Running Clean in Arizona
With clean elections under attack from some sectors of the political right, Spitzer published a bold op-ed piece at the end of July in the Arizona Republic. "It's time to debunk allegations that Arizona's Clean Elections law imposes 'un-American' limits on political activity," he wrote. "I'm a classical conservative, nurtured on The Federalist Papers, and my thesis is (1) Lobbyist-mercenaries' dominance over political fund-raising would rotate Madison in his grave; and (2) Clean Elections is indeed consistent with the best traditions of American governance."
Money for the clean-elections fund comes from a $5 state-income-tax checkoff, a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for direct contributions into the system and a 10 percent surcharge on civil and criminal fines, including traffic tickets. An annual registration fee on lobbyists was overturned in the courts. And now a challenge to the surcharge on fines from the libertarian Institute for Justice is before the state's Supreme Court. Conservative legal activist Clint Bolick is leading the charge against the clean-elections system--which he says can be found "only in totalitarian countries and Arizona." Few observers expect the right-wing legal challenge to triumph. But Bolick says if he fails in the courts he is "certain" that it is only a "matter of a year or two" before a repeal referendum will emerge. By then, though, it may be too late for the opponents of a public funding system that seems every day more entrenched in the state's political culture.
The bigger question is how liberals and progressives will continue to fare under the system. The grassroots coalition that helped win passage of the 1998 Citizens Clean Elections Act was panideological but weighted toward the left--which is small and weak in Arizona, at least compared to the Northern tier of states, where public financing is also popular.
Perhaps that makes Arizona an even more appropriate venue to test the thesis that if the influence of big money in politics is at least reduced, if not eliminated, policy could become more liberal. "It's certainly moderated the State Senate," answers Martinez of the nonpartisan Clean Elections Institute. "The Democrat who was elected and who became the tying vote in a chamber split 15-15 is there because of clean money." And Martinez says enthusiasm for clean elections remains high among liberal activist groups, who sense they now have a relatively stronger voice in the political process. "Grassroots groups that don't have PACs now hold $5-seed-check parties for candidates they support."
Indeed, progressive activists seem uniformly encouraged by clean elections, even if they also agree that change is going to be slow and gradual. For starters, it opens the doors wide to more progressive candidates who otherwise would not get funding. "This is bound to have a huge effect on policy," says Chad Campbell, program director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, a coalition of labor and environmental groups. "For years we had been working on the issue of sprawl in Phoenix and were getting nowhere," he says. "But now because of clean elections, we have all kinds of candidates no longer dependent on developer contributions talking openly about all of our issues." Dilia Loe of the Human Rights Fund, a gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender advocacy group, is similarly enthusiastic. "For us, clean elections is turning out to be incredibly helpful to our long-term goals," she says. "Because of clean elections we have ten openly gay candidates running, and we are hoping that at least five will win. That could make a huge difference in a legislature where we lost a civil-union bill by barely two votes. So even if we gain only two more gay seats, we are going to be a lot better off."
Republican Spitzer has his own eclectic take on how clean elections will affect the ideological balance. "The left perspective is that if we get big money out of politics we'll have a Marxist nirvana," he says. "That's bullshit. But what you will have is a participatory democracy something like the Port Huron Statement instead of a small group of lobbyists determining policy." Which could lead one to argue that there must be something right about clean elections if it inspires conservatives to praise Port Huron--the paean to participatory democracy that became a sacred text of the New Left.