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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
December 8, 2012

Crossposted at ReformNY

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.



Cuomo Outlines List of 10 Priorities: Campaign Finance Reform is No. 2
Governor Cuomo refused to endorse more than two candidates in New York State Assembly and Senate races this year. Now, with the Senate leadership undetermined, he is still unwilling to put his weight behind individual legislators, rather, the Governor is asserting that he will support Senators based on their positions on a list of ten issues he deems to be the most important over the coming year. In a victory for reformers, campaign finance reform is high on the list, along with other progressive initiatives such as raising the minimum wage and changing New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy. It remains to be seen whether the newly emerged Senate coalition composed of Republicans and a breakaway group of 5 Independent Democrats will be responsive to these requests from the Governor, or if they will simply continue the tradition of dysfunction that the New York State Legislature has become well-known for. It is up to the citizens of New York to keep the pressure on their elected officials in order to ensure that public matching for small in-district donations remains a crucial aspect of any campaign finance reform proposal.

New York Times Editorial Asks Governor Cuomo to Support Fair Elections
In an excellent editorial, the New York Times urged Governor Cuomo to make New York’s system of electing legislators the fairest and most transparent in the country. The editorial emphasized the need for a public financing mechanism modeled on New York City’s successful small donor matching program, where the first $175 of any donation is matched at a 6-to-1 ratio. According to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, a majority of contributors in City Council elections in recent cycles were giving for the first time, and of those first-time contributors, 83 percent gave $175 or less. Lower limits on individual and corporate contributions are also necessary, along with closing loopholes like unrestricted donations to political party “housekeeping” committees. And given that campaign treasuries can be used for almost anything, including veterinarian bills, pool parties and birthdays, clear rules regarding campaign funds are paramount. As the Times put it, “By setting a national standard for public financing, New York State could go from laggard to leader.”

NY Business, Civic and Philanthropic Leaders Insist Governor Cuomo Include Campaign Finance Reform in his State of the State
In addition to the editorial by the New York Times, other New Yorkers are also emphasizing the importance of Fair Elections in the upcoming legislative session. The New York Leadership for Accountable Government (NY LEAD), a bipartisan group of business, civic and philanthropic leaders, sent a letter to Governor Cuomo asking him to make citizen-funded elections a priority in his State of the State Address. "A Fair Elections campaign finance system would encourage voter participation, incentivize diversity among candidates and help curb the corrupting power of big money,” the letter stated.

Public Financing of Elections in NYS Would Cost Only $2 per Person
A new study from the Campaign Finance Institute by Professor Michael Malbin concludes that the cost of running a public financing system in New York State would be roughly $40 million, which works out to $2 per New Yorker—not a bad trade considering the millions more the state government wastes in handouts to special interests. Additional taxes are unnecessary; the current revenue stream can simply be redirected towards ensuring our elections are clean and fair. In 2012, 76 percent of the money raised by New York State legislative candidates was from large donors that contributed $1,000 or more. By contrast, only 8 percent came from donors who gave $250 or less. The research evaluated the consequences of implementing a public financing bill (A9885) introduced by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver last session. Four alternative scenarios, involving changes in the number of donors and election contests yielded cost estimates from $25 million to $40 million.


Why the Faith Community Supports Campaign Finance Reform
Ministers, rabbis, nuns, priests, imams and theologians across the U.S. are joining forces to call out the dangers of unchecked money in our elections and advocating for large-scale reform. Faith leaders were crucial for the passage of state-level ballot measures calling for campaign finance reform in Colorado and Montana, and are now active in North Carolina and Washington to support the movement to reverse Citizens United. Katherine Henderson, president of the Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, stated in the Washington Post that Super PACs spent more than $500 million on campaign propaganda, from voter suppression tactics and fear mongering to outright fabrications, in an effort to buy special access to every level of our government. “When people make large gifts of money to influence the behavior of a leader, the Bible calls that a bribe. The Bible reserves its strongest words for anonymous bribes, saying…that ‘a wicked man accepts a bribe in secret to pervert the ways of justice’ [Proverbs 17:23].” For the sake of justice and for the betterment of their communities, the faith leaders must take action on this vital issue.

