The Dirty Truth about "Clean" Elections | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona

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...

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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.

The money comes not from lobbyists or fat cats, but ordinary citizens who check off a box on their income tax returns to earmark $5 for Clean Elections. There's also a 10 percent surcharge on fees associated with all county court cases.

By agreeing to run "clean," candidates make certain promises. Other than a minimal amount of startup funds, they have to agree not to raise any more money. They also have to agree to accept Clean Elections' spending limits as absolute. Even if a candidate has $1 million in the bank, once he accepts the "clean" label, he can't use it on his own campaign.

Complicating things even more, the system is optional. So-called traditional candidates opt out of the "clean" system, raising as much as $840 from any donor per election cycle. They can also use their own money.

There's a catch, though. If Richie Rich spends $100,000 on his campaign, his "clean" opponents get matching funds to even the playing field. If your opponent is well funded, Clean Elections sees to it that you are, too.

By some measures, Clean Elections has been a success. The biggest fear originally was that legitimate candidates simply wouldn't use the "clean" option. Reporting requirements were too onerous, critics said, and limits too low. Others worried that not enough people would agree to donate $5 to keep the system solvent.

Those fears simply haven't been realized. So many people check their tax forms agreeing to give $5 to the cause that Clean Elections is flush with money. The Clean Elections Commission has actually "donated" $34.8 million to the general fund since 2003 — more than it's taken in $5 check-offs, spokesman Mike Becker says. In this tough-on-crime state, surcharges on criminal and traffic cases are that lucrative.

And legitimate candidates are increasingly opting to run clean. In 2002, 52 percent of all general election candidates ran as clean candidates. By 2008, that number had risen to nearly 65 percent, according to a New Times analysis.

And while Republicans have always lagged a bit behind Democrats in opting into the system, their numbers are similarly on the rise. Last year, exactly half of all general election GOP candidates chose to go with Clean Elections, according to a review of election data.

But while the system is clearly popular with both voters and politicians, it's a different story among political observers.

Janice Goldstein is a lobbyist with the left-leaning Arizona Trial Lawyers Association. She was never a supporter of Clean Elections, but she says that even she's been surprised by the low-quality candidates it's brought to the statehouse.

"As one of my members said, it's not just that they haven't talked to people with so-called special interests," she says. "We've got people who haven't talked to anybody! They collect their $5 contributions, get the government check, and they literally arrive here knowing nobody."

Heiler, the Republican, agrees.

"Instead of making our politics more clean, it's actually made it more polarized — and more accessible to relatively inept people."

Anyone who delights in the lurid minutiae of Arizona politics can tell you the story of Yuri Downing, Trevor Clevenger, and Paul Donati, a trio of young Scottsdale residents who registered to run as "clean" libertarian candidates in 2002, only to blow $86,000 on stuff like sushi and drinks at Sanctuary.

The three claimed that they were running a campaign designed to target ASU students and other disenfranchised voters. They had to hang out at places like RA Sushi and O Lounge because that's where the voters are, they claimed. Ha ha.

The Clean Elections Commission didn't find the campaign plan quite so humorous. It ordered the men to pay back nearly all the funds — and the Arizona Attorney General's Office was annoyed enough to prosecute Downing for fraud, perjury, and theft. (After pleading guilty to perjury, Downing went on the lam — he was finally arrested at a Tucson car wash last summer.)

But while the Scottsdale Three have been the most publicized example, they're hardly alone. A New Times review of campaign reports from the most recent election cycle found plenty of publicly funded expenditures that, at minimum, raise questions.

Candidates seem to have the philosophy that if the money is there, they might as well spend it. And that's led to some dubious outlays:

• Doug Quelland, a Glendale Republican, spent $795 at a bicycle shop.

• En route to winning his seat in Mesa, Republican Cecil Ash spent $323 on Segway ramps and $384 for a video camera.

