Volume 18: Voting in the 2004 Elections
Run for Office? Who Me?
by Janet Groat
Deborah Simpson was waiting on tables and trying to put herself through college when a customer suggested that she run for office.
"Me? I'm a single mother!" she responded quizzically. "Then I thought about it for a moment and I thought, 'Well, maybe that's the reason I should.'"
Simpson, 41, seeks to be a voice for people without a lot of money or privilege—people who are going through the same day-to-day challenges she faces while raising her son Isaiah.
Her ascendance into the Maine Legislature in 2000 was made possible by the state's "Clean Elections" law—plus a lot of hard work and door-to-door contact on her part. The Clean Elections law allows candidates who demonstrate support in their districts to receive full public funding for their campaigns. It's designed to give good people a fair chance to win elective office and to reduce the influence of money in politics.
The law first took effect in 2000, making Maine a pioneer in campaign finance reform. There are now 112 Maine legislators (60 percent of the total) who were elected without private funds.
"I grew up in a Democratic household. The first campaign I remember 'lit dropping' for was George McGovern's. I was 10," said Simpson. She recalls going door to door for McGovern and others throughout her youth, but she did not see herself as a contender until that day she was prodded by a customer in TJ's restaurant, where she works.
Now, she's in her second term and serves on the Taxation and the Judiciary Committees. She's slowly making a name for herself as an advocate of the working class.
In her first term, Simpson took leadership in building support for a measure that helps working parents obtain state subsidies for childcare costs. Now, parents can receive subsidies up front, in the beginning of the month, rather than paying the bills and waiting for reimbursement.
She has also helped in the effort to collect child support from absent parents. As a single mother, Simpson knew that some parents escape paying child support by asking employers to hire them as "independent contractors" rather than regular employees. This makes it harder for the state to find them and deduct payments from their wages. Under a bill she authored, employers will now have to submit records of everyone they hire—including independent contractors—if they do business with the state. Once this law is up and running, Simpson hopes to expand it to include all employers.
"It helps the parents and it may save money for the state," she said.
Simpson said the impact of being a Clean Elections candidate is hard to measure. Special interest lobbyists tend to ignore her. That could be because she's still relatively new in Augusta, or it could be because she never sought their help or donations during her campaigns, she said.
"I'm ignored by the lobby," she said. "They think I'm reasonable, but they know they have nothing over me. They know they won't win me over."
One accomplishment she is especially proud of was the defeat of a measure sponsored by real estate developers who have a powerful presence in the State Capitol. The bill would have reduced citizen power over land use decisions in their towns. She and others worked hard to defeat it, an achievement that might not have been possible when real estate interests played a major role in legislative campaigns.
"It was an attempt by the real estate industry to take away people's rights to democracy," she said. "We put a stop to that."
Janet Groat is the money and politics director of Northeast Action, a regional center for organizing and progressive action. If you want to get involved in bringing Clean Elections to your state, or if you want more information, call 617-541-0500 or e-mail to email@example.com.
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