Ruth Rosen: A Political Earthquake in CA?





Imagine stepping into a polling booth and voting for candidates who, instead of being bought and paid for by corporations, unions, or wealthy donors, are financed by public funds, and accountable to you and other citizens.

Sounds utopian, doesn’t it? Well, clean-money elections already exist in Maine and Arizona, states too small to challenge the nation’s political culture. But public financing of state elections and initiatives this fall just might expand to California, a state so large and influential that every major policy decision tends to influence the rest of the nation.

Efforts at clean-money legislation have recently failed in California because elected officials were already too committed to corporations, insurance companies, unions, and wealthy donors. But within only six weeks, the California Nurses Association gathered enough signatures to put it on the ballot as an initiative.

As a result, on Election Day, Californians will vote on Proposition 89, the Clean Money and Fair Elections Act, which would encourage candidates to choose public financing, penalize those who use private funding, and strictly limit campaign contributions by special interests who might expect favors in return.

What would happen if public-financed campaigns replaced special interests? State Assembly Member Loni Hancock, who authored the original legislation, points out that “clean money [is] the reform that makes all other reforms possible. So it’s interesting that after five years of clean money elections, the state of Maine enacted universal health care last year.”

In Maine and Arizona, voter-owned elections have helped eliminate the corrupting influence of special-interest money on public policy. Arizona’s governor, Janet Napolitano, has repeatedly described her new freedom to address public health, preschool education, health care and the protection of the environment. In Maine, they will tell you that “clean legislators” have voted twice as often for environmental legislation. Arizona Representative Leah Landrum Taylor, an African American woman, says that now more women and minorities run for -- and win -- public office. In those states, too, public-financed campaigns have reduced the advantage of incumbency; increased voter turnout; and forced legislators and statewide officials to be accountable to the people who elected them.

Now the battle in California begins. On one side the measure is supported by the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, State Treasurer Phil Angelides, the League of Women Voters of California, Common Cause, and other nonprofit and community organizations.

On the other side is Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who as a candidate in 2003 promised to end “pay-to-play” politics, but whose tireless fund raising has made his predecessors look like amateurs at a bodybuilding contest. ...

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