Maine Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, has qualified to run for governor as a Maine Clean Elections candidate and will receive a $400,000 payment for his campaign, according to the Maine Ethics Commission.

Gubernatorial candidates who want to tap into the taxpayer-funded program must collect 3,200 qualifying contributions of $5 each, and Paul Lavin, the commission’s assistant director, said Mason’s campaign met that threshold Tuesday. Lavin said Mason is the only candidate in this year’s gubernatorial field who has qualified to date and that his qualification is the earliest in the election cycle for a gubernatorial candidate since the program launched in 1996.

Mason is the only Republican in the race who has opted for public financing. Four of the 13 Democratic candidates, two independents and a Green Independent are also seeking the funding. Gubernatorial candidates have until April 2 to qualify.

As a Clean Elections candidate, Mason can continue collecting qualifying contributions until May 22. For every 800 valid contributions on top of the 3,200 he already has, he qualifies for another $150,000, making him eligible for a total of $1 million for the primary. He is also eligible for up to another $2 million for the general election if he becomes the Republican nominee and collects the maximum 9,600 qualifying contributions.

Publicly financed gubernatorial candidates can also collect $100 seed money contributions from individuals, totalling up to $200,000. Mason has raised about $36,000 in seed money so far.

Mason said in a written statement that the task of collecting the $5 contributions from individuals in 236 Maine towns helped his campaign amass “a grassroots organization that continues to reach our goals in record time.”

The commission has concerns about whether the $9.4 million it has available in the fund for this year’s elections will be enough to cover legislative and gubernatorial races. A bill to appropriate another $1.7 million this year to ensure there will be enough funding is pending in the Legislature. Clean election candidates are barred from collecting private donations.

[Maine Clean Election Fund needs another $1.7 million to ensure solvency in 2018]

The Maine Clean Election Act was implemented in 1996 by citizen initiative. Candidates for the Legislature and governor have the option of using the taxpayer-funded system in lieu of relying on private donations. It was designed to keep special interest money out of elections, and 64 percent of sitting lawmakers used it, including 56 percent of Senate Republicans and 45 percent of House Republicans.

Despite those totals, the program has never been without controversy. In fact, in 2017 Mason voted in favor of a bill that would have removed gubernatorial candidates from the program. However, he told the Bangor Daily News in September 2017 that participating “provides the best chance for me to win.”

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Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.