The Star-Ledger

Jersey Is Third State To Try 'Clean Elections'

The Star-Ledger — Monday, October 8, 2007

BY ROBERT SCHWANEBERG
Star-Ledger Staff

A decade ago, Maine state lawmaker Deborah Simpson could not have imagined running for office, let alone winning.

"I was going to college, waiting on tables and being a single parent," said Simpson, who had returned to school in her 30s. And her volunteer work on a friend's state Senate race in 1998 convinced Simpson she lacked the well-heeled contacts needed to finance a campaign.

"It was pretty shocking to me, the amount of time you spent sitting in her dining room making phone calls and begging for money," Simpson said.

But in 2000, Maine implemented a "clean elections" program for legislative races. That, along with some cajoling from friends, persuaded Simpson to run. She qualified for public financing by collecting 50 contributions of $5 each, won the election and rose through the legislative ranks to chairwoman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee.

Supporters of the clean elections concept say Simpson personifies what reducing the role of big-money donors accomplished in Maine, and can do in New Jersey.

"Clean elections gives nontraditional candidates a level playing field," said Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden), who sponsored the clean elections pilot program being tried this year in three of New Jersey's 40 legislative districts. "You don't have to be rich and you don't have to have a lot of rich friends, and you don't have to become beholden to special interests."

That is the theory behind clean elections programs, which award public financing to candidates who refuse special-interest donations and demonstrate wide appeal by collecting a certain number of small contributions from registered voters.

In New Jersey, it's being tried this year in the 14th, 24th and 37th legislative districts, where 16 of 20 eligible candidates have qualified for taxpayer subsidies by collecting at least 400 contributions of $10 each. Roberts wants to expand it with some changes for future elections.

But how well such programs have worked in Maine or Arizona – the only states that have used them to elect their legislatures – is sharply debated.

Earlier this year, Maine's Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices credited its clean election law with "encouraging first-time candidates to run," giving "more choices to voters" and "providing a more level playing field in legislative races between incumbents and challengers."

"It's worked great, far beyond what we had a right to think it would do," said Alison Smith, co-chairwoman of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

But in 2006, the conservative Goldwater Institute said Arizona's clean elections law "has largely failed to live up to its stated goals" and "may actually harm the political process."

Mike Schrimpf, a spokesman for the Center for Competitive Politics in Alexandria, Va., shares that view.

"The elections are no more competitive. Voter turnout is no higher," Schrimpf said. "Nothing changes, except you're spending government resources to line the pockets of politicians."

And for the biggest question of all – whether clean elections reduce the influence of special interests on lawmaking – there is no data.

"The jury's still out on that," said Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

Maine's ethics agency said, "Whether public financing has reduced campaign contributors' influence over legislative decision-making is outside the scope of this report and may be impossible to determine."

But Smith said when she talks to Maine lawmakers, "I am constantly hearing that they are lobbied less."

"People do feel more independent in the Legislature," Smith said. "They simply don't have to worry about where the checks are coming from for their next campaign."

Gregg Edwards, president of the Center for Policy Research of New Jersey, doubts clean elections can combat corruption, especially the kind that allegedly has infected the Garden State. He noted that former Assemblymen Mims Hackett (D-Essex) and Rev. Alfred Steele (D-Passaic) resigned last month after they were arrested on federal charges of taking cash bribes.

"It's not selling a vote for a campaign contribution; it's 'give me money,'" Edwards said of the charges against the two. "This law doesn't address that kind of corruption at all."

Even supporters of clean election laws concede that, as they exist in Maine and Arizona, they have a loophole: special interests still give money to legislative leaders, who tend not to take clean elections funding in Arizona and are allowed to form separate political action committees in Maine. Such "leadership PACs" are also a potent political force in New Jersey.

"Unless you regulate that, you still have the influence of money on government," Stern said.

But Simpson said even if Maine legislative leaders take special interest money, "at least your individual legislators aren't beholden in the same way. That's a first step, and a big one."

Evaluating the impact of clean elections can be difficult because both Maine and Arizona have instituted other reforms – such as limiting the number of terms their lawmakers can serve – and are caught up in bigger political movements.

Take voter turnout, which has risen steadily in both states since they instituted clean elections. Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University in Washington, D.C., said that's "basically the same pattern as the rest of the nation," where turnout has been recovering from a late-1990s slump.

Stern said one element of New Jersey's politics bodes well for efforts to extend the clean elections program beyond this year's pilot project.

"The one thing you do have is more corruption investigations than Maine or Arizona," Stern said. "Without scandal, you don't get reform."

More information on New Jersey's pilot program is online at www.njcleanelections.com.

Copyright 2007 The Star-Ledger

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