Running Clean in Arizona
The effect of public financing on the candidate pool has been more vertical than horizontal, diversifying the social class of competing candidates more than their ideological positions--though at the legislative level, at least, it's clear that more progressives are now running. "I'm working for a candidate now, Kyrsten Sinema, who is without question the most progressive candidate running in the state," says Campbell. "A social worker from the poorest district in the state, and running as an independent, what chance would she have at funding if not for clean elections?" Such ideological breadth has yet to trickle up to the gubernatorial level, where the two leading candidates offer a narrow and quite traditional ideological choice. Top Republican contender Matt Salmon is a hard-line conservative and the only major gubernatorial candidate who is not running with public financing. On the Democratic side, incumbent Attorney General Janet Napolitano, who is slightly ahead of Salmon in the polls, is running clean. But Napolitano, a death-penalty and tough-drug-war proponent who describes herself as a "New Democrat, a pro-business Democrat," is precisely the sort of cautious, centrist candidate that a money-marinated system would also offer up.
On the other hand, public financing is allowing maverick Dick Mahoney to compete vigorously against Napolitano and Salmon as an independent. A former Democratic secretary of state, a social liberal and fiscal conservative who has been a leader in Arizona's successful campaigns to decriminalize marijuana, Mahoney could be the wild card in the race. Many observers predict that with his dollar-for-dollar public funding, which will match that of his opponents, Mahoney could draw double-digit vote totals.
But then again, Mahoney argues that while he's a passionate supporter of clean elections, the system is still riddled with uncertainties and some loopholes. He and others are particularly concerned that big money will simply seek other avenues. Vast, last-minute "independent expenditures" by outside groups could subvert the whole system. Groups like the NRA could rain money on behalf of GOP candidates, he says, while unions and Indian gambling interests could weigh in on behalf of Democrats. Deftly crafted ads that don't mention a candidate's name could fall outside any regulation. For any "independent" ads that do effectively endorse a candidate, the clean-elections law makes some provisions for matching them with public funds. But if outsiders come in big at the last minute, there won't be enough time to fully match and offset the intervention--at least, that's the fear. "This is the Faustian bargain of clean elections," Mahoney says. "The candidates are freed from seeking direct contributions, but the two major parties then become virtual laundromats for soft-money contributions that will come washing in from special-interest groups." And the implementation this year of the watered-down McCain-Feingold federal reform law has, ironically, only further redirected soft-money contributions toward state parties and is expected to produce an avalanche of hard-money donations to individual campaigns.
For campaign finance reformers, then, it remains to be seen whether the flourishing Arizona system is but a quirky aberration or a solid model that can reinvigorate what has been a flagging crusade to win reform state by state. Two years ago, both Oregon and Missouri voters rejected clean-money measures, in part because of well-funded opposition campaigns from business interests. Against that backdrop, Ellen Miller, the founder and former head of Public Campaign, the group that promotes clean-money reform, recently co-wrote a gloomy article in The American Prospect saying that "now there are no states that can realistically look to [clean-money] ballot victories anytime soon."
Nick Nyhart, who has taken over for Miller at Public Campaign, has a cautiously more upbeat view. He says the flourishing of the Arizona system "puts an end to the theoretical debate over clean money" and will now provide a new crop of persuasive "real live, walking and talking" advocates who can argue the case nationally. "There are now a number of states that are looking at public funding of judicial races, and the Bar Association, after looking at the example of Arizona, has endorsed the idea," Nyhart says. "And there are at least four new states that are considering public funding for statewide offices," he adds.
In the meantime, enthusiasm for clean elections remains palpable within Arizona. On the day on which I met with Representative Burton Cahill, she had just turned over to the state 268 $5 checks that she needed to qualify for public funding for her re-election run. She didn't face a powerful incumbent, but rather ran against eight competitors much like herself--teachers, school administrators, small-business owners. Two were Democrats like her, four were Republicans and two were Libertarians; all had equal public funding, vying for the two seats in her district. "As an incumbent I could now raise a whole lot more money than any of them if I didn't run clean," she said. "Lobbyists are calling me every day offering me campaign money." But she's again running clean. "That's the price I choose to pay," she said. "The cost to me is that I now have to face eight challengers who have as much money as I will. But the benefit is that the voters will have a real choice. And whoever gets elected will have the peace of mind of knowing they are there because of the voters, not the lobbyists."