The Star-Ledger

Testing The Limits Of Clean Elections

Complaint is filed in the 24th District

The Star-Ledger — Friday, November 2, 2007

BY JIM LOCKWOOD
STAR-LEDGER STAFF

With only a few days left until Tuesday's election, the gloves have come off in the 24th District's pilot "clean election" of publicly financed campaigns, as each side is accusing the other of skirting the stricter campaign-finance rules.

Thanks to the pilot program, the Democrats – Ed Selby for state Senate and Assembly candidates Toni Zimmer and Patrick Walsh – have something that Democratic candidates in this heavily-GOP district typically have lacked: a sizable pot of campaign funds.

Of the Democrats' $209,000 in campaign funds, $186,000 came from clean elections grants. The candidates spent $136,000 and had nearly $74,000 left, according to their most recent campaign-finance reports filed a week ago.

Still, the Republicans – Steve Oroho for Senate and Assemblywoman Alison McHose and Gary Chiusano for Assembly – maintained a solid lead in fundraising. Of their $323,000 in contributions, $271,000 came from clean elections grants; they spent $181,000 and had $142,000 left;, according to their most recent reports.

McHose filed an elections-law complaint yesterday against the Democrats over one of their television campaign ads, which she called a "negative attack ad." McHose cites the Fair and Clean Elections statute that says television ads must have a "statement in the candidate's own voice or each candidate's own voice" saying they have approved the ad. The idea is t;o make negative campaigning less likely if candidates have to own up to the ad, she said.

"They are simply ignoring one of the most important aspects of the Clean Elections law," McHose said.

The Democrats said they believed the ad's written disclaimer was sufficient. The ad, which features the voices of Selby and Walsh and is running on various cable television channels in Sussex and Morris counties, is not negative, but "aimed at stopping runaway development" in the Highlands, they said. The ad states the Republican team in the primary received $30,000 from developers, and the Democrats have a plan to curb development.

"They're kind of grasping at straws," Selby said of the disclaimer complaint. "We made every effort to comply with the law as it was explained to us. Our photos are clear and we have a clearly printed disclaimer."

The GOP team previously criticized the Democrats for using clean election funds to make donations to privately finance candidates who weren't participating in the clean campaign project.

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

The Democrats said they simply supported other candidates who also endorse clean elections, and the contributions were fully disclosed in their finance reports.

The Democrats, in turn, questioned whether it was proper for the Republicans to contribute $3,000 each in clean election funds to the Sussex County Republican Committee for polling services. The GOP team replied that they were "merely obeying the law" that requires clean elections candidates to pay for all services provided by other committees and to disclose such payments.

The 24th District includes Sussex County, five towns in Morris County and two towns in Hunterdon County. Republicans have a 3-1 advantage in registered voters over Democrats, but the largest bloc are undeclared voters.

Copyright 2007 The Star-Ledger

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