Longform

Wash Daze

Jay Blanchard is exhausted. "Please excuse the bags under my eyes," he says as he slaps a piece of lettuce on his lunch, tuna on whole wheat. Blanchard was up long before dawn on this late July morning, putting up signs for his legislative campaign. Most candidates would hire out the work, but the Democrat can't afford it. He's on a strict budget.

Making history can be tiring. This spring, Blanchard became Arizona's first "Clean Elections" candidate.

He's been followed by 35 others, including four running for statewide office. All are guinea pigs in a national experiment in campaign finance reform started through initiatives recently passed in Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont and Arizona. This fall, voters will decide on similar measures in Oregon and Missouri.

The idea behind the laws (Arizona's was passed by the people in 1998) is to run voluntary, publicly financed campaigns in which candidates for state and legislative offices get enough public money -- gathered through lobbyist registration fees, increased court fees and voluntary tax check-offs -- to launch viable campaigns. In exchange, candidates give up the traditional fund-raising techniques that critics say have allowed special interests to run governments by fueling campaigns.

Maine and Arizona are the first to test their new laws. About a third of the candidates for office this fall in Maine are using "Clean Elections." Sharlene Bozack, executive director of Arizona's Clean Elections Institute, estimates that as many as 54 candidates will sign up here by the deadline at the end of this month. That would put Arizona's participation down around 20 percent, but there's a reason. Many potential "clean" candidates were scared off because the law was in jeopardy until a state Supreme Court ruling in June. (A federal case regarding the Arizona law is still pending, but observers doubt it will go anywhere.)

Ironically, low participation may be a good thing -- at least for this year. The influence of special interests may eventually be diminished by Arizona's Clean Elections law, but a more immediate impact is the growth of bureaucracy associated with it. From the Secretary of State's Office down to each candidate -- even those who are not "clean" -- there's been an explosion of red tape, and not always enough staff to untangle it.

Jay Blanchard says it's all worth the effort.

"If this flies," he says of Clean Elections, "it's the most profound change in Arizona politics since statehood."

It's certainly his only chance. When Blanchard, a professor of education at Arizona State University, decided last year to run for office, he knew nothing about the Clean Elections law. In fact, he was a political novice altogether, but even he knew the first ingredient in any successful campaign: money. He started soliciting union reps and chamber of commerce lobbyists, asking if he could count on their support.

"Usually, they were nice enough to see me," Blanchard says. But "almost to the person," everyone told him no.

No one wanted to fund a lost cause -- or infuriate a powerful legislator. Blanchard, a Democrat, is running for the Senate in Legislative District 30, one of the state's most heavily Republican districts. And he's running against Jeff Groscost, the current Republican Speaker of the House who has held his seat in the district for the past eight years.

Groscost is infamous for both his long memory and his long enemies list. Blanchard knew he was SOL.

Then someone mentioned Clean Elections. Blanchard investigated and decided to sign up. The process was so new that when he showed up at the Arizona Secretary of State's Office to register, there was no form for him to fill out. They created one, and Blanchard got started. Under the law, he was allowed to spend $500 of his own and raise another $2,500 in $100 increments from anyone he wanted. To qualify as a Clean Elections candidate, he was required to raise 200 contributions of $5 each from people living in his district.

It wasn't easy. "First thing you do is contact every person you know, everybody you've seen in the last 30 days," Blanchard says. Then you get out the phone book.

Blanchard brought the money and signatures to the Secretary of State, and two weeks later, he had a check for $10,000.

That means Blanchard's got $13,000 to spend in the primary. As of last week, he was down to $900. As of late June, Groscost, who's not a "clean" candidate, had $70,000 in the bank.

After the primary (there's no Democratic opposition, and Groscost is expected to trounce his own primary opponent), Blanchard will get an additional $15,000 -- maybe more, depending on how much Groscost has. The Clean Elections law provides for matching funds up to $45,000.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.