• On the final day of a hotly contested Republican primary in north Phoenix, now-state Representative Carl Seel lavished $405 on a GPS unit for his car — along with a two-year service plan.

• Tempe Democrat Ed Ableser drew scorn in a previous run, in 2006, for spending $287 to rent a "frozen drink machine" from Cactus Rita. But his report in 2008 shows the lesson went unlearned — it's a near-endless list of foodstuffs. Blessed with $41,517, Ableser managed to spend $886 on "staff dinners" and food for himself, dining everywhere from RA Sushi to House of Tricks. At one point, Ableser even charged his campaign $4 for a cup of coffee at Xtreme Bean Coffee Company.

Some candidates also appear to have used public funds to enrich their own business interests. Republican Andre Campos was given $45,841 in public funds for his unsuccessful Senate bid. He spent more than half of it, $23,155, at a firm called Image Design Communications.

The firm's sole owner? Andre Campos himself — a guy who lists his principal business as a firm called Spanky Entertainment Marketing. Yep, Campos apparently took a break from marketing bars and clubs to obtain public funding to market himself. (Campos didn't return calls for comment.)

John Fillmore, a Republican running for state representative in Apache Junction, didn't even bother writing a check to a company he owned. Instead, he simply paid himself $2,861 in "petty cash/miscellaneous." Fillmore says he used the cash to avoid his bank's "exorbitant" checking fees.

Fillmore also paid $17,350 to Mesa attorney Daniel Washburn for "communications," according to records. Washburn was "helping me a lot, helping me orchestrate polling places throughout the district," Fillmore says. Would that help have cost so much if he weren't running with a slush fund, courtesy of the taxpayers? Fillmore isn't sure.

"Yeah, it's a lot of money, but it also isn't," he says. "You try to spend where you can and get some good out of it. You don't know if you are or not. You just kind of give it your best shot, you know?"

Then there's Daniel Veres, a Republican running in South Phoenix. He paid a former radio DJ $21,558 for "get out the vote" efforts and "communication" — including, at one point, $540 to set up a MySpace page.

Veres says he's happy with his consultant's efforts, but he didn't exactly get much bang for his buck. His MySpace page drew just 48 friends.

Jackie Thrasher is just the kind of candidate the Clean Elections system was designed to help. The Glendale mom was a band teacher at Lookout Mountain Elementary, a pragmatic Democrat who knew about life beyond politics but didn't have the money or wealthy contacts necessary to finance a campaign.

So when Thrasher ran for office in 2006, she ran clean. Without Clean Elections, Thrasher would have spent months courting donors and raising money. With it, the mom and teacher took just weeks to qualify for the $65,699 she eventually received to finance her campaign.

Thrasher is still grateful for the support. But last fall, when she was up for re-election, she saw the dark side of Clean Elections. Locked in a tight campaign with the small business owner she'd unseated just two years before, Thrasher was forced to stand by as her opponents gamed the very system that was supposed to prevent corruption.

In 2008, both Thrasher and her opponent, Republican Doug Quelland, ran as clean candidates. But the Clean Elections Commission recently examined allegations that Quelland illegally exceeded spending limits in his narrow victory.

According to testimony at the commission's meeting last December, Quelland hired a company called Intermedia to do some consulting and build a Web site. Intermedia's owner, Larry Davis, says the candidate paid him $11,000, plus free rent in a strip mall Quelland owned.

Quelland never reported that as a campaign expense. At the commission meeting, his lawyer argued that the work performed by Davis was merely a benefit to Quelland's business, a coffee shop, not the campaign. He agreed that the initial contract did call for campaign work, but that Quelland wasn't happy with Davis' services and fired him.

Davis angrily disputed that.

"[I]f you go [to] Mr. Quelland's bank and subpoena his records, you will have $11,000 in payments to my firm," he said. "Again, not for passing out fliers [for the coffee shop]. My vendors will also come in here and tell you as well that they worked with our firm well past March 10 to create his red [campaign] 'Q' T-shirts, to create his fliers . . .

