Publicly Financed Hopefuls on Rise

Posted on June 14, 2002 | Type: In the News
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John O'Donnell taught high school for 28 years and became more and more disenchanted with Arizona's beleaguered educational system.

The Cottonwood resident wanted to get into state politics to help revamp public schools, but he didn't feel comfortable asking people for lots of money to bankroll his campaign. So O'Donnell, like hundreds of incumbents and political newcomers, is using the state's new program of publicly funding candidates.

"Clean Elections is a huge reason why I'm running for office," said O'Donnell, a Democrat running for the state Senate. "I don't have any trouble going up and asking people for $5. I have a lot of trouble asking $5,000 from 10 people. I feel better about doing it this way."

In 2002, Arizona's Clean Elections Law has helped change the state's political system. A complete list of campaign filings for the Sept. 10 primary shows not only that more people are running for office, but far more candidates are taking advantage of the funding method passed by voters in November 1998:

Thirty of 39 statewide candidates are running as Clean Elections candidates, as are half of the 221 legislative candidates.

In 1998, before voters passed the law, there were 135 legislative candidates on the ballot. This year, there are more than 221 legislative candidates.

Nine of the 10 candidates for governor are running as "clean" candidates.

The state also has term limits and a newly drawn political map that opens up seats, but most experts say Clean Elections is the political change most responsible for the record number of candidates on the 2002 ballot.

Supporters say it has removed a financial barrier for legislative candidates and persuaded people running for lesser-known statewide offices, such as treasurer, to go for public money.

Critics, however, say it violates free speech by using public money to fund candidates a person may not believe in.

Nevertheless, Bert Coleman, a Phoenix-based political consultant who worked in the first Bush White House, said Clean Elections "is here to stay."

"For newcomers, it gives them legitimacy and they can circumvent the traditional system," Coleman said. "A lot of people across the country are looking at Arizona as a possible model. The bottom line is that Clean Elections is now an option."

The law is complex but the idea is to have candidates forgo private contributions and instead collect piles of $5 donations. There are different thresholds for each office. For example, gubernatorial candidates need to collect 4,000 $5 contributions; legislative candidates need 200 $5 donations to qualify for public money.

Even conservative Republicans, who openly criticized Clean Elections when it was on the ballot, are now using the technique. Conservatives such as Tempe Rep. Laura Knaperek, gubernatorial candidate Carol Springer and attorney general candidate Andrew Thomas are using public money.

The money is raised with a surcharge on court fines and voluntary income tax donations. The newly created Clean Elections Commission, a five-member panel, said it will have about $15 million in its vault to cover the election cycle.

Opponents say that publicly financed elections will lower the quality of candidates by enticing people with the prospect of "free money."

"I would argue that quality of candidates running for office is reduced," said Rep. Steve May, R-Paradise Valley. "Under the old system, you had to convince people to part with their hard-earned cash in order to be viable. Under Clean Elections, any idiot can get quite a large sum of money to run for office."

The Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank, said the name of the law is a huge misnomer because it will mask the influence of special interest groups. The institute also contends it's a waste of taxpayer money because fringe candidates will lose anyway.

But Richard Petranka, who is running for state treasurer, said that Clean Elections made it easier for him to run for a post that doesn't get a lot of publicity.

"It made my decision a lot easier," said Petranka, a Republican.

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