For anyone who wants to reduce the role of big money in politics, the 2004 election is an object lesson in how not to solve the problem. John Kerry’s briefly floated proposal to delay his formal presidential nomination, which would have allowed him to keep raising private money for as long as George W. Bush, is the latest sign that the post-Watergate system of partial public financing is simply not up to the task. If we want elections, not auctions, where candidates compete on a level playing field and all voters are equal, we have to overhaul the system.

The first blow to the existing system came in 1999, when then-Governor Bush opted out of the matching-funds program for the primaries, freeing him from any spending limits. This time around, following the same model, Bush has raised more than $200 million, making him the largest fundraiser in US history. Everything that has happened on the Democratic side of the fence–from Kerry and Howard Dean’s decision to skip the matching-funds program, to the rise of independent soft-money groups known as 527s, to Kerry’s latest gambit–is simply playing catch-up.

Absurdly, Republicans who fought the McCain-Feingold soft-money ban in Congress and the courts now claim to be upset by the soft money flowing to Democratic 527s, like America Coming Together. The best solution, however, is not heavy-handed regulation of political spending but rather full public financing to candidates who refuse to raise private money, including providing additional public funds if they are targeted by such independent expenditures.

That’s why those who want to keep comprehensive campaign-finance reform moving forward should pay attention to the fight quietly under way in Arizona, one of a handful of states (including Maine) with some form of Clean Elections systems, which offer candidates full public financing. In Arizona the new system has increased competition and diversity among candidates, reduced the money gap between challengers and incumbents, and freed its participants from the all-consuming money chase.

Precisely because they fear Arizona’s good example, a small group of developers, bankers and corporate lobbyists with conservative ties that run all the way up to Bush and Tom DeLay are attacking the state’s pioneering system. They’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to put an amendment to the state constitution on the November ballot to nullify the law. Two of the big-money backers of this special-interest power grab are the Bush Pioneers, who have raised more than $100,000 for his campaigns, and the Illinois-based Golden Rule Insurance company, a longtime GOP ally. Their goal: to keep the same corrupt system that has brought us a prescription-drug bill tailored for HMOs and the pharmaceutical and insurance companies; the weakening of environmental rules to pay back oil and gas interests; and huge tax breaks handed over to corporations and wealthy individuals. Two of Arizona’s top elected officials, Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano and Republican Senator John McCain, have endorsed the Keep It Clean campaign, along with nearly sixty groups, including the League of Women Voters, the AARP and the firefighters union. They need our support.

To help keep Clean Elections in Arizona and to further the movement’s spread, go to or mail a check to Keep it Clean, 77 E. Columbus Avenue, Suite 209, Phoenix, AZ 85003.