"And I will be glad to bring folks in here at any time to tell you that we were out there pounding those signs with Mr. Quelland every day of the week."

The stakes are high. If Davis really did $11,000 in work for Quelland's campaign, it would put Quelland well over the spending limits he agreed to as a clean candidate. Those limits are strictly enforced for a reason: The system simply wouldn't work if candidates took an infusion from government, only to subsidize their campaigns secretly with their own funds.

While Quelland's lawyer denied the charges, the commission has directed its staff to investigate further. (Quelland did not respond to a request for comment.)

If the commission finds that Quelland exceeded his spending limits to that degree, he could be removed from office — a fate that's been suffered by only one previous candidate, David Burnell Smith.

But that's small consolation to the Democrats, who lost the seat by the narrowest of margins. As Jackie Thrasher points out, even if Quelland is removed, it's up to leaders in his own party to replace him.

And Quelland's alleged overspending was hardly the only dirty trick that Clean Elections may have unwittingly financed in District 10. Far more insidious is the very strange case of Margarite Dale, the aforementioned housewife turned Green Party candidate.

When Dale filed papers to run, Thrasher thought it was no big deal. "I saw a Green candidate had filed, and I thought, 'Good for them,'" she says. "Having a number of options and a number of different candidates, that's how it should be."

Until, that is, Thrasher got a call from a real Green Party activist. Celeste Castarena told Thrasher that she and her fellow party members had never heard of Margarite Dale. When they did a little research, Castarena reported, they'd learned that Dale had changed her voter registration to Green just days after the Greens qualified for Clean Elections funding.

Prior to that, Margarite Dale had been a Republican.

In an attempt to be open-minded, Castarena says, she invited Dale to a Green Party event. Dale declined, saying she couldn't attend meetings on Sundays or Wednesdays.

"We ended up voting to actively oppose her," Castarena says.

It didn't matter: On the ballot, Dale was still listed as Green Party. And, because real Green Party volunteers had earned Clean Elections status for their party, Dale was awarded a massive infusion of funds. Simply by registering as a Green candidate and gathering 200 token contributions, Dale was granted $68,531 in public money for her "campaign."

Evidence suggests that Dale's candidacy was the ultimate dirty trick — a dastardly plot by the Republican candidates to siphon votes from Thrasher.

The GOP barely bothered to hide its connections to Dale. Doug Quelland's wife, Donna, actually donated $5 to kick-start Dale's campaign — and so did Jim Weiers, the other Republican running in the district, plus five members of his family.

Questioned about the connection, Dale says the Weierses are friends.


Dale certainly ran her campaign as if she were trying to help her "friends" in any way she could. Oddly for a Green Party candidate, Dale hired a campaign consultant closely allied with the GOP. In the most recent election cycle, Blue Point Consulting LLC ran the campaigns of congressional candidate David Schweikert and Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, both serious conservatives. Soon after the election ended, Blue Point hired the GOP's executive director as senior vice president.

Strangely, Dale's campaign also chose to spend a full $10,500 on "polling/research." Consultants say that's rare in a legislative campaign; polling is much too expensive when you're seeking grassroots support.

Even odder: Dale chose to use National Research, a polling firm in New Jersey. Among the few Arizona pols listed on the firm's Web site as past clients? Jim Weiers himself.

So did a big chunk of Margarite Dale's funding go to help her supposed "opponents" figure out the lay of the land? It certainly looks that way, and when New Times reached Dale by phone last week, her denials were fairly unconvincing. How did she come to hire the New Jersey firm? Dale couldn't say. Did she share the data she gathered with her Republican "opponents"? Dale didn't know.

"I don't know what the big thing is," she said. "Everything we paid for with Clean Elections money was exactly within the confines of what we were supposed to be doing. Everything we got, we used for my campaign. I did run a campaign, and I got 3,000 votes. You don't get 3,000 votes by doing nothing."

