The Times, Trenton

Digging For Dirt In The New Clean Elections Program

The Times of Trenton — Thursday, September 6, 2007

BY RYAN TRACY

In the midst of the state's first hotly contested political race under the new publicly funded clean elections pilot program, state Senate candidates in the 14th District are at odds about exactly what full participation in a "clean" campaign should entail.

Yesterday, Democratic candi date Seema Singh criticized her Republican opponent, Assemblyman Bill Baroni, for putting his name behind party fundraising events sponsored by candidates in other districts, calling the events "political fundraising operations that violate the spirit and intent of the clean elections program."

Singh cited Baroni's appear ance at a $150 per-head fundraiser for 36th District Assembly candi date Carmen Pio Costa as evidence that "Mr. Baroni is still selling big- dollar donors access to public officials, only now he's using other candidates to front for him."

"When you put your name on an invitation, you are clearly saying to people, 'I will be at this event, If you wish to speak with me, I will be there.' You're selling access to everyone on that ticket," argued Elizabeth Meyers, a Singh for Senate spokeswoman.

But Baroni, who was a primary sponsor of the clean election legislation, drew a distinction between appearing as a speaker at party events and participating in "active fundraising," such as soliciting do nors over the telephone, holding meetings with potential contributors, and accepting checks.

"I didn't actually do any fundraising," Baroni said of the July 26 event in Morris County. "When you're an incumbent, often you have to speak at things."

"I spoke about reform" and clean elections, Baroni said.

Under the new clean elections program, which is being piloted in three state legislative districts this fall, both Baroni and Singh agreed to forfeit their rights to private campaign contributions that exceed a limit of 800 donations of $10 each from individual residents. In return, the candidates are eligible for up to $534,000 in taxpayer- funded campaign money.

The act of attending a fundraising event outside the district is not banned under the regulations.

"Until we have clean elections statewide, candidates in the other 37 districts are going to have to play by the rules, so they're forced to hold these big fundraising events," said Marilyn Carpenteyro, a spokeswoman for New Jersey Citizen Action, an advocacy group.

"From at least what we've seen, Bill Baroni has acted within the guidelines of clean elections .... He's not explicitly fundraising for" candidates in other districts, Carpenteyro said, adding that all such events would be banned if clean elections are adopted statewide in 2009.

Singh's camp contends that while Baroni's actions were not illegal, they violated the spirit of the law.

"I have not been raising money, and I will continue that," Baroni responded. "I wrote this law and I passionately believe in it."

As for the contention that his name on an invitation constituted a sort of advertisement that would give donors a chance to access his time, Baroni called that argument "silly."

"They could come to the gym where I work out every day and talk to me," he said.

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