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Dialing for Clean Dollars | The Nation

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Dialing for Clean Dollars

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If a definition of news is something that hasn't happened before,
readers of the New York Times may be excused for wondering why
the paper featured a front-page story on June 8 on the travails of a
Senate candidate from Oregon who spends hours a day cold-calling rich
strangers to ask them to contribute to his campaign. There's nothing new
about the terrible, time-consuming need for candidates to curry favor
with the donor class; readers may recall Caleb Rossiter's first-person
account of the numbing effects of fundraising for his 1998 Congressional
campaign.

The real news story is in Arizona and Maine, where Clean Elections laws
provide public funding for candidates who avoid fat-cat donors. In those
states more than 300 candidates for everything from governor to state
assembly are proving their political worth not by the size of their
campaign war chests but by their ability to attract the requisite number
of $5 contributors to qualify for public money. Participation rates have
nearly doubled compared with 2000, when Clean Elections systems had
their first run. In Arizona more than 80 percent of the statewide
candidates are participating in Clean Elections--including seven of
eight major candidates for governor and nearly half the legislature
contenders. In Maine two gubernatorial candidates, a Republican and a
Green Independent, have been certified for Clean Elections funding,
along with 206 so far of 375 candidates for the state legislature.

In the past few years the determined organizing of dozens of state
coalitions, led by Public Campaign in Washington, has chipped away at
the belief that we'll never get the special-interest money out of
politics. Adding new force to that effort, Senator John McCain, the
country's most prominent campaign reform advocate, recently announced
his support for his home state's Clean Elections system. In ads paid for
by the Arizona Clean Elections Institute, McCain says: "Clean Elections
works well to overcome the influence of special interests. It gives
Arizonans the power to create good government. Keep supporting Clean
Elections."

McCain's move has a significant local context: Right-wingers and
business interests are trying to undermine his state's pioneering
system. Clint Bolick has set up a state satellite of his conservative
Institute for Justice to go after public financing in the courts, and
former GOP Congressman and gubernatorial candidate Matt Salmon is
attacking Clean Elections as "welfare for politicians" and promising to
get rid of it if he's elected this fall. Activists tied to GOP
fundraisers have floated the idea of a ballot repeal initiative if they
can't get rid of Clean Elections by other means.

Outside Arizona McCain's announcement should end the notion that
Republicans can't stomach public financing. In fact, there is a clear
trend toward greater acceptance among GOP leaders, who are beginning to
understand the rank and file's revulsion at big money's corrupting
power. In recent years, Republican businessmen in Maine, veteran
legislators in Vermont, a sitting governor in Massachusetts (along with
the state party) and a slew of former elected officials from around the
country have expressed their support for public financing, along with a
host of politicians in those three states and Arizona. Now that McCain
has thrown his clout behind the cause, let's hope others will follow.

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