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POLITICAL WELFARE QUEENS

What's the biggest fight erupting among Democrats seeking the Congressional District 8 seat being vacated by Republican Jim Kolbe? It's not illegal immigration, the Iraq war or even the Bunning-Bereuter-Blumenauer Flood Insurance Reform Act. No, the big tussle is over the public financing of elections.

Former newscaster Patty Weiss, who has dominating name ID but not so much cash on hand, has been busting on former state lawmaker Gabby Giffords, whose fundraising prowess has dwarfed all of the other Demo candidates in the race--Air Force vet Jeff Latas, TUSD board member Alex Rodriguez and retired federal worker Francine Shacter. (The next round of FEC reports, which are due next week, will likely show Giffords has raised at least three-quarters of a million bucks.)

At a recent debate in Willcox, Giffords said she supported the idea of publicly financed federal races--which brought a sharp rebuke from Weiss, who says it was hypocritical of Giffords to say she supported public financing when she didn't use public dollars in her state legislative campaigns.

"For her to imply that she was a big supporter when she's never run under it was, I thought, just disingenuous," says Weiss, who finds it "worrisome" that Giffords was willing to accept private contributions when public money was available.

In her defense, Giffords points out that she supported Clean Elections when it came under attack in the Legislature.

"I am the only candidate who has repeatedly voted to uphold the campaign-finance law," Giffords told us from Cape Canaveral, Fla., where she was waiting for her astronaut boyfriend, Mark Kelly, to pilot a repeatedly delayed space shuttle into orbit.

Giffords says she didn't use public dollars for her first run for office, in 2000, because the new system was facing a court challenge and an uncertain future. In subsequent races in 2002 and 2004, "I really didn't have any credible candidates, and I decided not to spend taxpayer dollars to pay for my campaign," she adds.

She reminds us that in 2002, her Libertarian opponent, Kimberly Swanson, did qualify for public financing and "spent over $50,000 talking about marijuana."

The Skinny suspects there's another reason that Giffords didn't use Clean Elections dollars: She had plans to one day seek a congressional seat and wanted to have a fundraising base, although Gabby says that wasn't really on her mind.

So have all those private contributions corrupted Giffords? Weiss says she's not ready to talk specifics, but "there are certainly ties to the money that she came into and the votes that she took."

Weiss is employing a smart strategy: Turning a liability--her struggle with raising money--into a strength, while turning Giffords' strength--all that money--into a liability.

One of Weiss' major talking points is championing Arizona's Clean Elections system as a model for federal campaigns--and Giffords is saying she thinks it's a swell idea, too.

Both of the candidates should take a closer look at what Clean Elections has actually done in Arizona.

The public-financing program, as we've noted before, has had an unanticipated impact on Arizona's legislative races: It's empowered the GOP's right wing. In 2004, for example, a bunch of GOP moderates in Maricopa County were clobbered by conservative candidates who used Clean Elections dollars to hammer their opponents with hit pieces that simplified and distorted their records.

As a result, the Arizona Legislature has drifted right--and even moderate Republicans have to be careful when it comes time to vote on wackadoodle right-wing bills for fear that a future primary opponent, flush with Clean Elections bucks, will use that vote to construct a negative mailer down the line. Just watch what's gonna happen in the northwest side's District 26, when Sen. Toni Hellon and Rep. Pete Hershberger face off against conservative challengers who qualify for Clean Elections.

It's certainly hard to argue that the Legislature has gotten more productive or progressive as a result of Clean Elections, though both Weiss and Giffords say the program is working well in Arizona. This year's session, which stretched 64 days past the 100-day target, produced income-tax cuts weighted toward the wealthiest citizens of the state, a voucher program that has educators appalled and a lot of blah-blah-blah about whether illegal immigrants should be rounded up by local law enforcement.

Supporters of Clean Elections point to Gov. Janet Napolitano as evidence that the program works--but that neatly ignores the fact that Jim Pederson, the former Democratic Party boss who is now challenging Sen. Jon Kyl, poured millions of dollars into a get-out-the-vote effort supporting Napolitano. Given her narrow 2002 victory, we guess she wouldn't have won without that boost.

Providing public dollars to federal candidates could easily have the same effect on a macro scale. First of all, it would require the government to write huge checks. Weiss supports a proposal by Just $6, a nonpartisan outfit trying to build grassroots support for publicly funded elections, with an estimated cost of roughly $6 per citizen. (Details at

www.just6dollars.org .)

Weiss thinks the amount given to candidates should be weighted by geographic considerations, but suggests qualifying candidates in a race like CD8 should get somewhere around a half-million dollars for the primary and a half-million for the general election.

While she supports the idea of public funding for federal elections, Giffords remains sketchy on details, though she argues that individual contributions should have a lower limit.

Our question: Why do Democrats think it's a good idea to give Republican Randy Graf a half-million dollars for his congressional campaign? Both Weiss and Giffords say that Graf has every right to run for office. We completely agree, but it's a big leap to say he has a right to a half-million bucks to fund his campaign. At the end of last quarter, Graf had barely cracked the six-figure barrier--and that lack of money is one of the things that's slowing his campaign down.

Once you offer folks a half-million dollars to run for Congress--or $5 million to run for the U.S. Senate--you're going to have a whole cottage industry of political consultants offering to help candidates qualify just to get a piece of the action.

Here's another problem: Any system would have to be voluntary, so savvy fundraisers could easily outstrip publicly funded candidates, to say nothing of wealthy folks who could spend as much as they please on vanity campaigns.

Weiss argues that no matter what the potential downsides are, the current system is so flawed that public financing would be better.

"You spend so much time fundraising that I would rather spend talking to voters and researching issues," Weiss says. "I believe that the system that we have now is not a good one, and we need a system that allows candidates to focus more on voters and less on fundraising. And we need a system that breaks that pay-to-play mentality."

Ultimately, however, the debate is academic. Clean Elections was put into place by an initiative, which you can't do on the federal level. Does anyone really think that Congress is going to create a system that puts money into the pockets of their potential opponents?


SCRATCHES AND ADDITIONS

Former Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza has given up his plans to challenge Secretary of State Jan Brewer in the GOP primary. Looks like Rimsza didn't do such a hot job in gathering his petition signatures.

That leaves Brewer unopposed in the Republican primary. She'll face Democrat Israel Torres and Libertarian Ernest Hancock in November.

And one more candidate we didn't mention in our not-quite-comprehensive round-up two weeks ago: Libertarian David Nolan is also in the crowded Congressional District 8 race. More info on Nolan, who helped found the modern-day Libertarian Party, can be found at www.nolan2006.org.

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