Transcript - October 20, 2006
BRANCACCIO: NOW on PBS. Can anything be done to clean up politics?
BRANCACCIO: But there's a grassroots rebellion: Arizona and Maine have adopted a revolutionary approach called "clean elections."
WOODCOCK: I'm very comfortable in telling you that there isn't influence in my campaign. I'm not beholden to anybody in any community. Not only business but any community for the Clean Election Process. I'm being elected free of that burden. And that's an important part of this discussion.
BRANCACCIO: Publicly funded elections. They may be coming to your state. But not without a fight.
NAPOLITANO: When you're changing something as fundamental as how money enters politics, you're got to have a lot of vested interests out there fighting about it
BRANCACCIO: Votes for sale? A one hour special report. Welcome to now...there's just over two weeks left in a campaign season perverted by scandal. And after the legal troubles of congressmen Tom Delay, Bob Ney and Duke Cunningham over the last year, it's hard to find voters be they democrat, republican, in between or at the edges—who wouldn't agree with the statement: "something's got to change." But where to start? Come with me to meet some fascinating characters who are answering that question in a radical way: they're working to chop the big money out of politics with an innovative system designed to shut down the whole principle of votes for sale. The public financing of elections is voluntary, it's controversial, and it may be coming soon to a voting booth near you. We start in Arizona, with a man who never figured he'd end up on the frontlines of what could become a revolution in American politics. Jason Maloney produced our report.
QUELLAND: Who would have thought, you know, a person that owns a lawnmower repair shop, and a rental store, and a coffee shop would be in the state legislature? But I am!
BRANCACCIO: The man with the mustache is Doug Quelland, but people call him "Coach". For 26 years he fixed lawnmowers, rented out stuff, even owned a coffee shop that wasn't called Starbucks. Now Coach spends the key part of his work life on the floor of the Arizona statehouse.
BRANCACCIO: Before you actually went into politics. Did you ever imagine this is where you'd end up?
QUELLAND: No. No. I was perfectly happy coaching girls varsity soccer at Greenway High School. I was perfectly happy renting out tables and chairs to people. I enjoy my neighborhood. I've lived in the same square mile for 26 years. Had my businesses there. But the people in my district came to me and said they trusted me.
BRANCACCIO: When community members and his daughter Gerry suggested he run for office, Quelland didn't jump at it. He'd seen the way money and politics sometimes works.
QUELLAND: You know, getting money from special interest groups or buying an election just aren't alternatives to me.
BRANCACCIO: Luckily for Doug Quelland, in Arizona, there is another way to campaign: a revolutionary political experiment called "clean elections". It's a relatively simple idea: as long as candidates promise not to take anything beyond token contributions or use any of their personal wealth, they can run for office on public money... some version of clean elections or pilot program is already in effect in a few states and a couple of municipalities. California will be voting on the idea this fall. So, how does it work, and might it work nationwide?
RAUH: This nation and this world faces huge challenges. And, I believe, as we look to the future, we're gonna need the finest leaders this country can elect to meet those challenges.
BRANCACCIO: John Rauh is a longtime democratic activist. He runs an outfit called Americans for campaign reform, and he's determined to scrub money out of politics to let what he sees as the real people in.
RAUH: We're allowing a few Americans with wealth to fund our political elections in America to decide who is to lead this country? A few Ameri—I thought this was a democracy! Our Fathers who created this country would roll over if they could see how undemocratic this system is.
BRANCACCIO: Lurid scandals involving money and politics appear with the resolute regularity of cockroach infestations in a dirty kitchen. The result can be seen in just about any public opinion poll you want to name: Americans are fed up with politicians. Rauh and other supporters of clean elections want to channel the public outrage into a movement that is nothing short of a revolution.
RAUH: One can't be assured that we will not see some corruption in the years ahead even with public funding. But, let's be frank. When we eliminate private contributions to most of the candidates—the candidates take public funding—we eliminate a lot of the opportunity, not all, for corruption.
BRANCACCIO: It may sound like an ideal solution...but it turns out publicly financed elections have become almost as controversial as the problems they hope to solve. This is not gradual campaign finance reform; this is a complete overhaul of the way that politics works in America. And it's an idea that has picked up the toughest of enemies along the way, because clean elections not only cut out the funders, they directly challenge the power of the major political parties. Plus free speech champions are not wild about the idea either, on the principle that campaign contributions are a form of speech. Among opponents on the left, the American civil liberties union. On the right, the Cato institute. Much of the battle has been fought here in Arizona. 6 years ago, it was one of first states to try clean elections. Arizona is also Barry Goldwater territory and home to a think tank in his name that thinks public financing of elections is nothing but trouble. Ben Barr is the institute's top analyst on the subject.
BARR: I think this is the wrong road, the wrong avenue for Arizonans to be driving down. A system that limits speech; it pushes people out of the political process. It creates a complex regulatory regime. These aren't welcome additions to a healthy democratic process.
BRANCACCIO: Who's hurt by this clean election system in Arizona, in your view?
