NorthJersey.com

Clean Elections Process Making Strides

NorthJersey.com — Tuesday, October 2, 2007

By ELISE YOUNG
TRENTON BUREAU

The Clean Elections concept has taken hold among voters in New Jersey, where at least 16 of 20 legislative candidates have qualified for a share of $7.6 million in public campaign-finance money, authorities said Monday.

Election officials will know this week whether the remaining candidates – three Bergen County Republicans and a Libertarian from Mercer County – have raised $4,000, the minimum to qualify for public funding.

"It can, indeed, work in New Jersey," said Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, D-Camden, one of the sponsors of the bill that created a Clean Elections pilot in three legislative districts.

"It's nice that people will be looking at a New Jersey campaign finance issue other than another arrest," said Assemblyman Bill Baroni, R-Mercer, another bill sponsor and himself a qualifying Clean Elections candidate.

He was referring to a series of federal investigations that have led to criminal charges against four Democratic lawmakers.

In Bergen County's 37th District, the three incumbent Democrats raised their minimums and were Clean Elections-certified in the summer.

One of their opponents, Assembly candidate Wojciech J. Siemaszkiewicz of Bergenfield said he and his running mate, Frank J. Cifarelli of Hackensack, each had collected $1,400 as of late last week. Siemaszkiewicz said it was unlikely that they had made up the difference during their last weekend.

"I'm not looking at this as losing," Siemaszkiewicz said. "I'm looking at this as something that's never been done before."

Clara S. Nibot, running for Senate, had about $3,000 in donations heading into the weekend, Siemaszkiewicz said.

"Clara has a chance to make it," Siemaszkiewicz said.

Officials will know by Wednesday's filing deadline whether those three – and Ray F. Cragle, a Libertarian from the 14th District – will be eligible for $50,000 to $500,000 in public grants.

The candidates who don't qualify are free to continue running, although they will be on their own for financing. And in the 37th District, they will face Sen. Loretta Weinberg and Assembly members Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Gordon Johnson, who can add "Clean Elections-certified" to their accomplishments.

Clean Elections was designed to reduce special interests' influence on New Jersey politics. Donors who give generously often later are awarded no-bid government contracts, a practice known as pay-to-play. Good-government advocates say that pay-to-play costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

To sign on, candidates had to agree to collect at least $4,000 in individual $10 donations, then swear off private funding and any kind of help from their county committees. They then would be eligible for at least $50,000 in grants, plus installments based on total donations and the degree of competition within the district.

A Clean Elections attempt in 2005 was a failure, because only two of 10 candidates raised enough in individual donations to qualify for the taxpayer grants. For this test, the program did away with some onerous paperwork and focused on voter education and candidate training.

On Monday, Roberts said the Legislature would expand the program in 2009, to include primary races and more legislative districts.

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