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Lost Cause

Arizona Common Cause -- the local affiliate of the national watchdog organization -- quietly closed its doors December 1.

The abrupt end to the longtime Arizona grassroots lobby raises questions about who really made the decision to close Arizona Common Cause, and, given its lack of effectiveness in recent years, how much of a difference such a closure really makes.

Ed Davis, national director of state organizations for Common Cause in Washington, D.C., says his group cut off Arizona because the affiliate was more than $35,000 in debt to the national group. Each of Common Cause's 40-plus state affiliates is expected to raise funds to chip in for local operating expenses like office rent and salaries; in recent times, Arizona refused.

"It's unfortunate, and we hope at some point in the future we'll be able to rebuild some sort of presence there," Davis says.

Dennis Burke, executive director of Arizona Common Cause when it folded, tells a different story. He says the locals decided to break from the national group, not the other way around. Burke, who headed the Arizona affiliate for the past several years, explains that his group made the decision this year to focus on fund-raising for Proposition 106 -- the independent redistricting commission plan that passed in November -- instead of raising money to sustain its affiliation with Common Cause.

Far from suffering as fund raisers, Burke claims Arizona Common Cause had its most successful fund-raising year ever, running the Proposition 106 "million-dollar campaign."

But when it's pointed out to Burke that far more than half that money was donated by one man -- millionaire developer Jim Pederson, who also chaired the campaign -- Burke immediately changes his tack, criticizing Common Cause on a philosophical level. He says the group has put too much effort into pushing for the McCain-Feingold federal campaign finance reform legislation, and not enough into state and municipal reform efforts. He complains that recent polling showed that only 12 percent of Arizonans know what Common Cause is. After a phone interview, he e-mails this additional observation: "National Common Cause, I think, is refashioning itself into a think tank, rather than a grass roots organization. That may be a good idea, as research has always been their strong suit."



Membership in Arizona Common Cause has dipped dramatically -- from 4,700 in 1993 to 2,500 this year.

Common Cause was founded in 1970 as a nonpartisan, citizens' lobbying group -- an alternative to the special interests lobbying Congress. The founders had good timing; in 1972, when the Watergate scandal broke, the group's membership burgeoned.

In the mid-'80s and early '90s, Arizona Common Cause was a force to be reckoned with, under the tutelage of then-executive director Dana Larsen. Larsen had a constant presence at the Arizona Legislature and earned grudging respect on both sides of the aisle.

But since Larsen left his post in 1993, Arizona Common Cause has faltered under a series of inexperienced, less dynamic leaders who weren't as good as Larsen at juggling fund raising, lobbying, political campaigning and organizing.



Arizona Common Cause no longer had the reputation it once enjoyed at the state Capitol.

Stuart Goodman, a partner in the public affairs firm Goodman-Schwartz, has worked the Legislature for 11 years, in city and state government, most recently for Governor Jane Dee Hull. "I don't think there was any impact after Dana," he says.

National Common Cause's Davis says, "Dana did an excellent job. He was involved actively in Arizona in some of the reform fights. He was very helpful to us nationally in our fights in Congress."

And those who followed Larsen? "I want to avoid talking specifically about staff people. Dana was very good. I'm less familiar with some of the others that followed him," Davis says.

State Senator Chris Cummiskey agrees that Common Cause has had less of an impact recently, but still laments the loss. "I think it's unfortunate for democracy in Arizona," he says.

Here in Arizona, Dennis Burke has taken credit for two major reform wins -- Proposition 106 and 1998's Clean Elections law -- but he and Arizona Common Cause were not popular with either campaign. Consultants and volunteers on the campaigns say Burke stole the limelight and exaggerated his involvement with both efforts.

"Dennis was constantly seeking out media attention on his own and being quoted saying things that . . . weren't on message," says one Clean Elections campaigner who asked not to be identified.

State Senator-elect Susan Gerard, who was involved in the 106 campaign, says Burke "wasn't exactly responsive" to needs on that campaign. As for contributions? "I don't think those [Common Cause] guys can take credit for a single goddamn contribution."

And, Gerard adds, "I can't believe how poorly they treated Jim Pederson with all that he did."

Dennis Burke may have parted ways with Common Cause, but will continue as a reformer, he says. He and other local activists have created a new group called the Arizona Good Government Association. Burke says the two priorities will be to focus on municipal issues and send political science majors and senior citizens to the Legislature to lobby.

Burke made the news official on Monday in an e-mail to supporters. He says he is keeping the office, phone number and Web site address (www.arizonatimes.com) he used at Arizona Common Cause. He intends to support his new effort with "private donations, as usual," he says.

"In the meantime, we're operating as frugally as we can."

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.