BARR: Arizonans are hurt. By limiting, by setting these artificial caps on what candidates can spend on political expression, you directly limit the number of ideas, the quantity of expression, the diversity of views that go out to the electorate.
BRANCACCIO: But if clean elections limit diversity in theory, how do you explain what's happened in practice... a candidate like Doug Quelland?
QUELLAND: The fact that clean elections was already in place, that played a big role in my deciding to do it.
BRANCACCIO: Quelland is a conservative republican who first ran as an outsider but now carries the endorsement of both the local chamber of commerce and state chapter of the national rifle association. Under clean elections, he's now run, and won, twice...with nothing more than public money paying for his campaign for the state legislature. Quelland has found the benefits to running clean extending long after Election Day.
QUELLAND: One of the neat things is taking that lobbyist that comes into my office and demands of me a certain thing, and as a clean elections candidate I have no qualms at all about showing them the door and saying, "Hey, I don't need you to talk to me that way. I don't owe you anything. The only people I work for are my constituents. And take a hike."
THRASHER: As soon as I could register to vote, I did. And it was when I was in college. And I voted for Jimmy Carter.
BRANCACCIO: Jackie thrasher is Quelland's democratic challenger in this fall's statehouse election. She typically disagrees with Quelland politically but not on this subject of clean elections. Thrasher, like her opponent, is running clean.
BRANCACCIO: Now you, under the old system, could spend your fundraising time with the people who write the huge checks. And here's a system that seems to encourage you not to have those conversations. But to talk to just people.
THRASHER:And I think that's—that's what makes it so special. Because I am concerned about what my neighbors are concerned about. You know, I live here too. And I raised my children and my family. And when I see that there are concerns that aren't being addressed by the legislature. And knowing that then I have the opportunity to run. That made all the difference.
BRANCACCIO: Thrasher is about as unlikely a politician as Quelland. She's been teaching band in phoenix elementary schools for 26 years. But she says that experience in the class room is exactly what made her think about a career in politics.
THRASHER: It was really the teacher in me, looking at those kids' faces every day that said, "Nobody's working on behalf of these kids to improve the situation. We've got to do better."
BRANCACCIO: So how does it work? Clean elections are voluntary; candidates can still run the old fashioned way, but if they want public funding they have to qualify for it by showing a basic level of voter support. For statehouse races, they need to collect just over 200 individual $5 contributions. For the candidate, that means pounding the pavement, going door to door
QUELLAND: The first time I ran, walking around for the $5, I mean it was like, you know, I was on another state or another planet. You know, it was like they didn't really understand, you know? "You—you want what?" "Five dollars?" "For what? What are you gonna spend that on?"
THRASHER: The first few times poor little Jackie got her feelings hurt when, you know, the door got slammed. I was like, "Oh, my God. How could this be?" But, you know, you toughen up after the first—first two or three. And then, you get over it. Now, it's kinda fun
QUELLAND: "So, you're going to Notre Dame..."
BRANCACCIO: It's also a hands-on lesson in democracy for the voters—people like sisters Brianna and Carissa Mulder. Brianna just started college and recently registered to vote for the first time. Now she has her state representative at her front door.
QUELLAND: "This is Carissa's, and I'll get yours"
BRANCACCIO: Once enough contributions have been collected and verified, clean elections candidates start getting money in set disbursements: some for the primary, some for the general election and, if they find themselves in a tough fight against a traditionally funded opponent, they get matching funds to make sure they have enough to stay competitive. There are limits and the maximum for the general election in the statehouse in Arizona is a little over $53,000. Watching the way politics are played here in Arizona, one begins to wonder: what was so bad here that would drive voters adopt such a radically different system in the late 1990s? Well, some point to Arizona's history as a wild and wooly frontier territory. But even a thumbnail sketch of recent politics here in Arizona provides plenty of reasons for change.
SHERWOOD: Arizona is one of those states where if you make a mistake someplace else, you know, I think that you can land in Arizona and get a fresh start.
BRANCACCIO: Robbie Sherwood is a political reporter for the Arizona republic, the biggest newspaper in the state.
SHERWOOD: We had successive governors who all got into one sort of trouble or another. Evan Mecham in the late 80s was impeached. Governor Symington was indicted, convicted, later pardoned for, you know, financial irregularities with his business. There's been our share of scandal and and interesting, odd, sort of only-in-Arizona type of stories.
BRANCACCIO: How bad did it get? Back in 1990, a hidden camera sting called Azscam caught a number of Arizona state legislators taking cash payoffs from an informant posing as a mobster working with the gambling industry. He told them he was looking to open casinos in Arizona and needed their votes.
SHERWOOD: They were videotaped reaching over the table, grabbing stacks of money, saying things like, you know, "I don't want to die poor." you know "I want to be a rich person." Really embarrassing, ugly stuff.
BRANCACCIO: Embarrassing, ugly stuff that prompted clean elections supporters to act. With financial support from progressive groups like public campaign and individuals like George Soros, they collected enough signatures to get an initiative on the ballot in 1998. And despite opposition from groups like the state chamber of commerce, the firefighters association, the Arizona farm bureau and a handful of business interests, clean elections managed to squeak into law... 51 to 49 percent. 8 years and 4 election cycles later, I wanted to ask democratic governor Janet Napolitano about this grand experiment.
