At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss as a failure New Jersey's experiment in public financing of political campaigns.
After all, just two candidates participated in the two legislative districts in which the program was piloted.
It would be a mistake to kill the program, however, because public financing remains the best way to remove the taint of private money from political campaigns.
That's the verdict from the state commission charged with reviewing the pilot Clean Election program.
The program was created in 2004 by the state Legislature to determine whether public financing programs used in others states such as Arizona or Maine might work in New Jersey. The Legislature chose two districts in which to pilot the program -- the 6th and 13th -- both of which were considered competitive. The program called for candidates to collect 1,000 donations of $5 and another 500 at $30 apiece.
Two candidates in the 6th District -- incumbent Assembly members Louis Greenwald and Pamela Lampitt, both Democrats -- met the requirements, while several others in the 6th and 13th fell short, according to the Asbury Park Press. The Newark Star-Ledger reported that $260,000 was spent on the program.
The key finding of the commission, which was released as part of a final report in May, is that the threshold was set too high, that the number of donations required should be smaller and that potential candidates not be asked to collect contributions of more than one denomination. It recommends that the the number of qualifying contributions be reduced from 1,500 (1,000 in $5 donations and 500 in $30 donations) to 800 donations of $10.
While better, the number remains too high, as the Asbury Park Press pointed out in an editorial. A Republican Assembly candidate who failed to qualify in 2005 is recommending 420 contributions of $5 each, a number the state Legislature should at least consider, though, as the Press points out, "that's still twice as many as Arizona, the model for 'Clean Elections,' requires of legislative candidates."
The commission also proposes extending the clean-elections program to the primaries, extending the time period to collect donations to eight full months and, perhaps most importantly, giving the same amount of cash to qualified independent and third-party candidates -- $60,000 for the primary and $100,000 for the general election.
"That could inject badly needed competition in districts traditionally dominated by one political party," the Press said.
The report now goes to the Legislature and it is anyone's guess what will happen there. As it is, the plan on the table only calls for six districts -- out of 40 -- to be included. And it would leave local and county government -- where there is a load of cash to be made by professional firms and land developers -- out of the loop and reliant on private political contributors.
A much broader program is called for, though it is unlikely that New Jersey politicians are ready to cut their feeding tubes just yet. But there is some momentum -- the state has been racked by some high-profile political scandals and a former state Senate president and county political boss is apparently under investigation by a federal grand jury (this is unconfirmed, but has been widely reported by the state's major newspapers). So this should be a no-brainer.
Plus, clean-elections programs have been working well in several states, including Maine, which has seen an expansion in the number of candidates seeking office.
The state's chapter of Common Cause says that nearly 80% of all legislative candidates used public financing in 2004 and reports in the Maine press say that seven of the 12 people eyeing a run for governor plan to take part in the program. And the number of candidates has been on the rise, according to a report from the New Rules Project Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit research group focusing on local solutions.
According to the report, 358 candidates ran for the Maine Legislature in 1998 -- the last election before the law went into effect -- and 429 ran in 2004 (about two-and-one-half candidates per seat).
The Maine program sets rather low thresholds -- 50 $5 checks to qualify for funding for a State House (Maine's version of the General Assembly) campaign, 150 for a state Senate campaign and 2,500 for a gubernatorial race. Candidates who qualify receive a set amount of cash -- in exchange for foregoing private campaign contributions -- and are eligible for matching funding to offset spending by candidates who opt out of the program.
New Jersey and Maine are very different states, of course. There is a huge disparity in overall population and in the size of legislative districts, a factor that must be taken into account.
But Maine's program was designed to attract candidates while trying to ensure that hopefuls have some level of broad-based support, something the New Jersey pilot failed to do this time out.
This failure, as the New Jersey report notes, is not fatal. The state should push ahead, building round two on the Clean Election Commission's proposals with the goal of expanding the clean elections program to the full Legislature and possibly the governor's race in 2009.
New Jersey is a key state. It is among the two or three most expensive states to campaign in, because it does not have its own television market and must rely on the Philadelphia and New York stations to get the word out.
If, as the song says about New York, clean elections can make it here, there is a real good chance it can make it anywhere -- opening the ballot to a broader array of candidates and loosening the grip that contributors have on government at all levels.
The New Jersey Clean Elections Commission report can be found at www.njleg.state.nj.us/committees/njcleanelec.asp
Groups working on behalf of clean-elections reforms include the following:
New Jersey Citizen Action, 400 Main St., 2nd Floor, Hackensack, NJ 07601; telephone, 201-488-2804; www.njcitizenaction.org/
Public Campaign Action Fund, 1320 19th St., NW Suite #M-1, Washington, DC 20036; telephone, (202) 293.0222; fax, (202) 293.0202; email email@example.com; www.campaignmoney.org/
Hank Kalet is a poet and the managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press. His blog can be found at channel-surfing.blogspot.com. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.