Model agreement for clean political races in California

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

California is moving to clean up political campaigns. It is doing so after several incidents that political reformers in the trend-setting state would not want to spread across the border.

''Recent elections have reached a new peak in the amount and types of false and misleading campaign advertising,'' says the state Fair Political Practices Commission and the California League of Women Voters.

The two organizations have jointly devised and sent all candidates in the Nov. 2 election a ''Model Fair Campaign Practices Agreement,'' asking the candidates in each contest to voluntarily sign the document.

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Tom Houston, chairman of the commission, says there has never before been a campaign ethics drive of this scale in any state. Opponents in several California congressional races already have signed agreements, and Mr. Houston says almost 10 percent of contestants for legislative seats have so far signed the pact.

In an open letter to California candidates, Houston and Kenni Friedman, president of the League of Women Voters of California, said ''the time to act is now - during the relative calm'' between the primary campaign and the general election. They said ''the level of false and misleading advertising during the recent election arouses great alarm among those concerned about fair and honest government.

Houston cited two particularly grievous examples of ''dirty tricks.'' In one southern California congressional race, the front-runner in a predominantly Hispanic district eked out a victory even though his opponent tried to make an issue of his religion and falsely accused him of immoral conduct.

In another race, Houston told the Monitor, one candidate put out literature with a title page saying his opponent had been accused of tax evasion, vote fraud, and conspiracy. But the text of the document - if recipients bothered to read it - revealed that the only one making the accusations was the candidate on whose behalf it was published.

Although the major primary races for US Senate and statewide offices produced some charges of ''below the belt'' tactics, they were not marred by such outright calumny.

Houston said the two major candidates for US Senate - Democratic Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. and Republican San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson - ''are negotiating'' over signing an ethics agreement. That contest already is heating up, and each side has accused the other of misleading advertising already.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, the Democratic candidate for governor, has signed a copy of the code and invited his Republican opponent, state Attorney General George Deukmejian, to do so. But Mr. Deukmejian has signed his own ''Code of Ethics and Campaign Practices'' and sent a copy to Mr. Bradley ''for your signature.''

Reportedly, Deukmejian has balked at signing the ''model'' agreement because one of its key features is a provision ''during the last 14 days preceding the election, we (the candidate signatories) agree to provide each other a copy of all campaign mailings at least 48 hours before they are placed in the mail.'' Despite several attempts, the Monitor was unable to obtain a clarification of the Deukmejian position.

Candidates volunteering to abide by the code will sign the following statement:

''We pledge to conduct our campaigns for public office openly and fairly. We will discuss the issues and participate in fair debate with respect to our views and qualifications. We will not engage in, or permit, defamatory attacks upon the character of our opponents; nor shall we engage in unwarranted invasions of personal privacy unrelated to campaign issues. We also will not use or permit the use of any campaign material or advertisement which misrepresents, distorts, or otherwise falsifies the facts regarding any candidate. Finally, we will publicly repudiate support deriving from any individual or group whose activities would violate this Fair Campaign Pledge.''

Two other key provisions of the Model Fair Campaign Practices Agreement:

* It is to be signed by the candidates themselves - ''not by representatives, managers, or campaign firms.''

* It provides for ''candidate-selected panels to arbitrate disputes concerning any questionable advertising.''

Since the agreement is voluntary, unofficial, and provides no penalties, its effectiveness depends on the candidates' good faith and concern for their reputations.

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