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Is Rhode Island ready for Clean Elections?
Supporters tout publicly financed campaigns as a way to increase competition and diminish the influence of money in politics

AS MORE THAN 100 people turned out for a February 18 fundraiser for US Senator Lincoln Chafee in the plush confines of the Hotel Providence, it marked an early salvo in what will probably become the most expensive political campaign in Rhode Island history.

In exchange for donations of $250 and $1000, guests had the respective chance to attend a reception or a roundtable discussion with Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, one of the top Republicans in the Senate. Not to be outdone, a similar benefit is slated on Monday, February 28, for US Representative James R. Langevin, a prospective Democratic challenger to the Republican Chafee. And although compiling a monstrously large war chest is crucial in a race where the total spending may top $10 million, candidates tend to be less than enamored with the process. As Chafee put it, "Itís part of the business. If youíre in political office, you have to raise money, even starting as a city councilman. None of us, I think, really enjoy it."

A challenge to the local status quo of campaign finance is coming from an unlikely source: Te-Ping Chen, a 19-year-old Brown University sophomore from Oakland, California, is spearheading a drive to significantly expand the public financing of elections in Rhode Island. Chen, joined by other Brown students and the good government group Common Cause, is promoting the concept known as Clean Elections, already being used in Maine, Vermont, and Arizona, which seeks to diminish the influence of money in politics while making campaigns more competitive.

Jesse Unruh, speaker of the California Assembly from 1961-68, touched on a central truth in our public life with his oft-quoted expression ó "Money is the motherís milk of politics" ó yet the amount of campaign spending becomes steadily greater with each new election cycle. More than $4 billion was dropped in the 2004 presidential and congressional races, the highest total in US history, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, DC. With political success being closely tied to an incumbentís ability to raise campaign cash, the average amount of a winning congressional race climbed in 2002, the most recent year for which figures are available, to $898,184 in the House and $4.8 million in the Senate. Corporations and industries spend millions on lobbying in the nationís capital, advancing their own interests, rather than those of the public. Many Americans, no doubt, question the value of their vote because of the ways in which Washington is awash in campaign money.

As Public Campaign, a Washington-based group that advocates for Clean Elections, puts it, "The role of big money in American politics should make the most cynical lawmaker blush and the average citizen furious. Politics has become an arms race, with special-interest money taking on the role of missiles. Every two years, campaign costs skyrocket. Average voters are shut out as effectively as if Congress had passed a new poll tax, charging them for the right to vote. Many good people decide not to enter politics, because they are intimidated and disgusted by the need to raise huge campaign war chests or simply donít have the connections to do so."

Although Clean Elections legislation in Rhode Island, being sponsored by Representative Edith Ajello (D-Providence) and Senator Rhoda Perry (D-Providence) would affect only state offices ó those held by legislators and general officers, including the governor ó proponents describe it as a way to encourage more candidacies, to put more power in the hands of voters, and to otherwise strengthen the democratic process. While critics of publicly financed elections tend to focus on the additional cost for taxpayers, supporters note that our current approach comes with its own costs, albeit less publicly visible ones. As Chen says, "We think investing in our democracy and the integrity of the structures that uphold it is worthwhile."

The loosely estimated cost for expanding publicly financed elections in Rhode Island is $7 million, about $7 for every person in the state. One of the essential elements of the Clean Election concept, should it become law, is that is voluntary ó meaning that although candidates could still run a conventional campaign with private contributions, "Clean" candidates would enjoy a certain added imprimatur of respectability.

In an example of the populism underlying Clean Elections, candidates would need to gather discrete $5 donations from individuals ó 50 to run as a state representative, 100 as a senator, 2500 for governor, and 1000 for lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, or general treasurer ó to qualify for public financing. "Clean" candidates would then have a prescribed amount of time to gather "seed money" in larger donations, up to $100 each, ranging in total size from $500 for House candidates, $1000 for Senate hopefuls, $90,000 for governor, and $36,000 for other general officers. Qualifying candidates would receive the following amounts for primary and general election campaigns from the taxpayer-supported Clean Elections Fund: House ($8000, $12,000); Senate ($16,000, $24,000); governor ($1.5 million, $2.25 million); other general officers ($600,000, $900,000).

The proposal would equalize funding in races between publicly backed candidates and better financed, privately supported candidates by topping off the "Clean" candidates with additional funds. The record in Maine and Arizona suggests that this approach fosters more campaign contests, and exerts a kind of collective peer pressure toward embracing Clean Elections.

One of the quirks, since Rhode Island lacks ballot initiatives, is posed by how Clean Elections would have to gain the approval of the General Assembly. Although House Speaker William P. Murphy and Senate President Joseph Montalbano pledge to air the concept in legislative hearings later this spring, itís not a stretch to think that it will face a lengthy, uphill battle. As H. Philip West Jr., the executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, notes, "We have to go to the very people who are directly affected and say, ĎCan we make it easier for someone to run against you?í Itís not an easy sell."

Still, the long journey of separation of powers, which became law last year after a fight that began in the í90s, shows that even improbable reform measures can come to fruition in Rhode Island with enough public support. West, who finds the youthful interest of Chen and her fellow Brown students inspiring, was encouraged by how they began pushing the proposal last year. "Itís a good thing youíre freshman," he recalls telling them at the time, "because we might not get this done in a year."

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Issue Date: February 25 - March 3, 2005
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