BRANCACCIO: What is it about Arizona that made this state ripe for this Clean Elections reform?
NAPOLITANO: Arizona's been a laboratory for a lot of election reforms, historically. And we, you know, we have a very robust initiative process here. Arizona to me was a logical state to be one of the first to adopt this sort of system.
BRANCACCIO: Just barely, though, as I understand it.
NAPOLITANO: Barely, barely. When you're changing something as fundamental as how money enters politics, you're got to have a lot of vested interests out there fighting about it.
BRANCACCIO: What is that system meant to solve?
NAPOLITANO: I think it's meant to solve two issues: the first being the influence of big money in politics. And the second is empowering people at the grassroots level to participate. Because anybody can give $5 as opposed to $500 or $5,000.
BRANCACCIO: And you think that $5 means something to people?
NAPOLITANO: Oh, yeah. I mean, I think once you've given $5, you're an investor.
BRANCACCIO: So just who are these new investors? Now's cameras went along to a series of house parties this election season where people can get together to socialize and drop off those $5 donations for their candidates. Terry Burke, a concert promoter, opened his house up to family, friends and neighbors.
BURKE: Somebody brought some Chorizo and—cooking' up some burritos. So, it was—it was a nice gathering.
BRANCACCIO: Mary Anne Guerra was invited by a friend. She'd just moved to Arizona and was jazzed by the whole idea of clean elections.
GUERRA: What I like about it is for five dollars you just walk in and you can get a lot of the public, you know, to come in rather than people that have a lot of money and a lot of influence. I mean here you're more likely to get just the whole neighborhood.
PALK: How many people today are collecting their $5?
MANOIL: I think we've counted about five candidates total.
BRANCACCIO: At another party across town, Jane and George Palk got to chat with one of their candidates. It was their first clean elections house party.
NAPOLITANO: These are what politics in a way, I think, started out as. You invited your neighbors over, your colleagues from work, the other parents at your child's school, what have you.
BRANCACCIO: Janet Napolitano is the nation's only governor elected under clean elections. She's running for her second term this year and relied on these house parties to energize her supporters and collect over 4,000 of those $5 bills. She says it isn't easy.
NAPOLITANO: When I ran for governor in 2002, people couldn't believe that you could only give $5. So, and they almost were physically unable to write a check for $5. And we would end up having to send the check back and, you know, getting it corrected.
BRANCACCIO: If it was too much?
NAPOLITANO: Yeah, if it was $10, we had to send it back.
BRANCACCIO: In the governor's first election, her opponent chose not to run clean and raised a good amount of private money. For Napolitano, that meant her clean elections matching funds began rolling in. Eventually, she got almost 2 million dollars of public money the maximum allowed.
SHERWOOD: There would be no Governor Janet Napolitano, I don't think, without clean elections. It gave her a pretty remarkable amount of money to run a primary campaign and a general election campaign against a traditionally-funded candidate.
BRANCACCIO: The latest polls show Napolitano with a comfortable lead in this election. She says clean elections have made a huge difference in her political career...and in her state
BRANCACCIO: You're describing something; it sounds like you're making the case that this somehow is good for democracy.
NAPOLITANO: You know, I think it is. I think it's a healthy system. You know, no one should, in Arizona, should be afraid of running for office 'cause they won't have a competitive amount of money.
BRANCACCIO: Still ahead: A bruising battle for clean elections right now in California.
BRANCACCIO: Arizona produced the first governor elected in a publicly-funded campaign, but it wasn't the first state to embrace the whole idea public money for elections. For that, you have to go back ten years to a place with less saguaro cactus and a bit more coastline: the state of Maine. If there's one thing the citizens there are learning from clean elections, it's to expect the unexpected. The unlikely architect of this radical new way of funding American politics was a 26 year old political science graduate named David Donnelly.
DONNELLY: One of the most amazing experiences of any campaign that I'd ever been a part of was a day in November in 1995 where 1,100 volunteers collected 65,000 signatures in just 13 hours.
BRANCACCIO: What could ignite this kind of passion? Donnelly says it was the sense the Maine legislature had been hijacked by a special-interests: the trucking industry calling in favors in the statehouse to water down a popular bill to prevent tired truck drivers from causing crashes. The public was concerned and reform seemed to be in the air. Only one problem: no one had ever tried across-the-board public funding of statewide elections. Donnelly and his staff were making it up as they went.
DONNELLY: We literally sat around, 20 drafts went around the table. We tried to shoot holes in it. We tried to you know, stand it up and knock it down and redraft it again. And it's this thing that we came up with. And the voters looked at it and they said yes. And it kind of broke the glass ceiling of what was possible in this issue.
BRANCACCIO: Candidates in Maine were quick to try out the new system, turning their backs on campaign contributions in favor of public funds. And the movement quickly had its first poster child, if you will. Deborah Simpson, a single mom and waitress, got elected to Maine's house of representatives with public money in the fall of 2000. Today, Simpson is running for her fourth term in the statehouse and during her time in office has championed legislation enforcing child support and helping victims of domestic abuse.
