Thursday, Nov. 23, 2006 | John Hartley left the San Diego City Council in 1993, but he didn’t leave behind his appetite for politics and community service.

After opting out of a second term, Hartley would run again, but unsuccessfully. Still, the 64-year-old has remained entrenched in community organizing, working in his Normal Heights neighborhood group and making the rounds to other community organizations.

“I’ve got a bug for organizing,” he admits.

Most recently, Hartley has the bug for publicly financed elections, arguing that the money of interest groups needs to be removed from campaigns. A group he started almost two years ago, Neighborhoods for Clean Elections, is crafting a proposal that it hopes to forward to voters in 2008.

Hartley sat down with recently to talk about the concept, which has gained traction elsewhere in the United States but was defeated handily in California this November.

What is your group, Neighborhoods for Clean Elections?

Our goal is to put an initiative on the November 2008 ballot. We want to launch our initiative drive in January. Our goal is to really follow the Maine model. In Maine, they did a lot of organizing, and in one day they got 1,100 volunteers to … collect 65,000 signatures in one weekend.

In the city of San Diego, we need 90,000 signatures. I think it’s going to take that route … because once you get that signature, you interface with somebody. Many of those (signers), if not everybody, will remember that, “Oh yeah, I supported the clean elections measure, I helped get it on the ballot.”

Once they understand it, they support it. A lot of people don’t know that it’s effective in Arizona and Maine.

Is there a model somewhere that you hold up as an example?

It operates the same everywhere. It’s a universal concept. Clean elections are voluntary, that’s why it’s legal. I can opt to run as a clean candidate, and you can stay a traditional candidate – or as some would say, a dirty candidate – or maybe you’re a millionaire and you use your own funds.

But the way it works is that you would get a large number of small donations from voters in the district that you want to run in. Normally, it’s $5. So, if I want to qualify, I have to go to voters in the district I want to run in and get a certain number of $5 contributions. Once I’ve done that, then I’ve qualified for clean money. Now, I can’t spend any of my own money, I can’t go solicit money.

In Arizona, you need to get 211 $5 donations. So you get about $11,000, which is not much. And then they have a thing called matching funds. In Arizona, it’s that amount times three. So if you spend $33,000, I get $33,000. But if you spend $50,000, I still only get $33,000.

Anything you don’t spend has to go back to clean elections. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s been effective.

I went over to Arizona because I couldn’t understand how it could be so effective with so little money. I said, “Is there a miracle here about clean elections?” But it’s a whole different ballgame there with politics. Politics there is like a small town here.

So we have to create a number for how much we provide for our proposal here, and we are still working on that. Although we have most of that nailed down.

Why do you think it’s successful there?

Well, the Arizona law only applies to state candidates, so governor, attorney general, legislature, and so on. Forty-three percent of the legislators elected this time around were clean-election candidates and six of the eight statewide races were won with clean elections. In Maine, in North Carolina, they did really well too.

What type of limits are you looking at?

When we first started, I went around to four different political consultants and said, “How much does it take to have a competitive race?” Let’s take the First District (La Jolla, North City), which is the toughest one. Everyone said it was about $100,000. We wanted to have different amounts for different districts. They all have equal population, but that doesn’t mean registered voters or all-time voters (are equal). There’s a huge difference between the First District and the Eighth District (border neighborhoods, Barrio Logan, Golden Hill), but we were told you couldn’t (make the limits different).

The funding comes to about $94,000 in a primary for a clean election candidate, and about $135,000 for the general. In order to get the money, you have to get 500 $5 contributions from voters in the district. We think that’s pretty stiff, but our goal is to ensure that you really have public support in order to get public money.

We want to give ample money to make sure that candidates are competitive, but at the same time, we want to make it hard to get the money. We’re still working on it, we won’t have to have it ready for awhile.

You came out in opposition to Proposition C, the ballot measure that will allow private companies to compete with public employees for city jobs, saying that it would exacerbate the perception that businesses that contribute money to the campaigns of elected officials can reap rewards. What can save Prop C?

What’s needed now is tight monitoring to ensure that the people who are appointed to positions of authority are not politically controlled or motivated. I think you’ve got to watch everything like a hawk. Frankly, I’d like to do anything we can to reverse Prop C.

What really angered me is to call this a reform. This is not a reform at all. Clean elections would be a campaign finance reform. This is not a reform. It’s using words deceptively to describe something that leads to corruption.

Did your experience as a member of the City Council provide you with a perspective that others don’t have about money in politics?

Yeah, sure. My motivation for clean elections is that it’s almost like the next shoe to drop. We did district elections and kind of reformed city politics that way. People who fund campaigns – developers, lobbyists, those who want to do business with the city – they buy their say with big contributions and it leaves neighborhoods out in the cold.

District elections took us a large distance to neighborhoods having a voice. I think we need to go further now. I thought this was the next step.

Did some of your contributors expect to have influence on you once you were elected?

Yes. I mean, as an anecdote, there was a friendly developer who supposedly was on our side, and he held a fundraiser and bundled $15,000 in one event. I got a quarter of what it took me six months to raise. You have to have rock-bottom secured your values not to give into that.

I’m worried about people who don’t want to prostitute themselves to big donors and clean elections would help them do that.

State voters had the chance to pass Proposition 89, which would have set new restrictions on big-money contributors and allowed some candidates to use public money for their campaigns if they abided by certain limits. It overwhelmingly failed, garnering just 26 percent of the vote. What does that say about the public’s appetite for so-called clean elections.

It gave me some pause for what we need to do in San Diego. My interpretation – and I’m not saying that anything I say is right – is that people really need to know what clean elections are.

Big education is needed. I just thought with Prop 89, they sort of dumped it on us. The nurses [California Nurses Association], out of nowhere, qualified it for the ballot. … I think what happened is that we needed more public education.

A couple nights ago, I spoke before the Greater Golden Hill Planning Committee, and within five minutes, everybody signed up in support. We got 15 or 20 people to sign up. And these are active people in the community. It takes that kind of step-by-step-by-step process to begin, and then there’s the big campaign process.

At first blush, it’s like, “Oh, you’re going to give money to politicians?” You know, the kind of crooked politicians that people have this image of. So, [they say], “You’ve got to be kidding me.” You really have to share with people what’s behind it, that it allows an alternative viewpoint, a public-interest candidate, (and) that it’s strictly voluntary.

I think with a person on the street, they think there’s something wrong. We did a poll, a very extensive poll of 20,000 (people), when we first started. People are upset and they know there’s something wrong, but they’re easily manipulated by TV and mail and advertising. It’s that education process that we need to take on.

Interview by EVAN McLAUGHLIN

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