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NOW with Bill Moyers

Clean Elections in Arizona


MOYERS: Arizona. Over the last 14 years this state has seen the impeachment of one governor..the resignation of a second on counts of bank and wire fraud... and the indictment of 20 state legislators and lobbyists on bribery charges. So it's no wonder the people in the Grand Canyon State got fed up with money in politics.

CECILIA MARTINEZ: Arizona has been laden with political scandals and impeached governors and governors resigning. Legislative scandals with briberies. So the political climate was really ready for some reform. For some real reform.

MOYERS: That reform came in a statewide vote four years ago when Arizona's voters approved the Citizens Clean Elections Act.

The act provides qualifying candidates with public funding for their campaigns. One of those candidates is Republican Marc Spitzer. At first, he opposed the reform

MARC SPITZER: It was on the ballot in 1998, November. And I voted no. And I thought to myself, you know, what they're trying to do is take--politics out of politics and that just doesn't work. It's like trying to take the--the bubbles out of champagne.

MOYERS: But two years later, Spitzer changed his mind. He was running for Arizona's powerful Corporation Commission which oversees all utilities for the state.

MARC SPITZER: I'm running for an office that is very powerful in the state, that regulates the utilities. Does it make sense for me to go hat in hand to those utility companies to ask for campaign contributions and then if I win the election turn around and--and vote on their rate cases. Most people thought that would--that didn't make sense.

MOYERS: Spitzer had served four terms in the state Senate. And learned what it takes to raise money from special interests. MARC SPITZER: Typical campaigns you spend an awful lot of time dialing for dollars. You're on the phone, you're calling people and you're asking for money.

MOYERS: Public funding changes all that.

MARC SPITZER Under Clean Elections once you raise the requisite number of five-dollar contributions, the fundraising is over. And you can spend all your time communicating with the people.

MOYERS: Here's how it works. Candidates must first get the usual signatures for a nominating petition. Then they must show they have support from citizens who will give five dollar donations to the campaign. Two hundred five dollar donations for a local race. Four thousand if it's a race for governor.

In return, if the candidate agrees to strict spending limits and agrees to take part in public debates the remaining cost of the campaign comes from the Clean Election Fund.

Candidates for the state legislature get about twenty-five thousand dollars. Candidates for governor, about one million.

CECILIA MARTINEZ It's money that's not tied to special interest and it's not tied to a political action committee.

MOYERS: Cecilia Martinez runs The Clean Elections Institute in Phoenix.

CECILIA MARTINEZ: We ask the question who should own our government officials? Who should own our politicians? The folks with big bucks, the special interest groups that want to run the show at the state legislature or the people?

MOYERS: The money now comes from the initial five dollar contributions, from citizens who voluntarily give through their tax returns and a 10 percent surcharge on criminal fines and traffic tickets.

MARC SPITZER: Under Clean Elections you've got five million people that can participate. And I mean I raised in my little race with the Corporation Commission over 2300 five-dollar campaign contributions from ordinary citizens, many of whom had never been involved in politics before, the majority of whom had never--contributed to campaigns. And they found it exciting and--exhilarating that all of a sudden it was no longer the s--the small closed group of folks who were involved.

MOYERS: Candidates don't have to take public funding. If they don't, they can raise and spend as much as they want. But their clean elections opponent will get matching funds up to a point to keep the race competitive.

CECILIA MARTINEZ: What we're seeing in Arizona is the decline of the big money candidate. In 1998, overwhelming majority of the races, in fact 80 percent of the races, were won by the big money candidate. The candidate with the big bucks won their race. In our primary in 2002 we found that that was the case in only three percent of the races.

MOYERS: And that has a lot of the old guard scared. Public funding was controversial to begin with. While advocates circulated petitions to get the initiative on the ballot, business groups fought it. And it barely passed at the polls — 51-49.

The Clean Election Act's been under attack ever since from people like Republican Steve May.

STEVE MAY: I think it is wrong for an individual running for public office to take money from the government to express their viewpoint. I think we have a long tradition in America that if you want to express your viewpoint, you do so with your own money or the money from those who support you. And not through compelled funds that who taken from people who don't know who you are or who outright oppose your ideas.

MOYERS: Two years ago, May won his race for the state legislature raising money the old fashioned way. This year in his race for re-election, he finished third in the primaries behind one candidate who was publicly funded and one who wasn't.

But it was a parking ticket he got in 1999 that really galled Steve May. He didn't like that 10 percent surcharge that went to the Clean Election Fund. When he filed suit to challenge it he had some powerful legal support from one of the top conservative lawyers in the country.

CLINT BOLICK: The architects of this program were very clever, and they called it the Clean Elections Act. But in my view the least clean type of election is an election in which the candidates are running with money that's taken from people against their will.

MOYERS: Clint Bolick heads the Institute for Justice, a Libertarian public interest law firm based in Washington, DC. It's well known for advocating school voucher programs, for opposing affirmative action and for taking conservative challenges to government all the way to the Supreme Court.

Arguing that the 10 percent surcharge on fines is government coercion and unconstitutional, Bolick has mounted a sustained assault on the Clean Elections Act.

CLINT BOLICK: Our argument is that it violates the individual's First Amendment rights, the right to either speak or to not speak, to force people to contribute to political candidates against their will.

MOYERS: This summer, a state appeals court unanimously found in Bolick's favor. The decision came down at the same time the supporters of public funding came up with a heavyweight advocate of their own...Arizona Senator John McCain.

With the help of the liberal Brennan Center for Justice, the case was appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court. Last month, in a unanimous 5-0 decision, the court upheld The Clean Elections Act.

Clint Bolick has vowed to appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

CLINT BOLICK: Once you introduce the government into funding candidates, then the government decides who gets the funding and how much. And that to me is a very, very scary power for government to have.

MOYERS: Meanwhile, it's estimated that more than 90,000 Arizonans have made five dollar contributions to help their candidates qualify for public funding.

Over half of the 247 candidates for state and local offices are running with clean elections money. Clint Bolick says many of them don't belong there.

CLINT BOLICK: The marketplace ought to decide who the viable candidates are, rather than the government. And right now the government is subsidizing all sorts of people who will never win an election because they're so extreme.

CECILIA MARTINEZ: Four thousand five-dollar forms are not easy to acquire in this state. So the candidates that have qualified for the Clean Elections money did so because they had grassroots support. People had to put them on the ballot.

MARC SPITZER: Clean Elections is not a panacea. It will not cure cancer. It will not transform the Arizona legislature into 90 Winston Churchills.

MOYERS: But, says Marc Spitzer, it will reduce the influence of money over public policy.

MARC SPITZER: There will always be lobbyists, and there should be lobbyists, because in the best sense what lobbyists do is provide information to elected officials.

I just think lobbyists can provide that information to elected officials without raising thousands of dollars for political campaigns.

MOYERS: This Tuesday, Arizona could be the first state to elect publicly funded candidates to all of its statewide offices.

CECILIA MARTINEZ: Arizona will make history, national history this year by electing a statewide Secretary of State -- a clean money Secretary of State, a clean money Attorney General, a clean money State Treasurer, a clean money Mine Inspector and Corporation Commission.

MOYERS: But for opponents, the fight isn't over.

CLINT BOLICK: This program will not be around in a few years, in my view. It will either be struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court where we are seeking to take this case right now, or it will be repealed by the voters in an initiative.

MARC SPITZER: Clean Elections gives a challenger that the lobbyist will not support a chance to mount a campaign, to get out a message, whether it's a Republican or a Democrat, and run for office. And to me that's--that's as American as apple pie, having voters have a choice.