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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
October 19, 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.



Corporate Contributions Follow the Party in Power
The Center for Working Families has issued a new report, The Big Switch, which details patterns of corporate contributions in New York State political campaigns. The Big Switch explains how corporate contributions flow to candidates who are in power, rather than candidates of a particular political party or ideology. When the Republicans controlled the New York State Senate in 2008, corporations gave $3.2 million to Republicans and $2.8 million to Democrats. When the Democrats gained control in 2009, however, money flowed to the newly appointed Democratic committee chairs, and the Democrats garnered $3.7 million in corporate contributions, compared to $2.5 million by Republicans. In 2011, as the Republicans regained control, the situation reversed again: Republicans received the majority, $3.2 million, from corporations while Democrats raised $1.4 million. According to Dave Palmer, executive director of the Center for Working Families, the analysis demonstrates that “corporate entities are giving not based on a particular candidate or a particular party, and … that [donors] are hoping to get a return on their investment." 

A Few New Yorkers Serve as an ATM for Politicians
As public concern grows over the unprecedented flow of outside money into politics, Common Cause has revealed that New York State is a rather popular source of funds for federal political campaigns. According to the report, New York State’s role as an ATM for politicians should be no source of pride; rather it illustrates the urgent need for campaign finance reform, both in Albany and Washington. A quarter of the nation’s donors that contributed over $1 million to Super PACs are New Yorkers. In addition 99 New Yorkers have given $25,000 or more to Super PACs for a sum of $30.7 million. And 74 of those 99 have also contributed at the state level for a total of $8.9 million to candidates and committees since 2009. “As long as politicians are accountable to the corporations, lobbyists, and wealthy individuals who finance their campaigns, they’re never going to be accountable to the people who elect them,” states Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York.

Outside Money Floods New York State Senate Races
Advertisements funded by outside groups targeting candidates in New York State Senate races are becoming increasingly common. A handful of Senate races, particularly in Queens, Westchester County and Rochester, will be instrumental in determining the partisan leaning of the chamber. Outside groups are projected to funnel at least $2 million into just these three races by Election Day. The independent spending highlights New York State’s lax campaign finance and disclosure laws, which do not require all groups running ads to fully identify themselves. “The average voter would be hard-pressed to identify who is behind many of the advertisements and mailers financed by third-party groups,” reports The New York Times. The Times has investigated two entities engaged in these deceptive ads and mailers. First, it determined that VOTE/COPE Committee, which has attacked Republican Assemblyman Sean T. Hanna’s positions on hydraulic fracturing, women’s health and gun control, is actually the political arm of the teacher’s union, New York State United Teacher. VOTE/COPE Committee is targeting Hanna for his support of pension reform. The Times also reported that Common Sense, which has produced mailers critical of Democratic Assemblyman Goerge S. Latimer for his support of gay marriage, is based in Virginia, and is directed by Republican strategist Christopher LaCivita. LaCivita also advised the shadowy Swift Boat Veterans for Truth back in 2004. After the landmark ethics overhaul enacted last year, the State Board of Elections has developed rules for the disclosure of spending by outside groups, but those that don’t explicitly advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate are exempt from this requirement. “You don’t need to hire a team of campaign-finance lawyers to figure out how to evade disclosure under the Board of Elections regulation,” said Adam Skaggs, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “It’s as simple as pie. And all you do is leave out the ‘vote for’ or ‘vote against.’”


FEC Deadlocked Once Again
The Federal Election Commission has been hamstrung by partisan deadlock for much of this election season, effectively allowing some Super PACs, non-profit “social welfare” organizations and political campaigns to evade campaign finance laws. Last week the American Future Fund, a 501(c)(4), requested an advisory opinion from the FEC regarding joint fundraising activities. The group asked if it could engage in fundraising events with Political Action Committees and Super PACs. The FEC commissioners split on the issue 3 to 3 along party lines. The Democratic commissioners raised concerns that American Future Fund’s proposal would amount to “corporate facilitation,” while the Republican commissioners voted for a draft that raised no concerns about corporate facilitation.

Connecticut’s Clean Elections are a Successful Example of Reform
Campaign filings from Connecticut State elections demonstrate the effectiveness of the state’s citizen-funded elections program. The Citizens’ Election Program utilizes revenue from the general fund, proceeds from sales of abandoned property and donations to offer grants to statewide candidates based on their level of grassroots support. To qualify, a candidate cannot accept any contribution over $100. For House candidates to enroll, they must garner $5,000 in contributions of $5 to $100, from at least 150 individuals in their respective districts. Senate candidates have to raise $15,000 in contributions of $5 to $100, from at least 300 residents in their districts. House candidates can receive up to $26,850 in lump sum grants, while Senate candidates can get $91,290. Most of Connecticut’s legislative candidates have qualified for such grants. Clean elections have changed the game in Connecticut, and they can do the same in New York.

Top Ethics Scandals in Congress
From false tax returns to organized crime, to misusing campaign funds, there is no shortage of scandals in Congress. Politico has listed the top five scandals that plague Congressional candidates still engaged in races this year. In New York Representative Michael Grimm (R-NY) topped the list, while Representative Tim Bishop (D-NY) received an honorable mention. Grimm is being investigated by the Justice Department for his dealings with his former business partner and for potentially accepting campaign contributions from foreign nationals. Bishop is alleged to have provided a fireworks display permit to a Wall Street executive in return for a campaign donation.

Republicans Criticize Citizens United
Two Republicans critical of the Citizens United decision authored op-eds this week. Edgar Heiskell, a former West Virginia Secretary of State, as well as the former State Republican Chairman and member of the George H. W. Bush National Steering Committee, asserts that the fundamental underpinnings of our democracy have been wounded by the Supreme Court. Unrestrained corporate political spending poses an existential threat to American democracy, he states. Candidates that had hitherto enjoyed grassroots support from constituents find themselves overwhelmed by cash infusions from undisclosed donors, laundered by Super PACs.  In such races “the odds are heavily in favor of the Big Money that can purchase more ‘free speech’ than you or I.” Jim Leach, a former Republican Congressman from Iowa, concurs. He considers Citizens United to be the second-gravest historical error by the Supreme Court. “When I first ran for public office, the joke was that no smart candidate should ever argue with those who buy ink by the barrel, the press. Today, a not-so-funny corollary is that a smart candidate should never argue with those who buy ads by the bushel.” Leach further argues that neither money and speech, nor corporations and individuals are equated with one another in the founding documents. Money is not speech, at least not in terms of what a “strict constructionist could conceivably believe the First Amendment addresses.” Corporations are not individuals, for to “vest with constitutionally protected political rights an inanimate entity makes mockery of our individual-rights heritage.” Corporate contributions are essentially investments in candidates, a quid pro quo for favorable policies.