Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

The final numbers aren't in yet, but we may soon be calling this the first $4-billion presidential election in U.S. history. (About half as much was spent by parties and candidates a mere four years ago.) With most of the campaign money coming from special interests, the need for comprehensive reform intensifies. A new wave of activism around the issue of democracy seems to be on the rise. But that's not to say the going will be easy. Although "clean money" initiatives have been approved in Maine, Arizona, and Massachusetts, similar reform proposals were rejected this November in Missouri and Oregon.

What happened? It may have been that in both states there were just too many other issues competing for voters' attention. In Oregon, where a clean-money proposal lost by a percentage-point margin of 59 to 41, the question was one of 26 on the ballot and expensive battles were fought over many of the other initiatives. In Missouri, where a reform proposition lost 65 to 35, voters were focused on three tight campaigns: the presidential race, the governor's race, and, perhaps the most gripping, a Senate race between the state's two leading elected officials (one of whom, Mel Carnahan, died in a plane crash weeks before the election).

A second critical factor, one that was bound to surface as the clean-money idea caught on, was the presence of organized opposition. In Maine, Arizona, and Massachusetts, there were people against the initiatives but no coordinated campaigns. Missouri's Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Missouri went after the clean-money initiative early in the year, pledging to spend $1 million to $2 million. They ran a multifaceted campaign that included a field operation and radio ads at a total reported cost of more than $600,000, contributed by the states' leading businesses (Anheuser-Busch and Monsanto, among others) to a committee called No Tax Dollars for Politicians.

In Oregon it was No Taxpayer Handouts for Politicians, headed by one of the business community's key conservative political activists. The committee spent roughly $135,000, most of it on radio ads and direct mail. In addition, the reform measure was attacked in a slick and effective voter guide produced by a conservative consortium; the guide went out to 800,000 households. The GOP candidate for secretary of state came out against reform in her campaign commercials. And finally, the presence of several high-profile tax-related measures on the ballot created a negative backdrop for the clean-money measure.

While activists plan serious legislative and initiative campaigns in several other states, the clean-money approach has moved forward in Maine, Arizona, and Vermont: For the first time, these states ran their elections under full public financing. Dozens of "clean" candidates won their races--Democrats and Republicans, incumbents and challengers alike. In Maine, 17 out of 35 state senate members got elected as clean candidates, as did 45 out of 151 state house reps. More than half the clean candidates who ran won their races.

In Arizona, Democrat Jay Blanchard won a state senate race against the sitting house speaker, Jeff Groscost, who was term-limited out of office and was seeking to move up. Despite standing in a heavily Republican district, Blanchard was positioned to capitalize on a serious scandal that enveloped Groscost in the final weeks of the campaign. Without the availability of public funding, Blanchard says, he would never have run, and Groscost, scandal and all, would have won unopposed. Blanchard's victory took the Arizona senate out of Republican hands and created a two-party tie. In addition, the Corporation Commission, a statewide regulatory body, now has a two-out-of-three "clean" majority.

Massachusetts is next. Public financing for all statewide races and the state legislature is to go into effect March 31 for the 2002 election cycle. Despite some setbacks, a new model for campaign finance is emerging around the country.