Probing Politics: Campaigns played our children as pawns
As expected, last week's vote was not a Maine election, but rather a battleground for national organizations with lots of money and muscle.
In the absence of exit polls or post-election surveys, we're left to speculate about the results of the two headliner issues by following the money and deciphering the messages surrounding gay marriage and TABOR II.
First, the turnout of 563,000 voters will likely set records for an off-year election in Maine. People really felt strongly about gay marriage, which drew the most votes overall. Approximately 60 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots, making a very strong case that the people truly have spoken. That's terrific – it's democracy at work.
What's not so terrific is that children, played like pawns, were the defining factor in the gay marriage and TABOR II debates. With plenty of money, well-funded proponents of Question 1 and opponents of Question 4 shamelessly used children to camouflage their objectives by raising fears and doubts that were largely unfounded.
No on 1 and Equality Maine, the lead supporters of gay marriage, raised $250,000 in Maine and $900,000 from out of state. The successful defeat of gay marriage was led by the Roman Catholic Church, which raised $553,000; about $215,000 came from out-of-state dioceses while $328,000 came from Maine. An additional $1.1 million, however, came from the New Jersey-based National Organization for Marriage, which also cannot abide the term "marriage" being extended to gay and lesbian couples. They are to be congratulated for identifying and turning out their supporters. It is simply troubling to see how it was accomplished.
To the public, the recurring theme was not the word of God or constitutional protections. When the ads broke suggesting that children could be forced to learn about gay marriage and the gay "lifestyle" in schools, it was all over but for the shouting. The assertion was false, but effective.
Down the ballot was TABOR II, a chance for voters to impose spending and taxation limits on government. This was the fiscally conservative David against the entitled Goliath of employee unions, welfare advocates and state contractors, each fighting for their piece of the tax dollar. Even though the proposition language was clear that spending could never be less than the prior year, opponents of TABOR II screamed that the education of our children would be sacrificed if the measure was allowed to pass. Again false, but effective.
With less than $300,000 spent in favor of TABOR II and more than $3.5 million against it, there was little doubt who would win. Out-of-state contributions opposing TABOR II amounted to $2 million and in-state contributors added $1.5 million. Public employee unions contributed $2.2 million and the taxpayer-funded Maine Municipal Association chipped in $176,000. Proponents simply didn't have the air time or message to push back every assault and create momentum for passage. An extra helping of "children-at-risk" added to the emotional stew and drove the margin of defeat to a decisive 20 percent.
Had TABOR II supporters also used "children" in their message, perhaps they would have elevated the conversation and accurately portrayed the real risk facing our students: a lack of private-sector jobs and career paths in Maine. Our state is at the bottom of every economic indicator, due in large part to the choices made in Augusta by our legislators. Our business climate is no better than 10th worst in the nation, our cost of health care is the second most expensive in the country and half our college students leave Maine for better opportunities elsewhere. The results of TABOR II did not change these stubborn facts.
Though the campaign tactics were questionable, the take-away seems more clear. Choosing legislators is the key to these and other questions of government policy. When bills of interest come before the Legislature, phone calls, meetings, e-mails and letters from the folks back home can have an impact on the outcomes. If legislators are out of step with the voters, citizens also have a chance to elect someone different. The fact that most voters have no clue about their legislators' voting records, however, is why referendums have increased in the state. It's simply an expensive exercise in frustration.
Finally, this footnote: A question that carried no cost, but a lot of compassion, was the approval of medical marijuana dispensaries. But don't be surprised to see Cheech and Chong campaigning in Maine at some time in the future to legalize marijuana for everyone. Perhaps if we did, people would mellow out and we could tax it to solve our financial woes.