The Times, Trenton

Clearing The Air

The Times of Trenton — Tuesday, August 14, 2007

EDITORIAL

In New Jersey politics, conflicts of interest abound. Perhaps the greatest conflict arises when individuals must raise private funds to campaign for public office. New Jersey's Clean Elections pilot project offers an alternative to this practice and addresses important issues that deserve honest debate. Recent opinion pieces critical of the pilot, such as the opinion article "Not so fair and not so clean" (The Times of Trenton, July 27) by Gregg Edwards and Sean Parnell, have been selective in their use of facts. We take this opportunity to correct the record.

Political campaigns must be financed. Without Clean Elections, the funds come from private sources. In New Jersey, there is no shortage of well-heeled special interests eager to claim that their generosity affords them only "access" and not special treatment, as if the two were unrelated. Both disserve the public interest and disparage the public trust.

Candidates maintain that the unseemly practice of private fund raising is necessary. Absent any alternative, they are correct. Clean Elections creates an opportunity to avoid the private money trap by furnishing aspiring public servants with enough public funding to mount credible and competitive campaigns. Only candidates who demonstrate threshold public support qualify for the funding. The threshold is set to prevent fringe candidates from tapping the public till.

Clean Elections levels the playing field of financial resources available to competing candidates. In New Jersey, incumbents with established name recognition and networks of support routinely outspend their challengers, often by an order of magnitude of ten to one, or more.

Edwards and Parnell assert that clean elections in Maine and Arizona – upon which New Jersey's pilot was modeled – has been anti-competitive and pro-status quo. Not so. Beyond stemming corruption by special-interest money, Clean Elections in Maine and Arizona has led to fewer uncontested elections and more candidates running for office, particularly non-traditional candidates such as women, minorities and those of modest means. Studies have shown that many newcomer candidates chose to run because the formidable fund-raising hurdle had been removed. In Maine, 84 percent of state legislators were elected by running "clean." In Arizona, "clean" candidates hold nine of the 11 statewide offices. Clean Elections afforded these candidates equal opportunity to mount serious campaigns and gave voters greater choice at the ballot box.

Equally important, Maine's and Arizona's programs have led to de creased special-interest campaign funding and increased citizen confidence in their legislatures. Edwards and Parnell obscure the true issue when they cite these states' unchanged re-election rates. Clean Elections seeks to eliminate special-interest influence, not incumbents. In most cases, it is the process – not the person – that deserves the boot. Whether freshman or veteran, legislators who run "clean" campaigns are beholden not to their contributors, but to their constituents.

By most measures (and there are many more), Maine's and Arizona's programs have been resounding successes, adapted and adopted by other states and cities across the country.

Back in New Jersey, Edwards and Parnell maintain that special interests will continue to exert influence by helping candidates collect the large number of nominal contributions required to qualify for public funding. This curious assumption is contrary to all available evidence in this state, where the qualifying process has been candidate-driven. It is difficult to imagine high-powered organizations – developers, insurance companies, attorneys, engineers – performing the leg-work necessary to collect 800 $10 contributions for legislative hopefuls. On the contrary, witness the shoe-leather effort by the certified six candidates in pilot District 14.

Candidates in the 24th District have voiced philosophical opposition to Clean Elections while still accepting their share of public funding. These candidates believe taxpayers shouldn't be required to finance political campaigns. Yet the taxpayers already finance political campaigns, albeit indirectly. Politically active firms must factor in the cost of campaign contributions when bidding for contracts at various levels of government. It's the cost of doing business in our pay- to-play environment. If taxpayers must shoulder the burden, it should be to their benefit. Clean Elections is a modest investment in good government and the public trust, an investment well worth making.

Finally, it must be noted that despite general impressions, legislative action will be necessary to extend Clean Elections beyond 2007. Absent a constitutional command, not even unmitigated success can compel a future Legislature to continue a program enacted by its predecessor. Given the protracted battle to enact this year's pilot, renewal in 2009 is far from assured.

We implore advocates of good government to double-check the facts on this important program and not to accept unsubstantiated rhetoric at face value. Objective sources of information include reports by the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, available from www.njleg.state.nj.us/committees/njcleanelec.asp.

To be sure, the Clean Elections program isn't perfect and must be carefully adapted to suit New Jersey's peculiar political climate. Nevertheless, the program remains superior to politics as currently practiced, and holds great promise for fundamental reform in a state that urgently needs it.

Bill Schluter of Pennington is a former state senator and a past chairman of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission. Benjamin Brickner of Lawrence is a student at Columbia Law School. He wrote his 2005 honors thesis on Clean Elections in the United States.

Copyright 2007 The Times of Trenton

Top Top | NJCA Homepage | NJCA in the News