Money in Politics in New York: May 23 Edition


Big Donors Sign Letter Asking Gov. Cuomo and Legislature to Reform Campaign Finance
Nearly 140 major political donors, including more than 50 fund-raisers for President Obama, have signed a letter to support the public financing of campaigns in New York. In the wake of a series of corruption scandals that have tarnished Albany, the signatories are calling for immediate action by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. The donors support the popular New York City small donor matching system as a solution to many of the problems that ail state politics. In New York City, contributions up to $175 are matched with public funds by a factor of six. The signatories include hedge fund manager S. Donald Sussman, venture capitalist Alan Patricof, movie director Rob Reiner and Espirit clothing company founder Susie Buell, among others. All told, the donors have raised or contributed at least $50 million for federal candidates and parties in recent years. The irony of the situation was not lost on anyone. As Ellen Chesler, senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute explained, “We know how the system works from the inside, and we know it needs change.”

Comptroller DiNapoli Addresses Business and Civic Leaders in Buffalo
Last week, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli was in Buffalo to speak to a group of business, civic and philanthropic leaders about the need for reforming our state’s campaign finance laws. The event – co-sponsored  by the Brennan Center for Justice, NY LEAD, American for Campaign Reform, SUNY Buffalo Law School, Common Cause and Housh Law Offices – also featured Brittany L. Stalsburg, an analyst at Lake Research Partners. In December of 2012, Lake Research released an extensive poll illustrating broad support, at 79 percent, for a comprehensive overhaul of the state’s campaign finance system. Also speaking was Larry Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center. Norden emphasized that matching small donations with public funds in New York City has made candidacies independent of political machines and unbeholden to special interest donors possible. Only 7 percent of the contributions to New York City candidates for the 2013 election came from special interests compared to 69 percent of contributions to New York State Legislative candidates in the 2012 election. Comptroller DiNapoli said,“The bottom line is we need more good and honest people who want to make themselves available to serve in public office. The reality is the way our system is currently set up, the reliance on private donation—and big donations—is a deterrent to people getting involved.”

Siena Poll: 57 Percent of New Yorkers Favor Public Financing
A new research poll by Siena shows that New York residents across the state express strong support for the public financing of elections. Approximately 57 percent of survey respondents indicated that they support creating a system that would limit the size of political contributions to state candidates and match small donations to public funds.  This is the twelfth poll conducted since 2010 that demonstrates strong voter demand for the idea. Support cuts across ideological lines and geographic regions, with 64 percent of liberal, 57 percent of moderate, and 52 percent of conservative voters, as well as 60 percent of New York City dwellers and 55 percent of both Upstate and suburban residents standing behind reform.

Former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley to NY Legislature: Reform will Reverse Mistrust Among Voters
On Wednesday, former U.S. Senator from New Jersey and NY LEAD member Bill Bradley wrote an op-ed in the Daily News urging the New York Legislature to adopt reforms that will improve our democracy. The current mistrust and cynicism among voters can be reversed by adopting public financing of elections with a small donor match.  These ideas will put voters in the driver’s seat of democracy as candidates are able to rely on a broad base of small donations from their constituents rather than large donors and special interests. “Three states — Connecticut, Arizona and Maine — offer candidates for public office the opportunity to compete in roughly the same way” Bradley stated. “The result, more often than not, is that qualified people from all walks of life are able to serve, and the relationship between money and politics is greatly reduced.  All voters have the opportunity to be in control of their government, not just the connected few.”

NYPIRG Report: Over 100,000 Campaign Law Violations in Last Cycle
A report by the New York Public Interest Research Group found that there were 103,805 violations of New York State’s campaign finance laws between January 2011 and January 2013. The New York Board of Elections sent violators warning letters but did little to follow-up. Over 2,300 campaign committees filed late disclosure reports, 224 political clubs failed to register with the state, and 346 corporations donated more than the state’s annual limit of $5,000 without any fines or legal repercussions. Currently, the Board of Elections is severely under-staffed with no investigators and only four auditors. By contrast, in New York City, where profound reforms were implemented in 1989, the Campaign Finance Board imposed 128 penalties on 31 candidates that accepted contributions above the legal limit. Governor Cuomo issued a statement immediately following the release of the report: “The buildup of over 100,000 campaign finance violations over the last two years is unacceptable and a clear sign that the current self-policing system at the Board of Elections does not work.”

Brennan Center Responds to Senator Skelos’s False Claims
Last week, Senate Republican Conference leader Dean Skelos published an op-ed in the Albany Times-Union arguing against public financing of state elections. This week, Ian Vandewalker, counsel at the Brennan Center, responded to Skelos in a letter to the paper. Skelos asserted that “real world job creators” are opposed to reform. In reality however, 72 percent of New York business leaders support campaign finance reform, including matching small donations with public funds. They understand that clean elections will allow their business to compete freely in the marketplace rather than on the political stage. Skelos and the Senate Republicans have also quoted exaggerated, unsubstantiated and contradictory numbers pertaining to the cost of publicly funding elections, ranging anywhere from $143 to $286 million per year. A reasoned estimate by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute sets the figure at $26 to $41 million per year. Lastly Skelos argues that public financing has “been a recipe for corruption.” This could not be further from the truth. Since the passage of reform, New York City has not seen corruption scandals like those of the pre-reform era. In neighboring Connecticut, federal corruption convictions reached a record low four years following the adoption of public financing.