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Money in Politics This Week

A roundup with the latest news highlighting the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics — and the need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform.

  • Syed Zaidi
November 17, 2012

Every Friday, the Brennan Center will be compiling the latest news concerning the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics—and the ongoing need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform. We’ll also be linking to dispatches from around the country highlighting the national scope of this crisis. This week’s links were contributed by Syed Zaidi.

For more stories on an ongoing basis, follow the Twitter hashtag#moNeYpolitics and #fairelex.



Tech Industry Leaders Push for Fair Elections in New York State

A group of more than 30 technology industry leaders have endorsed the Fair Elections effort to overhaul New York State’s campaign finance laws. In an open letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, the tech leaders encouraged the Governor to continue to take the lead in pushing for a system of citizen-funded elections that matches contributions by small donors. The tech advocates pointed to the success of crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter, where citizens can pool resources to support new business ventures, and open-source software as examples of the transparent, diverse and grassroots-oriented culture of the web. “It is time to bring the same way of doing things to campaign finance in NY State, and create a national model that will strengthen small-d democracy,” they insisted. Unfortunately Albany is currently dominated by a small number of affluent campaign donors, professional influence-peddlers and deep-pocketed special interests. New York Tech Meetup chairman and Persona Democracy Media founder Andrew Rasiej said it best, “Democracy is an incredible application, but it’s time for an upgrade to work out some of the bugs that have crept in.”

New York City Campaign Finance Board Tough on Campaign Violators

The New York City Campaign Finance Board has fined Brooklyn ex-City Councilman Kendall Stewart with $200,000 for a series of legal violations. Stewart will have to pay back $136,940 in public funds that he received for the race plus $60,888 in penalties for violating a dozen different regulations, unless he successfully appeals the decision. The Board has charged Stewart with exceeding the spending limits candidates agree to abide by in exchange for public funds, engaging in illegal campaign coordination with his local political club, and failing to respond to requests for post-election audits, among other offenses. The case is an example of the excellent enforcement of the laws on the books by the NYC Campaign Finance Board. Stewart must repay all the fines before receiving any more public funds and may see liens placed on his personal property.



67 Percent of Americans Support a Small Donor Matching System

Reform NY has previously reported on numerous polls and surveys that express near universal disgust by Americans at our system of legalized political bribery. In the latest poll of 1,000 likely 2012 voters by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, Americans are evermore alarmed at the rate of campaign spending this election cycle and increasingly supportive of overhauling the way our elections are financed. Approximately 61 percent of respondents give the current level of money in politics an unfavorable rating, including 62 percent of Obama voters and 60 percent of Romney voters. Two-thirds of Americans believe that our democracy is undermined by big donors and secret money. Trust in our institutions is faltering as well. A strong majority think that special interests, lobbyists and campaign contributors have the most influence over how members of Congress vote as opposed to their constituents. In perhaps the most startling news, 67 percent of Americans support creating a system which matches small donor contributions (below $100) with public funds, while large majorities support greater disclosure of outside money (85 percent) and closing the revolving door between Congress and lobbyists (81 percent). David Donnelly, executive director at Public Campaign Action Fund states that “Republicans, Independents, and Democrats all agree—our political system too often rewards those with the most cash and elected officials should take action to restore our democracy to one that is of, by, and for the people.”

Occupy Wallstreet and Tea Party Join Hands with Abramoff to Reform Federal Campaign Finance

What do the head of the Tea Party Patriots, an Occupy Wall Street organizer, a former lobbyist, and a Harvard law professor all have in common? They all support major reforms to our campaign finance system. A bipartisan grassroots campaign dubbed Represent.Us is building public support for a new proposal, the American Anti-Corruption Act. The proposed American Anti-Corruption Act restricts contributions by lobbyists to $500 per year, subjects unrestricted Super PACs to the same contribution limits as conventional PACs, broadens federal disclosure requirements to all organizations spending $10,000 or more per election cycle, establishes a five-year moratorium between exiting Congress and entering K Street, and institutes a $100 tax rebate that voters can use to support candidates that agree to accept no more than $500 per contributor per year. After gathering 1 million signatures in support of the initiative, the group hopes to garner Congressional co-sponsors for the legislation.

Post-election Spending Round-up

The flood of money in the Presidential and Congressional races this election cycle was truly shocking. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, $6 billion was spent on the Presidential election. The average winning House candidate spent $1.4 million this year, whereas the winning candidate for Senate spent $9.5 million on the campaign trail. Spending also proved to be remarkably effective in Congressional races. House candidates with more campaign and outside money on their side won 92.7 percent of House races. In the Senate, 63.6 percent of candidates that spent more were victorious. In total, Super PACs and non-profits spent about $1 billion, with $562 million of that directed towards the Presidential race and $360 million for Congress. Of this $562 million figure from the Presidential election, 23.7 percent was from groups that provided no disclosure of their contributors. Analysis by US PIRG and Demos shows just how easily a few wealthy elites drowned out the voices the regular Americans. It took nearly 1.4 million grassroots donors who contributed under $200 to the Presidential candidates to reach a total of $285.2 million. They were overshadowed by just 61 big donors that gave an average of $4.7 million each to Super PACs to reach that same figure—$285.2 million.

Campaign Fundraising Continues Post-Election

Candidates in close House races that are yet to be decided are pleading with donors for assistance as they likely head up litigation challenges and recounts. Reviews of internal and public campaign emails, as well as Federal Election Commission records by The Hill reveal that several campaigns have kept their fundraising operations up and running. In Florida, Representative-elect Patrick Murphy’s campaign sent out an email asking for a monetary “gift” for the “lengthy legal battle” that is about to follow. His opponent, incumbent Representative Allen West (R-FL) has a little less than $3.4 million on hand to fund a legal challenge to these elections results. In California, Ami Bera, Democratic challenger to incumbent Dan Lungren (R-CA), recently asked supporters for more funds to ensure that “every vote counts.” In our high stakes system, mega-political contributions coupled with high spending are a norm that continues well after elections.  Recent victors in Capitol Hill are eager to raise more funds, some hoping to retire debts from the campaign trail while others prepare in advance for the next election cycle. The Gula Graham Group has invited lobbyists to nearly 40 Republican fundraisers, 19 of which are scheduled for next week. The events cost anywhere from $500 to $2,000 per head. These early fundraisers are a prime opportunity for lobbyists to get to know the newest faces in Congress. According to Adam Smith, communications director at Public Campaign, “The fundraising never stops in Washington. These lobbyists are trying to influence this debate and there’s no better way to make your case than by handing over a $1,000 check to a Member of Congress.”

Montana Dark Money Non-profit’s Donors Revealed

Earlier this month, Reform NY reported about the ProPublica and PBS Frontline investigation into a non-profit “social welfare” organization formerly named Western Tradition Partnership and now called American Tradition Partnership. Non-profit 501(c)(4)’s manipulate loopholes and lax enforcement of Federal Election Commission and Internal Revenue Service regulations to hide the identity of their donors. WTP’s bank records were released by a court, and the latest examination reveals not only the major contributors to the organization but also evidence of possible illegal coordination with political campaigns. For example, WTP bank deposits include a $557.50 check from Montana Legislator Dan Kennedy to Direct Mail and Communications, a printing company. Direct Mail and WTP share a post office box. Furthermore Allison LeFer, who runs Direct Mail, is the wife of Christian LeFer, a former WTP official.