The Star-Ledger

Candidates Are Split On 'Clean Elections'

The Star-Ledger — Sunday, October 28, 2007

BY JIM LOCKWOOD
STAR-LEDGER STAFF

The candidates in the race for Senate and Assembly in the 24th District are participants in the state's pilot "clean elections" program, which gives candidates public funds if they find a broad level of support from the public.

But the Republicans say the program is a costly experiment that does little to solve such problems and is riddled with loopholes that fail to curb candidates from taking special-interest cash.

The Democrats view it as a way to rid New Jersey of pay-to-play, corruption and special-interest money in elections.

"As long as the system stays the way that it is, we will see government out of control, we'll see corruption and we'll see our taxes soar as services are cut," said Democratic state Senate candidate Ed Selby. "There's only one solution and that's to change the system – get the money, the lobbyists and the special interests out of the political process. Return power to the individual voters."

In New Jersey, clean elections are being tried this year in the 14th, 24th and 37th legislative districts, where 16 of 20 eligible candidates have qualified for taxpayer subsidies. Candidates who raise 800 contributions of $10 apiece qualify for up to $526,375 in public funds.

In the 24th District, which includes Sussex County, five towns in Morris County and two towns in Hunterdon County, the Democratic team of Selby and Assembly candidates Toni Zimmer and Patrick Walsh wholeheartedly support the pilot program.

But the Republican ticket of Steve Oroho for Senate and Alison Littell McHose and Gary Chiusano for Assembly say the program is badly flawed, and the state, which is in dire fiscal straits, cannot afford it.

"When you talk about clean elections, my opponent doesn't mind spending your money," Oroho told a crowd at a recent candidates forum. "The clean elections program has (statewide cost) estimates out there of up to $300 million, for a state that already has a structural deficit of $3 billion."

McHose said that while campaign-finance reforms may be needed, "clean elections is not the way to go. We clearly do not have the money to fund this type of program throughout New Jersey."

Zimmer countered that if New Jersey wants to fight corruption, this is the way to do it. "It's been proven – there's pay-to-play, there's all kinds of corruption and a lot of it has to do with accepting special-interest contributions."

Her running mate Walsh said that because legislative leaders receive large amounts of money from people who have multimillion-dollar contracts with the state, clean elections is a good concept that could save billions of dollars in the long run."

It's hard to tell the people of New Jersey that the head of the Legislature on both sides. Republican and Democrat, don't feel any obligation to folks who give these big checks," Walsh said. "I think it's a known fact that in New Jersey, many legislators do feel obligated, and many do make their decisions based on those checks."

The GOP team also criticized the Democrats for taking some of their clean election funds and making donations to privately financed, non-clean-elections candidates. Selby said his team simply supported other candidates who also endorse clean elections, and the contributions were fully disclosed in campaign-finance reports.

However, the nonprofit New Jersey Citizen Action, a civic watchdog group, said that although those donations were legal, "such diversion of funds is wholly inappropriate and completely violates the spirit and intent of the program."

Copyright 2007 The Star-Ledger

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