Running Clean in Arizona
by Marc Cooper
The Nation magazine, October 14, 2002
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
lean-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
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 1515 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
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
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 probusiness 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
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."
Marc Cooper, contributing editor and the host and executive
producer of RadioNation, is the author of Pinochet and Me: A Chilean
Anti-Memoir (Verso), now in paperback.