The Star-Ledger

Clean Elections Can Restore Voters' Faith

The Star-Ledger — Sunday, August 5, 2007

BY PETER COCOZIELLO

The one issue that never disappears from the front pages of New Jersey's newspapers is that of corruption. Just within the past six months, we've read about quite a few prominent state leaders being indicted or under suspicion of misusing their public office for personal or financial gain.

This never-ending saga is a major factor in how our residents – and the rest of the country – perceive our state. I am particularly concerned that all this negativity will dissuade our best and brightest, as well as our children, from ever wanting to serve in public office.

From a business perspective, these stories create the illusion that New Jersey is the "Wild West," and that does not help with our economic attraction and retention efforts.

A democracy works best when your most talented get involved in the political process for the good of the majority of the people. Democracies in the course of history have begun to malfunction when apathy sets in and those with the most to lose – its citizenry – throw up their hands, because they feel there is no way to change the status quo. Then they do not bother to vote or donate time to public service, thus allowing corruption to seep in.

As the chair of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce's Platform for Progress government reform initiative, my committee has come to the conclusion that attitudes must change or the future of the state could be in serious jeopardy. If nothing is done, the corruption stories will only increase as these activities become the norm – or the culture of the society.

One way the state is trying to change business as usual and remove money from politics is to change the way the election process works. This November, when voters in the 14th, 24th and 37th legislative districts select their representatives for the Senate and Assembly, they could have the opportunity to vote for candidates that did not receive substantial campaign contributions from unions, corporations, political parties or individual donors. These candidates are participating in the second Clean Elections Pilot Project.

Under this voluntary program, qualified candidates who collect 400 to 800 $10 contributions from voters in their district and agree to forgo private campaign cash receive public funding grants to run for office.

Other states that have had similar clean election programs have discovered that full public campaign financing attracts more non- traditional candidates, including women and minorities, and increases voter participation.

The first pilot program in New Jersey had similar results, and the second should, as well. This program will hopefully be expanded to include primary elections and apply to the entire state in the coming years, because removing money from politics is critical so that candidates are not beholden to anyone once they take office.

The Clean Elections program is backed by a diverse group of concerned organizations, including the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, Citizen Action, and the League of Women Voters, who will help to promote the program to voters in the pilot districts.

Changing the negative perception of New Jersey will only happen one step at a time. It is unfortunate that a few rotten apples are creating the illusion that all public service is dirty and that participation in the process is futile.

Although we will unfortunately continue to hear the negative sto ries, all New Jerseyans should take notice of the pilot program in the 14th legislative district, which includes parts of Mercer and Middlesex counties; the 24th, in Sussex, Hunterdon and Morris counties; and the 37th in Bergen County. It's what democracies are all about and based on what our founding fathers intended for elections. Once this election cycle is over, our wish is for clean elections to be coming to a legislative district near you.

Peter Cocoziello, president of the Advance Realty Group, Inc., is chairman of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce's Government Reform Initiative.

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