The Serene Clean Elections Machine

None of this happens in Arizona.
An unassuming health-food salesman from Scottsdale does not craft a law designed to separate elected officials from the campaign contributions they glean from the lobbyists who wield influence at the state Capitol.

A grandmother from Sun City West certainly does not organize and nurture a committee that gathers 197,000 signatures to put the law on the November 3 ballot. The reformers do not tap far-flung billionaires and cash-rich advocacy groups, amassing $805,924 to get their message to voters.

The movement does not confound and muzzle the mandarins, who do not go underground to wring their hands while a few of their number scramble to fight a rearguard action.

These things just don't happen in Arizona. Until now.
Such is the story of Proposition 200, the Citizens Clean Elections Act, which would establish public financing for legislative and statewide campaigns.

Proponents and foes alike agree that Proposition 200 could cause a tectonic shift in Arizona's political landscape.

"A lot of people's ox will be gored with this," says Ruth Jones, a professor of political science at Arizona State University who specializes in the arcana of campaign finance.

State senator Chris Cummiskey, a Democrat who supports Proposition 200, calls it "radical."

"Most of the special interests and the people who represent industry at the Capitol are uniformly opposed to this," Cummiskey says, "so that makes me think that maybe we're on the right track."

Polls suggest that the measure is popular--it leads by more than 20 points, with many people undecided. But the only salient poll will be conducted by Arizona voters on Tuesday.

How could this happen? How could the power brokers allow such potentially potent antiseptic to be splashed all over Arizona's body politic?

"I'm not sure anybody took it seriously or paid any attention to it," says Janice Goldstein, director of the Arizona Trial Lawyers Association and an ardent foe of Proposition 200. "It has real long-term implications that people just haven't looked at."

People who have looked at it are reluctant to denounce it. "It's been difficult organizing opposition to this," says state Senator Tom Patterson, another detractor. "Everybody who's opposed to it has a reason to be quiet."

But oppose it they will.
Goldstein, Patterson and a few others have cobbled together a meager counterattack. The group, titled "Not With the Public's Money--No on Proposition 200," filed organizational papers with the Secretary of State on October 16. A spokesman says the group hopes to raise $40,000 to buy radio ads attacking 200.

Kaia Lenhart, political director of Arizonans for Clean Elections, says she and her cohorts have been waiting for organized opposition to surface.

"Big money that has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo is going to come out and oppose this," Lenhart says. "Right now, they run the current system and they feel pretty threatened by the prospect of losing that control."

Proposition 200 would allow candidates for legislative and statewide offices who gather a minimum number of $5 contributions to then renounce further private contributions. In return, they would receive campaign money from the state (see accompanying story for details).

Under the Citizens Clean Elections Act, a candidate seeking a seat in the Legislature could get up to $25,000 to pay for primary- and general-election campaigns; a candidate for governor could get up to $950,000 for both elections. Funding would come from surcharges on civil and criminal fines, tax donations, and from a four-fold boost in the fee lobbyists must pay.

The Clean Elections campaign team is a diverse amalgam that includes the Arizona chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons, the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, United We Stand-Arizona, the AFL-CIO and the Arizona Civil Liberties Union.

Its backers say Proposition 200 would make politicians accountable to the voters, not the interest groups who fund their campaigns. Rather than raising money for campaigns, politicians will spend more time dealing with constituents and trying to solve problems, they say. Supporters also claim it will allow more people who are not wealthy or have access to special-interest money to seek office.

Proposition 200's detractors--and just about everybody who has any influence seems to be against it--say the measure would infringe on free speech, establish welfare for politicians, and that the lure of free campaign cash would attract too many candidates. Taxpayers would chafe at seeing public money handed out to extremist candidates, foes claim. They even worry that candidates would simply pocket the money rather than use it for legitimate campaign expenses.

Proposition 200 is tedious reading, and because it lays out complex rules for largely untried concepts, it is the kind of document that by its nature is open to criticism and speculation.

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Jeremy Voas