Arizona Progressives Slam “Clean Elections” Program

Arizona and Maine, we are continually told, are examples of the success of so-called “clean elections” schemes that shovel taxpayer dollars into the campaign coffers of politicians. Few advocates, however, ever bother to cite exactly what “success” looks like under “clean elections,” other than to note the increasing number of candidates lining up for their campaign welfare checks.

The Phoenix News in Arizona published an article a few days ago taking down claims that “clean elections” has somehow changed politics in the Copper State, or even led to a better quality of legislator. The report is rich with detail of the gaming and manipulation that occurs, and how Arizona politicians have rather easily twisted “clean elections” into their own purposes.

A few excerpts:

The state’s landmark Clean Elections system began with the best of intentions. Progressives wanted to reduce the role of money in politics – taxpayer-funded elections seemed a brilliant way to take down special interests and give control back to the people.

But in the 10 years since voters approved the system, it’s become a source of irregularities. Today we have politicians using Clean Elections money as personal slush funds. We have Clean Elections being used as just one more tool [by Nixonian politicians]. And, ultimately, we have a Legislature that’s more stupid, and more reactionary, than ever…

After an election cycle that some politicians call the dirtiest in recent history, a growing number of legislators are talking about reform. Meanwhile, a lawsuit pending in federal court…  has a good chance of stripping away some key provisions of Clean Elections on First Amendment grounds. And the Clean Elections Commission has actually hired its own well-connected lobbyist to represent its interests at the Legislature.

…[People are] wondering whether Clean Elections will survive the Goldwater lawsuit. They’re wondering whether it’s possible to reform the system enough to stop the high jinks.

And, most importantly, they’re wondering whether these so-called “clean” elections are worth $15 million in public funds every year. If the system’s not getting any cleaner, and the candidates aren’t getting any better, what’s the point?

…Janice Goldstein is a lobbyist with the left-leaning Arizona Trial Lawyers Association. She was never a supporter of Clean Elections, but she says that even she’s been surprised by the low-quality candidates it’s brought to the statehouse.

“As one of my members said, it’s not just that they haven’t talked to people with so-called special interests,” she says. “We’ve got people who haven’t talked to anybody! They collect their $5 contributions, get the government check, and they literally arrive here knowing nobody.”

Heiler, [a] Republican, agrees.

“Instead of making our politics more clean, it’s actually made it more polarized – and more accessible to relatively inept people.”

…Far more insidious is the very strange case of Margarite Dale, [a] housewife turned Green Party candidate.

When Dale filed papers to run, [Democratic candidate Jackie] Thrasher thought it was no big deal. “I saw a Green candidate had filed, and I thought, ‘Good for them,'” she says. “Having a number of options and a number of different candidates, that’s how it should be.”

Until, that is, Thrasher got a call from a real Green Party activist. Celeste Castarena told Thrasher that she and her fellow party members had never heard of Margarite Dale. When they did a little research, Castarena reported, they’d learned that Dale had changed her voter registration to Green just days after the Greens qualified for Clean Elections funding.

Prior to that, Margarite Dale had been a Republican.

In an attempt to be open-minded, Castarena says, she invited Dale to a Green Party event. Dale declined, saying she couldn’t attend meetings on Sundays or Wednesdays.

“We ended up voting to actively oppose her,” Castarena says.

It didn’t matter: On the ballot, Dale was still listed as Green Party. And, because real Green Party volunteers had earned Clean Elections status for their party, Dale was awarded a massive infusion of funds. Simply by registering as a Green candidate and gathering 200 token contributions, Dale was granted $68,531 in public money for her “campaign.”

Evidence suggests that Dale’s candidacy was the ultimate dirty trick – a dastardly plot by the Republican candidates to siphon votes from Thrasher.

The GOP barely bothered to hide its connections to Dale…

Dale certainly ran her campaign as if she were trying to help her “friends” in any way she could. Oddly for a Green Party candidate, Dale hired a campaign consultant closely allied with the GOP…

Strangely, Dale’s campaign also chose to spend a full $10,500 on “polling/research.” Consultants say that’s rare in a legislative campaign; polling is much too expensive when you’re seeking grassroots support.

Even odder: Dale chose to use National Research, a polling firm in New Jersey. Among the few Arizona pols listed on the firm’s Web site as past clients?[One of the Republicans in the race].

So did a big chunk of Margarite Dale’s funding go to help her supposed “opponents” figure out the lay of the land? It certainly looks that way, and when New Times reached Dale by phone last week, her denials were fairly unconvincing. How did she come to hire the New Jersey firm? Dale couldn’t say. Did she share the data she gathered with her Republican “opponents”? Dale didn’t know.

“I don’t know what the big thing is,” she said. “Everything we paid for with Clean Elections money was exactly within the confines of what we were supposed to be doing. Everything we got, we used for my campaign. I did run a campaign, and I got 3,000 votes. You don’t get 3,000 votes by doing nothing.”

…Dale’s numbers are a little off. She got 2,358 votes, not 3,000. But that was unquestionably enough to make a difference. Jackie Thrasher lost her House seat by a fraction of that – just 553 votes.

The article provides a well-researched counter to the supposed “success” of Arizona’s “clean elections” program, and is well worth the read.

The Dirty Truth about “Clean” Elections (warning: some language unsuitable for children, flightless waterfowl, and others of a sensitive nature)