The Times, Trenton

Clean Up The Primaries

The Times of Trenton — Thursday, August 16, 2007


The real campaign season hasn't even begun and the political buzzards of the status quo are cir cling over the three legislative districts where Clean Elections rules are being followed.

Critics are claiming that public funding of the campaigns in these districts is a waste of taxpayer money, favors the incumbents (that's one that doesn't add up) and the districts chosen don't have competitive races. It appears that, before the campaigns heat up in the 37th, 24th, and our own 14th legislative districts, the naysayers are mounting an effort to kill Clean Elections once and for all.

They couldn't be more wrong. If anything, the Clean Elections project should be expanded to more districts in the future. And if reform-minded lawmakers sincerely want to get at the problems of influence-peddling and big-spend ing private contributors, Clean Elections should be extended to the primaries – that's where the real work of leveling the political playing field needs to take place.

The critics are right about one thing: The outcome of the elections in the 37th and 24th districts are predictable. They are considered "safe." The 14th is a bit more of a race – there is no incumbent running for the Senate in a district that includes Hamilton Township, Mercer County's largest municipality.

Through redistricting, the sad reality for voters is that most districts are considered safe by the two major parties. Therefore, it makes sense that the primaries are the battlefield where new candidates can have the same amount of money, if they qualify, to take on incumbents or the choice of party bosses. Incumbents have a powerful advantage in name recognition alone.

Qualifying is the key, and it's not a cakewalk. To be eligible for public funding by Clean Elections rules, candidates must collect 800 $10 donations. In the 14th, all of the candidates qualified, which means that they went out, met a lot of people in their district and persuaded them to contribute. That strikes us as an improvement over special-interest groups that write fat checks for candidates' campaigns with the implied agreement that they and their pet causes won't be forgotten once the candidate is elected.

New Jersey is early in the Clean Elections experiment. Still, it can learn from the experience of other states where Clean Elections have been a reality for several election cycles. Studies show that in Maine and Arizona, two Clean Elections states, there are now fewer uncontested elections and more women and minorities running for office.

For too long, the old way of funding political campaigns has not served our state well. We only have to look down the list of lawmakers and other public officials who've been indicted, convicted and sentenced on corruption charges. It's encouraging to note that Gov. Jon Corzine and Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts, D-Brooklawn, support legislation that would include the primaries in the Clean Elections experiment in 2009.

We urge them to use their leadership to make it happen.

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