Asbury Park Press

"Clean Elections" Can Change How Business Is Done

Asbury Park Press — Thursday, February 22, 2007

BY PHYLLIS SALOWE-KAYE

If the number of politicians indicted or sent to jail is any measure of corruption, New Jersey must rank either close to or at the top of the national heap. In just the last several years, more than 100 New Jersey politicians have been indicted or sent to jail. The most recent and noteworthy example was former state Senate President John Lynch, one of the state's most powerful party bosses.

Despite the many good Garden State politicians who spend countless hours trying to carry out the people's business, it is no wonder that New Jersey voters have little faith in our politicians or democratic institutions. Latest opinion polls give the state Legislature a 27 percent job-approval rating.

While handcuffed New Jersey politicians in orange jump suits provide continuous fodder for late-night comedians, the damage to our state is much more insidious and lasting. Voters feel ashamed and apathetic, fewer people go to the polls, not as many young people see public service as a worthwhile career path, the cost of elections continues to skyrocket out of control, campaigns are more and more only the purview of the uber-rich, and businesses think twice about locating in a state whose reputation is one of politicians seeking to line their own pockets.

What's at the heart of this mess? Money.

There is a simple, common-sense solution if politicians have the guts to clean up their act. It is called "clean elections" or full public campaign financing. "Clean elections" is the most fundamental way of changing how the people's business is done in Trenton because it, more than any other reform, takes the corrupting influence of private and special-interest money out of politics.

Under the campaign financing pilot program before the Legislature now, candidates who agree to forgo all money from special and private interests to run for office, and who collect 400 to 800 small $10 contributions from voters like you and me, will qualify for public grants to run their campaign. The program puts an end to the money chase right there. "Clean elections," sometimes also referred to as voter-owned elections, means that when candidates win without using or needing private special-interest money from wealthy donors and corporate interests, our elected representatives are free to vote the interests of voters.

"Clean elections" also lets elected representatives be better politicians — to spend more time with constituents and more time on the issues that are important to voters. In other states that have "clean elections," there is more competition for office, and more nontraditional candidates, including women and people of color, have a real chance to run and win.

In December, the Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill to continue the "clean elections" pilot program that began in 2005. That experiment aptly demonstrated that full public campaign financing can and should become part of New Jersey's political landscape, but the program elements needed to be changed so that more candidates can qualify, more voters can participate and the program is easier to administer. After all, pilot projects are designed to figure out what works and what doesn't.

The new legislation improves the "clean elections" experiment and keeps the initiative moving forward so that now, in this year's election, we can test a better and expanded program and move forward to a comprehensive statewide program in 2009. It makes sense to get the program right before it is carried out in every district and for every race for office.

The Senate must pass the bill before it can go to the governor's desk. It must do so now so there is time to put the program in place for this year's elections. But some in the Senate seem to have cold feet. Interestingly enough, the skittish senators – from both sides of the political aisle – all profess to support "clean elections" but now claim the program on their desk is either not perfect or there is not enough time to consider it. We think they doth protest too much. These complaints only serve to maintain the status quo and stall the march of progress.

The challenge is real, the solution is clear. The Legislature needs to clean up its mess and pass "clean elections" now.

Phyllis Salowe-Kaye is executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, a citizen watchdog organization.

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