The Dirty Truth about "Clean" Elections

Last summer, Margarite Dale went on a spending spree.

The 44-year-old Glendale mom bought two computers — a monitor, desktop, and laptop, plus a full set of software for both. Total cost: $2,409. And she didn't stop there. In just a few weeks' time, Dale also purchased a $709 camera and $1,323 in office supplies.

So is Margarite Dale a compulsive shopper? A desperate housewife with a yen for Fry's Electronics?

Not even close. Dale was a Clean Elections candidate for the Arizona House of Representatives. As a member of the Green Party, she didn't have a chance of winning, but she still qualified for full funding under Arizona law. So when it came time to foot the bill for her schmancy new electronic equipment, the taxpayers of Arizona got stuck with the bill.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it turns out that even during these tough economic times, you and I are footing the bill for politicians to purchase home-office supplies, sushi dinners, even the occasional GPS system. And our candidates for office get to keep that stuff when the campaign is over — the expenses in question are, apparently, perfectly legal.

The state's landmark Clean Elections system began with the best of intentions. Progressives wanted to reduce the role of money in politics — taxpayer-funded elections seemed a brilliant way to take down special interests and give control back to the people.

But in the 10 years since voters approved the system, it's become a source of irregularities. Today we have politicians using Clean Elections money as personal slush funds. We have Clean Elections being used as just one more tool in the fine art of what Richard Nixon's guys used to call "ratfucking." And, ultimately, we have a Legislature that's more stupid, and more reactionary, than ever.

So much for the progressive wet dream.

After an election cycle that some politicians call the dirtiest in recent history, a growing number of legislators are talking about reform. Meanwhile, a lawsuit pending in federal court from the libertarian Goldwater Institute has a good chance of stripping away some key provisions of Clean Elections on First Amendment grounds. And the Clean Elections Commission has actually hired its own well-connected lobbyist to represent its interests at the Legislature.

No matter what happens next, big changes are on the way. And that's got people talking. They're wondering whether Clean Elections will survive the Goldwater lawsuit. They're wondering whether it's possible to reform the system enough to stop the high jinks.

And, most importantly, they're wondering whether these so-called "clean" elections are worth $15 million in public funds every year. If the system's not getting any cleaner, and the candidates aren't getting any better, what's the point?


Clean Elections sprung out of a reform movement that flourished in Arizona in the late '90s. After the AzScam scandal suggested that any legislator could be bought for a few hundred dollars, and Governor Fife Symington was convicted of fraud and forced to resign his office, progressives figured the state was ready for real change.

In that heady era, Clean Elections was just one in a series of initiatives pitched to voters. (We also got an independent redistricting commission, term limits, and a vote-by-mail option.) Clean Elections was pushed by activists at Common Cause and supported by well-meaning lefties across the country. Molly Ivins, the folksy columnist who got her start at the alternative weekly newspaper in Austin, Texas, even came to town to stump on its behalf.

They made a compelling case. Take the money out of politics, and surely you'd get politicians less beholden to special interest groups.

You'd think the "special interests" would have fought tooth and nail to derail the plan. This was a direct assault on their power.

But the opposition was oddly silent. The local Republican Party was in total disarray after Symington stepped down, and the Chamber of Commerce crowd seemed to underestimate the power of the movement. Jay Heiler, a political consultant who had been Symington's chief of staff, recalls that when the Arizona Republic's editorial board met with leaders in the Clean Election movement to weigh an endorsement, they literally couldn't find any organized opposition to invite as a counterweight. (They ended up inviting Heiler, who had no stake in the matter other than that he opposed it on principle.)

No matter. By pitching the plan as "clean elections" rather than "public financing for elections," the initiative's backers hit the electoral jackpot. When Arizona said yes to the plan, it was one of just two states in the union (Maine being the other) to attempt full government financing for state elections.

But if the idea is simple, the execution's been a bit more complicated.

Rather than spending their time hitting up lobbyists and lawyers for the $840 maximum contribution allowed under Arizona law, "clean" candidates for the Legislature instead collect $5 donations from 200 friends and neighbors. (For statewide races, like governor and corporation commissioner, the threshold number of signatures is much higher, but the $5 limit stays the same.)

Once candidates hit the magic number, they automatically get a check from the state-run Clean Elections Commission. Should they advance to the primary, they get another one.

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21 comments
Henry
Henry

"The state's landmark Clean Elections system began with the best of intentions. Progressives wanted to reduce the role of money in politics…"

And this is progressivism in a nutshell. Pass a stupid law "with good intentions," then never take any responsibility for the actual consequences. When it doesn't succeed or (more often) actually proves destructive, do they ever repeal the failed law? No, they "fix it" by layering on it another stupid law "with good intentions," until the whole edifice eventually comes crashing down.

iJames
iJames

Your language is offensive. Your loathing of progress is too. Take your foul biased mouth and go simmer with other partisan nutjobs.

Maassive
Maassive

Hmmmm... Does Fenske remember what it was like to search campaign finance records before the Clean Elections Act took effect?

Jim
Jim

"Clean Elections means more independent candidates, and not the same ol�, same ol� who keep getting elected in this state."

The problem is that has not happened. The promise goal of Clean Campaign Funds has not been realized. The reasons for that are not all that complicated. One of the reasons is the way Clean Campaign Funds are run and the "rules" that one must follow while competing with well funded, well organized party machinery that has nothing to do with a persons own campaign funds. The playing field is NOT level.

Using Clean Campaign Funds puts a candidate at a disadvantage from the get go IF your competition is being propped up by either party's state machinery.

The problem with elections in Arizona and the U.S. in general is the public just does not want to open its eyes and see what is going on AND the media is not going to report it as it really is. The media is a leach earning its way off the system as it is.

Clean Campaign Funds fixes nothing. Its a drop of clean water into a very large barrel of a putrid mess. Fix the barrel of putrid mess!

Jim
Jim

Could you slant this article a little more favorable for Jackie Thrasher? I mean really? Are you her speech writer?

Maybe her children were born by immaculate conception?

Your bias really distracts from the news in this article.

Dave
Dave

Randy P. and the Goldwater Institute concern about the First Amendment is heart rendering, but in reality they don't care one iota about the First Amendment. There version of the First Amendment means the big money guys they have always supported will always get their money to run their "message" and anyone else should just stay out. Their version of the First Amendment is grounded in the interests of conservative think tanks, less taxes for big developers and corporations, less regulation on billboard companies, and right wing religious groups. These groups need anyone else to have no chance at running, to keep our low tax, low pay, State model going on a race to the bottom of education, and university support. These two cannot stand the thought that an AEA member, an environmentalist, an AFL-CIO candidate, or or any local official, ie, school board member or city council person, grounded in reality, would ever be successful, if they don't come, hat in hand to big money interests, to run for State office. Our current system has elected some small time candidates, including a few Republicans that would otherwise never had a chance, including one in Mohave County. Make a few corrections to the law, but to throw it out means the Goldwater version of the First Amendment will always rule.

Editorial Assistant
Editorial Assistant

From Letters to the Editor:

Sarah Fenske�s story exposed an outrage in these hard economic times. We can no longer afford this lefty law. Clean Elections financing sushi dinners. The very idea!

Franklin Dent, Bullhead City

Editorial Assistant
Editorial Assistant

From Letters to the Editor:

There�ll be a load of big-spending pols who will agree with the premise in Sarah Fenske�s story that it�s bad for taxpayers to fund candidates who couldn�t otherwise run. But aren�t these kind of office-seekers at the foundation of our democracy? Who knows, maybe one of them will eff up and win? We can�t just return to the time when seeking office was a rich person�s game only. Sure, there are abuses, but stop them and move ahead with what was -- and is -- a good idea.

Lisa Summerfield, Denver

Editorial Assistant
Editorial Assistant

From Letters to the Editor:

We shouldn�t throw Clean Elections away because there are loopholes. Close the loopholes, and it will still be a good idea. Of course, it�s bad that some fringe candidates use the money as �personal slush funds,� but they are the exception not the rule.

Beth Spitz, Tucson

Editorial Assistant
Editorial Assistant

From Letters to the Editor:

There are many times when candidates without the wherewithal to run for office are able to do so because of Clean Elelctions� funds. You focused too much on the problems and not enough on the good. Clean Elections means more independent candidates, and not the same ol�, same ol� who keep getting elected in this state, because they get plenty of money from special interests.

Andrew White, Phoenix

Editorial Assistant
Editorial Assistant

From Letters to the Editor:

Sarah Fenske�s Clean Elections law story was spot on. She brought up all the problems with the law therein, identifying what needs to be done. Get rid of the damn law!

Sandy Richardson, Phoenix

Editorial Assistant
Editorial Assistant

From Letters to the Editor:

I read with interest your recent article entitled, �The Dirty Truth about �Clean Elections� and was delighted to learn that your in-depth examination has revealed what Republicans in Arizona have argued since the inception of the program nearly a decade ago: The law lacks the fundamental understanding of our 1st amendment right to free speech, in any of its various forms, including financial contributions to state and local candidates for office who share your political views. The Goldwater Institute rightfully asserts that Arizona�s Clean Elections statutes are a violation of our 1st amendment right to free speech and thereby unconstitutional. In fact, as the piece clearly illustrates, the system of publicly financed campaigns does more harm than good to our election process. The political reality is that the system rewards fringe candidates with little public support and discourages civic leaders from taking part in the process. Frankly, I�m encouraged that New Times would print such an insightful article, and you are to be commended for your diligence in interviewing various candidates - from both sides of the aisle - who clearly describe that our worst fears are indeed coming to fruition. I would like to also mention who was the key proponent and financier behind this voter initiative, none other than Jim Pederson, Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2006 and former chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party. As we have learned time and again, government does very little well and usually at a great expense. Clean Elections is no exception and is a gigantic waste of our hard-earned taxpayers� money. With the elimination of just this particular program, how many teachers� jobs could we save? How many after-school programs could be fully funded? It is my hope that this article builds on the groundswell of bipartisan opposition against this ill-conceived voter initiative. From all indications, I expect that the litigation the Goldwater Institute has brought forward is successful in sweeping this unfortunate governmental intrusion on our constitutional rights into Arizona�s history books. It is this kind of thoughtful journalism that New Times should continue to print, and I would encourage them to submit the piece for an AZ Press Club award.

Randy Pullen, Arizona Republican Party chairman

Fascist Nation
Fascist Nation

CLean elections expenditures are perfectly OK unless you happen to be three young college age students in an ASU district whom qualify, and spend $100,000 on car rentals, laptops and pumping your potential voters at the local nightclubs in your district. Then you must be made example of. Even though everything you did was perfectly legal. MADE

EXAMPLE

OF

Dave
Dave

The problem is that the First Amendment has somehow been corrupted by court interpretation to mean spending unlimited amounts of money equals free speech. Stand on a soap box in the town square all day if you want. Yet the ones with money are always trying to limit someone else from spending money on "free Speech", usually some union's speech. But for corporations, the NRA, and the Club for Growth spending millions means getting it "message" out. The $5.00 donation from mutiple small doners is really the correct approach, to obtain the Clean elections funding. It is too bad the system is manipulated.

KTARSUCKSdotCOM
KTARSUCKSdotCOM

We can't throw Clean Elections away because of some loopholes. Close the loopholes and tighten up the laws. If we want to keep it (and we should), then all candidates must run clean. This alone will solve the nastiest abuses spoken about in the article.

And as for Reps running as Greens, then make it mandatory that candidates belong to the party they are running for a year or two.

Marcy
Marcy

Steve,

You can't ban private dollars from elections due to a little thing called FREE SPEECH.

And "free" doesn't refer to the cost of the speech.

This was all quite predictable.

Steve
Steve

How's this for real reform? ALL political campaigns are publicly funded. NO candidate can spend his own money or raise a penny from anyone. To get on the ballot to begin with a candidate would have to get a qualifying number of signatures and he couldn't hire anyone to do that for him. Media ads up to X amount of dollars would be available to all candidates at taxpayer expense, and no other media buys would be allowed,period. THAT is a level playing field. NO PRIVATE MONEY AT ALL ALLOWED.

Dave
Dave

There are a number of cases where Clean Elections helped a good candidate run without raising money left and right. You should write about the good circumstances. There will always be those who game the system. Is is better to have only those who can raise money from special interests running? The voters have to be smart enough to see through the frauds. In this State some voters will vote for the most extreme candidate regardless. That is how Governor Mecham got into office. Even without Clean Elections on the Federal level that buffoon Trent Franks keeps getting reelected, voters blindly voting for this one track ideologue.

Concerned Citizen
Concerned Citizen

It's hard to outdo Coz's comment. He hit the nail on the head.

Coz
Coz

There is no such thing as Clean Politicians, so how can there be clean elections ?

 
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