When Arizona Gov. J. Fife Symington III, R, resigned in 1997 following federal indictment for fraud, the state had already weathered a notorious run of political corruption. During the previous 11 years, another governor had been impeached for misuse of funds, and seven legislators and 11 lobbyists were indicted for accepting bribes during a police sting operation. In addition, two U.S. senators — including John McCain, R, who has since led the charge for campaign finance reform — were investigated for ethics violations surrounding the Charles Keating savings and loan scandal.
Fed up with big money’s influence on their elected officials, Arizona citizens took action in 1998. Backed by a diverse coalition including Common Cause, the American Association of Retired Persons, the League of Women Voters and the AFL-CIO, voters narrowly approved the "Clean Elections" program.
The program sets a cap on the amount of money participating candidates can raise, limits contributions from private industry and lobbyists, and provides public campaign funds to candidates running for the Legislature or state office. Candidates participating in the voluntary program first gather $5 contributions (210 of these, if you’re racing for the Legislature; 4,000 if you’re running for governor) and then qualify for additional money from the Clean Elections Fund. A bipartisan committee oversees the fund, which comes from a 10 percent surcharge on parking tickets and other civil and criminal fines, as well as a voluntary check-off on state income tax forms.
For the 2002 election, the fund reached $18.5 million. Of that, $13 million went toward candidates, while the remainder went into the state’s general fund. During that election, 24 Republicans and 17 Democrats used the program to gain office, including Gov. Janet Napolitano, D, the first governor in the nation to run — and win — on public dollars.
But this summer, Arizona’s model of success for public campaigns was in danger of being overturned. A handful of Republican politicians and businesspeople hoped to sink the state’s Clean Elections program — using the same corporate money that Arizonans chose to push out of elections six years ago.
The dirt on clean money
Clean Elections advocates say the program has lived up to expectations: According to studies by the nonpartisan Institute on Money in State Politics based in Helena, Mont., between 1998 and 2002, private campaign contributions in Arizona from developers, insurance companies, realtors and lobbyists decreased 32 percent. Financial disparity between incumbent politicians and unknown challengers dropped by 30 percent. Not only that, but according to the nonprofit Clean Elections Institute in Phoenix, since 2000, Arizona has had more candidates running for office, higher voter turnout, fewer uncontested races, and more minority and women candidates.
Meg Burton-Cahill is a ceramic artist who says she never would have run for political office before the Clean Elections program. Now, she’s a two-term Democrat representing a deeply Republican district of Tempe in the state House of Representatives. Cahill-Burton credits Clean Elections for "bringing different people (like myself) into the mix" who reflect and represent the diversity of the state’s citizens.
Cahill-Burton also says Clean Elections campaigns "encourage candidates to be true to their constituency" instead of to big-dollar donors from inside and outside the state.
But not everyone is happy about that: U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, R, and Nathan Sproul, former state director of the Republican Party and the Christian Coalition, formed No Taxpayer Money for Politicians last year to create a November ballot initiative to ban the use of public funds for political campaigns.
The group spent $500,000 from the Homebuilders Association and a handful of wealthy contributors to gather petition signatures this summer. Eric Crown, head of the billion-dollar computer company, Insight Enterprises, aided the cause with $30,000. This June, he told The Arizona Republic that the Clean Elections program is "bad for democracy. I’m glad we can stop it right here in Arizona." But a ruling by the state Supreme Court this month said the proposed initiative is unconstitutional and yanked it from the ballot — stalling a showdown.
That’s encouraging news for the 35 other states are considering similar programs and looking to Arizona’s example. In Wyoming, Tom Throop of the Equality State Policy Center says Arizona’s success has created momentum for Western states to establish their own public campaign systems. The defeat of Clean Elections "would make it more difficult for other states in the region to move forward," says Throop. "Momentum would be lost."
The author writes from Paonia, Colorado.
Keep It Clean, No on 106 Doug Ramsey, 602-263-7894, www.azkeepitclean.org
Clean Elections Institute Barbara Lubin, 602-840-6633