The Dirty Truth about "Clean" Elections

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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.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske