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In State Pushing Clean Elections,
Campaign Hearings Hardly a Ripple

By Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 19, 1997; Page A06

BUCKS HARBOR, MaineŚLike many other people in this flinty, independent-minded state, Clayton Coffin, a site manager for the Atlantic Salmon Co., wants clean elections. But he has tuned out the Senate's hearings on campaign financing abuses, and he is not alone.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center showed that only one in 10 Americans have closely followed the hearings. Interviews at random with two dozen Maine residents showed similar results, despite Maine's record as a pace-setter for the country in trying to drive tainted money out of politics.

As Coffin sees it, "The whole situation is out of control and there's not much you can do about it. . . . Where do you start, who do you point your finger at? The problem seems to be everywhere."

For Virginia McCastin, a dental assistant at the regional medical center in nearby Lubec, news of fund-raising excesses by politicians has reached the point of diminishing returns. "You hear so much about it, it falls on deaf ears," McCastin said. "The more you hear, the less you really hear, if you know what I mean."

Harold Crosby, a Lubec dentist, said he has been too busy with his farm to pay much attention but is amused at the outcry over allegations that the Chinese government attempted to influence U.S. elections through contributions. "We've been trying to influence other countries' elections for as long as I can remember," he said.

"It's all a bunch of mumbo-jumbo," added Steve Hendricks, a painter working on the new Lubec marina. "No one ever comes out and says what's really going on."

Coffin, McCastin, Crosby and Hendricks were among the people who crossed paths with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) recently as she toured this picturesque but hardscrabble section of "Down East" Maine that lives largely off its forests, fish and wild blueberry barrens.

Collins, serving in her first elective office, has earned high marks in Washington for her meticulous work as a junior member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which held an initial four weeks of hearings on campaign funding abuses last month.

She also drew praise in Maine but mostly for other endeavors, such as her sponsorship of a bill to ease the estate tax for owners of small businesses and family farms.

Maine's indifference to the hearings contrasts with its recent interest in campaign finance. Last year Maine voters approved the nation's toughest rules for campaign spending by state candidates, including public funding to encourage compliance with spending limits. This year Collins took a prominent role in both the hearings and the effort to overhaul federal campaign laws by outlawing unregulated "soft money" contributions to political parties and creating incentives for compliance with voluntary spending limits. In the House, Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine) is helping lead a bipartisan effort to outlaw soft money.

But people interviewed for this article say they feel remote from Washington, turned off by its excesses and skeptical about Congress's ability to reform itself. Several said the hearings did not seem to be revealing anything that they did not already know.

These views were not peculiar to the state's economically struggling rural areas. In Bangor, businessman John McKinnon had little hope there would be reform. "Every time there's a problem, they hold hearings and apply a Band-Aid," he said. "They want credit for reform, but they also want the money." Said postal worker Gary Graham: "It's a sad state of affairs, but it's not going to change. . . . I guess I'm just part of the apathy."

In a way, this is not surprising, said Paul Nordstrom, president of the University of Maine at Machias. Maine tends to place more confidence in local solutions than in answers from Washington, he said. "People figure the bigger it gets, the more difficult it is to control."

But without a push from reform-minded states like Maine, the Governmental Affairs Committee has little hope of stirring the country with its hearings unless they produce more compelling revelations when they resume early next month. Nor can reformers continue to rely on the hearings to create a public groundswell for passage of their legislation, which could face a critical test shortly in the Senate. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), sponsors of the leading bill, have said they will try to force votes on it by the end of September.

Hardly any of the people Collins met during her two-day swing mentioned the hearings, except to comment favorably on the fact that she had gained some national recognition in her first few months in office. Those who did bring up the subject seemed to be referring as much to her recent decision to co-sponsor the McCain-Feingold bill as to her role in the hearings.

"It's not like Watergate or Anita Hill [the confirmation hearings in which Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was accused by Hill of sexual harassment], when everyone was glued to their television sets," Collins said. "But wherever I go, people mention campaign finance and say I'm doing a good job. I'm not sure whether they mean the hearings or the bill – probably both."

But even the campaign finance bill did not merit mention at a luncheon attended by Collins, 44, and a handful of local leaders, including Nordstrom.

For 45 minutes, the group hashed over a variety of subjects of local interest, such as the effect of foreign competition on the timber industry and drought damage to the blueberry harvest.

"These are things that affect people personally – taxes, the economy, the environment, everything from timber to salmon – that's what people care about," Nordstrom said.

Only a couple of 25 people who were interviewed in Bangor and towns that stretch east toward the Canadian border said they were paying close attention to the hearings. Some said they read a few newspaper stories or watched news accounts on television, although most said they did little more than read the headlines. One of the few who watched the hearings themselves was Edgar Allain, a Canadian who likes to watch U.S. television and believes "it happens in Canada too."

This makes Maine no different from the rest of the country in its attitudes toward the hearings, according to the nationwide survey conducted by the Pew Research Center.

After the first month of hearings, "public interest in the topic [campaign finance] fell to its lowest point in eight months," the center reported. While 10 percent of Americans reported following the hearings "very closely," 35 percent said they paid almost no attention.

The center found that Americans are showing about as much interest in the campaign finance probe as they did in hearings on Whitewater, the Arkansas land deal involving the president and first lady. Interest in hearings on the Iran-contra controversy and the federal raid on the Branch Davidian complex near Waco, Tex., was considerably higher.

Of nine major issues covered by the news media in weeks before the Aug. 7-10 survey, campaign finance came in eighth in public interest, outranking only NATO expansion. While few Americans were paying much attention to news out of Washington, the budget and tax debate ranked fifth in public attention and the legislation got a 72 percent approval rating.

Even though Democrats have been the main targets of the Senate committee probe, their Republican accusers suffered too.

The share of Americans who said neither party is capable of ethical governance increased from 18 percent to 26 percent over the past year, the survey showed. Independents lost confidence in both parties.

Maine is no different from the rest of the country in spreading the blame widely. "It's not limited to one party. Just about anyone can be bought for a price," said Jan Williams, a part-time music store clerk in Calais, just across the St. Croix River from Canada.

Collins put it a bit more discreetly. "People tend to blame the system, not individuals," she said.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post

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