Afraid to talk politics with anyone outside your bubble? Worried that one strong opinion, however tactfully expressed, might turn a neighborly chat into a lifetime of stony silence?

Here’s a suggestion: Peek over the political divide and simply say, “There’s too much outside money in or elections these days, don’t you think?”

Then watch as, voila, your erstwhile adversary nods in agreement.

“The mute button is worn out on my remote,” David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, complained in a recent interview. “A lot of it’s just getting tuned out. I just don’t want to hear it.”

He’s talking about the tsunami of negative political advertising now filling Maine’s airwaves, social media platforms and anywhere else election messagers can find a portal into our collective consciousness. And Trahan, a former Republican state senator from Waldoboro who also laments the dearth of “natural born leaders” in a political system now dominated by billions upon billions of dark dollars, is far from alone.

Earlier this month, a poll commissioned by American Promise, a national organization working to reduce and regulate campaign spending by way of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, showed just how fed up Mainers are with the megabucks being spent by outside interests to influence our elections.

The survey by Citizen Data of 600 likely Maine voters during the first week of September found that just under 73 percent of the respondents support a 28th Amendment to the Constitution that would place limits on campaign financing by wealthy individuals, corporations, labor unions and other organizations. The idea drew support from 54 percent of Republicans, 86 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of unenrolled voters.

Enter Stand With Maine, a grassroots organization attracting people from across the political spectrum, including Trahan, toward a common goal: Control the wide-open spigot of dark money now flooding our elections to the tune of $12 in out-of-state money for every dollar raised here in Maine, according to data complied from OpenSecrets.org.

“We certainly find that practically everyone we talk to is interested in the topic,” said Amy Cartmell of Freeport, one of two co-leaders of Stand With Maine, the state chapter of American Promise. “The polling certainly shows that the vast majority of Mainers support our mission and it’s really just a matter of getting to everyone.”

In this year of the COVID-19 pandemic, that hasn’t been easy. During Maine’s presidential primary in March, a handful of Stand With Maine volunteers at just three polling places managed to gather more than 800 signatures on a petition urging all candidates and elected officials to get behind the proposed amendment. That number has since risen to 1,500 signatures, although concerns about the coronavirus will undoubtedly hamper signature-gathering efforts this fall.

Still, the battle goes on. Maine’s Legislature passed a non-binding resolution supporting the 28th Amendment back in 2013. Seven years later, we’re one of 20 states that have called on Congress, through either legislative resolutions or citizen referendums, to get moving on the process.

It’s an admittedly daunting challenge: An amendment to the Constitution requires either a constitutional convention called by two-thirds of the states – the last time that happened was in 1787 – or approval by two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate. After that, it must be ratified by three-quarters, or 38, of the 50 states.

But consider the alternative. Have you turned on your TV lately? Do you think our elections have actually improved since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a decade ago, in its now-infamous Citizens United decision, that the federal government cannot limit “free speech” by corporations, unions and political action committees that get shadier with each election cycle?

“Maine people want to be left alone so we can make our own decisions,” said Roger Katz, another Stand With Maine member and a former Republican state senator and mayor from Augusta. “We don’t want the messaging and the debate controlled by out-of-state money, no matter where it’s coming from.”

These days, it’s coming from all over – particularly in the current race for Maine’s U.S. Senate seat that may ultimately rack up $100 million in campaign expenditures, mostly by people and organizations with no roots in Maine.

Stand With Maine won a small victory earlier this month when an email blitz by its members led to the inclusion of a question about the 28th Amendment in the first Senate debate.

All three challengers – Democrat Sara Gideon and independents Lisa Savage and Max Linn – said they would support a campaign reform amendment that effectively overturns Citizens United.

Incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins, the only member of Maine’s congressional delegation who hasn’t endorsed such an amendment, sidestepped the question. Instead, she said, full disclosure of all donors’ identities is “the way that you end dark money.”

Beyond the 2020 campaign, former lawmakers Trahan and Katz are hardly the only current and past elected leaders now supporting Stand With Maine. Others include independent Sen. Angus King, former Sen. Olympia Snowe, former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, and former state lawmakers Diane Russell of Portland, Dick Woodbury of Brunswick, Ed Youngblood of Brewer and John Brautigam of Falmouth.

All told, that list comprises four Republicans, three Democrats and two independents. Mention that to anyone who claims serious campaign finance reform doesn’t have cross-party appeal.

“I don’t think anybody got into politics to sit at their phone and make phone calls and ask people for money,” said Jane Gallagher of Yarmouth, Stand With Maine’s other co-leader. “I don’t think that’s what it’s all about for most people, including probably all of the people that are running for the Senate right now.”

Gallagher concedes that an amendment will not happen overnight, especially in a year plagued by a pandemic, racial unrest, record unemployment, a politically charged Supreme Court vacancy and a presidential race that’s fast hurtling toward a constitutional crisis. The best-case scenario for American Promise, which now has chapters in all but seven states, is to pass the 28th Amendment by 2026.

That said, “I don’t think (the push for an amendment) divides us,” Gallagher said, noting that for all the varying political philosophies people bring to the cause, they all arrive at the same end point: There’s way too much money in politics and it’s coming from far too many secretive places.

“It is unifying and it is positive and it’s about putting power back in the hands of the people,’ Gallagher said. “I think people are really tired of seeing the concentration of power in decision making. This is a way people can say, ‘OK, here’s something I can do.’”

Consider it the ultimate mute button.


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