Panel Discussion: Promoting Small Donor Democracy in New York

Gov. Andrew Cuomo spoke to a group of business and civic leaders at a lunch event promoting small donor matching funds for New York elections. The following are remarks from the panel discussion on the role money plays in state politics.

March 8, 2013

Gov. Andrew Cuomo spoke to a group of business and civic leaders at a lunch event promoting small donor matching funds for New York elections. Sponsored by the Brennan Center for Justice, the Committee for Economic Development, and NY LEAD, among others, the event also featured a panel discussion on the role money plays in New York state politics.

Panelists were David L. Calone (President & CEO, Jove Equity Partners, LLC), Tony Corrado (Professor, Colby College; CED Money in Politics Project Director), Leo Hindery (Managing Director, InterMedia Partners), Celinda Lake (President, Lake Research Partners), and Jonathan Soros (President and Deputy Chairman, Soros Fund Management, LLC). Remarks from some of the panelists are below.

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David Calone

I run a venture capital fund based in Suffolk County, on Long Island. Among other hats, I help coordinate the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the U.S. House of Representatives. I have enjoyed working to get the word out about the importance of campaign finance reform with the Brennan Center, NY LEAD, Jonathan Soros, Sean Eldridge, and others.

As someone who creates and invests in early stage companies in New York and throughout the country, I know well the challenges facing small businesses. Every big company, started as a small company — and so in order to grow New York’s economic future, we need state economic policy that supports and nurtures our start-ups and small businesses.

And yet New York’s small and medium-size businesses don’t have the means to keep up with big business and special interests when it comes to donations to New York campaigns. These small and medium-size companies — like all New York taxpayers — do, however, bear the burden of New York's excess governmental expenditures and tax breaks given to those who are in a position to have influence because of their large contributions. In this way, the current system increases the already high cost of doing business in New York.

Too often, in order to be heard, business owners either need to ante up or suffer the consequence as those with the largest megaphones and best access shape the policy debate that sets the rules governing our New York economy. The result of course is a greater burden on the rest of us.

What’s more, New York’s campaign finance system distorts the free market. Ideally, the market should be a competition of ideas and products. But if deep pockets can get the economic rules changed in their favor, not only is it not a fair fight — but all of us lose because the positive aspect of capitalism doesn’t work as it should.

For those reasons, and others, it is no surprise that recent polls indicate that the over 80 percent of New York business leaders support campaign finance reform and in particular the small-donor matching system — and I am happy to join them.

Leo Hindery

As most of you know, it’s convenient ‘shorthand’ to say that the Citizens United case is what has made our electoral process today so captive to vast sums of money from a handful of large corporations and wealthy individuals. However, for all the scorn rightfully heaped on Citizens United, it’s actually the associated appellate court decision called SpeechNow v. FEC that’s been most destructive, since SpeechNow allows tax-exempt organizations to anonymously accept unlimited contributions for independent expenditures without any of the disclosure requirements that apply to candidates, parties, PACs, and even Super PACs.

And anonymity is the sine qua non for large-scale corporate political contributions.

However, before we as a nation succumb to the complete abandonment of fairness and balance in our election process, and until we again have a fairer-minded majority on the Supreme Court, there are four initiatives which I believe should be embraced in order to begin to materially limit corporate political spending.

  1. First, the Securities and Exchange Commission should use its existing public interest powers to require disclosure of all direct and indirect corporate political contributions and lobbying expenses, since having this material information would greatly improve the quality of shareholders’ investment decisions.
  2. Second, companies and their executives should be pushed by the nation’s public pension funds to not use company funds to influence elections, with the most obvious large states to lead this effort being California, New York, and Ohio.
  3. Third, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should use its own existing powers under current law (Section 317) to require the sponsors of all television advertisements to be identified, especially, with specificity, sponsors of political ads. While the FCC recognizes its obligation to protect consumers from straw buyers and instead require the true sponsors to be disclosed, the Commission has not updated its sponsorship identification laws generally for nearly 50 years. The FCC has the power, the authority, and the responsibility to shine bright lights on the organizations and campaigns behind our political advertisements and thus provide maximum transparency for consumers and voters by requiring sponsors of political ads to disclose their true identities, not just their ambiguously-named Super PAC.
  4. Fourth, we need to make reforming the current corporate campaign finance system a civil rights issue.

Let me elaborate on this latter recommendation, which is something I’ve been working on for the last year or so, especially as a proud member of the Board of Trustees of Common Cause New York.

None of the large corporations that are now dominating American politics with their giving, is, as far as I know, specifically anti-women, anti-reproductive rights, anti-gay, anti-immigration reform, anti-voter rights, or, in more general terms, anti-civil liberties. However, every one of these companies, in order to advance its self-serving corporate and management agenda, is contributing — again, mostly anonymously — massive amounts of money to certain federal candidates who are some if not, in some cases, all of these “antis.”

To counter this reality, I believe that the nation’s civil rights, civil liberties, and labor organizations should, as they did in the ‘60s, undertake targeted product and services boycotts until corporate political contributions that work against a fair and inclusive society cease. There is no "freedom to spend anonymously" anywhere in the Constitution, and just as we have the right to a government that represents all of America — including the working class, small business owners, students, and retirees — we have the right to know if we are supporting hate when we go buy a light bulb or a chicken sandwich.

In quick closing, let me just say that I believe that in order for our nation to prosper and our economy to be restored to long-term sustained growth, we need an all-encompassing “corporate responsibility contract” which again puts the needs of employees and the nation equally alongside the interests of shareholders. And to execute this contract, we need statesman CEOs who are willing to learn from the honorable men who preceded them, who are as committed to a prosperous nation as they are committed to themselves and their shareholders.

Celinda Lake

Remarks based on this presentation.