My Turn: Clean elections will keep us on course

Posted: Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Alaska is an amazing place for grassroots democratic action. Perhaps it is because Alaska's rich history is younger than most other states that the vibrant nature of politics shines so brightly. Ever since I started working at the Alaska Public Interest Research Group seven years ago, Alaska politics has been an amazing and exciting process, both to watch and engage in.

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I reached a new level of awe while attending a briefing on our Clean Elections Initiative at the Division of Elections. The woman in charge of initiatives for the state was citing the statutes and regulations that govern initiatives. She backed up for a moment to cite the state constitution and how initiatives were placed in the constitution itself.

I couldn't help but look to my right, two seats away, where Alaska constitutional delegate Vic Fischer was sitting. As one of the sponsors of the Clean Elections initiative, he was at the meeting to learn the mechanics of gathering signatures for the process that he and the other constitutional delegates had enshrined more than 50 years ago. Fischer also served in the territorial House of Representatives and the state Senate in addition to a long career with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Institute of Social and Economic Research, including 10 years as its director.

It made me think about the founding of our country. Surely our country's founders must have gone to committee meetings, organizational meetings, government training sessions and university positions after they made history by establishing the United States of America. History increases their statures but 10, 20 and 30 years after our country was founded, many were still likely engaged in civic life, going to meetings or maybe pushing initiatives.

Soon after the meeting at the Division of Elections, Fischer stopped by my office after meeting with former Gov. Wally Hickel. While not a delegate to the constitutional convention, Hickel has had a deep and pronounced effect on Alaska. He also has signed the Clean Elections Initiative and offered his help in the effort to reform Alaska politics by removing special interest money from political campaigns.

It is heartening that these two former politicians now turned citizen activists are still so engaged in Alaska's civic life. It is a great example of leadership and participation for all of us. In contrast with the ethical scandals and corruption that continue to deflate Alaskans' trust in their political system, these two, and many others, provide a model for how citizens across the political spectrum can conduct themselves in a democracy.

It also is significant that both of them are in favor of clean elections. Clean elections represent yet another example of Alaskans of different parties coming together to work for what's best for Alaska.

Clean elections will level the playing field for political candidates - incumbents and challengers alike. It will inspire more and different people to run for office.

Most importantly, with clean elections, corporations and special interests can't buy their way into the halls of government. Special interest money is simply taken out of the equation. This puts people back in charge of the electoral process and their democracy. That's exactly what Alaska needs right now. Candidates will no longer be beholden to a small number or large donors, but are free to serve the actual voters that elected them. The VECO Corp. bribery scandal and the campaign contributions VECO gave over the years should serve as a stern warning about the dangerous influence money can have on politics.

The Clean Elections Initiative is a positive step toward political reform in Alaska. It will allow Alaskans of all political stripes to run for office and put out their ideas as to what is best for Alaska. The founders of this country and this state certainly didn't want special interests dominating political life. Clean elections are a way to get our system back.

• Steve Cleary is the executive director of the Alaska Public Interest Research Group in Anchorage.

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