The last-minute legislative clash over Clean Election funding is deeply troubling, and not just to the candidates whose campaigns are threatened. It is a deliberate disruption of the legislative process that should be an affront to every Mainer who values democracy.
This isn’t only a question of supporting Clean Elections. Over the years, honorable legislators have occasionally opposed Clean Election funding, and that is nothing new.
This time, however, a minority faction in the Legislature has resorted to tactics previously considered beyond the pale. Extreme partisans have latched onto a miniscule drafting error made by a nonpartisan staffer late during the chaotic last day of the 2017 legislative session. They’re using it in a brazen power play to sabotage Clean Elections in the middle of an election cycle.
The conduct by this small faction of House Republicans threatens not just Clean Election but the very norms and machinery of legislating. This is not about Republicans versus Democrats. There are many principled Republicans in the Senate and some in the House who view these tactics with alarm and dismay.
To cap it off, Rep. Jeff Timberlake stated publicly that he knew about the drafting error and withheld that knowledge from his colleagues during the 2017 budget negotiations, sabotaging the work of his own committee and planning to use it to manipulate the legislative process and hold it hostage over his feverish distaste for Clean Elections.
Timberlake’s confession was extraordinary. Even in a time of deep dysfunction, as the BDN noted, “[i]t was a public admission of the sort we’ve never seen at the State House.”
What’s the problem with legislators using whatever falls into their laps to get their way?
First, they’re going back on their word. They signed onto a bipartisan budget deal last year that included funding for Clean Elections. Nobody liked that budget deal. Everyone had to swallow something that tasted bad. But they gave their word to their colleagues, and now they’re using this ploy to unilaterally blow it up. Candidates, too, took them at their word and made decisions on how to run based on the promise of a fully funded Clean Election program.
Second, they should be protecting nonpartisan staff when innocent errors have catastrophic consequences. No well-intentioned staffer should have to bear the responsibility for something like this. Backing up nonpartisan staff and honoring previous commitments is why errors like this have always been corrected in a unanimous and bipartisan way. Until now.
The minority faction would rather see a train wreck than see the trains run at all. They have compromised their personal integrity for the sake of a hard-line policy goal and the opportunity to leverage political power.
Rewarding such behavior with policy concessions should not be done lightly. Yet, reasonable legislators have, to no avail, offered at least four very significant compromises to resolve this issue.
Maine’s cherished legacy of self-government requires wise, intelligent and principled leadership from our elected officers, even when they disagree strongly about important policy matters. In the give-and-take of conflicting policy goals, no one gets everything he or she wants. Negotiation and compromise are required, and in that process, personal credibility and integrity are essential.
A person’s word is her or his bond. Without personal integrity, the necessary machinery of self-government jams up and grinds to a halt. Nothing gets done.
And when that happens, it isn’t liberals or conservatives who get hurt, but all Mainers. When our self-government functions poorly or is incapacitated, we all pay a price.
When a few legislators take advantage of a nonpartisan employee’s mistake to aggrandize their own power, everyone loses. Their short-term gain is more than offset by the long-term loss of trust and good will — the necessary ingredients for democracy to succeed in practice.
Democracy was at stake at Gettysburg, Normandy and Selma. It is also at stake in the mundane daily decisions of the public servants entrusted to represent us as citizen legislators.
This impasse is a test of Maine’s legacy of democratic self-government and whether our leaders have the courage to set aside personal political gain for the benefit of a larger good.
Honor, integrity, leadership. When the Legislature returns on July 9, lawmakers have one final chance to do the right thing — take a stand for honesty and integrity, and conclude the people’s business with honor and mutual respect.
The people will be watching.
John Brautigam is senior adviser and counsel for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.
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