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National NOW Times >> Special Edition, 2001 >> Article

Commentary: Clean Money Cleans Up the Political Process

by Duchy Trachtenberg

As we enter the new millennium, men make up some 75 percent of incumbents in legislative seats across the country, and they're difficult to evict. Even with term limits and redistricting, most women candidates find themselves running against male incumbents who are in a better position to manipulate events to block newcomers.

This is one of the factors that has led to a decline in the number of women political candidates in recent years. More womenó100 more, in factóran for legislative seats in 1992 than in 1998. Despite the efforts of NOW PAC, Emily's List, the National Women's Political Caucus and WISH List to elect women to public office, women make up only 59 of the 535 U.S. Congress members.

The truth about women and political power is that institutions and policymaking structures have been slow to catch up with the strides we've made toward achieving equality. We fought so long to open doors, and now that they're open, we find ourselves facing tremendous barriers behind them.

In the political world, prospective feminist candidates tell us they want no part of a system that is drowning in money and torn apart by ideology and partisanship. They're not interested in running an obstacle course littered with overripe tomatoes and rotten eggs. They find that the existing campaign finance system works against women and their interests, making it difficult for qualified women candidates to raise enough money to mount a serious campaign. The serious big business dough continues to funnel from and to the boys' club. Because of the overwhelming impact of these special-interest campaign donations, the issues that women care most about -- those on the NOW agenda -- are not given a voice.

Public campaign financing, or "clean money," is the way to restore trust in the political process by changing a political system corrupted by special-interest money. In a Clean Election system, candidates may either file a declaration of intent to take part in the public finance system and forego private fundraising, or they may choose to accept private donations as long as they adhere to new reporting requirements and, in some states, agree to contribution size limits. Candidates who take part in the public finance system then attempt to qualify for funds by collecting a set number of small contributions (50 cents to $50, depending on the state) from registered voters in their districts. If they qualify by reaching the required number of in-district small contributions, then they receive a fixed amount of money for their primary and general election campaign. That amount is is tied to the average cost of a race in that state. If an opponent outspends a publicly-funded candidate, that candidate becomes eligible for matching funds.

Public campaign financing means more competition, more substantive debate and more women entering politics. In Maine and Arizona, Clean Money funding has allowed more women to run for office and win. In Maine's most recent election cycle, for example, women ran Clean Money campaigns at a rate of 44 percent, nearly double that of their male counterparts. In Arizona, 31 percent of women candidates ran publicly funded campaigns, compared to only 26 percent of men candidates. According to the organization Public Campaigns, 87 percent of Arizona women running Clean Money campaigns say they would not have sought office at all without public funding.

I'm sure I'm not the only woman who would love to hear "Hail to the Chief" while watching a President of the United States walk down a red carpet wearing pumps and a maternity suit. After all, to quote the wise and wonderful Bella Abzug, "[y]ou're not going to have a society that understands its humanity if you don't have more women in government."

The author is president of Montgomery County (Md.) NOW and is Chair of NOWís Clean Money task force.

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