You may have missed this lead editorial in last Thursday’s USA TODAY in support of public funding for political candidates. It concluded with this:
Gov. Janet Napolitano, who won office under Arizona’s public financing law, implemented a prescription drug discount plan on her first day in office in 2003. Had she run with contributions from donors such as drug companies, she said that year, she might never have been able to do that. Lobbyists would have tried to undermine it, threatening to back another candidate in the next election.
“None of that happened,” Napolitano said, “because special interests had nothing to hold over me.”
I responded with the following letter to USA TODAY:
You give credit to Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano for being free to work in the public interest because she was elected under Arizona’s public financing election law.
There are several problems with your analysis, at least as it relates to Arizona.
I was Gov. Napolitano’s Republican opponent in the November 2006 election. I also ran under Arizona’s public financing system, mainly because the law stacks the deck against any candidate who uses private funding.
Janet Napolitano is not free from the influence of special interests. She relied heavily on labor unions and trial lawyers to provide the grassroots network required to qualify for public funding. Public funding does not remove special interest influence, it merely changes which special interests have power.
The more significant problem with public funding, at least in Arizona, is that it so vastly under-funds candidates that it deprives voters of a real choice. For my statewide race, Gov. Napolitano and I each had less than $1 million to spend – not enough money to send a single piece of mail to every voter in Arizona, even if we had spent nothing on TV, radio, staff, signs, office rent, phones and bumper stickers.
By contrast, conservative Sen. Jon Kyl and his Democratic challenger each spent more than $12 million in Arizona. With voters having full information and the ability to weigh the views of the candidates, the conservative Republican won the Senate race even in a Democratic year.
But the money was so limited in the Governor’s race that issues in our campaign were drowned out by the Senate battle and even by Congressional races, which dominated the airwaves.
A lack of funding is great if, like Gov. Napolitano, you are an incumbent who is already well-known and whose values line up with those of the media. But it also prevents many voters from receiving information directly from candidates, forcing them to vote with less than full information. And that is never good for democracy, no matter which side of the political fence you are on.
2006 Republican candidate for Arizona Governor
Public funding empowers new special interests, the liberal print media being first among them. And that’s why newspapers — whose influence is waning — like it so much.