Political Earthquake

Imagine stepping into a polling booth and voting for candidates who, instead of being bought and paid for by corporations, unions, or wealthy donors, are financed by public funds, and accountable to you and other citizens.

Sounds utopian, doesn't it? Well, clean-money elections already exist in Maine and Arizona, states too small to challenge the nation's political culture. But public financing of state elections and initiatives this fall just might expand to California, a state so large and influential that every major policy decision tends to influence the rest of the nation.

Efforts at clean-money legislation have recently failed in California because elected officials were already too committed to corporations, insurance companies, unions, and wealthy donors. But within only six weeks, the California Nurses Association gathered enough signatures to put it on the ballot as an initiative.

As a result, on Election Day, Californians will vote on Proposition 89, the Clean Money and Fair Elections Act, which would encourage candidates to choose public financing, penalize those who use private funding, and strictly limit campaign contributions by special interests who might expect favors in return.

What would happen if public-financed campaigns replaced special interests? State Assembly Member Loni Hancock, who authored the original legislation, points out that “clean money [is] the reform that makes all other reforms possible. So it's interesting that after five years of clean money elections, the state of Maine enacted universal health care last year.”

In Maine and Arizona, voter-owned elections have helped eliminate the corrupting influence of special-interest money on public policy. Arizona's governor, Janet Napolitano, has repeatedly described her new freedom to address public health, preschool education, health care and the protection of the environment. In Maine, they will tell you that “clean legislators” have voted twice as often for environmental legislation. Arizona Representative Leah Landrum Taylor, an African American woman, says that now more women and minorities run for -- and win -- public office. In those states, too, public-financed campaigns have reduced the advantage of incumbency; increased voter turnout; and forced legislators and statewide officials to be accountable to the people who elected them.

Now the battle in California begins. On one side the measure is supported by the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, State Treasurer Phil Angelides, the League of Women Voters of California, Common Cause, and other nonprofit and community organizations.

On the other side is Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who as a candidate in 2003 promised to end “pay-to-play” politics, but whose tireless fund raising has made his predecessors look like amateurs at a bodybuilding contest. He is joined by the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Taxpayers' Association, insurance companies, oil companies, HMOs, three powerful unions, members of the entrenched political establishment, and consultants and lobbyists. They argue that clean-money campaigns limit free speech, by which they mean the freedom to give a candidate as much money as they please. They also claim it's a wasteful public subsidy for politicians. (Some of their objections will almost certainly end up in the courts. Fortunately, the California initiative was written so that each part can be implemented separately, if any section is litigated.)

Right now, there seems to be considerable popular momentum for Proposition 89. In 2005, a survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 92 percent of California adult residents believe that special interests control the electoral process. Every major newspaper in the state has editorialized either for the original legislation or the proposition itself. And in September, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi endorsed the initiative.

But public opinion could change. By October, the “No on Prop 89” campaign will likely air jaw-dropping TV ads claiming that voters will be taxed to fund clean elections. In fact, the initiative would be funded by the small ($5) “qualifying contributions” to individual candidates, as well as by a modest 0.2 percent tax levied on corporations and financial institutions. But in California, as elsewhere, the word “tax” has expanded into a four-letter word.

If Proposition 89 passes, politicians nationwide, including those in Washington, D.C., will soon feel the rumbles of a California political earthquake.

Ruth Rosen teaches history at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a senior fellow of the Longview Institute. Her most recent book is The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America.

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