Pocketbook Politics

New Jersey voters have been subjected to what may have been the harshest and most negative campaigns in state history.

The two major party candidates -- Democrat Jon Corzine and Republican Doug Forrester -- spent in excess of $70 million of their own money on the race, blasting voters with a slew of negative ads and ultimately suppressing voter turnout.

Candidates for the state Assembly followed suit in many districts, running cable advertisements accusing each other of political corruption, which polls had identified as a primary issue in the campaign.

But rather than create momentum for change, the spending spree reinforced what voters already knew, robbing the minority Republican Party of what many observers in the state assumed would be its chief selling point.

In the end, New Jersey may be lucky things turned out the way they did. The man they chose to lead the state has been one of the more consistently liberal members of the US Senate. Corzine's instincts are good, but the problems he faces are nearly intractable.

He faces structural debt of somewhere between $3 billion and $4 billion. Property taxes are skyrocketing and won't be reined in without creating pain elsewhere, either through sharp service cuts or an income tax hike. He also faces a state transportation fund that has run out of money; a bankrupt school-building fund that is riddled with corruption; and a terrible case of political bossism that, despite the political rhetoric of the season, has infected both parties.

While, in theory, Corzine's self-financed campaign should insulate him from the entreaties of the county party bosses who run politics in the state, Corzine tied himself to the bosses earlier in the year when he dumped a lot of cash on their organizations in an effort to clear the field and prevent a primary.

During his acceptance speech, Corzine made pay-to-play an issue, telling his supporters that public servants should serve the public, "not our friends, not our contributors, just the people of New Jersey." If he really believes this -- and, given his record in the Senate, I believe he does -- he needs to find a way to shut down the party bosses by cutting off their cash supply.

A lot of smaller fixes have been tried around the country, such as pay-to-play and soft-money bans, prohibitions against corporate donations and the like. But they've ultimately done little more than shift the problem around -- which in New Jersey has resulted in a consolidation of power in the hands of the already powerful.

Ultimately, the best approach will likely be public financing, or "clean elections." The rules, already in place in states like Maine and Arizona, are voluntary so they do not run afoul of the First Amendment and they can offer a good model on which to build a new system. (The "clean elections" system was tried with limited success in two New Jersey Assembly districts, but the state's rules were badly crafted and made it nearly impossible to meet basic fundraising thresholds.)

To qualify, candidates are required both to meet ballot access requirements and to raise a minimum amount of money in small increments (usually $5) from registered voters in their town, election district or state. They also must agree to abide by campaign spending limits.

Candidates then get a set amount of money from a clean-money fund for the primary and the general election; plus, they may be granted a set amount of television and radio time.

Additional cash could be set aside to offset excessive spending by candidates -- like Corzine and Forrester -- who opt not to participate. In theory, rich candidates will be shamed into participation; public opinion is not likely to be kind to candidates who refuse to agree to spending limitations. But even if they aren't cowed, the extra spending by a candidate like Corzine would allow the publicly financed candidate to take more cash from the clean elections fund. This might not level the playing field, but it would reduce the size of the advantage.

And it should stem the huge influx of cash into politics and open the system to candidates whose views might differ from the conventional wisdom or who might not be viewed as traditional candidates under our current money-primary system.

Hank Kalet is a poet and the managing editor of two central New Jersey newspapers. Email

From The Progressive Populist, Dec. 15, 2005

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