The Dirty Truth about "Clean" Elections

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"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.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske