The Times, Trenton

'Clean' Election Has Its Critics

Opinions mixed on campaign finance law

The Times of Trenton — Tuesday, July 6, 2007

BY DARRYL R. ISHERWOOD
STAFF WRITER

Candidates In the 14th Legislative District have gushed about the state's pilot clean-elections program and the influx of cash it will bring, but in other districts trying it for the first time, the project has not drawn such rave reviews.

Republican Assemblyman Bill Baroni, running for a Senate seat in the 14th District and running mates Tom Goodwin and Adam Bushman, each vying for an Assembly seat, announced yesterday they had aU reached 800 donations of $10 each, the final milestone in the clean-elections program. By forsaking large donations in favor of small ones, the three men are each entitled to $534,000 in public funding.

"Today is a milestone as Tom, Adam and I... have crossed the 800 threshold for clean elections. Achieving the 800 is a milestone in the fight against the culture of corruption," Baroni said yesterday.

But candidates in the state's two other pilot districts are not as thrilled with the program, which some say is unwieldy and requires far too much time to monitor the myriad rules.

"It is very cumbersome and confusing," said Republican Assemblyman Allison Littell McHose, who is running for re-election in the 24th District.

McHose, who reluctantly filed her intent to participate in the pilot project this week, said the potential for abuse was large and compared the program to gun control, saying the restrictions make it hard for honest people to get guns, but won't stop determined criminals.

"When bad people want to be bad, they will get around it," said McHose, who voted against the legislation creating the clean-elections program. Democratic state Sea Loretta Weinberg, the 37th District incumbent who said yesterday she will participate, said the paperwork alone is causing her angst. "From what I have learned about it so far, it seems they could have simplified the bureaucracy," she said. "We have to fill out three sets of paperwork and the people donating have to be willing to stand around and complete a form when they give money."

While Baroni, a sponsor of the legislation along with Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein, is one of its most ardent supporters, he said the amount of public money each candidate will receive, particularly in the hotly contested 14th District, where taxpayers provide each candidate with up to $534,000, is far too high.

"I have said that is too much money to spend in a legislative campaign," he said. "I like the fact that in the law itself it requires any unspent campaign funds to go back to the taxpayers (and) we intend to do that. We have not finalized our campaign budget but I can tell you having run twice in the 14th District before, that much money is far more than we have ever spent on our side of the aisle."

In the 14th District, $534,000 is equal to the average amount spent in the past two legislative campaigns.

Baroni is joined in that complaint by other candidates and clean-government advocates, including Weinberg, who said in the past she and her running mates have spent about $120,000 between them, less than half what they will receive should each get to the 800 donation mark.

Ev Liebman of New Jersey Citizen Action agrees and says in order for the program to be successful statewide, the funding would have to be reasonable. The program would expand to all 40 legislative districts in 2009 if at least half of the 18 eligible candidates reach 400 contributions.

"We think that a statewide program could not sustain the level of funding that we see in the 14th. nor should it," she said.

But like the 14th District candidates, some in the 24th and 37th districts have nothing negative to say about clean elections. Pat Walsh, a Democrat running for Assembly in the 24th against McHose. said the public funding will allow him to run a vibrant campaign, one that would not be possible under the previous financing laws.

"It definitely gives us a much better opportunity than we had previously," Walsh said. "It's an uphill battle for (Democrats) in this district, but the truth is there are more independent and undeclared voters than there are of any ane party, so I think we can tap into those people with a strong campaign."

As part of their announcemoit yesterday, Baroni, Goodwin and Bushman signed a "clean elections pledge" and challenged Uth District Democratic candidates Greenstein, Seema Singh and Wayne DeAngelo to do the same. The pledge says the candidates will run clean campaigns, will not participate in negative campaignmg and will participate in "Mr public debate."

The pledge was developed by the League of Women Voters.

Copyright 2007 The Times of Trenton

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