Philadelphia Inquirer

'Clean Elections' Pilot Program Falls Short Of Its Goals

The Philadelphia Inquirer — Friday, September 23, 2005

By Kaitlin Gurney
Inquirer Trenton Bureau

TRENTON — Hopes for the first official "clean" campaign in a state known for its dirty politics were dashed yesterday as Camden County's Republican Assembly candidates announced they had failed to qualify for the state's public-financing experiment.

Just one of the five Camden and Monmouth County campaigns participating in the "Clean Elections" pilot program was successful in collecting the $40,000 in $5 and $30 contributions required to receive state campaign funding. Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D., Camden) and running mate Pamela Rosen Lampitt picked up checks totaling $130,000 from the state yesterday.

Some politicians and good-government advocates argue the program can be improved for the 2007 legislative elections, while others are calling for the end of a program they say is a waste of taxpayer money.

But all conclude that New Jersey's brief flirtation with public financing has been a bust.

"We gave this a full and fair trial, and demonstrated that as this law is currently drafted, Clean Elections in New Jersey are simply unworkable," said Amy Handlin, a Republican candidate in Monmouth County's 13th District. She and her running mate must forfeit the 1,300 checks they collected – close to half of what was required to qualify – to the state's "Clean Election Fund" and start fund-raising anew.

"We lost the battle of the checks, but we feel we won a war because we educated thousands of voters about the need for comprehensive campaign finance reform," Handlin said.

David Norcross, one of New Jersey's two representatives to the Republican National Committee, was not so optimistic.

"This program's not worth fixing - just get rid of it. Exterminate it," he said. "I was opposed to the idea of Clean Elections in the first place, but even I couldn't dream up such a botched experiment. The qualifying hurdle was just way, way out of reach."

The experiment has collapsed at a time when the two multimillionaires running for governor, U.S. Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D., N.J.) and Republican businessman Doug Forrester, have eschewed New Jersey's limited public funding so they can fund their own elections.

While politicians in some states have turned to public financing out of idealism, New Jersey lawmakers are becoming increasingly fearful the Statehouse will become a province of the rich.

With New Jersey's expensive and occasionally corrupt campaigns, public-financing proponents say, Clean Elections offer a way to eliminate the corrosive influence of money.

Assemblyman Joe Roberts (D., Camden), the law's champion, said he is determined to work out potential kinks for 2007's legislative races.

"If this has been too hard, we'll modify it – we wanted qualifying to be difficult but not impossible," he said. "For those who say this is not worth continuing, I ask them for their answer, because the current system is broken."

One option, advocates say, is to give candidates more time to collect qualifying contributions. Another is to allow them to collect cash - Clean Elections rules initially allowed only check contributions but were changed recently to allow online debit contributions.

And every campaign that participated in the experiment said that requiring each candidate to collect 1,000 contributions of $5 and 500 contributions of $30 was simply too much.

In Maine and Arizona, two states that have instituted statewide public financing, the threshold for qualifying is significantly lower.

Maine requires just 50 contributions of $5 from Assembly candidates and 150 contributions of $5 from Senate candidates to qualify, said Jonathan Wayne, executive director of Maine's program. Last year, 78 percent of candidates participated, he said, up from just 30 percent the first year in 2000.

Arizona – with legislative districts sized similarly to New Jersey's – requires 210 contributions of $5. Contributions are donated in cash, and candidates provide contributors with a receipt, said Doug Ramsey, communications director of the Phoenix-based Clean Elections Institute.

In Camden County's Sixth District, it appears to be a one-sided Clean Election.

Republicans JoAnn Gurenlian and Marc Fleischner reported yesterday that they had collected 2,272 small-contribution checks – close to 75 percent of the required 3,000. They have petitioned the state's Election Law Enforcement Commission to prorate the $130,000 they would have received with the full 3,000 checks, although the Clean Elections law makes no accommodation for partial funding.

The law does call for Democrats Greenwald and Lampitt to each receive an additional $65,100 - which would have gone to Gurenlian and Fleischner if they had qualified. The Democrats are contemplating giving that money to the Republicans to stage an unofficial Clean Election but have not yet decided, said Beth Auerswald, Greenwald's and Lampitt's campaign manager.

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