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.
McCain has plenty of Republican company. “I have to admit that my initial participation [in clean elections] was strictly tactical,” says self-described conservative Marc Spitzer, who holds a seat on Arizona’s powerful Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities and other big businesses in the state. Sitting in his office next to a portrait of him shaking hands with George W. Bush, Spitzer says that he initially opposed the measure when it was put before voters in 1998. “I was convinced you would never be able to get big money out of politics,” he says. But sensing that clean money might level the playing field and allow voters to focus on who is the better-qualified candidate rather than the better fundraiser, Spitzer reluctantly took the public-funding route. By the end of his successful campaign, the former state senator had become a true believer.
“All of a sudden we had to get off our asses and go out and talk to real people,” he says. “And that’s healthy.” With only a 30 percent approval rating from organized labor, Spitzer nevertheless sought grassroots union support. And labor, vastly outspent by big business in this right-to-work state, responded to Spitzer, and to clean elections in general, with a certain enthusiasm. “Because Republicans don’t like to write out $5 checks, I went to the unions,” Spitzer says with a smile. “They told me they looked at this office differently, in not so partisan a way, and that they wanted someone who can protect their jobs.” That Spitzer had a reputation for being both an honest pol and one who could be counted on to be tough on corporate crime helped him bridge the gap. “So the CWA, the electricians, the firefighters, all helped me with their $5 qualifying checks,” Spitzer says. “It was great.”
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.
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.”