One hundred and fifty years ago, on Nov. 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address — 278 words so well chosen, so appropriate and so inspirational that they have as much power today as they did during the Civil War.

As our nation recovers from recent fractious debates in the U.S. Congress, events thankfully less bloody than those that transpired on the battlefield at Gettysburg, we do well to reflect on Lincoln’s words and the message they convey. I find particular resonance in Lincoln’s call for an “increased devotion for the cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion,” to make sure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”

These words from the Gettysburg Address have always held special meaning for me, and they still do — more strongly than ever. Today, when I think about a government of, by and for the people, I can’t help but conclude that one thing our country needs is Maine-style Clean Elections, coast to coast and for every level of elected office. The disturbing amount of special interest money that fuels the American electoral system has done much damage, and the result is that our country seems as polarized today as it was in 1863. We must apply ourselves to the difficult but critical task of ridding our politics of the influence bought by moneyed interests, and that means investing in our democracy.

My own story illustrates why this idea is so important.

I came of age at the height of the Korean War, and within two weeks of my graduation from Winthrop High School, I was sworn into the U.S. Marine Corps. Protecting our country and standing up for our nation’s values was important to me and to many of my classmates.

This idea of standing up for American values was shared widely throughout the country and it was embodied in the GI Bill, which allowed me to go to college, earn several degrees and have a fulfilling career as a college professor, all because my fellow Americans recognized the value of my service and understood the sacrifice that I and so many others made in choosing to serve. The whole country invested in us.

The career and life made possible by the GI Bill has provided me, in turn, with many more opportunities to serve. Although my military service is behind me, I have long been involved in community service as a teacher, a firefighter, an EMT, a hospital volunteer and a city councilor. I have moderated a town meeting, that most democratic of all institutions.

Today, I serve in the Maine House of Representatives, and on its Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over military matters as well as election and campaign finance bills. I serve with terrific people from all over Maine, many of whom chose to run for office under the citizen-initiated Clean Election public funding system. The citizens of Maine created this law so that qualified people from all walks of life would be able to run for state office without having to rely on personal wealth or private donations.

Since 2000, the Clean Election system has encouraged ordinary people to step up and participate in elections at every level. Every Mainer with $5 to invest can support the candidate of their choice, and with enough of that sort of support, candidates can run campaigns that are free of special-interest money — campaigns that are focused right where they should be, on the voters.

What a difference it would make if the Koch brothers and other wealthy political donors didn’t hold so much sway over members of Congress and other officeholders! I believe that we would be better able to focus on the people’s priorities as well as creating opportunities for generations to come. Our future is worth the investment.

As a Marine and former member of the Maine National Guard, as the father of a son with 30 years’ service in the U.S. Army, as the grandfather of a sailor in the U.S. Navy, and as someone who honeymooned in Gettysburg, I urge all Maine residents to hear and heed the wise words of our 16th president, and recommit themselves to a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

Rep. Thomas R.W. Longstaff, D-Waterville, represents District 77 in the Maine House of Representatives. He serves on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.

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