A 'Clean' Sweep for Elections
Only a public-financing system can free California politics from the shackles of special interests
It's no surprise that the problem of money in politics has emerged as a key theme in the California recall. After all, it was Gov. Gray Davis' rapacious appetite for campaign funds â€" and the astounding deals he struck with many big donors â€" that helped fuel public sentiment for his removal. Now, with all the top contenders to replace Davis under immense pressure to get their messages out before the polls close Oct. 7, they've been dialing, e-mailing and schmoozing for dollars with an intensity that only Davis could admire.
Given the voters' disgust with the whole system of money-drenched elections, it's also not surprising that the major candidates are accusing their opponents of following in Davis' footsteps. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, whose fund-raising strategies drew a sharp rebuke last week from a Sacramento judge, was accused by Arianna Huffington in one debate of having exploited a form of "legalized bribery." In turn, the lieutenant governor attacked Arnold Schwarzenegger for taking more than "$6 million from corporate entities." State Sen. Tom McClintock has called his fellow Republican "a vacuum cleaner throughout corporate California" who "has received millions of dollars from special-interest groups after pledging he would not." Schwarzenegger has shot back with a TV ad deriding McClintock and Bustamante for pandering to Indian gambling interests who are spending millions on their behalf.
Voters may be confused by the charges and countercharges, but the recall could be an opportunity for California to throw off the golden rule of politics: He who has the gold rules. The candidates are all paying lip service to the need for reform, and some of them are actually making concrete proposals.
The last time Californians had a chance to vote on campaign reform was on Proposition 34, which was backed by Davis and Bustamante and passed by the voters in 2000. But it was sham reform. The measure, placed on the ballot by the state Legislature, could safely be called the "Incumbent Protection Act." Its limits on individual contributions â€" $3,000 to state legislators, $20,000 to gubernatorial candidates â€" do nothing to shift an election out of the hands of wealthy donors. Its voluntary spending limits have had zero effect on limiting spending. And its prohibition on lobbyists giving money to officials they lobby has been easily circumvented.
So are the candidates' proposals any better?
Schwarzenegger has called for a "blackout" on fund-raising by state elected officials during the budget process; instantaneous electronic disclosure of all contributions to politicians; and a nonpartisan commission to draw election district boundaries. These are all worthwhile steps, but they'll have little effect on the money chase. Half the states in America impose some kind of blackout period on official fund-raising, with no discernible effect on the power of special interests. Checks, after all, can be postdated. As long as candidates are dependent on private money to finance their campaigns, big-money interests will call the tune.
Three of the five top contenders, Bustamante, Huffington and Peter Camejo, say they favor full public financing of elections, which would be a fundamental shift in the process. Camejo's Green Party has long sought such reform, in addition to calling for instant runoff voting, which would allow voters to rank the candidates in their order of preference and ensure that whoever was elected ultimately received a majority of the votes cast.
Huffington, running as an independent, recently stated her intent to place a "Clean Elections" initiative on the ballot. The measure would be modeled on public financing systems now up and running in Arizona and Maine. Bustamante appears to have responded to these calls from the rivals on his left by embracing reform as well. In the third debate of the campaign, on Sept. 17, he parried attacks by saying, "Until you get to a full public-financing system, you're never going to be able to do anything other than rearrange the deck chairs."
He's right (though he has yet to spell out an actual reform proposal). In Arizona, where seven out of nine statewide officeholders, including Gov. Janet Napolitano, won office running "clean," there has been more competition for all offices, greater participation by Latino and Native American candidates and higher voter turnout. Perhaps most important, the state is now blessed with a large number of elected officials not beholden to any moneyed interest.
McClintock has not spelled out a reform proposal of his own, though after Bustamante endorsed public financing he criticized it as a waste of taxpayer dollars. On his Senate Web site, he includes the text of a floor speech he gave in July 2000, where he spoke out against Prop. 34's modest limits on campaign contributions, and insisted that the real source of rising campaign costs was the increasing size of government. "The more money the government controls, the more money will be spent to control the government," he argued.
This view is common among conservatives, but it's contradicted by the facts. Spending on federal campaigns doubled between 1992 and 2000, while the size of government grew little.
Whatever happens Oct. 7, the recall battle itself has demonstrated why we need to tackle the problem of big money in politics, as the candidates in the running are the ones with huge war chests. That shouldn't be the end of the story. But it will be up to an activated citizenry to push for real reform.
Micah L. Sifry is senior analyst with Public Campaign Action Fund, a nonpartisan organization devoted to comprehensive campaign finance reform.
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