DONNELLY: And it literally gives me chills in my spine and I'm a hardened political hack. All right? I do campaigns. I run campaigns. But, you know, even these stories kind of soften me and say, "Well, this is actually something really, really amazing. It's an amazing experiment to hear about the kind of people who can run for office in a state like Maine."
BRANCACCIO: 29 out of Maine's 35 current state senators ran clean and over 3/4 of state representatives used the system. And now Maine could follow in the footsteps of Arizona by electing its first clean elections governor, who is trying to unseat a traditionally funded incumbent. The only difference? This time the clean elections challenger is the Republican.
BRANCACCIO: You really don't think you could have run without this publicly financed system?
WOODCOCK: I'm a teacher. I retired from 27 years as a public high school teacher. And spent some time coaching in that arena. And was a selectman in Farmington. Now, I'm a state senator.
BRANCACCIO: Not the road to riches.
WOODCOCK: None of that equates to significant wealth. If you want prove of that you ask my wife.
BRANCACCIO: Chandler Woodcock is a three-term Republican State Senator and lay minister from Farmington, Maine. He wasn't exactly the Republican Party's hand-picked candidate, but under clean elections, he didn't have to be. Public funds- not party money- carried him to an upset win in the primary last June. Woodcock, the most conservative of the three republican candidates, is now the GOP nominee for governor. We met up with him on the campaign trail in the town of Bridgton.
WOODCOCK: There isn't any way I could participate in a gubernatorial campaign under traditional funding mechanisms. I don't have money to put into it frankly. And it allows a regular person to run for Governor, which is very unique.
BRANCACCIO: Do you feel the system here, publicly financed elections, is working in Maine? Has it leveled the playing field as intended?
WOODCOCK: It certainly indicates that it's working as a significant percentage of the legislative body, 70 something percent participates in the Clean Election Act both Republican, Democratic, Independent and Green candidate. The only Green candidate legislative in American I believe. So we've had success in our project. Ah, the gubernatorial race is an independent notion. This is the first time that someone's close enough as a Clean Election candidate to be elected Governor of the state. So we'll be reviewing the process when it's completed. And I hope it's from a successful perspective.
BRANCACCIO: Woodcock's fortunes will depend, to some degree, on the fundraising ability of his rival in November, democratic incumbent John Baldacci. He's running a traditional campaign and has raised a tidy sum of money by Maine standards, most of which will be matched in state funds for his rival woodcock's campaign
BRANCACCIO: You must pity him at some level that the system would punish all his hard work by handing to his opponents all this free money if he works hard to raise his money.
WOODCOCK: I have very little pity for him frankly. Because as an incumbent Governor he has the power of that Governorship to go out and raise money. And he's brought some reasonable prominent people into the state in those fundraising attempts. And he's raised a fairly decent war chest. Yeah. I'm very comfortable saying I don't have any pity for anybody who runs traditionally, that's their choice
BRANCACCIO: While he is a supporter of the clean elections law, Baldacci chose to run traditionally because at a time when the Maine state budget needs all the help it can get, , his campaign says Baldacci didn't want to be seen to be feeding at the public trough. But woodcock says the benefits of running clean are worth the cost.
WOODCOCK: I'm very comfortable in telling you that there isn't influence in my campaign. I'm not beholden to anybody in any community. Not only business but any community for the Clean Election Process. I'm being elected free of that burden. And that's an important part of this discussion. "The government needs to follow through and deliver what it promises to you..."
BRANCACCIO: You may at this stage be picking up on a fascinating irony here: campaign reform designed by liberals but embraced by a small-government, social conservative? Woodcock- who is against abortion and believes intelligent design should be offered as an option in school - shows us that under clean elections, anything can - and does happen.
WOODCOCK: The Democratic Party and some people who are independently minded initiated the Clean Election process in state. Ironically they may have a candidate from the other perspective who is running for Governor and has a wonderful chance to win. So if I'm successful in this campaign it would be at least sweet irony for some people, trust me (laughs).
BRANCACCIO: The surprise is that opinions on clean elections seem to cut across both political philosophy and party affiliation. Look what happened when David Donnelly tried to bring clean elections to another New England state with famously liberal leanings
DONNELLY: After I ran the Maine campaign, I moved to Massachusetts and then ran a campaign there in Massachusetts to pass a similar clean election system that is now no longer on the books. Because the democratic legislature decided to get rid of it. They really did not want it.
BRANCACCIO: And when Arizona became the first real "red" state to give clean elections a try, many expected that democrats there make sweeping gain from a shake up of the political order. Well, not exactly.
QUELLAND: We had this system that came here from outside, from progressive types. And everybody thought, "Oh my gosh. Oh no. One of the parties is gonna benefit from this. And they're gonna get elected more than the other party." And guess what? Those-what they thought didn't happen.
