It’s the first year Portland is using a clean elections program for city elections, and the rollout has been rocky.

Some of the candidates for City Council, school board and mayor have reported a confusing administrative process and complicated timeline for filing paperwork. The city says it was pushed to get the program online before the November elections and acknowledges some fixes are needed.

As a result, the city could distribute far less than the $465,000 councilors estimated spending on the program this year.

Clean elections have been a fixture at the state level in Maine since the early 2000s. For years, candidates for state office have had the option of filing paperwork to receive funding from the state to support their campaigns rather than participating in traditional campaign fundraising.

The idea is to make it possible for regular people – those who work busy jobs and are new to politics to fund campaigns and to move candidates away from seeking funding from special interest groups and a small number of wealthy donors. It was just this spring that the Portland City Council approved a clean elections ordinance, mimicking the state program.

Candidates for city offices became eligible on June 1 to apply for clean elections funding. In order to qualify, they had to register with the city clerk, collect a set number of $5 donations from registered voters – the number varies based on which seat the candidate is running for – and file the donations by Monday with the city clerk via money order.


Qualifying mayoral candidates receive an initial $40,000 and are eligible to collect $60,000 more throughout the election based on additional qualifying contributions.

At-large City Council candidates will receive $10,000 and then $30,000. District council candidates can get $4,000 then $12,000. School board candidates can qualify for just under $10,000 total for at-large seats and $5,000 total for district seats. Candidates in uncontested races would be given less funding.

Out of the five mayoral candidates, only Andrew Zarro and Justin Costa completed the paperwork to qualify for the program. Of the six City Council candidates, four – April Fournier, William Linnell, Anna Bullett and Kathryn Sykes – qualified. And one of four candidates for school board – Austin Sims – will receive clean elections funding.

While candidates up and down the ballot expressed a strong belief in the mission of clean elections, some found the process onerous and complicated.

Portland mayoral candidate Dylan Pugh Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“When we got into it we were excited, but as we were campaigning it didn’t work out well from a practical perspective,” said Dylan Pugh, a mayoral candidate who began the clean elections process but said he ultimately decided not to pursue the funding.

Pugh said collecting donations exclusively in cash or check was difficult and was a barrier for many potential donors. Additionally, because cash donors are required to fill out paperwork verifying their identity, he said many people had to fill out two or three forms just to contribute $5. “It would be a lot easier if it was one form or there were some kind of combined process,” Pugh said.


“It’s literally easier for someone to donate $500 to a privately financed campaign right now than it is to give $5 in cash as a qualifying contribution for clean elections,” Costa said.

Portland mayoral candidate Justin Costa Photo by Justin Levesque

“It’s cash or check only and it’s 2023, so that’s been a barrier,” said Zarro.

Usually, campaign donations can be collected in whatever way the campaign sees fit. That can be via Venmo or a website, and donors can contribute however much they want.

Zarro also said he was on the phone with the city clerk’s office “almost daily” working out administrative kinks.

“Could I have easily raised the exact same amount of money with a lot less work? Probably,” said Bullett, who is running for the District 4 City Council seat. “But that probably would have meant taking money from outside my district and maybe even outside the state.”

Kate Sykes, who is running for City Council in District 5, prefers collecting her contributions in cash or check.


“Then, I know exactly who is donating; it’s very visible and transparent,” she said, noting that with online donations she doesn’t always get to meet people face to face.


City Councilor Mark Dion Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Councilor Mark Dion, who did not attempt to register as a clean elections candidate in his mayoral race, thinks the ordinance is unfair to taxpayers.

“It’s taking tax money to subsidize candidates who maybe they have no interest in,” said Dion, “I’m only taking people’s money who want to give it to me.”

Dion also rejected the idea that more funding necessarily makes for a more successful candidate.

“He or she who gathers the most money doesn’t always win, I think a successful candidate needs more than a pocketbook,” he said.


He also argues that the amount of money made available to candidates seems arbitrary. He says those running for at-large City Council seats should receive an amount commensurate with mayoral candidates. “It’s the same territories and the same constituencies,” he said. “We worry about money in politics but we’re fueling the flames ourselves.”

Others argue that the ability to receive significant funding from the city lowers barriers for people who want to make political runs and increases transparency about where funding comes from.

Austin Sims, the sole clean elections candidate running for the Portland Public Schools board, works in a warehouse part-time and says he was only able to run because of the funding from clean elections.

“We didn’t have money to dedicate to this campaign,” Sims said. “So this is what makes my run possible.”

Bullett emphasized that the verification from city government that all the money in a campaign was procured ethically is important to her. She doesn’t think it’s enough to self-report where donations come from.

“The public has been asked over many years to just trust people in power because they’re in power and I don’t think that’s a viable option in our current climate,” she said.



Another hurdle candidates have reported in this process is the conflicting timelines for qualifying to be on the ballot and qualifying as a clean elections candidate.

Candidates could begin filing clean elections paperwork in July, more than a month before they could submit paperwork to qualify to be on the ballot. This meant that, theoretically, candidates could have been deemed eligible for clean election funds but not have made it on to the ballot. Language in the ordinance requires that should this happen, they must return the funding to the city. While that didn’t prove to be an issue this year, it did mean more paperwork for candidates and constituents.

City Councilor Andrew Zarro Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“There were multiple overlapping time frames and deadlines, there wasn’t a way to sync up the signatures for ballot access with the qualifying donations. So you’d have to get them to sign three pieces of paper all while telling them about your campaign,” Pugh said.

Zarro said he also had many duplicate signatures between his qualifying paperwork and his clean elections paperwork.

The city is aware that this is a problem. “This was brought up when we were putting this together last spring, but we needed to roll it out with what we could do in a short amount of time,” City Clerk Ashley Rand said.


A fix soon could be in the pipeline. A referendum also on the November ballot will ask voters to change dates for candidates to qualify so they line up with clean elections deadlines.

Portland voters approved establishing a clean elections program last fall, so the City Council spent significant time in the spring trying to get something ready to roll out in time for this election cycle.

“It’s a complicated program,” Rand said. “We rolled out something in a very quick time frame, but we know we will need to make some adjustments as we work through the first year.”

All in all, candidates had different takeaways.

Costa said he felt the flaws in the program are significant enough that it undermines the original mission of clean elections.

“It’s unfortunate and very frustrating the way Portland has drafted its program,” he said. “It’s difficult for clean elections candidates to focus on what they’re supposed to be doing which is talking to voters, not raising funds.” He also said that the administrative burden of the process is likely the “primary deterrent” keeping more candidates from participating.


Zarro, on the other hand, said that while “there is a lot that still needs to be ironed out,” all the administrative work was “well worth it to keep special interests out of our elections.”

The clean elections program, which was designed to attract candidates who are new to politics, who don’t have access to a lot of money and who want to focus on their constituents, has had mixed results. Sims is a first-time candidate who was only able to run for school board because of clean election funding, but Pugh said he threw in the towel on pursuing clean election funds because it was too complicated.

Sykes remains optimistic that the flaws will be ironed out.

“The administrative stuff needs a little work, but I’m just so happy we have it. It’s what our democracy needs” Sykes said.

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