Nation Watching Arizona's Battle Over Clean Elections
Starting today, Arizona officially becomes America's
battleground over public money in state politics.
The nation will be watching the fight over the future of
Arizona's popular yet controversial system of publicly
funding politicians' campaigns. Both sides will spend up to
$3 million to kill or keep the system known as Clean
Elections that has sparked similar efforts in dozens of
An initiative by a group called No Taxpayer Money for
Politicians will try to change the state Constitution by
banning the use of public money for political races. The
group is expected to file 275,000 signatures this morning
at the Secretary of State's Office, substantially more than
the 184,000 necessary to qualify for the Nov. 2 ballot.
The main objection to Clean Elections is that it relies on
public money to pay for political campaigns. Nathan Sproul,
who is coordinating the initiative, scoffed at those who
don't think that Clean Elections is funded with taxpayer
"Tell that to the taxpayer who has to write the check,"
But those who support Clean Elections disagree, saying that
public donations are optional and that the defeat of the
law could be a blow to democracy. Arizona became the second
state in the nation after Maine to adopt the approach when
voters approved the law in 1998.
"There are people who are sick and tired of big-money
politics and see Arizona as a hope for democracy. People
around the country see Arizona as a model for other states
where ordinary people can still have a say in politics,"
said Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign, a
Washington, D.C.-based campaign-finance reform group.
"Displaced political donors like the old system when their
money counted a lot more."
Nyhart and others tout Arizona's Clean Elections law, which
lets candidates collect large numbers of private $5
donations to qualify for public campaign money, as a
national model of election reform. Supporters say it has
improved voter turnout since 1998, while tripling the
number of minorities who have run for office.
More than 36 states are trying to adopt a version of Clean
Elections, while nearly 20 of those states have legislation
in the works. A group in West Virginia, for instance, wants
to pass the law so it can help loosen what it calls the
coal industry's grip on that state's Legislature.
The campaign is a true test case for the country. It's
making national news. Syndicated columnists such as Molly
Ivins of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and E.J.
Dionne of the Washington Post have written glowing
columns about Arizona's law. Dionne wrote that Clean
Elections has "given new people a chance to enter politics
without mortgaging their houses or their souls."
Dennis Burke, former director of Arizona Common Cause who
worked on the Clean Elections campaign in 1998, said it has
helped "cut the strings of obligation."
"It was a hard sell to get it passed in Arizona," said
Burke, who's working on a U.S. Senate race in New England.
"It's going to be a hard sell to keep it. There are so many
states counting on Arizona. It would be a huge step
backward and a shame for the rest of the country."
In 1998, critics dismissed the Clean Elections movement as
a welfare act for politicians, but they never launched a
formal campaign to defeat it. Clean Elections narrowly
passed. That lackadaisical effort isn't being repeated.
Clean Election critics are raising big bucks to get rid of
it. They are confident that their "no taxpayer" sound bite
will sway voters.
Eric Crown, who turned a $2,000 advance on his credit card
into a billion-dollar computer company called Insight
Enterprises, is heading the effort. He said public money
should be spent on things like education instead of
"I don't believe this is a more democratic system," Crown
told The Republic. "This is bad for democracy. We
have to stop it from spreading. I'm glad we can stop it
right here in Arizona."
Gov. Janet Napolitano, the nation's first governor elected
after running a Clean Elections campaign, doesn't agree
"First of all, the taxpayer money is a bit of a canard,"
Napolitano said. "It's not like your income-tax money is
going into the Clean Elections fund. Income-tax money is
going for schools and health care and prisons.
"I think that other states are actually looking to adopt
the Arizona model. So it's ironic that we would, in effect,
repeal it this election. I join with others, including
Senator (John) McCain, to say, 'Why go backwards?' "
Surcharges on civil and criminal fines account for 65
percent of the Clean Elections fund. Opponents of the law
say no matter what the surcharges are called, they are
The rest comes from a voluntary $5 state income-tax
checkoff and a dollar-for-dollar income-tax credit for up
to $500. Proponents of Clean Elections note that Arizonans
have the option of contributing, so they aren't paying an
extra income tax.
Keep It Clean, which is trying to preserve Clean Elections,
is being pushed by a coalition of groups that are usually
last in line when it comes to gaining favor at the
Legislature. Supporters include the Sierra Club, League of
Women Voters and AARP. But Keep It Clean has some powerful
out-of-state financial friends. The Proteus Fund Inc., a
Massachusetts project that provides funds for state-based
campaign-finance reform, will be contributing.
The Public Campaign Action Fund, which donated $333,000 in
1998, is now doing a national $5 donation campaign. The
fund has raised nearly $24,000 from people in 50 states
over the past month.
Clean Elections critics say the law hasn't done what it
Supporters said it would loosen the lobbyists' grip on the
political system by giving outsiders a new way to compete
against special interests. But lobbyists still help
politicians run their campaigns by collecting $5
contributions. And lobbyists still help write many bills at
Sandy Bahr, lobbyist for the Sierra Club, has been a
vigorous defender of Clean Elections and will fight in
November to keep it around.
Bahr said public campaign funding has not been a "magic
bullet" reform, but it has increased competition in
political races and encouraged less wealthy candidates to
"Look at the mayoral election for Phoenix and City Council
elections, the price is going way up and that shuts a lot
of people out," Bahr said.
"I talk to average people, and they don't think about
running for those offices because of the cost. But average
people are actually considering running for the
Legislature, and I think that's what we want."
See the article on Arizona Republic website