Arizona elections stay 'clean'

Despite a challenge from big business, the state's public campaign program prevails

  • Meg Burton-Cahill, Leah Landrom-Taylor and Debbie McCune-Davis are all Arizona state legislators who ran Clean Elections campaigns

    Photo courtesy Meg Burton-Cahill
 

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

High Country News Classifieds
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....