Asbury Park Press

Naysayers Should Give Clean Elections A Chance

Asbury Park Press — Sunday, July 10, 2005

BY PHYLLIS SALOWE-KAYE

In a 1970 speech in San Diego, then-Vice President Spiro Agnew's speech writers coined the phrase "nattering nabobs of negativism" to paint a picture of self-important people nagging and criticizing everyone else. Of course, the era was different and the issues were different. But the phrase aptly describes New Jersey's campaign finance reform naysayers, led by Assemblyman Steven Corodemus, R-Monmouth, and Republican State Committee Chairman Thomas Wilson.

These critics are dooming to failure the Garden State's bold experiment into taking money out of politics – the Fair and Clean Elections (FACE) Pilot Program – before it has even started, and before they've talked to a single voter.

The FACE program, adopted in 2004 and the first legislatively enacted full public financing program in the country, is based on a simple precept: Candidates running for elected office, who voluntarily agree to forgo all private campaign cash, agree to spending limits and demonstrate a viable candidacy by collecting small contributions from registered voters in their district, qualify for public financing.

New Jersey's program is supported by AARP New Jersey, New Jersey League of Women Voters and the New Jersey Tenants Organization. It was voted into law by both Democratic and Republican legislators.

This year's experiment allows Assembly candidates in the 13th District, which includes parts of Monmouth and Middlesex counties, and the 6th District (Camden County) to participate in the program. Already, some candidates are lining up to compete. Voters in these districts will have the historic opportunity to support wholly voter-owned candidates and play an integral role in reclaiming our democracy.

Anyone who picks up a newspaper is aware of the corrupting influence of money in New Jersey politics. Years of huge no-bid contracts, illicit payoffs to politicians at all levels of government, patronage, nepotism and public policies driven by special-interest campaign contributions have left citizens bereft of confidence in our elected representatives.

History has proven that private campaign financing disenfranchises large portions of our communities, including women and minorities who are not part of an old-boys network that can raise the cash needed for today's campaigns. Public financing throws the door open to all candidates who want to run and who can demonstrate enough support from average citizens to warrant public funding.

New Jersey's experiment in public financing is modeled after successful systems in Arizona and Maine, where the changes are credited with increasing voter participation, increasing the number of non-traditional candidates and lowering the overall cost of elections.

Because New Jersey is a very different place than Maine or Arizona, the FACE program is designed with our special characteristics in mind, including population size and the number of voters in each legislative district.

The nattering nabobs claim New Jersey's requirement that candidates raise contributions from 1,500 voters in order to qualify for public financing is a next-to-impossible threshold and want it changed, at the last minute, to just 210. We disagree.

In 2003, there were approximately 132,000 registered voters in the 6th District and 129,000 in the 13th District. Collecting 1,500 small contributions from registered voters in each of these districts represents just over 1 percent of these voters and establishes an important principle of public financing – in order to qualify for public money, the candidate must establish credible public support. And isn't it refreshing that the public support is in the form of small contributions from lots of average citizens – not big donations from a few well-heeled donors.

I challenge all candidates from both sides of the aisle in the 13th and 6th districts to at least try it before they say they don't like it. Go out, knock on doors, speak to voters about the issues and about your policies. Ask them to support your campaign. After all, this is pilot program, one that is being monitored by a special, legislatively enacted Citizens' Clean Election Commission and the state Election Law Enforcement Commission.

Later this year, the Citizens' Commission will evaluate the results, hold three public meetings to gather input, determine what works and what does not, and make recommendations for changes to the program. That is the appropriate time to engage in constructive debate over proposed changes to New Jersey's best hope for restoring trust and confidence in our political institutions.

Until then, let the clean races begin.

Phyllis Salowe-Kaye is executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, a citizen watchdog group representing 100 labor, tenant, senior, civil rights, environmental, women's, faith-based and neighborhood organizations.

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