Arizona's Clean-Money Fight: If Campaign Finance Reform Wins Here, the Movement Will Get a Big Boost

By Cooper, Marc | The Nation, November 2, 1998 | Go to article overview

Arizona's Clean-Money Fight: If Campaign Finance Reform Wins Here, the Movement Will Get a Big Boost


Cooper, Marc, The Nation


The 2 million people who live in this largest of US state capitals are America's guinea pigs. The city is not only the most isolated major metropolitan area in the country but almost all of its inhabitants come from somewhere else. "No other place ships out more Christmas cards or caskets every year," quips Louis Rhodes, who until recently headed the local ACLU. Indeed, Phoenix is the real Peoria of America -- the number-one test market for commercial goods and advertising campaigns.

In just a few weeks, on Election Day, Phoenix will also become ground zero for a crucial political test -- one with profound national implications. Arizonans will have a chance to approve Proposition 200 -- the Clean Elections campaign finance reform measure. While activists in more than three dozen states toil to get similar movements to limit the influence of Big Money on politics off the ground, so far only two states -- Maine in 1996 and Vermont in 1997 -- have actually adopted such reforms.

Massachusetts is also voting on a Clean Elections initiative this fall, and supporters of that measure have built an impressively broad coalition behind the measure. But while winning there is important to the reform movement, winning in more conservative Arizona will send a stronger message to the pundits and politicians who say that the public doesn't care about the issue and that sweeping reform can't be achieved through the ballot box. It's not only more conservative but it's the West, not a natural like Vermont or even Maine.

In a national political landscape increasingly darkened by the clouds of the Clinton scandal, the Arizona effort is one of the few bright spots for progressives. It's one of the very few serious campaigns where the movement for political reform is on the offensive, where an impressive statewide, cross-ideological coalition has been built, and where voters are offered a constructive channel for their disenchantment and anger. "All eyes are on us," says Jim Driscoll, executive director of Arizona Citizen Action, who, along with Rhodes, is a leading advocate for Prop 200. "Because this addresses a national problem we have to show it can work even out here. We can prove to the larger national community that this fight is worth it."

Prop 200 would provide full public funding for political candidates who qualify under a rigorous system that pushes private money to the sidelines of the electoral process. Under the Clean Elections Law, candidates would be allowed to raise a very small amount of "seed money" in the form of private contributions of up to $100 while deciding whether to run. A gubernatorial candidate could collect $40,000; an aspiring state legislator could raise $2,000. The limit means candidates would have to collect a fairly large number of small contributions from within their district -- demonstrating that they have voter support. In addition to agreeing to raise and spend no private money (including their own) from that point on, they would have to agree to spend nothing beyond the public funds they receive (the amount would vary depending on the office sought; it's just short of $1 million for a gubernatorial candidate). The system would be voluntary, in keeping with Supreme Court rulings, but the law offers strong incentives for participation. Matching funds, up to triple the original amount specified for the office in question, would be provided for clean-money candidates outspent by nonparticipating rivals, as determined by an oversight commission. The public campaign finance fund would be underwritten by a voluntary income tax checkoff, increased lobbyist fees and a 10 percent surcharge on criminal and civil fines. In addition, a donation of up to $500 to the Clean Elections fund could be taken as a tax credit.

"This Arizona initiative will show what's possible in the field of finance reform," says Ellen Miller, executive director of Public Campaign, the Washington, DC, advocacy group that has been spearheading the clean-money movement. …

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