States Try Publicly Financing Races

Posted on September 06, 2002 | Type: In the News
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ASSOCIATED PRESS NEWSWIRES

With four states now offering public funds to help people run for office, the effort to take private money out of politics is getting its biggest test yet this fall.

Hundreds of candidates are running so-called clean election campaigns, with Arizona's race for governor leading the way - five of the 10 candidates in Tuesday's primary have opted for public financing.

Yet the outcome of this campaign finance experiment is still unclear.

While Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont also have clean elections laws, there's resistance to tapping the public for the bill, top candidates are showing a mixed reaction to the idea, and some wonder if national momentum for the concept has stalled.

Among the recent setbacks for clean elections:

  • In the Arizona governor's race, former GOP Rep. Matt Salmon refused public money, arguing it forces taxpayers to support politicians.
  • In Maine, some Democrats complained that a Green Independent Party candidate who received $900,000 in public funds could prove a spoiler in the governor's race.
  • In Massachusetts, where voters approved the system but the Legislature repeatedly refused to fund it, courts had to order auctions of state-owned cars and property to come up with campaign funds.

"Clearly, clean elections is struggling. But as in anything in its infancy, there is a struggle," said Jay Blanchard, a college professor who used public money to defeat Arizona's powerful House speaker in 2000.

"It's such a profound change. You're trying to reverse a ship that's been going full-steam ahead for 200 years," said Blanchard, now a Democratic candidate for state superintendent of public instruction.

Candidates in Arizona, operating under laws similar to those in the other states, must prove they're viable by gathering hundreds of individual $5 contributions. They then get set amounts of cash to campaign and can't raise any more private money.

If they're outspent by privately funded candidates, the state will keep pace - up to $1.2 million in the Arizona gubernatorial primaries, and $1.8 million in the general election.

Three of the four candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial primary are receiving public money, including front-runner Janet Napolitano.

"This is just a different world altogether," said Napolitano, now the state's attorney general. "You can really just focus on voters, and do a much more grass-roots campaign."

In some races, candidates say they reluctantly went with public financing because their hard work raising funds would only be matched with more state money for their opponents.

"There's a lot of disincentives" to private funding, said Democratic state Sen. Harry Mitchell, who is running for re-election in Arizona. Two years ago, he raised $100,000 to beat a publicly financed challenger, but this year he's running "clean."

Others are much more critical. Salmon, a former three-term congressman, kicked off his race with a broadside against the system: "I'm the only candidate that is running for governor that is not going to take your tax dollars to fund my campaign."

Democrats in Massachusetts and Republicans in Arizona alike have attacked their systems as "welfare for politicians."

"Part of your First Amendment rights is to be able to support the candidates you want," said Robert Franciosi at the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank in Phoenix. "To limit the ability to do that, and to channel all resources through one bureaucratic agency, reduces the amount of political speech that's out there."

Critics also question advocates' claims that clean elections spur more competition or change policy debates in government.

Advocates, however, dismiss the attacks, especially for legislatures. They note Arizona is paying for 117 publicly financed campaigns out of 208 candidates running; in Maine, 225 are publicly financed out of 371.

"We're trying to get people back into politics," said Micah Sifry with Public Campaign, a Washington-based advocacy group. "We're trying to make it possible for average people to run for office, and run a viable campaign."

Yet not all candidates are picking the publicly financed route.

In the Maine governor's race, just one Republican and one Green Independent Party candidate chose it. Only one gubernatorial candidate got public financing in Massachusetts, and none did in Vermont. In Massachusetts, others said they would go public but for worries that money would not be available. In Vermont, there have been doubts that the system could protect them from big, private spenders or independent ad campaigns.

Courts, meanwhile, have struck down public funding sources in Arizona. There's an ongoing legal battle over private spending caps in Vermont, where lawmakers raided the clean elections budget.

Even more troubling for advocates is whether the clean election model will be embraced elsewhere.

Two years ago, voters in Missouri and Oregon rejected initiatives. No new initiative efforts have emerged, though legislative proposals have been introduced in a half-dozen states.

In Arizona, Mitchell, the state senator, said he's learning to like running a cheaper campaign, though it isn't easy.

"It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks," said the former Tempe mayor, who figures he's on his 15th campaign. "The good thing is you don't have to go out and beg for money."

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