Molly Ivins

Take 'Em to the Cleaners

No sooner do we win a long struggle to clean up politics and restore democracy in this country than we find the whole thing under attack, and we have to go out and re-fight the same battle all over again. Good thing we’re not easily discouraged.

This is what’s happening in Arizona, where the successful Clean Elections law is now under attack by the big special interests and national conservatives with ties that run from Tom DeLay (surprise!) to Bush’s fund-raising machine.

Micah Sifry of Public Campaign reports, “They’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that doesn’t mention anywhere its true intent, to de-fund the Clean Elections system.†This charming endeavor is masquerading under the misnomer “No Taxpayer Money for Politicians,†a misleading moniker right up there with Bush’s “Clear Skies and Healthy Forests†initiatives. What a shame they couldn’t figure out a way to call it the Patriot Amendment.

The bad news for the bad guys is that evidence continues to accumulate that Clean Elections laws work—they are actually reviving democracy. In Arizona and Maine, where Clean Elections laws have been in effect for a couple of years, more candidates are running and competitiveness has increased. According to a study done by political scientists at the University of Wisconsin in May of this year: “There is no question that public funding programs have increased the pool of candidates willing and able to run for state legislative office. This effect is most pronounced for challengers, who are far more likely than incumbents to accept public funding. In Arizona, the likelihood that an incumbent will have a competitive race more than doubled from 22 percent of all races in 1998 to 45 percent in 2002.â€

The report also notes, “Fears that clean money would be tantamount to an incumbent protection act are unfounded, as are, as near as we can tell, objections that money would be used by fringe candidates who would do nothing but feed at the public trough.â€

That was always one of the concerns about Clean Money—that every nincompoop in town would wind up running on the public’s nickel. Arizona cleverly finessed this possibility by insisting that before you qualify for Clean Money, you have to raise a substantial sum in amounts of no more than $5 per person from people who actually live in your district. If a sufficient number of your neighbors think highly enough of you to kick in five bucks, then and only then can you tap into the pool of Clean Money.

I always thought it was a shame one part of the original Arizona Clean Elections law got declared unconstitutional—they were going to fund part of the pool of clean money by putting a special tax on lobbyists, an idea I found just dreamy. Alas, the First Amendment does not permit it.

The Wisconsin report also notes: “Arizona experienced a significant jump in the number of contested races in 2002, increasing from about 40 percent in 2000 to over 60 percent in 2002. Not only was this increase large, it also reversed the previous trend of uniformly fewer contested elections between 1994 and 2000.â€

According to Public Campaign, the early results for the 2004 election cycle are also impressive. In Maine, which held primaries on June 8, 71 percent of the candidates ran “cleanâ€â€”up from 50 percent in 2002 and 31 percent in 2000. Both Republicans and Democrats are enthusiastic about the system, which enables lots of people who would never have been able to afford to run to take a shot at elective office.

We live in a country where 98-plus percent of the members of Congress get re-elected every year with no serious competition. That, my friends, is a dead democracy. Ninety-eight percent of us are not happy with Congress, we just can’t beat the big money from special interests without public campaign financing.

So who could be opposed to this splendid success in re-sparking a dying democracy? Funny, every one of the donors seems to list “employer†under “occupation.†That would include insurance companies, realtors, developers, right-wing front groups, well-known right-wing donors including Bush “Pioneers†($100,000 plus), and conservative activists affiliated with the “Club for Growth†and “Institute for Justice.â€

One of the oldest sayings in politics is, “You got to dance with them what brung you.†What Clean Elections does is fix the system so that when people get elected, they got no one to dance with—no one they owe—except us, the people.

Of course, if you think millions of dollars in campaign contributions don’t buy votes, only “access,†then you have no stake in this fight. I’m sure you have just as much say in the system, and it is representing your interests just as well as it does General Dynamics’ and Halliburton’s. For how to raise hell about it, see

Molly Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist. Her new book with Lou Dubose is Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America (Random House).

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Published at 12:00 am CST