State Representative Meg Burton Cahill seems straight out of a Frank Capra script celebrating that idealized but rare species of politician known as the “citizen-legislator.” Showing up at a press interview in blue jeans, sandals and a bright red Hawaiian shirt, the 48-year-old first-term Democrat boasts of being a politician who authentically represents her blue-collar friends, neighbors and constituents. A veteran neighborhood activist married to a bricklayer (who serves on the suburban Tempe, Arizona, City Council), Burton Cahill is a potter by profession.
But thanks to Arizona’s four-year-old “clean money” elections law, she was able to win her seat in 2000 by narrowly defeating a powerful incumbent Republican without ever having to ask for a single traditional campaign contribution. Under the new law, all she had to do was gather 200 “seed” checks of $5 each and that qualified her for more than $25,000 in public campaign funds. “I would never have been able to run without clean money,” she says. “When my husband ran for City Council he had to raise $40,000 for a $16,000-a-year job. And here I was, a full-time PhD student. How was I going to go to my blue-collar friends and ask them to give me enough money to challenge a guy who was in line to be Speaker of the House?”
Fortunately, Burton Cahill is no longer a rarity in Arizona politics–or nationally. Four states including Arizona now have clean-money public elections laws. The other three, however, are not nearly as far along the road to reform. A clean-money law is struggling in Massachusetts, where fewer than two dozen candidates are participating and where the legislature refuses to fund the system. Vermont Governor Howard Dean has slashed the funding for the clean-money system in that state. In Maine candidate participation is high but so is discontent over insufficient candidate funding levels, particularly at the gubernatorial level.
But in this year’s midterm electioneering, Arizona’s public-funding law is sizzling hot. Twenty-eight of thirty-nine statewide candidates, including six of eight major gubernatorial candidates, were eligible for more than $1 million in public funding and ran clean in the primaries. And so were more than half of the 247 legislative candidates, almost twice the number as in the law’s inaugural 2000 cycle. “Two years ago the establishment pols said no way this is going to work,” says Cecilia Martinez, executive director of the nonprofit Clean Elections Institute, a public-funding advocacy group. “But now we see that this November Arizona may very well elect the first publicly funded governor in the United States. And there’s a chance we could elect publicly financed candidates for every statewide office.”
It’s too soon to levy any definitive judgments as to how Arizona’s clean-elections system will affect voter participation, candidate diversity and, ultimately, policy, but there’s at least partial evidence that it’s a net benefit to the state’s body politic and a significant opportunity to advance progressive politics. For one thing, it’s popular across party lines. In a state of only 1.8 million voters, about 90,000 have already chipped in $5 seed contributions–more than four times the number who made political contributions before clean money. That popularity helped thwart a right-wing initiative campaign to repeal the law, though a legal challenge to the system is still moving through the courts. So did a barrage of TV ads supporting clean elections taped by the state’s most popular politician, Republican Senator John McCain.