The U.S. Supreme Court decision to block matching funds threatens the viability of dozens of political candidates in Arizona, but it put a special kind of hurt on Martin, whose gubernatorial ambitions seem futile without the millions of dollars he was expecting to receive from Arizona’s Clean Elections system.
Martin is running third in the polls behind Gov. Jan Brewer and Buz Mills, and his campaign has been devoid of excitement for the past couple of months. When matching funds were wiped out, Martin lost perhaps his only chance to turn things around in time for the Aug. 24 primary.
What seemed obvious to many political insiders, though, must have eluded Martin, who insisted that the court ruling would not derail his campaign. In fact, Martin told reporters that his “real” opponent in the race was Brewer, while discounting Mills as a floundering candidate who is trying vainly to buy the election.
There are several possible explanations for Martin’s preposterous assessment of the governor’s race, but there is evidence to suggest that he was suffering from some sort of irony-induced malady that blotted out his view of reality.
The whole Martin/Clean Elections saga is so full of paradoxes that it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which one is the most dominant. Here are a couple options: Martin was one of the first politicians to take legal action against matching funds, and then he signed up to qualify for them. Later, his gubernatorial campaign was relying on more than $2 million in matching funds, and then his own lawsuit wiped them out.
It all started in 2004 when Martin, a state senator at the time, became the lead plaintiff in the original federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of public campaign financing. He teamed up with the Institute for Justice to wage a legal fight on grounds that Arizona’s Clean Elections system violates free speech rights by diluting the effect and value of money spent by candidates who raise money from private donors.
That lawsuit was dismissed, appealed and ignored. But Martin later joined the 2008 lawsuit against matching funds – the one now in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court – as a plaintiff.
Until this year, Martin’s relationship with Clean Elections was uncomplicated: He despised the system and said it was fundamentally flawed. He said it was unfair. He characterized it as un-American. He was on the front lines in the battle to eliminate it. And whether you agreed with him or not, his position was clearly definable.
But everything got murky when Martin decided that his best chance – some say his only chance – of winning the governor’s race would be to run as a Clean Elections candidate and balance his campaign on the expectation of matching funds. So he joined the system he was trying to destroy, conveniently setting aside his convictions in favor of political gain.
At the time, Martin told reporters his decision was strategic: Clean Elections provides an advantage, therefore he would use it.
It’s difficult to imagine that Martin would have been able to raise enough money to counter the spending by Mills, or even Brewer, if she had decided to raise private donations. But at least he would have been able to retain some dignity by sticking to his beliefs, even if it meant losing the race.
Now that the Supreme Court has blocked matching funds, Martin appears to be headed toward defeat anyway. While Brewer is in a similar position – stuck with about $707,000 and no chance of getting more – she has the advantage of incumbency and what appears to be a strong lead in the polls. Plus, she got a lot of free publicity by appearing on a round of television commercials in support of the sales tax measure that passed last month.
While there are a lot of reasons to respect Martin, his hypocrisy regarding Clean Elections gives people a big reason to distrust him. Voters sometimes excuse politicians for making bad decisions, but they tend to hold grudges against those who shrug off deep-rooted convictions. If anyone is paying attention to Martin’s folly with Clean Elections, they’re likely to seek a different kind of leadership.
-Matt Bunk is managing editor of the Arizona Capitol Times.