Arizona Republic: Does Phoenix Need Campaign-Finance Reform?

Does Phoenix need campaign-finance reform?

By Dustin Gardiner, The Arizona Republic

Candidates for Phoenix mayor and City Council were required recently to filed updated campaign-finance reports showing their contributions and expenses through May 31.

Unlike other recent city elections, this year's contests have not seen record-breaking financial hauls or an influx of "dark money," likely due to the smaller field of candidates.

The last regular election for Phoenix City Council in 2013 drew roughly $3 million in campaign spending, including almost $1 million from independent-expenditure groups, outside entities that face fewer financial-disclosure rules than candidates.

A 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case opened the floodgate for independent-expenditure groups to spend unlimited amounts of money campaigning for or against candidates. Many groups, including unions and corporations, can now spend without ever having to report their donors.

In the 2013 election, nearly every campaign involved accusations of illegal activity on the part of "dark money" groups, including complaints that the groups didn't report expenses or wrongly coordinated with candidates. Several campaign consultants complained that lackluster enforcement allowed the groups to break rules with little consequence.

Every week this summer, The Republic will ask candidates for Phoenix mayor and City Council to share their thoughts on an issue that could affect residents. City residents will elect a mayor and four council members Aug. 25. There will be a runoff election Nov. 3 if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in a race.

We asked: Are there any changes the city can or should make to its campaign-finance system?

Candidates' responses

"Phoenix's Charter provides that Phoenix must follow state law on campaign contributions and expenditures. Therefore, it would take amending the charter or a revised state statute to change the city's system."

"The laws surrounding campaigns and elections have become incredibly complex over time. We have to be careful when considering any changes to campaign finance regulations to ensure we do not violate the First Amendment. During my time on the council, Phoenix has made campaign finance information more accessible."

"We can now search who has contributed to candidates or political action committees. In the not-too-distant future, technology will enable a person to access who is donating to what candidate or ballot measure almost instantly. Eventually, I believe that technology, not government regulations, will shine a light on all political spending."

— Bill Gates, (incumbent) council candidate in District 3

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"Recent elections have raised the concerns that 'Big money is drowning out citizens' voices.' Since money is the root of all evil, our citizens deserve transparency when it comes to campaign finance. For this reason, I championed the effort to make campaign finances accessible to the public, online, through the city website."

"Previously, you had to visit Phoenix City Hall to see these reports; basically shutting the public out. Having the public's trust is something I value. I would support any necessary ethics policy to restore confidence in the campaign finance process. The city can look at lobbyist reform measures, and ways to increase financial disclosures for candidates and organizations involved in independent expenditures."

— Michael Nowakowski, incumbent) council candidate in District 7

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"The city must continue to increase transparency, accountability and public access to campaign finance information. Phoenix's new eFiling system allows residents to view campaign finance reports in real time. As money proliferates in political campaigns, we must encourage voters to get informed about who financially supports each candidate's vision for Phoenix."

"The U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision requires government at all levels to balance the First Amendment guarantee of free speech with the need to keep citizens in control of our democracy. I believe the best response is one that favors more information, empowering voters to make smart decisions."

— Daniel Valenzuela, (incumbent) council candidate in District 5

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"The term 'dark money' is as non-definitive as 'clean elections.' We assume that dark is 'bad' while 'clean' is good. Clean Elections did produce Janet Napolitano and Russell Pearce. Our 'publicly funded' system has been a failure. Can Phoenix do anything meaningful about campaign finance reform?"

"Special interests and their money will always be players in the campaign process. Historically, it's big donor groups against each other. The city could make its campaign donations website more specific by linking current and past donors to help Phoenicians 'follow the money' more easily. That way, anyone interested can understand donation history and patterns."

— Felix Garcia, council candidate in District 5

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"I believe that special interest groups and corporate lobbyist are holding the spirit of our constitutional form of government hostage. We must work together to restore trust and respectability to the process of electing our representatives. But how do we do this in spite of the Supreme Court decision? We do it by holding the candidates themselves accountable."

" If you look at the current campaign finance report filed by the current mayor, it states he has close to a million dollars in his war chest. You will also note that there are numerous question marks on the accuracy of his report. An astute voter should question whom the current mayor is beholden to? I have chosen to run my campaign the way I will run the city: By being fiscally responsible. Why waste $1,000/vote, just come out and buy the election."

— Anna Brennan, mayoral candidate

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"Stop reporting on the money. Although people are distrustful of and know politicians are mere products, the media still reports on money, treats money as the end all, and determines who is credible by using bank accounts."

"Instead of reporting on dark money, report those easily corruptible by money. Instead of reporting on finance mistakes by Stanton, report what that symbolizes and the broken campaign laws. History is filled with crooked politicians. Too bad it's also filled with a media that looks for facts to fill already preconceived narratives or opinion pieces. No wonder the people feel helpless."

— Matt Jette, mayoral candidate

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"The city of Phoenix has already made a number of changes to our campaign finance system to make it more transparent and accessible. When I entered office, campaign finance reports for the city weren't searchable. The new online system I worked to implement makes that information much easier to access and understand."

"The council is also working to bring third-party investigators into campaign-finance complaints to ensure there are no conflicts of interest. Our citizens need to trust in our elections, and I'm always looking to provide much needed transparency."

— Greg Stanton, (incumbent) mayoral candidate