Refusing Public Money Perhaps Sank Salmon

Posted on July 30, 2003 | Type: In the News
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GOP gubernatorial candidate found himself $615,000 behind eventual winner Janet Napolitano right after primary

The Clean Elections system stole the Arizona Governor's Office from Republican Matt Salmon and handed it to Democrat Janet Napolitano.

So says Clint Bolick, a lawyer for the Institute of Justice, a group that mounted an unsuccessful legal challenge aimed at abolishing the public election funding system.

In one of the closest gubernatorial races in state history, Napolitano beat Salmon by fewer than 12,000 votes.

Napolitano took Clean Elections public money. Salmon did not, funding his campaign through private sources.

Bolick's argument goes like this:

Before taking on Napolitano, Salmon had to win a tough GOP primary against two taxpayer-subsidized candidates. Salmon won that battle, but emerged broke. While Salmon was searching for campaign cash, Napolitano collected a state check for $615,000 the day after the primary.

"Matt Salmon had to spend an enormous amount of time and money raising money, while Napolitano had to spend virtually none," Bolick said. "That is a huge advantage."

Because Salmon rejected Clean Elections money, whenever the Democratic Party launched negative ads blasting him, he received no public matching funds in compensation. In contrast, Napolitano received matching money whenever Republicans funded independent ads critical of her.

Barbara Lubin, executive director of the Clean Elections Institute, a private nonprofit group established to promote and defend Arizona's public election financing system, said the law protects candidates who accept spending limits.

"Candidates who abide by Clean Elections law have agreed to spend only as much as they are given by the state," she said. "Nonparticipating candidates have no limitations on what they can spend or raise."

Bolick said Salmon's image was tarnished by the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, which fined Salmon $10,000 after concluding his campaign missed the deadline for reporting $98,000 in expenses.

An administrative law judge later ruled Salmon acted in good faith and said the fine should be cut to $3,471, a recommendation the commission followed.

What made Salmon's spending reports important (he had to file them daily) is that his fund raising triggered dollar-for-dollar matching funds to Napolitano until she topped out at $2.25 million in taxpayer cash.

Salmon said Clean Elections reporting requirements were far too complex.

"Clean Elections reporting makes dealing with the IRS look like a cakewalk," he said.

Salmon received $2.1 million from private sources. He said he spent 25 cents of every dollar on fund raising, a cost Napolitano did not have to endure.

"The narrow margin of victory would have been more than compensated for by the amount of time Salmon had to spend fund raising and the huge fund-raising advantage Napolitano had as a result of the Clean Elections Act," Bolick said.

Napolitano, who spoke often during the campaign about how the Clean Elections system freed her to talk about issues rather than ask for cash, said Salmon simply made a bad choice in rejecting public funds.

"Everybody knew how it worked when they made the decision to run clean," she said. "Matt, it turned out, made the wrong decision."

If Salmon could have raised more private cash, perhaps he could have turned the tables on Napolitano, as Tom Horne did in blowing away Jaime Molera and Keith Bee in the Republican primary by outspending them by a more than 4-1 margin.

Horne spent $535,277 on his primary campaign for superintendent of public instruction, $484,088 of it his own.

Molera and Bee each spent $129,450 in the primary. They each received an initial payment from the Citizens Clean Elections Commission of $43,150, then took in $86,300 in matching funds based on Horne's spending before maxing out on public money.

"The Road to Victory," a report by the Clean Elections Institute on the effect of public financing on state elections, concluded Horne's race was atypical.

"Money played a major role in the 1998 Arizona campaigns with 79 percent of the candidates with the largest campaign war chests winning their races," the report said. "However, after the implementation of the Clean Elections system, this was true for only 2 percent of candidates in the 2002 elections.

"In just four years, Arizona politics changed dramatically, creating a 75 percent reduction in the number of races determined by money," the report stated.

Mark Osterloh, a Tucson ophthalmologist who was among the authors of the Clean Elections Act, was a longshot candidate for governor in the last campaign. He was defeated by Napolitano in the primary.

"I never would have run for political office under the old system, where you had to sell your soul to special interests," Osterloh said. He said the public financing system means "people no longer have to be rich or sell their souls to lobbyists or special interest groups in order to get money for their campaigns."

However, a study conducted by the Goldwater Institute concluded that state lawmakers who took Clean Elections money in the 2000 campaign voted no differently during the 2001 legislative session than privately funded candidates.

"After controlling for the ideology of legislators, (there was) no meaningful difference in the way subsidized and unsubsidized legislators voted," the study stated. "Legislators who used public funds to get elected were equally likely to vote for or against most interest groups, such as the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, the Sierra Club, the National Rifle Association and Planned Parenthood as their privately financed counterparts in the same party."

Clean Elections system critics maintain it doesn't eliminate special interests from the process, but simply drives them underground.

For instance, Napolitano had no difficulty collecting the contributions she needed to qualify for public funding, receiving help from union officials representing firefighters, state employees and commercial workers.

"Janet Napolitano didn't collect 4,000 $5 contributions walking door to door," said former Rep. Steve May, R-Phoenix, "she called three union bosses and they did it for her."

Napolitano said the influence of unions on her early efforts has been exaggerated. Of the 6,000 contributions she initially turned in, only about 1,000 came from organized labor, she said.

Though Napolitano took no private money for her campaign, after her election she raised $100,000 from corporations and well-heeled supporters to pay for inaugural parties in Phoenix and Tucson.

Some say "Clean Elections" is a misnomer because it produced one of the dirtiest gubernatorial campaigns in Arizona history in 2002. Opponents of the system point out that negative television spots run by independent candidate Richard Mahoney that attacked Napolitano and Salmon were paid for by taxpayers.

One Mahoney ad suggested Napolitano failed to support an investigation of child pornography as the state's attorney general because she backs the gay rights agenda. Another argued Salmon would do nothing about polygamists in Colorado City because of his Mormon faith.

Mahoney, who said he would not have run without public campaign money, spent $1,695,512 in Clean Elections cash. Of 671,646 votes cast in the general election for governor, Mahoney received 84,947 votes. In other words, Mahoney spent nearly $20 per vote.

"Whenever the government subsidizes anything, we get more of it," Bolick said. "In the last election we had fringe candidates come out of the woodwork to collect their campaign subsidies."

Micah Sifry, a senior analyst with Public Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that supports campaign-finance reform, said opening the political process to more voices doesn't necessarily mean you will like what you hear.

"More democracy means things get messier. You can't establish a speech code on those who get the money saying they can't insult people with their political ads," Sifry said. "This is what you get when you open the system to more voices."

Bolick said even candidates philosophically opposed to the Clean Elections system should grab the public campaign cash.

"Generally speaking, conservatives dislike the idea of campaign subsidies and are more likely to refuse taxpayer money, which places them at a huge disadvantage," he said. "At this point in the equation, I would advise any candidate to participate in the system because it is so heavily rigged in favor of participating candidates."

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