Four years ago, after a lively discussion with my family over dinner at my brother's house in Midcoast Maine, I made the decision to embark on a journey that would eventually define me. I became a "politician." Before that evening, I would never have considered such an occupation. The word "politician" immediately conjured up the stereotypical image of a grinning huckster in a suit, glad-handing, back slapping and saying just about anything to get a vote. Even now, when I walk into the local general store, I still cringe when I hear some wag announce, "Well, here comes the politician!"
These days, with a sputtering economy and so many struggling to make a living, the approval rating of most politicians measures right up there with black flies and deer ticks. Yet, whenever anyone asks if I'm enjoying public service, I always say the same thing: I love it. It is the most challenging and rewarding job I've ever had.
In my experience, the politician stereotype is generally untrue. As a part-time, citizen legislature pays around $10,000 a year, no one makes a real living at it. My colleagues are fire fighters, business people, teachers, construction workers, bankers, professors, mill workers, nurses, police officers, lawyers, park rangers, farmers, and fisherman. Very few go in with the intent to make a career out of it -- they just got tired of complaining and put their money where their mouths were.
Indeed, serving in the legislature usually does involve considerable financial sacrifice. The farmers on my committee are always eager to wrap up work in the spring so that they can get back to the fields. Small business people put a freeze on taking new clients until the session is over. Others work night shifts, often going straight to the morning legislative session after they punch out. Many rely on a spouse's income to make ends meet, while they hustle for work in the off-months. Some states pay a full-time salary to legislators, but our system, though not perfect, ensures that the people we send to Augusta are not so removed from the struggles of working people in the community.
One reform that has enhanced the democratic nature of the Maine political system is the Clean Elections law, which voters approved by citizen referendum in 1996. This policy was crucial in my decision to run for the legislature, as it allowed me to spend my time meeting voters, rather than holding fundraisers and making deals with donors, some who may not even reside in the state, much less in my district.
The money I raised came from individual $5 contributions from voters were matched with public funds. I was also prohibited from taking any extra money after the funds were allotted. The time not spent fundraising allowed me to go out and hit thousands of doors during my campaigns. Whenever a tough vote comes up, it is average who voters influence me. My first thought before I press that red or green button is always "what do my constituents want?" In most other states and in the US Congress, it's "what do my constituents want?" and "what do my donors want?" Often not in that order. Anyone who's been to Augusta knows that on any given day during a House session, the place is packed with lobbyists. They explain their positions and I listen to them, but in the end, I don't owe any special favors to anyone but my constituents.
If there's one thing I've learned during my work in Augusta, it's that ordinary citizens can and do make a difference in shaping public policy. No matter what your political philosophy or party affiliation, having a good working government that is accountable to voters and not special interests is what democracy is about. One of our most valued parts of the US Constitution is our freedom of speech, but those arguing for an end to clean elections have stated limits on campaign contributions restricts that freedom. Money may talk, but it shouldn't buy our democracy and here in Maine, we have proven that there's a better way.