When pressed about her ties to Weiers, Dale grew audibly annoyed. "I thought this was about my experience in the campaign," she said. "I'm kind of done. Thanks." Then she hung up.

Dale's numbers are a little off. She got 2,358 votes, not 3,000. But that was unquestionably enough to make a difference. Jackie Thrasher lost her House seat by a fraction of that — just 553 votes.

"I was really angry, but I got over being angry," Thrasher says today. "There were just too many factors, including these shenanigans, that kept me from winning this time.

"I still believe in Clean Elections, but changes definitely have to be made."

If there's a villain in the Clean Elections story, most moderates will tell you that Constantin Querard fits the bill. A Laveen-based political consultant who boasts that he works only for pro-family (read: anti-abortion) candidates, Querard has made a mint taking down Republicans he believes to be insufficiently conservative.

And this is the real dirty truth about Clean Elections: The measure that was meant to be a Trojan Horse for the left has instead become the ultimate tool of the hard right.

"That's what always happens with such so-called innovations," says Heiler, the Republican operative. "Political culture is like an anthill. It will crawl all over what's placed in the middle of it and try to use it to its advantage."

Querard makes no apologies for that.

"With the exception of Janet Napolitano winning in 2002, which would not have happened without Clean Elections, it's been almost exclusively a boon to conservative Republicans," he says. "And that's nice — even though conservative Republicans tend to be Clean Elections' most vocal critics."

No one has done a better job working the system than Querard. In 2008, he was paid $111,050 by Clean Elections candidates alone. Not bad for a few months' work.

Records show that Querard also works for traditional candidates, like former Speaker — and current state Rep — Jim Weiers. But his success has been heavily dependent on Clean Elections bounty.

His strategy is simple. Arizona has a surplus of "safe" districts, which are either heavily Republican or heavily Democrat. That means the primary can be more important than the general election. A Democrat could never topple a moderate Republican incumbent in most districts — but a social conservative running in the primary could.

Of course, social conservatives used to be at a huge disadvantage. The Chamber of Commerce crowd provided most of the party's financing and was more into laissez faire economics than stopping abortion.

But Clean Elections changed all that. Thanks to public financing, the humblest born-again Christian has just as much money as the most-connected businessman.

Querard is convinced that's a good thing. "Some Republican — someone who wasn't a Clean Elections fan — was saying that this process worked so much when the Chamber of Commerce use to vet the candidates. Well, to the average person voting, no one ever realized that was their job — or the job of the old 'Phoenix 40' before them. This is not what people had in mind when they describe the democracy they want to live in."

But even Querard admits that a bunch of true believers who answer to no one but their consciences can make it pretty difficult to govern. "I can see that degree of independence can cause problems for the people who used to run the show," he says.

And really, in this brave new world, a legislator no longer needs to be a joke in the halls of the Capitol to draw a well-funded primary challenge. No, these days, he need only fail to toe a partisan line. The next thing he knows, his opponents are guaranteed enough funding to get an equal say on the airwaves.

And who do you think primary voters are going to elect? A lawmaker who stresses competence and getting the job done? Or a challenger who pledges ideological purity?

That sort of intra-party takedown has ended the careers of a number of respected lawmakers. Take Toni Hellon, a Republican representative from Tucson who faced an intra-party challenge from Al Melvin in 2006. Melvin, a former merchant marine obsessed with border safety and school choice, got $53,753 in public funds to take on Hellon.

For every dollar Hellon raised from supporters happy with her representation, Clean Elections happily wrote Melvin a check to equalize the playing field.

Melvin, naturally, hired Constantin Querard. And, by painting Hellon as a RINO, or "Republican in Name Only," Melvin persuaded primary voters to give her the boot.

Melvin eventually lost in the general election, despite the additional $35,836 in public funds Clean Elections granted for that stage of his campaign. But the money wasn't spent in vain. It almost certainly increased Melvin's name recognition and readied him for a run in 2008.

