The Unintended Consequences of Good Government
By Ruth Marcus
PHOENIX—“What’s the matter with Arizona?” is the obvious question
about the state’s new immigration law. There are a few obvious
answers—and a not-so-obvious one that I was surprised to hear from
observers across the political spectrum here.
Obviously, the state is reacting—overreacting—in understandable
frustration to the federal government’s failure to control illegal
immigration. Overall illegal immigration is down, but stepped-up
enforcement in California and Texas has helped shift the problem to
Obviously, the state is reacting to an economic crisis that has made
the additional pressures of illegal immigration all the more
untenable. In the percentage of jobs lost, Arizona has suffered more
than Michigan, and its budget woes have exceeded those of California.
Obviously, the Republican Party, which controls both houses of the
Arizona Legislature and the governorship, is becoming more
conservative nationwide. In the Grand Canyon State, the tea partyers
met the Minutemen.
But Arizona is not quite as blazingly red as it once was. Arizonans
voted for Bill Clinton in 1996 and twice elected Janet Napolitano
governor. Five of its eight U.S. House members are Democrats. Its
Hispanic population is 30 percent and growing—suggesting that a wise
politician of either party would do well not to alienate this key
Which leads to the less obvious reason that many people here posed as
an explanation, at least in part, for the immigration bill: the
state’s 1998 “Clean Elections” law. The measure, adopted in response
to a corruption scandal, is one of the most far-reaching public
financing laws in the nation.
Candidates for the Legislature can receive public funding if they
collect 220 contributions of at least $5 each. This entitles them to
more than $14,000 for the primary campaign and more than $21,000 for
the general election. If a competing candidate chooses not to comply
with spending and contribution limits, the publicly funded candidate
gets matching funds to stay even.
One admirable notion underlying the law was to make campaigns more
competitive, leveling the playing field between entrenched incumbents
beholden to moneyed interests and upstart challengers otherwise unable
to amass the necessary resources.
Trouble is, it worked—perhaps too well. The barriers to entry were
extremely low. People with little experience in politics at any level
ran for the Legislature and won. Previously, for better or worse,
candidates of both parties were “vetted” by business groups that then
proceeded to help them raise money, a process that served to filter
out extremes on both sides.
And, as it turned out, a law pushed by “good government” types,
primarily Democrats, ended up benefiting conservative Republicans who
quickly figured out that the Clean Elections money could be used to
take on Chamber of Commerce-type Republicans.
“Clean Elections allowed individuals ... not to have to compete
financially since they didn’t have to build constituencies,” Phoenix
Mayor Phil Gordon, a Democrat, said in an interview.
J.D. Hayworth, the conservative former congressman who is challenging
Sen. John McCain in the Republican primary here, told me that “for
those of us who derided it as nanny state government, and properly
so,” the “unintended consequence is that it has empowered
Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is spearheading a reform effort
that includes repealing the financing law. But a measure to do so died
in the just-concluded legislative session.
Meanwhile, another good government initiative—to create more
politically competitive districts by taking the task of drawing them
away from the Legislature and giving it to a bipartisan
commission—also did not work as intended. Under a constitutional
amendment adopted by voters in 2000, Arizona became the first state to
require that competitiveness be considered in drawing legislative
Great idea. But competitiveness was just one among many factors to be
considered, and only four of 30 districts ended up competitive. The
Arizona Supreme Court last year rejected a challenge by Hispanic
Democratic lawmakers seeking to have the lines redrawn to require
additional swing districts.
Safe seats plus the Clean Elections funding equaled more extreme
candidates—and a Legislature where moderate Republicans are nearly
I am a firm supporter, in theory, of public financing and, even more,
of nonpartisan redistricting. But the Arizona experience offers a
sobering lesson to reformers. It’s not necessarily to be careful what
you wish for. But craft your wish with precision, or you may regret
Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is email@example.com.