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AZ Clean Elections Chief: Big Spending Candidates a “Mixed Blessing”

August 4, 2010

PHOENIX - California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman is about to top $100 million in campaign spending, most of it from her own personal fortune.

The head of Arizona's publicly-financed system calls it "a mixed blessing" when someone spends that much on their own campaign. Todd Lang, executive director of the Citizens Clean Election Commission, says to him, more campaign spending means more political speech — which is a good thing.

"The downside is when that person can dominate the marketplace of ideas. And the good thing about Clean Elections is, it allows folks without that kind of personal wealth to respond and to make their own points in the public forum, and to give the voters choices."

However, Lang says the ability of Clean Elections candidates to respond has been severely limited now that the U.S. Supreme Court has blocked the matching funds portion of the system while the justices consider a permanent ban. Lang says the court has not only recognized free speech for wealthy candidates, but granted them freedom from rebuttal by those who are publicly-funded.

He believes it makes more sense to provide matching money only when Clean Elections candidates are being outspent, rather than increasing the base amount for everyone.

"We could have funded everyone at that 'full matched' level, but that would have been a waste of money in those races that didn't have that sort of spending. The theory was, matching funds allowed us to put that money in those hot races. It was designed to increase speech, not decrease it, and I think the track record shows it did just that."

If the Supreme Court permanently strikes down the current matching fund rules when it takes up the Arizona case next year, Lang says it's possible the concept could survive in another form.

"Matching funds in the future would have to be some sort of hybrid system, where candidates could raise small contributions and then, the programs would match that, so that they could be competitive in races. The theory being that you don't have that appearance of corruption because you keep the contributions small."

Wealth doesn't always translate into winning, adds Lang. He notes Arizona candidate Buz Mills spent more than $3 million of his own money this year before suspending his campaign. Clean Elections is funded by voluntary taxpayer donations and surcharges on civil and criminal fines.

Doug Ramsey, Public News Service - AZ