So last fall, Melvin again teamed up with Querard. This time they set their sights on another perceived RINO, Pete Hershberger.

Hershberger was a four-term state rep and a Goldwater-style Republican. But in these increasingly shrill times, he'd become a guy social conservatives loved to complain about. He was iffy on abortion. He supported more funding for CPS.

His step across party lines in 2008 to support Governor Janet Napolitano's budget may have been the final straw.

The people who fund traditional campaigns — lawyers, lobbyists, people with business at the statehouse — had no problem with Hershberger. An independent expenditure group spent nearly $7,000 defending his record.

But for every dollar the independent group spent, Al Melvin got matching funds. He ultimately got $38,763 in public funds for his campaign from Clean Elections and knocked out Hershberger, 51 percent to 49 percent.

This time, Melvin actually won in the general election, too.

Now that he's elected, though, Melvin had better watch his back. Should he choose not to toe the party line, some young hardliner is undoubtedly waiting in the wings, needing only to collect 200 $5 contributions to get full public funding.

And Melvin, bizarrely enough, has already earned a RINO label from the Pachyderm Coalition, a local group intent on weeding moderate Republicans out of the Legislature.

His crime? Sponsoring "nanny state" bills that would ban text-messaging while driving and smoking with a minor in the car.

It's not only incumbents who've felt Querard's sting. It's also middle-of-the-road guys who dare to give politics a chance yet aren't sufficiently ideological.

Like Jackie Thrasher, Tony Bouie isn't your typical politician. A kid who grew up in New Orleans and made his name as a football star at the University of Arizona, he played in the NFL before moving back to Arizona and starting a company that manufactures plastic drinking cups.

A committed Christian, Bouie had long thought about running for office. But it wasn't until he was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma in 2007 that he decided to take the plunge.

"It was an impetus to live life to the fullest," he says. It also helped that when Bouie called Doug Clark, a longtime friend who served in the Legislature, Clark said he was thinking about retiring.

Bouie just happened to live in a district where the seat would be opening. "It was a God moment," he says.

Bouie remembers Clark explaining that he'd have to decide whether to run the traditional way — to raise money himself — or to accept government funding. Bouie had first identified with the Republican Party after being horrified by the huge taxes taken out of his NFL paycheck. He didn't even think twice.

"'The government gives you money' — that's not me," he says. "I told Doug, I want to raise the money the other way."

As a political novice, Bouie had no idea what awaited him.

The former football star was running in the Republican primary against Carl Seel and Sam Crump. (Because each district elects two representatives, two of the three men would make it to the general election.) Seel was running as a clean candidate; Crump, like Bouie, used traditional funding.

Both of Bouie's opponents hired Constantin Querard, campaign records show.

And, as Bouie quickly learned, the teamwork between Seel and Crump provided Seel with some major advantages.

Every time Bouie spent the money he'd raised, Seel was given money to match it. Fair enough. But every time Seel's own partner, Crump, spent money, Seel got matching funds, too. Bouie, as a traditional candidate, did not.

Seel ended up getting $58,146 just for the GOP primary.

And Seel didn't use the money to generate high-minded discussion of the issues. Instead, he hammered Bouie as a faux-Democrat, noting that he'd bothered to change his party registration only a few days before registering.

One ad featured a braying donkey with the caption, "This NOT an elephant."

But to Bouie, a black man raised in the Deep South, it didn't look like the symbol for the Democratic Party, either. It looked like a mule, an offensive reference to the post-Civil War promise of "40 acres and a mule" to newly freed slaves.

"It depends on your perspective," he acknowledges. "But I was raised in New Orleans, where racial tensions were pretty high and pretty overt. I took it as a definite dig at my ethnicity." That it was paid for with public funding only made the ad that much more galling. (Seel didn't return calls for comment.)

