David Burnell Smith’s service in the state House of Representatives came to an abrupt end last week and one lesson emerged for every other candidate in Arizona politics.
If you take taxpayer money to fund your campaign, learn the rules and follow them precisely. Of course, the rules as laid out in a variety of state statutes and interpreted by the Citizens Clean Elections Commission are mind-numbingly complex, can change during an election campaign and are sometimes unfair.
But as Smith can testify, that doesn’t matter. Follow them anyway or the hammer will fall.
For more than a year, Smith fought to keep his seat from District 7, representing western Scottsdale, Carefree and Cave Creek. He initially admitted to spending too much during the 2004 Republican primary, naively believing a forthright approach would result in lenient handling by the commission.
Instead, he endured a bumbled investigation that stretched out for months within a system designed to wear down anyone trying to challenge the power of state bureaucrats.
Smith made plenty of mistakes that damaged his cause. His finance reports should have been correct the first time he filed them, much less on his fifth and sixth attempts to fix the errors. As the months passed by, Smith undercut his credibility by gradually changing his story to say he didn’t overspend as much as first thought, and then claiming he never overspent at all.
And the courts refused to thoroughly examine Smith’s defense on its merits because he misread state law and filed the wrong court papers at the wrong time. That’s a troubling problem for a personal-injury attorney, and downright frightening for someone empowered to write laws for the rest of us.
Supporters of public campaign financing claim Smith’s removal from office is an important victory for the rule of law. But Smith’s case also illustrated critical flaws in the state system that must be addressed.
The rules are so complex and burdensome it’s nearly impossible to avoid a violation. Complaint investigations also take far too long, leaving dark clouds over blameless candidates while allowing others who flaunt the rules to avoid punishment until after they are elected.
We would prefer to see public campaign financing repealed entirely, but that doesn’t appear to likely to happen anytime soon.
So it’s time for Republican leaders to stop throttling reform legislation intended to make easier for candidates to understand the rules, and then to abide by them.