Lip Service for NY FairElex

The Empire State really could use a kick in the pants when it comes to campaign finance reform.

May 19, 2014
Albany by Wally Gobetz

Fool me once shame on you; fool me twice shame on me. More than once I’ve been hoodwinked by sweet talking governors of New York promising to act on campaign finance reform that would include public financing for elections (known in the twitterverse as “FairElex.”). New York is closer to meaningful reform than ever before, and I’m hopeful that this time will be different.

The Empire State really could use a kick in the pants when it comes to campaign finance. As I wrote in a law review article with Ari Weisbard, New York State “… has contribution limits that are sky high, riddled with loopholes, and subject to lax enforcement. Compounding these problems is a pay-to-play culture in Albany where candidates can use campaign funds to improve their personal day-to-day lifestyles. Most of these issues could be addressed with a properly designed public financing system coupled with pay-to-play regulations.”

To their credit, recent governors have heard these complaints from groups like New York Citizen Action and have incorporated reform platforms into their political agendas.  Yet at the end of the day, reforms don’t materialize and a new governor gets to make the same old promises.

First, it was Gov. Eliot Spitzer who in his 2007 State of the State address said:  “We are in danger of losing the confidence of those who elected us. To restore their confidence, we must overhaul our campaign finance, lobbying and election laws….To neutralize the army of special interests, we must disarm it. In the coming weeks, we will submit a reform package to replace the weakest campaign finance laws in the nation with the strongest…But reform will not be complete if we simply address the supply of contributions. We must also address the demand. Full public financing must be the ultimate goal of our reform effort. By cutting off the demand for private money, we will cut off the special-interest influence that comes with it.”

Spitzer’s poetic rhetoric sounded promising. My heart soared. After years of the Pataki administration, I thought Spitzer — the Sheriff of Wall St. — might be the man to finally deliver reform. Well, we know how that all ended.  It was during Spitzer’s resignation that most New Yorkers discovered who the lieutenant governor was — David Patterson.

In 2010, Gov. Patterson also paid lip service to campaign finance reform. In his second State of the State, he said, “[T]he Reform Albany Agenda will significantly drive down campaign contributions, [will] require openness of outside income; will strip public officials of their pensions who commit felonies; [and] phase in gradually public campaign finance…”  Despite his ambitions, little was accomplished.

Enter Gov. Andrew Cuomo, scion to the Cuomo political dynasty, with clear ambitions for higher office. When he started to make rumblings about wanting public financing for the Empire State, I didn’t take him very seriously. 

At this point the gubernatorial addresses can sound like they are written on auto-pilot.  In Cuomo’s 2014 State of the State, he said, “I propose new anti-bribery and corruption laws, public financing of elections, independent enforcements at the board of elections, and disclosure of outside clients with business before the state.”

Prospects looked good when he appointed the Moreland Commission to look into public corruption.  It then looked bad when he ended the Commission and failed to deliver more than a fig leaf of public financing—a pilot project for public financing in the comptroller’s office (the current comptroller promptly refused to participate).  It looked even worse when the Governor started blaming unions for the failure of the campaign reform package. 

But just when I was going to write off Cuomo’s reform efforts around money in politics, a few promising murmurs can be heard from Albany these days, including his recent Huffington Post piece, invoking President Teddy Roosevelt, who signed into law the federal Tillman Act, which prohibited corporate campaign contributions for the first time. It looks like all is not lost and he is ready to go one more round for reform. If Cuomo really wants to make his mark nationally, delivering public financing to New York would be one way to show he is the real deal. But this time, it has to be more than lip service for FairElex.

(Photo: Flickr / Wally Gobetz)

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.