Bouie finished third in the primary. And though he filed complaint after complaint with the Clean Elections Commission, the commission largely refused to get involved. Bizarrely, it's perfectly legal for traditional and clean candidates to work together — even the result is matching funds for the clean candidate to level the playing field with his own partner.

And the shellacking that Bouie took in that race was nothing compared to what happened to Kara Kelty in the 2008 Democratic primary for the Arizona Corporation Commission.

Kelty, a city councilwoman in Flagstaff, knew she'd need Clean Elections money to have a chance in the race, which is not only statewide but also generally low-profile. She didn't realize then that Clean Elections would ensure her defeat.

When Kelty contemplated running, a longtime political operative, Sam George, approached her about running as a team. (Under his previous name, Sam Vagenas, George was a consultant on the original Clean Elections ballot initiative.)

George, a fellow Democrat, explained to Kelty that he had a terrific plan. He would run as a traditional candidate, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of his money on the race. That would trigger matching funds from Clean Elections for his clean opponents.

Ostensibly, the money would be granted to even the playing field with George. But because the three Democrats would be running as a team, the real result would be to triple George's investment. With carefully coordinated radio spots and TV commercials financed with their pooled funding, George was confident his Solar Team would have a huge advantage against the less-organized Republicans going into the general elections.

To Kelty, it seemed shady.

"I'm opposed to the concept of using public money as a leverage," she says.

But George had no problem getting two other candidates to sign on. And when he poured $250,000 into his campaign, the Solar Team of Sandra Kennedy, Paul Newman, and himself got $496,000 from Clean Elections to "match" the expense.

The three didn't even try to hide their strategy. Their ad campaign touted the Solar Team. At one point, a Web site erected by their campaign manager asked for donations to the shared effort. (That was definitely a mistake, because clean candidates aren't allowed to raise money after qualifying.)

There was only one kink in George's plan — and that was Kara Kelty. After spurning his offer to run as a team, Kelty stayed in the race and qualified as a clean candidate. That meant she stood to get matching funds every time George spent money.

George and company had an easy fix for that. A lawyer linked to their campaign manager filed a lawsuit to get Kelty kicked off the ballot.

Ultimately, Kelty survived the challenge. But she still couldn't match the combined purchasing power of the Solar Team. She finished fourth in the primary, the only Democrat not to advance to the general election.

She attributes her loss to the difficulty of running a statewide campaign from anywhere other than Phoenix — and to her huge financial disadvantage, thanks to Clean Elections and those matching funds.

Kelty still supports the idea of Clean Elections. But, she says, "as a supporter of public financing for elections, it's disconcerting to me that Clean Elections survived a number of court challenges, only to have the system undone by candidates who were themselves beneficiaries of the system."

George's plan ultimately didn't quite work.

In the general election, the wealthy consultant again poured a quarter-million dollars into his campaign, and again triggered similar sums for his opponents. Yes, the Republican candidates also benefited at that point, but the Solar Team had a running start, thanks to the expensive primary.

For the first time in a decade, a Democrat won a seat on the Corporation Commission. And not just one Democrat — both Kennedy and Newman were elected.

George ended up losing by a hair, to the only person with a better victory plan than his own complicated formula. Former state legislator Bob Stump just happens to have the same name as an incredibly popular late former Arizona congressman.

Never mind that this Stump grew up in Hawaii and bears no relation, save party affiliation, to the late congressman. It was still enough to eke out a third-place finish.

Todd Lang, executive director of the Clean Elections Commission, insists that any problems with the system are minimal.

"Any campaign consultant worth their salt will try to game whatever system's in place," he says. "I don't see that as a Clean Elections problem. I see that as the result of political strategies. And what changes behavior is when these strategies don't work." As one example, he notes, Sam George ultimately didn't win his seat on the Corporation Commission. "The point is, it didn't work."

Don't tell that to the Democratic Party. Despite George's loss, the party sees the election of Sandra Kennedy and Paul Newman as its greatest success in 2008.

