Philadelphia Inquirer

Clean Election Needs Your Help

The Philadelphia Inquirer — Monday, August 22, 2005

By Dave Boyer

Time is running out for some Camden County residents to beat the fat cats of New Jersey politics at their own game.

But it can be done. The deadline is Sept. 7. The rules are more complicated than they should be, which is probably how the fat cats wanted it. You need to take a few minutes to follow the directions later in this column to make a difference.

The fat cats think you're too apathetic, uninformed and disorganized to beat them. They are the party bosses who control elections with big-money donations, often from companies that get government contracts (your tax dollars) in return. The system shuts out the little guy, but a select group of South Jersey residents can help change it - at a cost to you as low as $5 per person.

Registered voters in South Jersey's Sixth Legislative District have a chance to make sure their Assembly race this fall is "clean." They can decide that their Assembly candidates won't be influenced by big cash donations from politically connected companies or party bosses.

The Sixth District is taking part in an experiment, and so far the experiment isn't working very well. The four candidates for two Assembly seats – Republicans Marc Fleischner and JoAnn Gurenlian and Democrats Louis Greenwald, the incumbent, and Pamela Rosen Lampitt – are trying to raise enough small donations by Sept. 7 to qualify for campaign money from the state. If they reach their modest fund-raising goals as spelled out by state law, the Republicans and Democrats will each receive $130,200 from the state for the fall campaign. They can spend no more than the state funds in the election.

It's as close as we can come to election paradise – a campaign in which the candidates' character, ideas and hard work, not the largest war chest from the biggest sugar daddy, decide the outcome.

To qualify, each candidate needs to collect 1,000 donations of $5 and 500 donations of $30 from ordinary citizens. But the fund-raising is slow going because lots of snags are built into this experiment.

For one thing, only registered voters who live in the Sixth District can donate money. Don't ask me why. Under ordinary circumstances, a fat cat in North Jersey can donate thousands of dollars to a candidate in South Jersey. But when the politicians decided to hold an election composed of $5 donations, they suddenly got worried about the influence of small donors who live outside the district. It's one of those decisions that make you wonder if the experiment was designed to fail.

What it means is that only registered voters who live in the these communities can contribute to the clean election fund: Audubon Park, Berlin Borough, Berlin Township, Cherry Hill, Chesilhurst, Collingswood, Gibbsboro, Haddon Township, Haddonfield, Oaklyn, Pine Hill, Pine Valley, Tavistock, Voorhees, Waterford Township and Winslow Township.

Another snag is the short time frame. While clean elections in other states allow candidates to solicit small donations for up to eight months, the candidates in the Sixth District have only about eight weeks. They have been knocking on doors, but many people are on vacation, and those who answer usually haven't heard about the experiment. That's my fault, as much as anyone's. We geniuses in the media have been railing about the evils of pay-to-play politics, but we haven't done enough to publicize the alternative in our backyard.

Then there's the process for giving a donation. You must submit a check with a brief form that gives your name, address, and, if applicable, the name of your employer. To donate to the Republicans, you can find the form at Send the form and the check to Fleischner and Gurenlian, Box 4742, Cherry Hill, N.J. 08034.

To donate to the Democrats, you can visit their campaign office at 900 White Horse Pike, Oaklyn, N.J. 08107, or call 856-858-3667 for information on how to obtain the form.

Because Democrats control Camden County, the Republicans face a bigger challenge raising the donations. Under the law, if either Republican candidate fails to raise the required donations, both Republicans will fail to get state funds. If that happens and the Democrats do obtain enough donations, the Democrats will get the entire pot of state money.

For this experiment to be meaningful, both sides should campaign on a level playing field. Donate to both sides, if you wish, but let's make sure this experiment goes forward.

Dave Boyer is a member of The Inquirer editorial board.

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