BRANCACCIO: Here's why. If we know one thing about modern politics it's that politicians and their parties all love "safe" seats, and often have drawn the boundaries of voting districts with such evil genius that one party dominates. That means the candidate who wins the primary tends to win in general election, unless he's been flirting online with his interns or whatnot. Under the traditional election system, political parties tend to throw their financial support behind one hand-picked candidate in the primary, often an establishment, easily electable candidate. But under clean elections, the fundraising power of the party, which allows it to anoint candidates in the primary, gets muted... Meaning more hardline candidates can and do win. That's what happened in Arizona in 2002 and 2004, when some far right challengers, dissatisfied with the Republican Party's more moderate stand, rose up and defeated a string of incumbents. Clean elections may not have altered Arizona's tally of republicans and democrats, but they certainly have turned its primaries into a free for all.
NAPOLITANO: Here's where it's interesting. I look at the Arizona legislature, which is Republican in both houses. And the combination of Clean Election and term limits means that people are pretty much free actors down there. In the past, when the kind of standard mainstream business community wanted something done, they were pretty much able to have their way at the legislature. And now they don't have as many members who have to listen to them anymore. I'm not sure that's a good or a bad thing, quite frankly. 'Cause you have member's if—if they're, you know, who do they listen to? And how are they making their decisions? But you can tell the difference.
BRANCACCIO: Robbie Sherwood says that now the atmosphere at the statehouse can get downright ugly.
SHERWOOD: It's out of character with what anybody who has been in Arizona for beyond 30 years thought of their legislature. It was always more of a friendly atmosphere. You could agree and you could disagree and still, you know, go out to lunch or dinner with somebody in under the old system. It seems like there's a lot more personal animosity now.
BRANCACCIO: It's the day of Arizona's primary and debate has flared outside a polling station the issue isn't candidates or races. It is how they're funded.
MAN 1: Most people give money with the expectation that there's going to be something in return. I'm not saying that the person...
MAN 2: It could be an expression of support and it's a free country...
BRANCACCIO: One of these men is a Democrat running clean for State Senate. Another is here to campaign for a Republican that declines to use the system. The third supports one of the pioneering right wing upstarts that blossomed under clean elections. These three can't even agree on what to call the system
MAN 2: Its not clean elections its government, elections. It's government funded elections...
MAN 1: That's the term they called it when they set the initiative so that's what we've got to call it for the time being...
MAN 2: Government funds paying for elections. Do we think that's correct or not?
BRANCACCIO: It's clear that 8 years after adopting clean elections, Arizonans are still divided on the issue. Especially on the key question about whether limits on campaign contributions are also limits on free speech. After all, thirty years ago, in the case Buckley versus Valeo, the US Supreme Court ruled that giving to political causes and candidates was a form of speech and therefore is protected under the constitution. That's why candidates are given the choice of whether or not to run clean. But the system's critics, like Ben Barr of the Goldwater institute, say making it voluntary doesn't solve the problem. Since Arizona's clean election system is at some levels voluntary, a candidate doesn't have to run clean. They could raise their money in the traditional way if they so choose. What's the problem?
BARR: The problem is that first, I'm not certain that it's entirely voluntary. That is the key element for the constitutionality of any publicly planned system. If you provide too many benefits to a state candidate and make it so attractive that it's really not an option to opt out then you really don't have a voluntary system. You have one in which candidates are pushed into accepting public dollars and restricting the amount of speech.
BRANCACCIO: So, one thing I should ask straight out, Ben let me try to say it, do you think money is a problem in politics under the traditional system?
BARR: No. I do not. Money is speech.
BRANCACCIO: But, surely money can also distort speech. Two citizens, each with one vote, one citizen doesn't want the developer to build the Mall then you have the developer, who may be richer, who could spend more money to promote a candidate, who lets him build the Mall. You have money distorting the ability of citizens to compete in a fair way.
BARR: That's the price of freedom. We allow everyone in society, rich or poor, to be able to engage in free speech. You know, politics costs money. Speech costs money.
BRANCACCIO: But what about the rights of the candidates who run clean- who never could have run, and never have been heard, if Their right to free speech depended on their ability to raise big money? You see speech as more evenly distributed under a public financing system?
QUELLAND: Absolutely. That's the whole thing. People need to be heard. But why should anybody be heard louder than somebody else? Because they gave more money they get to be heard louder then somebody? They got their free speech, but so does this person that gave $5.
NAPOLITANO: In my view, with clean elections, we have more speech than we can buy—you know, we get candidates coming in who wouldn't have come in before. And people who get to participate in the electoral process and invest in campaigns, who wouldn't have had that opportunity before. I think that's free speech.
BRANCACCIO: But free speech comes at a price. And in Arizona, the other big complaint is how much publicly- funded elections cost the state13 million dollars in the last big statewide election. Critics of the system love to call this, not clean elections, but "tax-payer funded elections." You don't like that term?
NAPOLITANO: No This is a system that is funded by surcharges on parking tickets and voluntary check offs on individual tax returns. At the option of the tax payer. So, there's nothing on the tax payer side that's compelled about it. When people say, "Well, I shouldn't be forced to contribute to Clean Elections," I say, "Well, then don't park illegally. You'll be fine."
BRANCACCIO: Don't speed?