And even if Lang doesn't see a problem, politicians on both sides of the aisle do. State Representative Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, says that the most recent election cycle was an eye-opener: "It exposed some of the problems with the Clean Elections system."

Campbell still believes in the system but says he'd like to see reform. He's introduced a bill to close at least one loophole in the system. "This is public money," he says. "We need a higher standard of accountability and transparency."

But no matter what happens in the statehouse, there's a good chance we won't see shenanigans quite so obvious as Sam George's Solar Team in future election cycles. That's thanks to what's happening in the courthouse.

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision on Davis v. FEC. That decision struck down the federal "Millionaire's Amendment," which allowed candidates facing wealthy, self-funded opponent to enjoy higher-than-normal contribution limits.

The Davis decision is complicated, but here's the gist. Campaign-finance law had long held that if candidates were facing an opponent who put millions of personal wealth into his own campaign, they'd be allowed to raise more money from individual donors to level the playing field.

The court found that provision unconstitutional. Spending on political campaigns is a form of free speech, it held, so the Millionaire's Amendment was unfair to, well, millionaires. Just because a candidate is rich shouldn't mean that fundraising rules change for his opponent. That's an illegal "drag" on the millionaire's free speech rights.

The court made one exception: programs in which the state could justify a compelling interest in stopping corruption.

Reading the court's decision, Nick Dran­ias, a lawyer at the Goldwater Institute who specializes in First Amendment work, quickly realized that Arizona had a problem.

If raising contribution limits to even the playing field with wealthy candidates is unconstitutional, surely so is a state system that guarantees public funding for that purpose. After all, if a candidate like Sam George spends $500,000 of his own money, Clean Elections matches that for his opponent.

Isn't that a drag on George's free speech?

And really, didn't the George case show compellingly that matching funds didn't so much stop corruption as increase it?

The Goldwater Institute filed suit in federal court in late summer. And though U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver refused to issue a restraining order halting matching funds for last fall's election, she did issue a ruling suggesting that there's a substantial likelihood Goldwater will win on the merits. The matching funds, she agreed, are unconstitutional.

Lang, the Clean Elections Commission's executive director, is confident that Clean Elections can win at trial. "The whole point of the First Amendment is to ensure a robust political debate," he says. "That's what matching funds do."

But observers — some of them strong supporters of the system — are less confident. They feel Judge Silver used pretty strong language in her initial ruling and will be unlikely to change course now.

Without a matching funds provision, they say, Clean Elections is doomed.

"You won't see any incumbents using Clean Elections, that's for sure," said one prominent Democratic campaign consultant. "It would be like putting a bull's-eye on your back." After all, by accepting Clean Elections money, candidates agree to strict spending limits — making them vulnerable to attack without matching funds.

One proposal being discussed would double the amount of funding for Clean Elections candidates. Instead of needing a trigger to get more money, everybody would get more money right off the bat. But some insiders say that won't work — it doesn't matter what the limit is so much as that there is one, they say.

Clean Elections, they worry, may be dead in Arizona.

Ironically, public financing for political campaigns is taking off in other parts of the country. Thanks in part to the Arizona experiment, Connecticut voters recently approved a similar plan. Activists say a bill is about to be introduced in Congress to allow our national representatives the same financing options. They're beginning to trot out the same chestnuts as progressives promised in Arizona in 1998: cleaner politics, and a diminished role for lobbyists.

But anyone examining how this grand experiment played out in Arizona need only note one salient fact.

In 2007, the Clean Elections Commission quietly hired a new representative to push its interests at the Legislature. That man is Mike Williams, a lobbyist extraordinaire who's been haunting the halls of the Arizona Legislature for more than 15 years. His clients range from Taser to Redflex to United Healthcare.

And that means the very commission that was supposed to reduce the role of powerful lobbyists has now hired a powerful lobbyist of its own — to lobby the very lawmakers dependent on the commission for financing.

They call this reform?

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