The Star-Ledger

Jersey Tries Test In Clean Elections

Experts disagree on whether it'll succeed

The Star-Ledger — Sunday, July 29, 2007

BY ROBERT SCHWANEBERG
Star-Ledger Staff

When Assemblyman Bill Baroni ran for re-election in 2005, he raised close to half a million dollars, with three-quarters of that coming from special interests such as unions, corporations and political action committees.

This year, running for an open state Senate seat, Baroni has raised more than half a million dollars. But he's done it in a radically different way.

Most of his money comes from taxpayers – and none from the special interests who wield lots of influence in Trenton.

Baroni (R-Mercer) is one of 20 candidates for the state Legislature who signed up for a "clean elections" experiment designed to show politicians that they can and should answer to just one interest: New Jersey residents.

"It is a blessing," Baroni said. "There's always the perception that the big money in Trenton is a problem. This gets rid of that perception."

Under the rules, Baroni and his Democratic opponent in the 14th District, former ratepayer advocate Seema Singh, accepted donations of $500 or less to get their campaigns off the ground. Then they both collected 800 separate contributions of $10 each – all from real people who are registered to vote.

In return, the state handed each candidate a $526,375 "clean elections" grant. Under the rules, they can't collect any more campaign contributions.

They couldn't – and didn't – take a dime from special interests.

"It's a great program," said Singh, making her first run for public office. "As a newcomer, it gave me a level playing field. It also forced me to go out there and meet with the voters."

Supporters of the clean elections program believe it can accomplish great things in future races if expanded statewide.

"It will change politics as we know it," said William Schluter, a former Republican state senator. "There will not be the quid pro quo, the pay-to-play, the candidates becoming beholden to their donors."

David Rebovich, a political science professor at Rider University, isn't so sure.

"We're still going to see continued influence of organized interests," Rebovich predicted. "If they can't do it through contributions, they'll do it through endorsements and get-out-the-vote efforts."

The program is being tried in three of the state's 40 legislative districts. Only one of the three – the 14th, covering parts of Middlesex and Mercer counties and featuring the Baroni-Singh race – is considered "competitive," allowing candidates to collect more than half a million dollars in state funding. That figure is based on the cost of past elections.

In districts declared "safe" for one political party, the maximum grant is $100,000. The prospect of getting even that much in state funding has psyched up Democratic candidates in the supposedly safe Republican 24th District covering Sussex and parts of Hunterdon and Morris counties.

"I think we can be competitive this year on a level we have not been in recent decades," said Ed Selby, the Democrats' Senate candidate in the 24th District.

"It's a whole different world for us this time around," added Patrick Walsh, one of the Democrats' two Assembly candidates. "I definitely think we can win."

Steven Oroho, the Republican Senate candidate, said, "Philosophically, I'm opposed to having the taxpayers pay for this."

Assemblywoman Alison Littell McHose (R-Sussex) voted against the pilot program, which is authorized to spend up to $6.75million, because "we don't have the money in the state of New Jersey right now to conduct an experiment on this."

But both McHose and Oroho filed to run as clean election candidates because failing to do so would have surrendered too many advantages to their opponents – both financially and symbolically. Candidates who raise 400 contributions of $10 each by Aug. 17 get to run with the phrase "Clean elections candidate" next to their names on the ballot.

"If you don't do it, are you dirty?" McHose asked.

All of the legislative candidates in the three test districts – nine Democrats, nine Republicans and two Libertarians – have signed up to participate in the clean elections program.

THE PAPERWORK

Candidates who have tried raising funds the "clean" way agree on one point: It is a lot of work.

"It's been very, very time-consuming," Oroho said.

Although McHose got far more from small donors in her 2005 campaign than the typical candidate does, $23,722 of her war chest total of $43,507 came from just 28 big contributors.

As for collecting 800 contributions of $10 each, she said, "This is harder, by far."

Much of the labor is not in getting the contributions but in the paperwork. Clean elections candidates must file weekly reports and document that every contribution came from a registered voter.

Even the legislative sponsors of the program admit that part of it is burdensome.

"There were times I thought to myself: This part of it is a nightmare," said Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex), who is seeking re-election as a clean elections candidate in the 14th District and received the maximum grant of $526,375 Wednesday.

Baroni, another sponsor of the clean elections program, agreed it is "more time-intensive" than raising big sums from political action committees, but said he'd rather spend his days talking with voters and asking them for $10 than phoning organizations in search of big bucks.

Two years ago, he raised $366,994 from special interests that are off-limits to him this year, according to a Star-Ledger analysis of his war chest.

"Give me the small donor every day. That's what politics used to be," Baroni said.

Greenstein noted that for her, the program urging candidates to just say no to special interests is already causing a bit of a backlash.

"When you're saying no, it's not only a little bit of a personal affront, but they're wondering: How is this going to affect the way we do business?" Greenstein said. "I have heard at least one gripe where a group felt, 'Gee, we're used to working Trenton that way.'"

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