Asbury Park Press

"Clean Election" Hurdle Too High

1,300: Donations Received By 13th District GOP
3,000: Number Needed To Qualify For State Funds

Asbury Park Press — Thursday, September 22, 2005

BY ANDREA ALEXANDER
KEYPORT BUREAU

None of the candidates running in the 13th District Assembly race came close to meeting the fund-raising requirements in a pilot project designed to limit the influence of major donors by providing public financing for campaigns.

Republican candidates Monmouth County Freeholder Amy H. Handlin and Assemblyman Samuel D. Thompson were not able to raise even half of the 3,000 checks required to qualify for public funds.

Their Democratic rivals, Michael Dasaro and William Flynn, dropped out of the Clean and Fair Elections pilot project earlier this month, realizing that they would not be able to reach the fund-raising hurdle. Green Party candidates Mike Hall and Greg Orr, both of Middletown, also fell short of the requirements.

Pat Freeman, 77, of the Lincroft section of Middletown, contributed to all the candidates because she believed in the need for campaign finance reform. She said she was disappointed the pilot project was not a success.

"I think that we have to give qualified people an opportunity to run for office who don't have the money to do it, and offer to keep special-interest money out of elections, or the candidates are beholden to whoever contributes to their campaigns," Freeman said.

The candidates had until Wednesday to each raise 1,000 $5 checks and 500 $30 checks – a total of 3,000 checks for both candidates on a ticket – to each qualify for a state grant of $59,175 to fund their campaigns. Handlin and Thompson together raised 1,300 donations. The Democrats raised less than 1,000 donations, Dasaro said.

"This was a piece of legislation that had very good intent to get the impact of big money out of politics, but the legislation itself was ill-conceived," Thompson said.

Scrambling for donations

Ineligible for state funds, the candidates have been left scrambling to raise money for their campaigns by traditional means only weeks before the election.

Handlin called the fund-raising requirement an "unrealistic, onerous, arbitrary quota."

"The law is on target in identifying big money contributions from special interests as corrupting," Handlin said. "But clearly this program is not the way that New Jersey can rid itself of that corrupting influence."

The 13th District, and the 6th in Camden County, were selected for the pilot project. Democrats in the 6th District already announced that they met the fund-raising requirements. Republicans running in that district are expected to make an announcement today.

Candidates had been collecting checks made out to the Clean and Fair Elections Fund in order to qualify for public financing. They cannot use the money they had raised for their campaigns, under the program guidelines.

Handlin and Thompson sent a letter to the Election Law Enforcement Commission, which oversees the pilot project, to ask if they can return the checks to the donors, rather than pass them on to the state.

"It was clear to me that 95 percent of the donors were donating because they supported Amy and I," Thompson said. "We feel the only fair thing to do is return their checks to them."

"If the alternative is for the money to disappear into the state treasury, that is wrong," Handlin said.

Democrats said they have also been returning checks to donors to allow them to decide if they want to keep the money or give it to the Clean Elections fund.

Freeman said she would rather put the money back in her checking account.

"I am not sure what the Clean Campaign (fund) is going to do with it," she said.

Arnie Goetchius, 73, of Holmdel, said he would also prefer Handlin to return a check he sent her.

"I am happy to get my money back and I will write a bigger check to her," he said.

The legislation that established the program also created a New Jersey Citizens' Clean Elections Commission to monitor the experiment. The commission will hold public hearings after the election and make recommendations for changes to the program.

Disappointment

William Schluter, a former Republican state senator who serves as chairman of the commission, was disappointed that most of the candidates did not meet the threshold.

"It makes it much more difficult for us to do our work . . . to be able to evaluate the campaign activity in a district where both candidates qualified," Schluter said. "We are not going to have that. What we are going to have is a good case study of the threshold and what revisions have to be done to make it achievable."

Handlin said she and Thompson still want to meet with their opponents and agree to stick by the program guidelines, including spending limits.

"We would welcome that," Dasaro said. "I commend them for giving it a shot. It was a tough decision (to drop out) but we knew there was no way we were going to get the 3,000 checks."

"We decided two weeks ago that it was almost impossible to do it," Flynn said. "We were realistic."

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