NAPOLITANO: Yeah, exactly.
BRANCACCIO: Just don't check off on the form that you want to contribute X amount to the Arizona publicly financed system, and don't speed. Don't get a ticket.
BARR: But we have constitutional protections in place. You know, we could say don't speed; otherwise you'll be subject to unusual and cruel punishment. But that doesn't- wouldn't pass constitutional muster. The same rule applies with the freedom of speech. Just because you have sped doesn't mean that you somehow surrender your right to support the candidates and views with which you agree
BRANCACCIO: The public financing program in Arizona is run by a commission. The law gives this commission a lot of power to oversee the system, including the ability to investigate, to fine, and, in extreme cases, to force candidates to leave office. Giving this sort of power to a government bureaucracy made many voters nervous. To make the clean election system work in Arizona requires government oversight. That troubles you?
BARR: It troubles me that government has to be involved in the minutiae of political campaigns When you have questions before the commission about things so trivial as whether haircuts need to be reported; whether hors d'oeuvres are reportable expenditures. that can cause, you know, damage to democracy when you place such control in a government bureaucracy.
BRANCACCIO: During this campaign, Gov. Napolitano has been accused three times of breaking the clean election rules, but all these cases were eventually found to be without merit. Former Arizona representative David Burn ell smith got into much deeper trouble. In 2004, he violated the cardinal rule of clean elections and spent extra money, beyond what the system gave him.
SHERWOOD: David Burnell Smith overspent by several thousand dollars prior to his primary by roughly 17 percent. Well, the law that the voters passed (GFX) says that if you overspend by ten percent, you forfeit your office or you forfeit the race.
BRANCACCIO: It was something no politician would ever want: this kind of entry in a political almanac.
SHERWOOD: David Burnell Smith is now the first American state legislator, state legislator to be thrown out of office by a means other than recall, impeachment, or criminal conviction. So this is a new precedent here being set with this clean elections thing.
QUELLAND: A lot of these bumps in the road, if you will, that occur, it's not good. You know, it never is good, you know. But in one respect it is good, because these things came out. The old traditional way, sometimes the bumps in the road weren't bumps in the road. They were major outright, you know, graft and corruption. And they weren't exposed ever and if they were it was years later and when somebody, you know, confessing to it and things like that. At least with clean elections, it's like shining a light on something, you know?
BRANCACCIO: Why spend a piece of a perfectly good weekend sitting with us talking about this radical bid to knock out political corruption? In part, because the idea may be spreading. Public financing of elections has made it onto the ballot in the most populous state in the nation, California. It's a prescription for reform written by California nurses who believe their state politics is especially infected by big money.
BRANCACCIO: it's the peak of fundraising season in Sacramento, California. As the state's legislature is about to wrap up its 2 year session, there are events held all across town, some only a few steps from the capitol dome. Lobbyists and other donors shell out the maximum 3,300 dollar contribution to attend these exclusive functions. Today, there's an uninvited guest. That man is supposed to be here. That woman is not. You'll never see this on your local news. He's just been punked. That's a fake reporter who actually works for one of the many groups backing proposition 89. That's the ballot initiative that might bring clean elections to California- the key word there being "might."
DEMORO: Our opposition is pretty enormous. We're up against the people who are—who own the system. I mean ultimately we're saying the status quo's not acceptable. They like the status quo.
BRANCACCIO: Rose Anne Demoro is the executive director of the California nurses association, the union of 65,000 health professionals that has become the surprising champion of clean elections in California. A lot of people when they hear that California nurses are spearheading this effort to bring public financing of elections to California, they have a big question. Why would you get into this particular area?
DEMORO: We have a declining democracy quite frankly. And in a declining democracy, ground zero is the health of patients. The nurses see it first. Our health takes place in a political and economic environment. And that's why we had to have a systemic change in the political process in order to be able to have changes in our lives. It's critical it's urgent. And we can't wait.
BRANCACCIO: The nurses' hunger for reform was certainly visible this summer when they organized the collection of the 400,000-plus signatures they needed to get a clean elections initiative on the November ballot.
DEMORO: It was the fastest anyone's ever qualified an initiative. And the signature gatherers said that it was the easiest one that they've ever put forward.
BRANCACCIO: California had clean elections legislation crafted, but it got bogged down in the statehouse. That's when the nurses decided to get the idea onto the fall ballot for the voters to decide. The nurses moved so fast that even the national groups that support clean elections were taken by surprise. Nick Nhyart heads one of them.
NYHART: The California Nurse Association, their allies, essentially, went fast-forward and said, "We wanna do now, what you all've talking about doing in a few years." All of a sudden, now there's a chance to win in California—that simply wasn't around—six months ago, or a year ago.
BRANCACCIO: The proposition 89 campaign likes to get snarky... in one of their videos now making the rounds on the internet, they offered to sell simple kripsy kreme donuts to people leaving expensive fundraiser breakfasts, you can eat a lot cheaper and save democracy at the same time was the message. But this will be no cakewalk for the nurses. It may be no shock the state's chamber of commerce opposes prop 89. But so does the big teachers union. Among the people against you on 89 are California teachers. They have typically been an ally of nurses. What's going on here?
