The Dirty Truth about "Clean" Elections

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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.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske