Nine years ago, U.S. Senate candidate Richard Kimball implored Arizona journalists to "follow the money" that was flowing into his opponent's campaign coffers.
Few heeded the Democrat's pleadings. The 1986 senatorial race lifted Republican John McCain, a two-term member of the House of Representatives, into the U.S. Senate to replace the retiring Barry Goldwater.
Kimball's warning to closely examine the financial underpinnings of McCain's campaign later proved to be more than the desperate plea of an underdog candidate. Within three years, McCain became tarred as a Keating Five senator for doing the bidding of Phoenix financier Charles H Keating Jr. after receiving $112,000 in campaign contributions from Keating and his minions.
After his defeat, Kimball slipped out of Phoenix, heading to Tucson briefly before landing in Corvallis, Oregon, with a new mission. If the press wouldn't follow the money and report on the voting records and positions of elected officials, he decided, then, by God, he would.
An idealist--in 1986, he discussed so many issues that he never developed a concise campaign platform--Kimball is also a veteran of political life.
As a member of the Arizona Corporation Commission in the early 1980s, he oversaw tumultuous hearings on the impact of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station on Arizona electricity rates. He knows how political battles are won and lost--and how little real information voters often receive about candidates for office.
Kimball and dozens of other political reformers hope to provide much of that data through Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan information distribution center that operates in conjunction with the Center for National Independence in Politics at Oregon State University.
Kimball has served as executive director of the group since its founding in 1988. From its humble beginnings in a leaky warehouse in Tucson, Project Vote Smart has grown to include 37,000 members and an illustrious list of sponsors, among them former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Politicians are welcome to join the board of Project Vote Smart--but only if each of them persuades a political enemy to join, as well.
That requirement makes for an odd list of supporters for Kimball's project. They range from former presidential candidates Barry Goldwater and George McGovern to current political movers and shakers like House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Among the other founding board members are several with Arizona ties--Richard Kleindienst, Lewis Tambs, Marianne Jennings and Jon Trachta.
Project Vote Smart does not lobby, or support or oppose any cause or candidate. It accepts no money from the government and refuses all corporate and special-interest funds.
It does provide information, and plenty of it.
With help from a $200,000 Ford Foundation grant and a handful of sharp college interns, Project Vote Smart has established a free home page on the World Wide Web portion of the Internet (HTTP://wwww.vote-smart.org) and an Internet Gopher site (gopher.new.edu), as well; both provide gateways to reams of political information.
The World Wide Web site is particularly useful because it links together scores of other political databases that often were difficult to find. Information from the White House, Congress, Supreme Court and Congressional Record is easily accessible. The site provides access to daily reports on legislation through a service called CongressTrack.
The Gopher site provides background information on officeholders--voting records, campaign contributions, personal and political background and addresses, including fax, e-mail, regular mail and phone numbers. The computer links also provide access to photos and text of speeches by the president, members of Congress and the Cabinet.
Project Vote Smart issues detailed questionnaires to many candidates for office. The results are available through the computer links or by calling the organization at 1-800-622-SMART, where a staff of volunteer interns assists in gathering specific information.
If computers are not accessible, Project Vote Smart has published a booklet titled U.S. Government: Owner's Manual/A Report Card on Your Representatives. The booklet, financed by a $150,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation, is available free to Arizona residents who call Project Vote Smart.
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The booklet deals with Congress and includes questionnaire results, campaign finance information, voting records on 19 key issues and evaluations by national organizations of varying ideological bents.
Project Vote Smart has ambitious plans. In addition to its congressional information service, the project wants to cover every legislative race in the country. The group intends to interview and compile information on 20,000 candidates in the 1996 campaign cycle.
The data on Arizona is sparse at this point. Only Governor Fife Symington's response to the group's questionnaire is currently available. But that will change, says Adelaide B. Elm, a project spokeswoman.
"We are continuing to expand our presence on the World Wide Web," she says.
A decade after his decisive public defeat in Arizona, Kimball, now a reclusive figure who declined several requests for an interview, may finally have achieved political victory, after all.