Political Group Dedicated to Getting Money Out of Politics Can't Get Money, Closes

I noted back in January that the Clean Elections Institute in Arizona may be forced to close because it was facing financial difficulties. The Clean Elections Institute, you may recall, was founded specifically to defend the Copper State’s almost indefensible “clean elections” program.

The other day came news that the Clean Elections Institute had failed to raise the money they needed to stay open, and will be closing. From the Arizona Capitol Times:

The Clean Elections Institute closed its office, shut down its Web site and stopped issuing paychecks to staff members after an emergency fundraising effort came up short.

The root of the problem, apparently, was the decision by a Clean Election Institute major donor to not renew a $50,000 gift.

I commented earlier on the irony of a group supposedly founded to “get money out of politics” discovering the importance of having enough money to promote a political agenda. Campaign finance limits of course had nothing to do with the Clean Election Institute’s fundraising troubles, by all accounts the tough economy was behind their difficulties (and I can sympathize).

But I wonder if any “clean elections” advocates, at least in Arizona, are now pondering the implications of what “angel contributors” for candidates mean? I often cite the example of “Clean” Gene McCarthy, who launched an utterly futile campaign against President Lyndon Baines Johnson for the Democratic nomination in 1968, a campaign that suddenly became very real when a handful of very wealthy liberals wrote sizeable checks to his campaign. Checks that would today be wildly illegal, under so-called campaign finance “reform.”

How many candidates would benefit from “angel contributors” who might spot promising citizens who don’t have the name ID and the party establishments behind them, but with a large gift could compete with entrenched incumbents and celebrity candidates? How many Gene McCarthy’s have never gotten started because raising money at $1,000 a person is just too impossible a task if you don’t already have a list of donors and the backing of the party?

Some may argue that under “clean elections” the government serves the role of an “angel contributor,” providing substantial funding to those who have trouble raising enough money to run a viable campaign under contribution limits.

But the reality is that a true “angel contributor” looking to contribute a substantial sum to a candidate would almost certainly, just like a venture capitalist, conduct considerable vetting and evaluation of the candidate before contributing a large amount that would help kick-start a campaign. After all, it’s their money, and a lot of it, so it is in their best interest to make sure they aren’t handing out money to cranks and crackpots.

Under “clean elections,” at least in Arizona, only 220 citizens need to be willing to give $5 to someone for them to qualify. This level of vetting, while better than nothing, doesn’t approach the level of scrutiny a candidate would face from a handful of potential major donors willing to bankroll a candidate in the start-up phase of a campaign, and possibly beyond.

In a previous post, Arizona Progressives Slam “Clean Elections” Program, I linked to an article by the Phoenix News, The Dirty Truth about “Clean” Elections (warning: language!), that reports on many of the shenanigans that have occurred under the incredibly low level of scrutiny given to candidates. As the article reports:

Anyone who delights in the lurid minutiae of Arizona politics can tell you the story of Yuri Downing, Trevor Clevenger, and Paul Donati, a trio of young Scottsdale residents who registered to run as “clean” libertarian candidates in 2002, only to blow $86,000 on stuff like sushi and drinks at Sanctuary.

The three claimed that they were running a campaign designed to target ASU students and other disenfranchised voters. They had to hang out at places like RA Sushi and O Lounge because that’s where the voters are, they claimed.

It’s hard to imagine a serious “angel contributor” falling for a scam like this, and at least if they did it would be their own money and not the taxpayers’ that was frittered away.

Well, the Clean Elections Institute lost their “angel contributor,” and now perhaps has a better understanding of the vital role that money plays in advancing a political message and agenda. A tough lesson, and one I suspect they will fail to grasp, sadly.

Sean Parnell


Center for Competitive Politics


[email protected]


(cross-posted at the blog of the Center for Competitive Politics)