Clean Money for California

By Marc Spitzer, Op-Ed

Arizona has something that California should adopt: clean money/clean election public financing of campaigns. With campaigns heating up, donations pouring in and the California budget still in crisis, now is the right time to look at instituting real reform in California's campaign- financing system.

Recently, I spent time in Sacramento, speaking with California legislators about the clean-money system in support of AB2949, a bill sponsored by Assembly member Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, that would bring publicly financed state campaigns to California. I found that California's Legislature faces the same challenges as Arizona's -- only more so.

I served four terms in the Arizona state Senate. I understand the difficulty in crafting a state budget, particularly in light of a structural deficit that appears to compel reductions in programs, tax increases, or both. But the necessity of legislators raising money from special-interest groups, all with a finger in the political pie, makes it that much harder to achieve the proper balance that is at the heart of good government.

The great benefit of the clean money/clean elections movement is that policy-makers no longer have their hands tied by the campaign-finance system. They are free to exercise their judgment based upon the broad public interest, rather than have the debate dictated by narrow special interests or even by party leaders who control big purse strings.

This partially explains why Arizona passed a balanced, bipartisan budget in May, while California's budget remains mired in stalemate. In Arizona, 26 of the 31 representatives who voted for the state's compromise budget were clean elections candidates.

I'm a classical conservative, nurtured on "The Federalist Papers," and my thesis is: 1) Lobbyist dominance over political fund-raising would rotate Madison in his grave; and 2) The clean-elections movement is indeed consistent with the best traditions of American governance.

The term "special interest" was not offensive to our founding fathers. Federalist No. 10 described how our Constitution would control enlightened self-interest in a uniquely American way. But the framers would be appalled as Washington lobbyists shovel millions at congressional incumbents, bastardizing political theory.

In Arizona, clean elections are a reform tonic. I ran four times for the state Senate (successfully), first as challenger to an incumbent. Here's the dirty little secret about legislative fund-raising: Lobbyists contribute not to help candidates win (few incumbents face serious challenge), but to gain access to the political sphere and influence the lawmaking process. These lobbyists are thus indifferent to philosophy, integrity or intelligence.

We can do better than that. Those who seek office deserve better than lobbyist/donors who don't even care whether they win or lose. I can personally assure you that clean-election contributors do indeed care about the candidate -- and their involvement improves the political process.

Let's examine the practical effects of the clean-election movement:

-- Arizona voters' 1998 approval of clean elections did not repeal private fund-raising. It provided an alternative. But clean elections aren't easy -- "clean" candidates must actually communicate with registered voters in their districts (instead of having lobbyists and party activists hold $250- per-person fund-raisers without effort by the incumbent) to qualify for public funding.

-- Clean elections will not eliminate corruption; such is beyond the power of man, much less statute. But lobbyist-mercenaries raising money for politicians while simultaneously seeking legislative favors debases generally honest elected officials.

-- Clean elections do not exclude interest groups from political campaigns. That's like removing bubbles from champagne. Indeed, clean elections' appeal for grassroots, $5 contributions empowers anti-abortion, pro- choice, pro-gun, anti-gun, teachers, retirees, real estate agents and myriad "enlightened" interest groups in the best tradition of American democracy.

-- Public finance is not inconsistent with American political tradition. Since 1976, some very conservative presidential candidates have campaigned with public funds, and the Tucson city elections have gone just fine.

The 19th-century political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville noted the fundamental goodness of the American people, yet our corporate and political institutions demand righteous self-examination. Corporate scandals in the last several years have lost investors trillions and cost tens of thousands of innocent workers their jobs. Even those who oppose campaign-finance reform now agree that politicians' compulsion to seek cash from lobbyists impairs their ability to legislate in the public interest.

As Arizona corporation commissioner, I was the first to earn statewide office under Arizona's Clean Elections Law. It made sense to Arizona voters that candidates for Corporation Commission ought not to solicit campaign contributions from the same utility companies they would, if elected, then regulate.

With the campaign season in full swing, I will leave it to you to determine whether your candidate for state Assembly or Senate is spending his or her time talking to voters and seeking support from previously ignored groups or whether they must spend all their time "dialing for dollars."

My clean elections campaign compelled me to seek support from Arizonans I might otherwise have passed by, such as the Apache County Republican who said, "I like clean elections, because we shouldn't have to write $1,000 checks to fund campaigns." I couldn't have said it better. California should import this Arizona tonic.

Learn more

What: "Campaign Finance Reform: Can the Arizona Model Work in California?" Discussion led by Marc Spitzer of the Arizona Corporations Commission and Susan Lerner, executive director of the California Clean Money Campaign

Where: Commonwealth Club, 595 Market St., 2nd floor, San Francisco

When: Monday, 5:30 p.m.

Reservations: (415) 597-6700;

Marc Spitzer is a Republican and former Arizona Senate majority leader and chairman of the Arizona Corporations Commission.

See the article on San Francisco Chronicle website

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

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