The Star-Ledger

'Clean' Election Effort Hailed As Success

Backers from both parties predict program will continue

The Star-Ledger — Saturday, August 18, 2007

BY ROBERT SCHWANEBERG
Star-Ledger Staff

Fifteen of the 20 candidates in an experimental clean elections program have raised enough $10 contributions to collect public funds, making it a "success" that will be continued in future years, supporters in both parties said yesterday.

Officially, the state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) still must certify that those 15 candidates got $10 contributions from 400 registered voters living in their districts. But sponsors of the program said that is just a formality.

"We're confident that all 15 candidates that have filed with at least 400 contributions will be certified by ELEC," said Alescia Teel, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden), who has championed the clean elections program as a way of ridding politics of special interest money.

The legislation establishing the pilot program said it would be considered a "success" – and continued in future years – if at least nine candidates raised enough small contributions to qualify for public funding.

Roberts said he was excited by the prospect the clean elections program will be expanded in 2009 to legislative primary races.

"Before the case could be made to expand the clean elections concept to the primaries, we needed to prove that candidates and voters would embrace the concept of special-interest-free campaigns," Roberts said. "With the positive results already being achieved by this year's program, what once was thought of as a lofty goal is coming closer to becoming a historic reality."

Assemblyman Bill Baroni (R-Mercer), who is running as a clean elections candidate for the seat held by retiring Sen. Peter Inverso (R-Mercer), said, "This may be one of the most important days in New Jersey's fight to clean up elections. For two years, we've been hearing the naysayers say it couldn't be done."

But Gregg Edwards, president of the Center for Policy Research of New Jersey, called the law's test of whether the program is a success "totally inadequate."

"It's the lowest bar you could set for the program," Edwards said. "All it says is there are 15 candidates who are willing to spend taxpayer dollars to fund their campaigns, and that should be a surprise to no one."

When a similar program was tried in the 2005 Assembly elections, only two of the 10 eligible candidates raised enough small contributions to qualify for public funding. Roberts said the program was revamped this year to remove "bureaucratic red tape."

It is being tried in three of the state's 40 legislative districts, each of which will elect one senator and two Assembly members. Only one is considered competitive. That is the 14th District, covering parts of Middlesex and Mercer counties, where Baroni is running against former ratepayer advocate Seema Singh for Senate. Both have gotten $526,375 in public funding – the maximum for that district – by raising 800 contributions of $10 each.

In two other "safe" districts, candidates can get up to $100,000 in public funds by raising 800 contributions of $10 each. They are the solidly Republican 24th District, covering Sussex and parts of Hunterdon and Morris counties, and the heavily Democratic 37th District in Bergen County.

Only the three Republican candidates in the 37th District and two Libertarian Assembly candidates in the 14th District failed to raise the 400 contributions of $10 each needed to begin collecting public funds, according to Teel. Those candidates still have until Sept. 30 to qualify for public funding but missed yesterday's deadline for running with the slogan "clean elections candidate" next to their names on the ballot.

Candidates who participate in the program cannot accept any donations from the political action committees, unions, corporations and party organizations that supply the lion's share of funding in a typical campaign.

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