Suburban - Sayreville

Candidates See Flaws In 'Clean Election' Process

District 13 one of two taking part in campaign funding experiment

Suburban–Sayreville — Thursday, August 25, 2005

BY KAREN E. BOWES
Staff Writer

It's not easy being clean. When it comes to running a clean campaign, District 13 is one of the state's guinea pigs.

The district was one of just two chosen to be included in the state's first-ever Fair and Clean Elections (FACE) program, with District 6, in Camden County, the other. District 13 includes Aberdeen, Hazlet, Holmdel, Keansburg, Keyport, Matawan, Middletown and Union Beach in Monmouth County, and Old Bridge in Middlesex County.

Under the new rules, candidates cannot use large blocks of private funding to conduct their campaigns. Instead, they must each collect $5 and $30 checks from registered voters living within their district.

A minimum of 1,500 checks – no less than 500 for $30 and 1,000 for $5 – is needed from each candidate in order to qualify for additional public campaign funding.

What's the reasoning behind collecting the checks? The state wants to see that candidates have a real following in their respected district.

With Election Day just 10 weeks away, the Assembly race is already in full swing.

Although candidates were told about the new rules in June, the deadline for the 1,500-check requirement is Sept. 7.

None of the candidates, Republican, Democrat or Green, estimate they will make the deadline.

"The requirements of the program are widely perceived as unrealistic, impractical, shortsighted and inherently unfair," said Republican candidate Amy Handlin during a public hearing regarding FACE held Aug. 18 at Brookdale Community College.

Handlin, currently a Monmouth County freeholder, suggested lowering the number of checks needed or giving candidates an extra month to qualify.

"One of the most formidable obstacles is the simple fact that voters are at the beach when clean candidates knock on their doors during July and August," said Handlin.

Democratic candidate Bill Flynn, of Old Bridge, agreed that the deadline should be extended. He also made a few suggestions of his own.

"The rules should permit giving a donor a button or a sticker ... indicating that they support clean elections," said Flynn. "This would invest in those people a partnership with good clean government and advertise the program at the same time."

Advertising also proved to be an obstacle.

Republican incumbent Sam Thompson noted that because no one has ever heard of FACE, it often took him and running mate Handlin a long time to explain the program before being able to ask for a donation.

"There's a great deal of confusion among contributors," said Thompson. "The program has not been publicized. We'd be lucky to talk to 20 households an evening. We have to give a complete explanation of what this thing's about. Out of the 20 households, you'd be lucky to have four or five contributions. If you did it every night for the 66 days allowed, you'd still only have about 300 contributions."

Thompson also expressed frustration that many of the checks he collected could not be counted toward the 1,500 goal.

"About 25 percent of the checks have to be returned because it's not [made out for] $5 or $30 or it's not made out to the Fair and Clean Election Campaign," said Thompson. "One check I received was written out to Doug Forrester."

Another problem is seed money. Each ticket is allowed to spend $3,000 on campaign materials.

"The seed money is not enough for everything to get done," said Thompson.

Thompson said that he turned down several invitations to dinner events that he would normally attend in order to campaign because he did not have enough seed money.

In the end, Thompson said he agreed with the intent of the program but called the process "a time-consuming waste."

Although unsure he would make the Sept. 7 deadline, Democrat Mike Dasaro spoke optimistically about the future of the program.

"Nothing worthwhile is ever easy," said Dasaro. "When Jonas Salk cured polio, I'm sure he had a number of setbacks."

Dasaro said that with the assistance of New Jersey Citizen Action, a nonpartisan group that has been attempting to educate the public about FACE, the program can be a success. Citizen Action has printed FACE brochures, organized volunteers and made presentations regarding the program at several public events. Even with the help, Dasaro admitted it was an uphill battle.

"With the time allotted, even if I contacted all my friends, I could never get this done," said Dasaro.

Green Party candidates argued that the rules were unfair toward independent candidates.

"One thousand five hundred is too high for an independent candidate," said Green Party candidate Greg Orr.

Orr also said that having contributors fill out a separate piece of paper for each donation was a waste.

"It's ridiculous," said Orr. "We're going to come up with a form that fits 50 signatures, and if you want to throw ours out, so be it."

The state commission that oversees FACE will hold an additional hearing in January to discuss ways in which to improve the program.

Handlin suggested changing the program now by calling the state Legislature back from its summer break for an emergency session.

"If we will it, it can happen," said Handlin.

"The chances of that happening are nil," responded former state Sen. Bill Schluter, chairman of the commission.

Regardless, Schluter said he would contact the Legislature about conducting a special session.

"Let's see what happens first," said Victor DeLuca, a member of the commission. "It's like a three-act play and we're leaving in the second act."

"Caesar didn't die in Act 5," said Assemblyman Bill Baroni, also a member of the commission.

"The motive is considered meritorious," Schluter said of FACE. "It's not by any means a lost cause."

Similar programs have already become the norm in Arizona and Maine. In New Jersey, it is currently voluntary, but may become mandatory in the coming years.

For more information on how to make a donation, visit www.elec.nj.us or call New Jersey Citizen Action at (856) 966-3091.

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