions of municipal government.”

But what could be a more “core” function of government than to make elections open to everyone, regardless of someone’s ability to court wealthy donors? Is it not “necessary” for our government to ensure that our representative democracy is truly representative of everyone, not just wealthy donors?

We have early voting and mail-in voting to make it easier for voters to vote. We should have public campaign financing to make it easier for all citizens to run for office and give back to their community.

Such a program would give everyone – teachers, service workers, grad students, retired folks, young parents, naturalized citizens, everybody – a fair shot to compete against candidates funded by wealthy donors.

Let’s make democracy a little more democratic. Sign a petition to get a public campaign financing program on the ballot in November.