The Dirty Truth about "Clean" Elections

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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."

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske