A effort to force three former Libertarian legislative candidates to repay $104, 237 in public campaign money could determine how much power the state should have to set limits on political spending decisions.
East Valley political strategists and officials for the state’s major political parties agreed Friday that candidates shouldn’t spend their public money on "voter registration " parties at nightclubs outside of their districts or on truck and limousine rentals. But several questioned if it should be the role of the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission to rule if these and other expenses were legitimate campaign uses.
"So if someone wants to foolishly run a campaign in a way that doesn’t most effectively use the money in terms of helping secure votes, is that a violation or is that just being stupid?" asked Tempebased political consultant Bob Grossfeld. "Or is it just being really shrewd and being able to manipulate the system? I don’t know what the answer is, and I’m not sure the law speaks to that right now."
The latest case before the Clean Elections Commission deals with Yuri Downing, Trevor Clevenger and Paul DeDonati, who were 2002 candidates in a legislative district that covers most of Tempe and southern Scottsdale. Commission executive director Colleen Connor said the evidence shows no sincere effort by the candidates to win their elections, just a few trappings of a campaign. Saying there are almost no reliable records to justify the campaign expenses, Connor wants the commission to order Downing, Clevenger and DeDonati to repay the public funds awarded to them last year.
As campaign manager for all three, Downing told the Tribune that Connor just didn’t understand or approve of attracting younger voters with a strategy that included parties with alcohol and a trolly ride. Downing also compared last year’s spending to fund-raising dinners and cocktail parties frequently sponsored by other politicians.
However, Jason Rose, a political strategist based in Scottsdale, said no legitimate candidate would have spent private or taxpayer money like Downing and his colleagues did.
"It defies logic . . . that these three guys really think it’s OK to play these kinds of games with the absolute fundamentals of democracy," Rose said. "You know without doubt what was taking place here. It was three Johnnie Scottsdales who thought they would be wise guys."
Rose said Connor and the commission should give Downing, Clevenger and DeDonati the "biggest spanking" of their lives.
But Bob Fannin, chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, said Connor’s recommendation equates to the state mandating how candidates can deliver their messages to voters.
"If you give her that power or the commission that power, that just has to be a violation of free speech and also government running campaigns, which I think is just awful," he said.
Fannin said when state voters approved public campaign funding in 1998, they basically agreed to help candidates who might spend their money in ways that offend people.
Others argued the commission should be able to set higher standards for candidates who voluntarily take taxpayer dollars. Jim Pederson, chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party, said the state can’t ignore obvious abuses that would further erode the public’s trust.
"Thank god, it’s not widespread," Pederson said. "I don’t think it’s that difficult to define what an appropriate campaign expenditure is. The overall purpose of this is very noble, and when people try to abuse it, they should be held accountable."