Public Service Innovators-- Cleaning Up Elections: George Pillsbury (MPA 1994)

June 8, 2001
Mary Tamer

After 20 years of foundation work, George Pillsbury went to the Kennedy School to pursue politics, and it is the policy end of politics that he's pursued ever since. In fact, if Pillsbury has his way, his organization's Clean Election law is one that will be adopted nationwide, fulfilling his goal to have all state candidates running with limited war chests compiled of individual gifts not greater than $100.
Election reform needed to start at the state level, especially in the area of campaign finance reform," he said. "It makes voters very cynical to think money is influencing the candidates. Voters need two things, they need choices, and they need faith in the system, and right now they have neither."
Having attended his first political convention at the age of 8, Pillsbury said he was "raised in the midst of election politics." His father, also named George, was a Minnesota state senator for 12 years and - following his own college years at Yale - Pillsbury was involved "in one campaign or another" when not pursuing philanthropic work.
Struck in the 1990s by the disappearing votes and the disappearing candidates, the idea of a political process unencumbered by PACs and private funding became Pillsbury's cause celebre. In his effort to restore the faith, the clean election law - drafted by the Massachusetts Money and Politics Project with Pillsbury as its director - passed in 1998 by a 2-to-1 margin.
In the past two years, the state's legislature has allocated a total of $20 million to fund campaigns with public money once the law takes effect in 2002. A recent vote by the Massachusetts House of Representatives has placed subsequent funding in jeopardy, although with the support of State Senate President Thomas Birmingham, as well at Acting Governor Jane Swift, Pillsbury isn't too worried.
"We remain confident, although we know it is a big change for the political establishment in Massachusetts," he said.
And elsewhere. Maine's clean election law passed in 1996, and, since the passage in Massachusetts, Arizona and Vermont have followed suit. Pillsbury said they are now working with a national network of 35 to 40 states interested in similar legislation, but all eyes remain on the New England pioneers who penned the law.
"When eight to 10 states have a working and viable clean election system, then it will be an idea whose time has come," said Pillsbury.


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