DEMORO: I don't know why the California teachers association would oppose this. If they think the system's working for them. It certainly isn't working for the children of California.
BRANCACCIO: We were curious too, but the California teachers association declined our request for an interview. Their official position is that prop 89 is badly drafted law. They're for reform, just not this reform. But Barbara Kerr, the president, also told an AP reporter "I don't know why anyone would find it offensive that teachers and students want a voice in Sacramento". We did get to speak to Tony Quinn, a longtime Sacramento political operative who's working against prop 89. So you've got this interesting coalition to try to defeat proposition 89. But what the nurses say is this the coalition that is fighting for the status quo.
QUINN: Well, we think that this would make it much, much worse. That the clean money initiative itself wouldn't work. Would lead to possibly more fraud, would lead to funding of fringe candidates and a lot of other things.
BRANCACCIO: Quinn isn't the first person you'd expect to be at the forefront of the fight against publicly financed elections. He has many years of experience in election reform, was a member of the state's campaign watchdog group and freely admits the current system is not working.
QUINN: When I started here, raising campaign money was much less important than it is now. And it's so important because it costs a lot to get your message out. And so the politicians are sort of fixated with the need to raise campaign funds.
BRANCACCIO: In politics, size matters. And with a population of over 36 million and some of the country's biggest media markets, running for office in California is a very expensive deal. So it should come as no surprise that the clean elections funding levels proposed here are far different than anything seen in other states. In fact, in the governor's race, a candidate could get as much as $25 million dollars in public funding. That's more than twenty times the amount available to clean election candidates in neighboring Arizona. It's the idea of such vast piles of free money floating around that is the biggest problem facing clean elections in California, according to Quinn.
QUINN: The scale is a major difference. The amount of money is a major difference. Here we would be giving between $250,000—and $500,000 in the primary election alone. So we have much larger districts and we have much, much larger amounts. And I think there's a real possibility for fraud. If you dangle out to the political class here the fact you can get a lot of free money, they're going to take it.
BRANCACCIO: One of the concerns here is that the scale of the money. The amount of money that might be available for a candidate is he or she were able to get the right number of small contributions to get on the ballot is so large, so much money would be in play that that might be an invitation to all sorts of shenanigans.
DEMORO: Well first of all the current system is absolutely out of control. And what this initiative does, it places such a high level on qualification. To be governor you have to have 25,000 signatures. You have to have $5 contributions from each of those people. You have to commit to transparency. You have to be willing to debate. Essentially, the system's open. Right now it's a closed system. Millionaires can essentially buy a governor.
BRANCACCIO: But perhaps the one thing that sticks in the craw of prop 89 opponents most isn't the public funding of candidates per se. It's a piece of the nurse's proposal to clamp down on how future ballot initiatives get funded. So you're saying that this proposition 89, yeah, it's in part about public financing of elections. But the part that especially disturbs you is a provision that does what?
QUINN: It limits the amount of money that corporations and certain labor organizations unfavored by the nurses can spend in ballot measure campaigns.
BRANCACCIO: This is where proposition 89 goes further than anything seen anywhere else. It would limit the amount corporations can spend on any single ballot initiative at just $10,000. This would change the status quo in California radically
DEMORO: Last election in California almost $400 million was spent on six propositions. $400 million. And the pharmaceutical industry spent $80 million of the $400 million. We realized that in order to have actual reform in health care, that we couldn't do that up against that type of money.
BRANCACCIO: But, under the initiative the nurses authored, they and some other unions could keep donating to future ballot measures with no new limits. Critics contend this would leave them with an advantage over corporations, quite a turnabout. They accuse the nurses of turning clean elections into a power grab. The nurses, meanwhile, say all they're proposing is to make corporations go through the same steps that unions already have to.
DEMORO: Actually corporations can collect from their share holders. From their own staffs. They can go out and collect money as well. What they can't do is to write a million dollar check under this as a corporation.
BRANCACCIO: All along, the nurses have maintained that prop 89 is designed to take special interests out of politics, but opponents say the nurses have a hidden agenda: to use this new system for a special interest for their own: top to bottom medical reform. A number of political analysts here in the state have looked at what you're up to with prop 89. And see this as and this is the phrase that's been used. "A Trojan horse." That this isn't specifically about public financing of elections. It's ultimately a plot to bring in a single payer health care system for California.
DEMORO: The nurses of California absolutely do want to change the health care system. We want to have a universal system of health care. We also want to have clean air, fair jobs, a limit to outsourcing. We want to have gasoline prices that are affordable for every day people. We want people to have absolute access to education. Have the best educational system. None of this is possible in the current political system. We don't have a hidden agenda. We have an overt agenda. And that basically is to bring a much more economic and democratic and political system into California.
BRANCACCIO: With two weeks and a few days left in the campaign the nurses are taking it to the streets. A recent poll, however, showed only 25% planned on voting for prop 89 while 61% said they would vote against. That doesn't mean the nurses are giving up. They're planning to ramp up their campaign with TV ads, high visibility protests and, of course, plenty of street theatre
DEMORO: I can't imagine if we get the word out, anyone ever voting against proposition 89. Proposition 89 will change things. Pretty dramatically actually. It'll make it a much lever—more level playing field. And people will actually have a voice in government.
