The votes are in, and we can officially call it. The Portland mayoral race was the most expensive municipal race in state history. The top three candidates raised over $350,000, with more than half of that money coming from donors giving over $500.

Anna Kellar, right, chair of the Fair Elections Steering Committee, delivers about 300 contested signatures to Election Assistant Jade Stevens at the City Clerk’s office on August 23. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Portlanders deserve a responsive, accountable government. But with the cost of running for office in Portland at a record high, we don’t have a say in the many decisions our city makes that affect our daily lives.

A publicly funded Clean Elections program would give working-class people the means to run for office and represent their communities using small donations from constituents instead of large checks from wealthy donors.

Twenty years ago, Maine pioneered a Clean Elections program that has helped keep our state legislative races competitive and low-cost, and preserved our citizen Legislature. Today, public funding is taking off in municipalities around the country. The city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, just voted on a “democracy dollar” program, which gives campaign donation vouchers to every voter, to give to the candidates of their choice. New York state’s Public Funding Commission will soon reveal its proposal for a small-donor matching system. And at the federal level, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed HR 1, which includes a national public funding program, among other democracy reform measures.

A record number of Portland voters signed the Fair Elections charter amendment petition over the summer. The citizens of Portland should have voted Tuesday on whether to create and fund a public funding system. Instead, we have had to take our own city to court in order to secure a chance even to vote on the proposal.

In September, the city’s lawyer issued an opinion that our petition was not a charter amendment, because it required the City Council to spend money. Based on that opinion, the council voted down our charter amendment and postponed our measure indefinitely.

That decision raises alarming questions about the state of our democracy: Don’t we, the voters of Portland, have the right to require our own city to spend tax money for a voter-approved program? Don’t we also have the right to amend our city charter? And, ultimately, don’t we all, as citizens of the United States, have the right to petition our government?

In fact, the Maine Constitution agrees with us. Article VIII, Part Second, Section 1 states:

“The inhabitants of any municipality shall have the power to alter and amend their charters on all matters, not prohibited by Constitution or general law, which are local and municipal in character.”

And so, on Sept. 20, we sued to protect our rights under the Maine and United States constitutions. Portland voters have called for a direct vote on a public funding mandate, and existing Maine law says that we should have that right. This is now much bigger than a question of creating a public funding program. It is now a question of ensuring that our constitutional rights will not be violated by elected officials and unelected city staff.

Last week, the city asked the court to dismiss the case. We hope the court will decide to hear the matter, because if we don’t have a right to be in court making these arguments, it’s only a matter of time until every municipality in the state realizes they can do whatever they want, without any recourse.

We need working-class people at the table to tackle local crises in housing, living-wage jobs, opioid abuse, transportation, climate, fair taxes and more. Our campaign finance system currently provides an advantage to candidates who raise funds from donors with ties to corporate interests. It’s time for public financing for Clean Elections in Portland so that ordinary people can run viable campaigns for public office, and it’s time for our government to help the people to have their voices heard, not hinder them.


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