Democratic contender for governor wants big money out of N.H. politics

  • Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Marchand records a Facebook live video with help from field coordinator Dan Westervelt outside True Brew Barista in Concord in 2016. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

For the Monitor
Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Steve Marchand says he wants to reduce the role of big money in New Hampshire politics.

The Democratic gubernatorial contender on Tuesday announced a plan that would incentivize candidates running for governor, the Executive Council and the state Senate to raise money from small-dollar in-state donors rather than from wealthy out-of-state contributors, lobbyists, corporations and political-action committees.

Federal campaign finance reform is an issue with plenty of history in New Hampshire, but the state system has attracted less attention. Granite Stater and activist Doris “Granny D” Haddock grabbed the national spotlight in 1999-2000 for walking across the continental U.S. to advocate for campaign finance reform. Four years later she unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican Judd Gregg.

New Hampshire’s campaign finance laws have been characterized over the years as some of the most sparse and sporadically enforced measures in the country.

Marchand wants to change that. He argued that “because of the way our system’s run, you end up spending most of your time calling people out of state, PAC money and corporate money, for relatively large money.”

The proposal by the former Portsmouth mayor would set up a public campaign finance system that would provide matching state funds to gubernatorial candidates who don’t accept PAC or lobbyist contributions and who raise $250,000 in small donations ranging from $5 to $100. Ninety percent of those contributions would have to be raised from within New Hampshire.

“If you agree to raise $250,000 in low-dollar contributions as a primary candidate for governor, you’re eligible for public funding for a very significant match for that $250,000 that you raised,” Marchand explained during a conference call with reporters. “In exchange (for accepting the matching funds), you agree to not spend any more than that amount of money. You agree not to take corporate money, PAC money.”

Candidates running for the Executive Council and state Senate would need to raise at least $20,000 in small-dollar donations, with at least $10,000 of those contributions coming from within their own district.

Marchand said the matching funds would come from the state’s general fund and would cost approximately $4.2 million to $6.3 million per year. He argued the price tag would be well worth it to protect against the outside influence of big money in politics.

Marchand claimed that opponents “are afraid it will work.”

“Right now you have folks who benefit from the current system” such as lobbyists, organized political-action committees, corporations. Regular people don’t benefit from the current system,” Marchand said.

He said the model is working in other states.

“There are a growing number of states doing this and we find that they are generally very successful,” Marchand said. “The trick is, it is difficult to raise low-dollar contributions from over 200,000 New Hampshirites. It is a lot of work.”

To highlight his plan, Marchand said he’ll work go get donations of less than $100 from 2,250 Granite Staters.

This is Marchand’s second bid for governor. He jumped in late to the 2016 contest, but ended up coming in a surprise – but distant – second to Democratic nominee Colin Van Ostern. This time around, he announced extremely early, forming his campaign in early April of last year. But recent polling from the University of New Hampshire and Saint Anselm College indicated he remains largely unknown to most New Hampshire voters.

While he wouldn’t put a dollar figure on how much money he’s raised since announcing his bid last spring, Marchand noted that more than 90 percent of his contributions have come from in-state donors and said the average contribution is well under $100.

Asked if he’d abide by the rules of his plan going forward, Marchand said “today we do not have a matching system and so I am not in a position to unilaterally disarm.”

Last month, former five-term state Sen. Molly Kelly of Harrisville launched her Democratic gubernatorial campaign.

On her campaign website, Kelly noted she’s not accepting any corporate PAC money in this campaign.

“We need to get the dark money out of our elections,” she said.

The winner of the September Democratic gubernatorial primary will face off in November against first-term Republican Gov. Chris Sununu.

Critics of the state’s campaign finance and election laws point to the cases of two high-profile lawmakers over the past 15 years.

Gene Chandler, who’s now serving his second tour of duty as speaker of the state House of Representatives, last decade resigned from the speakership the first time after he was investigated and pled guilty for using campaign donations for personal gain. And earlier this decade, state Senate President Peter Bragdon stepped down as state Senate president after a chorus of criticism over his taking a position as executive director of the Local Government Center while still steering the Senate.

In 2015, the Republican-dominated state legislative passed and then-Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, signed into law a bill that put some limits on contributions from so-called “dark money” groups, nonprofits also known as 501(c)(4)s.

The most recent bill to further tighten the state’s campaign finance laws, pushed by Democratic Rep. Renny Cushing of Hampton, was sidetracked earlier this year in the House.