BRANCACCIO: Think it could be a nation wide model?
DEMORO:Absolutely. And I think that greatest concern for the corporations is that if it happens in California, it will sweep the nation in terms of reform.
BRANCACCIO: in America, there's only one political stage bigger than California's: federal elections. And what happens in this most populous state could have a tremendous influence on chances for clean elections at the federal level, that is races for the house of representatives, the US senate or indeed the white house.
NYHART: Well, I think, you know, the same things that are moving us forward much faster in California are here in the capital, too. I mean, if you want to run for federal office it costs a lot in California, the only place that costs to run for office that is bigger is if you run for Congress or the US Senate
BRANCACCIO: last month, Nick Nyhart's group held a conference, bringing together clean elections activists from across the country to find ways to expand their movement. They were also celebrating a victory in Connecticut where the state legislature decided to adopt clean elections last December. They'll roll it out in 2008. And John Rauh, the fellow that now runs Americans for campaign reform, has his sights set on bigger things: publicly financed elections on a national level.
RAUH: I've dialed for dollars. I was a candidate for the United States Senate. And, you know who sat next to me? Senator Paul Simon of Illinois. I'll never forget it. Paul Simon, United States Senator, me, just a candidate from New Hampshire for the United States Senate. Each of us dialing for dollars. Paul would dial three days a week for three hours. And, at the end he'd look at me. He'd say, "John that was repulsive." He'd slam down the phone. And you know what he did that many others had done. He got re-elected and went home to teach.
BRANCACCIO: Rauh's earnestness and passion for reform is infectious. So much so it's won him support for his movement from both sides of the political aisle.
SIMPSON: We have to leech this excess, this wretched excess of money out of the system which is distorting democracy in my mind.
BRANCACCIO: Like former us Senator Alan Simpson from Wyoming, the Republican who served 18 years on Capitol Hill.
SIMPSON: I got in this because I respect John Rauh. I think he's very, you know, obviously, very committed Democrat. I'm a Republican. Those things pale in significance when you have a cause that is very important.
BRANCACCIO: Simpson may have come to power right on the eve of the Reagan revolution but he's always been seen as a bit of a maverick. He is pro choice and supports gay rights but still managed to serve 10 years as his party's whip in the senate. Simpson tends to call it as he sees it. Perhaps that's why he's such a good fit for this movement.
SIMSPON: The absurdity of people believing that when you jack a huge pile of money into a political campaign that you're not seeking access to the congressperson is just; you know a fairy-land.
BRANCACCIO: Simpson is an honorary co-chair of Rauh's organization. He says he's in this to rehabilitate a political process that he sees as so badly tarnished.
SIMPSON: To the layman, anybody with half a brain, that looks like people on the take who are selling' out. Who sold their soul for money. Or sold their vote because it had access and it just looks like hell. And it is.
BRANCACCIO: The group made a big splash this spring with an ad in the New York Times and their little slogan, "just $6".
SIMSPON: Our little effort here is called the "Six buck solution"
RAUH: For a little less than $2 billion a year divided by all of our citizens, 300 million citizens, one arrives at a number of $6. This is what it would take from the federal budget to publicly fund our elections.
BRANCACCIO: Alan Simpson is not the only high profile former us senator to jump in with Americans for campaign reform. That's Bill Bradley with him there. Bob Kerrey and Warren Rodman have signed up, too
SIMPSON: All four of us, people who have pretty thick skin. You need this when you're in the campaign reform because you're beginning to pierce into the mother's milk of political life, which to some people—they can't—or the drug of political life, they can't get off of it.
BRANCACCIO: For now, Rauh is not relying solely on the star power of his co-chairs to get the word out. Instead he is going back to the heart of this movement, the grassroots, speaking to small community groups like this Kiwanis chapter in southern Connecticut. Rauh says he knows full well change of this scale will be an enormous fight. He draws inspiration from history and a much tougher American struggle.
RAUH: Let's remember, when Abraham Lincoln came into office and took a look at the opportunity to abolish slavery, what happened first? The American public, the opinion leaders got there first. And, Lincoln followed. Lincoln ultimately became a tremendous advocate for abolishing slavery. But, where did it begin? It began with the people. And, that's is where this is gonna happen.
BRANCACCIO: And the foot soldiers of this movement agree, it will take a lot of people like them to change a national system in desperate need of repair. So on balance, good for American democracy when you finance elections publicly?
QUELLAND: I think it's good for—for democracy. I think we need a shot in the arm here to get people to—to trust elections again. You know—it's—it's a question that's out there on people's minds.
BRANCACCIO: We hear the NOW pod cast gets the job done for that tribe of people known for their little white earphones The portable version of this special report can found at the pbs.org site. Next week on NOW, voters in six key states will be deciding whether or not to raise the minimum wage Democrats hope this is the issue that get's people to the polls. And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.