U.S. Earns a C on the Corruption Perception Index
The United States scores worse than many countries in the developed world on this year’s Corruption Perception Index, according to Transparency International. Transparency International employs surveys of well-known civic and business groups to quantify the degree of perceived corruption in a state. The U.S. earned a score of 74 out of 100 and a ranking of 19 out of the 174 countries tested. America trails behind other developed nations such as Singapore, Australia, Canada, Germany and Japan. “Americans believe there are continued transparency and corruption issues in local, state and national government institutions and processes. Numerous articles and editorials during the recent U.S. elections attest to American concern regarding opaque campaign financing and a political culture driven by special interest groups.”A series of Supreme Court decisions, coupled with inaction by the Federal Election Commission, set off a $1.3 billion spending spree by outside groups this election cycle, with a large portion from hidden donors.

Dark Money in Congressional Races: VA Residents Write-in 6,000 Votes for a Cat
The Sunlight Foundation has released a list of 25 House and 10 Senate races where dark money played a vital role in the election. Dark money is funneled from non-profit entities organized under a section of the tax code that protects them from revealing their donors. More than $256 million in donations came from these groups during the 2012 general election cycle. The three candidates who were helped the most by dark money were Representatives-elect Keith Rothfus (R-PA), Bill Johnson (R-OH) and Jeff Denham (R-CA). In the 25 House races hit with the most dark money, 86 percent of such spending was designed to help Republican candidates, and 14 percent to assist Democratic ones. Nine incoming Senators got at least $1 million in dark money contributions including Tim Kaine (D-VA), Dan Heller (R-NV) and Jon Tester (D-MT). Senator-elect Tim Kaine benefited from nearly $3 million in dark money attack ads targeting his Republican rival, former Senator George Allen. As a spoof of the money inundating the race, residents placed more than 6,000 write-in votes for Hank the Cat, a feline competing against the two traditional party candidates.  

Super PACs and 501’s Turn to Lobbying
The Super PACs and so called non-profits that polluted the election this year with millions of dollars are regrouping to lobby Congress and the White House during the fiscal cliff negotiations. Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, Americans for Tax Reform and American Crossroads are advancing a new effort to maintain the Bush era tax cuts for the top 2 percent of income earners and cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The groups hope to persuade lawmakers by advertising in Congressional districts and reminding elected officials about their limitless campaign largesse, with implicit threats to pummel unconvinced Congressmen in primary or general elections. Unions including the AFL-CIO, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the National Education Association and the Service Employees International Union are also making their presence known. Hundreds of union members will be in Capitol Hill over the next week to argue against the policies supported by conservative organizations. Even the lobbyists don’t see this transformation in a positive light. Howard Marlowe, the outgoing president of the American League of Lobbyists, stated “We already have a perception among the public that our government is for sale. This is not a good development to have more political money thrown into the policymaking process.”

Revolving Door Still Wide Open
The revolving door between public service and private industry remains wide open despite Congressional lobbying reform in 2007 and White House executive orders from the Obama administration. Representative Heath Shuler (D-NC) will be leaving Congress early next year to join Duke Energy as the senior vice president of federal affairs. Representative Geoff Davis (R-KY), who resigned on July 31st of this year, will be starting Republic Consulting, a public affairs firm with lobbyist Hunter Bates. Meanwhile, in the Obama administration, Liz Fowler, who served as the deputy director of the Office of Consumer Information and Oversight to the US Department of Health and Human Services—primarily known for her expertise on health care policy while serving as an aide to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MN)—will be joining Johnson & Johnson as the head of global health policy. Fowler’s departure has raised red flags among government watchdogs who point to benefits Johnson & Johnson could stand to gain as the Affordable Care Act is implemented. “As a broad matter, we should be concerned about the access that certain individuals have by working in the administration and in Congress because these policy questions are going to continue to come up, and voters will feel like the game is rigged against them,” said David Donnelly, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund.