New Jersey Herald

Candidates Seek Small Donations Only This Year

New Jersey Herald — Thursday, July 19, 2007

By BILL WICHERT

Alexander Hamilton might be the most sought-after face in the 24th Legislative District.

With more than three months before the general election, Republican and Democratic candidates are now both chasing after the individual $10 donations that could bring them up to $100,000 in public campaign financing as well as the chance to appear on the November ballot as a "Clean Elections Candidate."

Between phone calls, mailings and personal contact, candidates are reaching out to potential voters in what the state hopes will be a campaign focused on the issues, not on who can raise the most money.

"People have been very receptive to the program. They like the idea (that) they're part of the process," said Democratic Assembly candidate Toni Zimmer, who is running with Senate candidate Edwin Selby and Assembly candidate Pat Walsh. "As we go from home to home, I ask them what they're concerned about. In a sense, the program is beautiful in that way. It gets you right there with the voter."

After collectively spending more than $400,000 to win their primary election, Republican Senate candidate Steve Oroho and his Assembly running mates, Alison Littell McHose and Gary Chiusano, reluctantly joined their Democratic opponents early this month in participating in the state's 2007 Fair and Clean Elections Pilot Project.

The Republicans are opposed to spending taxpayer dollars on a political campaign, but felt forced into signing up because of the "clean elections" slogan and the publicity provided by the state, including media advertisements and direct mailings. If they did not participate, the Democrats would be entitled to additional public funds to cover the gap in campaign spending.

"The key thing was when we looked at it, for all practical purposes, we really don't have a choice," said Oroho, a Sussex County freeholder.

To qualify for public financing under the state program, candidates must receive at least 400 contributions of $10 each, or $4,000, in order to get $46,000 in public dollars for a total campaign fund of $50,000. By receiving the maximum 800 $10 contributions, or $8,000, the matching public funds will bring each candidate to $100,000. Contributions must be from registered voters in the legislative district, and candidates must submit weekly reports to the state.

Candidates also are entitled to up to $10,000 in "seed money," which is comprised of donations of $500 or less from individual registered voters in the state, not any organizations. The 24th Legislative District, which includes all of Sussex County and parts of Hunterdon and Morris counties, was selected to participate in the program along with the 14th and 37th legislative districts.

The deadline to qualify for public funds is Sept. 30, but the candidates are focused on Aug. 17, when they must reach the minimum qualification in order to have "Clean Elections Candidate" appear next to their names on the ballot. The candidates also are required to participate in two debates.

The campaign finance reports from July 11 show that Selby, Zimmer and Walsh have raised $1,400, $1,330 and $1,190 in qualifying contributions since May, respectively. On what was their first set of reports, Oroho and McHose had each raised $110, and Chiusano raised $80. The most recent reports were due to the state Wednesday and should show increased donations, but are not available to the public until Friday.

"We're just basically pounding the pavement, calling people, knocking on doors," Walsh said. "I think it's going well."

Republicans and Democrats might be on an even playing field in terms of campaign spending, but the election still depends on how that money is spent, said Ingrid Reed, policy analyst with the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

"What it does give is a voice to the Democrats, and it's up to the candidates to take advantage of that," Reed said. "We all know just having money doesn't mean you're going to run a good campaign."

Public financing is set to change the nature of the political race for both parties. Incumbent Republicans can no longer receive money from lobbyist organizations, and Democrats will see more money than they historically have spent on campaigns. In his Senate bid against Sen. Robert Littell six years ago, Selby spent about $5,700, compared to more than $200,000 by Littell.

Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 3-1 in Sussex County, but there are more unaffiliated voters than both combined and the GOP has said it's not taking anything for granted. There are 30,981 registered Republicans and 9,208 registered Democrats, but the county has 49,012 unaffiliated voters.

"No one can become complacent in this business," said McHose, who is seeking reelection to the Assembly. "It's not to be taken lightly."

Since joining the program, the Republicans have made phone calls, approached people in person and sent a mailing to their known supporters, several of whom sent back $10 checks. They also are planning some meet-and-greet events to solicit donations in a larger setting and build on the pool of supporters from the primary win.

"That ground swell is starting," Oroho said. "You got to keep that momentum going."

But they said the process of collecting donations and filing the appropriate paperwork has proved to be very time-consuming.

"It's an administrative nightmare," said Chiusano, a county freeholder, recalling how he recently brought 40 $10 checks to deposit in his bank. "If you've got a job and family, it's pretty difficult, especially coming off a primary."

Democrats said they don't think the administrative end of the process is too burdensome. Between their Web sites, phone calls and door-to-door canvassing, Democrats have reached out to their base of supporters and are trying to set up a network of contributors. One donor is asked to reach out to two other potential contributors. They also are setting up several house parties to collect donations.

"We will qualify. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind about that," Selby said. "We will continue to aim efforts at a grassroots level."

Copyright 2007 New Jersey Herald

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