The Times, Trenton

Let The Voters Own The Elections

The Times of Trenton — Monday, August 6, 2007

The Clean Elections experiment under way in the Hamilton Township-based 14th Legislative District and two other districts could usher in a new kind of politics in the state – a politics in which lawmakers care at least as much for the public interest as for the special interests.

Doesn't sound like the New Jersey we know, does it? Still, that's the hope. We all should root for the test to succeed.

If the Clean Elections law's definition of success is met, public financing of election campaigns automatically will be extended to all 40 districts in 2009. It also will include primaries, an improvement that's absolutely essential.

Clean Elections has been streamlined and simplified since the first pilot project, in two districts in 2005, collapsed under the excessive requirements it imposed on the participants. In this year's test, candidates who raise at least $4,000 in $10 contributions from registered voters and agree to limit their election spending receive public money with which to campaign. The two major-party Senate candidates in the 14th, Republican Assemblyman Bill Baroni and Democrat Seema Singh, have raised $8,000 and qualified for the maximum grant of $526,375 each (a figure based on the cost of past elections). The two parties' candidates for the Assembly in the district also have reached the qualifying threshold.

Because the 14th is considered a swing district that neither party is assured of winning, its candidates are eligible for more money than those in the other two pilot districts, the supposedly safe Republican 24th and the Democrat-dominated 37th. There, the maximum grant is $100,000.

Maine and Arizona have discovered the benefits of Clean Elections in legislative races, and Connecticut hopes to do the same when it launches its program next year. With political action committees, unions, corporations, lobbyists and party organizations no longer able to write big checks for candidates' campaigns, winning candidates aren't obligated to such donors when major policy decisions are made. That means less legislating is done to benefit the donors and more is done for the general good.

When primaries are included, as they are in the other Clean Elections states, the opportunity to run for office is opened to citizens who are turned off by traditional party politics, including the money scramble. In this way, the base of participation in representative government is broadened.

Republicans complained when a Democrat-dominated selection committee chose the 14th District as the swing district for this year's Clean Elections test rather than the 12th District, which includes East Windsor and Hightstown. Omitting the 12th from the pilot program allows the Democrats to wheel big money into that district, where Sen. Ellen Karcher, D-Marlboro, faces a tough re-election challenge from Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck, R-Red Bank.

The objectors had a good argument. The 12th District would have been a better choice. However, picking the 14th District had the beneficial side effect of enabling the Legislature's strongest advocate of the program, Bill Baroni, to be a direct participant. Once Baroni – who thrives on face-to-face campaigning – collected his 800 $10 contributions by knocking on doors and holding forth at coffee klatsches and backyard meetings, he vowed to help Republican candidates in the other two districts qualify, as well. That's because under the law, the program automatically will go statewide in 2009 if a majority of the major-party candidates in the pilot districts qualify for public financing.

Baroni and other participating candidates agree that raising funds in small amounts is time-consuming. But he says he'd rather spend his time talking with voters and asking them for $10 than phoning organizations to troll for big handouts. "Give me the small donor every day," he told a reporter. "That's what politics used to be."

The Clean Elections law remains imperfect. It treats independent and third-party candidates unfairly (an old New Jersey tradition), and possibly unconstitutionally, by giving them only half the public funding that major-party candidates receive. The half-million-plus dollars the program bestows on the 14th District candidates is extravagant; legislative elections should cost a lot less than that, even in competitive arenas. Candidates who withdraw from Clean Elections and return to private funding aren't financially penalized, as they should be. And the program still imposes burdensome paperwork requirements.

These flaws should be fixed before 2009. But the Clean Elections principle – that the state should provide an alternative to special-interest financing of elections – is rock solid.

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