A Conversation With Independent State Representative Ben Chipman

Two nights ago Ross Levin and I interviewed Maine’s newest Independent state legislator, Ben Chipman. This previous article has a bit of background:

Ben Chipman is a Green Party activist in Maine and was elected to the state legislature this year as an independent… Chipman has been a Green Party activist for a long time, including being an aide to Maine’s only former Green state legislator and a member of the Portland Charter Commission. He was the only Green-affiliated independent … elected to state office in the entire country this year.

We began by asking about Mr. Chipman’s campaign strategy and how he became an Independent, rather than Green, candidate. He explains that “various circumstances” came into play when it came time to file, and coupled with his late entry into the race he was unable to run as a Green. Instead, the longtime Green Party activist filed as an Independent.

He found as he began to campaign that the Independent label gained greater traction than the Green Party label had in the past. Mr Chipman explained that the Green Party had run candidates in this district in the past, but none had come closer than 400-500 votes away from victory. He began to emphasize his status as an Independent candidate in campaign literature.

Math may have been on Chipman’s side. There were only 6500 voters in the district, and of these 2100 turned out to vote. By his estimation, he could win the race if he gathered 1000 votes. He based his campaign strategy on his experience running Green campaigns in the past (16 or 17 by his estimation). In his experience, a candidate almost always received more votes than the number of voters contacted. As he put it, “If I could have a conversation with a thousand voters, I could get a thousand votes”.

He may have also received a boon from the political environment. Despite the Republican wave in Maine, no Republican ran in his race. Thus, it became a contest between an Independent and a Democrat in a solidly Democratic district. However, he also notes that Independent Eliot Cutler, who Chipman voted for, actually carried the district this year (Cutler came within two points of beating Republican Paul LePage). A combination of a strong Independent at the top of the ticket with an energized Republican base with nobody to support may have pushed Chipman over the edge.

This doesn’t mean that the candidate did not campaign. Chipman will point out that “I did all the hard work, knocked on every door.” He explains that he contacted between 600-700 voters door to door and about 300 voters via phone. While he believes the former to be more effective, the latter strategy could contact more voters in a shorter period of time. It seems his math worked- he contacted over 1,000 voters and received over 1,000 votes. He won by 174 votes with 55% of the vote.

The small size of the district helped Chipman win with a small budget. He received $5,000 in funding from the Maine Clean Elections Fund and put this money into signs and mailers to voters in the district.

Chipman had a mixed relationship with the Maine Green Party. He explained that the actual state party does not endorse candidates who are not running with the Greens; this was also seen in the gubernatorial campaign, when Cutler met with some Green Party leaders during the race. However, he said that many of the actors within the party like Pat LaMarche lent their support.

However, he mentions that relations with the local party were less than ideal He received the endorsement of one of the three Greens on the Portland City Council; the others remained neutral. He did receive the support of former Green Rep. John Eder, the current chair of the Portland Green Party with whom he worked in the Maine House.Other local party members were more skeptical and did not become involved in the campaign.

Chipman seemed skeptical about reclaiming the Green label in the future. Voters elected him as an Independent, and he feels that to immediately claim a party label might be unfair to the voters. However, he does not slam the door to that possibility in the future; he simply seems disinclined to do so.

Nevertheless, he does have some valuable comments on the state of the Maine Independent Greens. He doesn’t hold back with his biggest criticism, that the “party has not done such a great job at fundraising”. He explained that almost all of the funds for the party come from the small box voters can check on their income tax forms that send a small donation to the party. However, such a strategy does little to build the party’s long-term financial base.

He also indicates that the party has not done enough to reach the interior of the state, particularly singling out Western Maine. However, he does not have only criticism of the party. As Ross noted before the interview, the state party has done phenomenally well with its 36,000 registered voters. Although he mentions voter registration drives accomplishing some of this, he believes that the biggest growth in registered voters was precipitated by the simple option of being offered the option of registering as a Green in Maine when they register to vote.

Part of this he seems to attribute to Ralph Nader. He points out that when Ralph Nader ran, party membership spiked from 9,000 to 25,000 and fundraising tripled. While he hopes to see a strong Green contender emerge in 2012, he would also look for another Ralph Nader style independent or somebody with the star power to bring new growth to local parties.

Ross pointed out the presence of certain institutional advantages for Maine Greens that may not be present in other states. Maine’s combination of small state legislative districts and access to public funding seems to help small groups like the Independent Greens earn success at the ballot box. However, barriers for minor parties and Independents still exist for entry into the system.

Chipman seeks to reform some of these barriers. One bill he filed on the day of our interview would remove Maine’s party status requirements that mandate a party must hold a caucus in every county every two years. He feels that such a practice is largely a formality and outdated today, but puts “a huge burden” upon the party to find activists in sparsely populated areas to hold a poorly attended event. He also plans to sponsor a bill to change the  signature collection requirement to be a certain percentage of party members registered or a maximum of 2,000 signatures. Currently, all candidates must collect 2,000 signatures to earn a place on the ballot, which is a barrier which is much easier for major party candidates to fulfill.

He also describes himself as a big supporter of instant runoff voting. He helped push for its adoption recently as a member of the Portland Charter Commission, which has led to the decision for the next mayoral election to be held under that system. He hopes for that example to be modeled “at the state level, for Governor or legislative races” in Maine. He remains open to other alternative electoral systems, although he is less familiar with many of these systems and has no plans to independently sponsor such ideas in the legislature. In general he seems to seek any system which will encourage the growth of third parties. As he puts it, “I just think we have to have more parties. Not just in Maine but across the country… I’d like to see the Libertarians get party status back in the state of Maine and be a thriving third party in the state of Maine.”

Chipman has other legislative priorities as well. Other bills he has introduced include a consumer bill of rights requiring retailers to disclose restocking fees at the time of purchase before a return must be made, a requirement that high school students to pass a financial literacy class in order to graduate, and an exemption for those who make $15,000 or less from the state income tax (currently, those who make under $10,000 are exempted).

He also plans to work with anybody willing to cooperate to pass the legislation he supports. He already met with Governor Paul LePage who expressed tentative support for the income tax exemption. In addition, he attended both the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the legislature as an observer. Responding to an inquiry as to if he would cooperate with Independent Mayor Mike Bloomberg of New York City, Chipman responded, “Yeah, I definitely would welcome the opportunity to work with anybody that wants to work on electoral reform or progressive issues, umm other independent third parties. Acutally i already …caucused with the one Independent who is in the Maine State Senate, Dick Woodbury, and we discussed some issues that him and i could work together on as well.”

If you would like to learn more, you can go to Representative Chipman’s website or contact him at votechipman@gmail.com. You can listen to the entire interview here.

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