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.)

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske