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Money in Politics This Week: 61% of New Yorkers Support Public Financing of Campaigns

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
March 15, 2013

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.



Governor Cuomo Reaffirms Commitment to Campaign Finance Reform at Business Luncheon
On Friday, March 8, Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered the keynote address at a luncheon for business and civic leaders hosted by the Committee for Economic Development, along with the Brennan Center for Justice, New York Leadership for Accountable Government, Americans for Campaign Finance Reform and the League of Women Voters. The Governor reaffirmed his commitment to citizen-funded elections, saying that he supports “aggressive” campaign finance reform modeled on New York City’s small-donor matching system. A complete video of the Governor’s speech is available on the Brennan Center website.

Media outlets throughout the state covered the reception. The New York Times was optimistic about the prospects of campaign finance reform appearing on the legislative agenda this year, asserting that it will be “one of the top policy debates that is likely to come up in Albany after the state budget is completed this month.” The Epoch Times and Buffalo News highlighted the Governor’s strategy for pressuring the legislature: he will go to the public with the proposal. “Politicians quickly do the calculation what it means to be against a popular position,” Cuomo said. “If the politician does not follow the people, then you can replace the politician.” Celinda Lake, president of the polling firm, Lake Research Partners, and one of the panelists at the luncheon, stated that public support for reform is very high. A December, 2012 poll by Lake Research demonstrates that 83 percent of Democrats, 79 percent of Independents, and 74 percent of Republicans support a system of citizen-funded elections in New York State. “If you want to look for a bipartisan issue in today’s polarized politics, ironically, it is campaign finance reform,” said Celinda Lake.

Governor Cuomo Holds Telephone Town Hall, Urges Citizens to Fight for Fair Elections
Following the business luncheon on Friday, Governor Cuomo addressed 1,350 campaign finance reform supporters via a Telephone Town Hall this Monday. The conference call was organized by the Fair Elections New York coalition. “I don’t think there’s anyone who argues that the New York State campaign finance laws are working particularly well,” Cuomo said, according to the Daily News. The Governor reiterated his call for citizen-funded elections, similar to those held in New York City. He pointed out that matching small donations with public funds would only cost $30 million out of a $140 billion plus budget. He said significant public pressure would be needed in order to convince lawmakers to agree to a policy that will directly affect them. In addition to public financing, Cuomo has called for swift disclosure deadlines, lower contribution levels and a more effective Board of Elections. Several grassroots organizations on the call, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Communications Workers of America, Metropolitan Council on Housing and Sierra Club explained why campaign finance reform was relevant for their policy agenda. Audio clips from the call are available here.

With Citizen-funded Elections, NY Can Be a National Model
In the Huffington Post, Zephyr Teachout, Associate Professor of Law at Fordham Law School, explains how April in New York State can change the country in five steps. “Right now, state candidates spend their days trying to calibrate policy for PepsiCo, Pfizer, JP Morgan and Citigroup…Their stump speeches to the public and their private speeches to donors don’t connect.” But if small donor matching funds are instituted, candidates that raise $50 will receive six times that amount in public funds. To raise half a million according to the new proposal, state candidates collectively would need 1,500 $50 contributions (1500 * 50 * 7 = $525,000), rather than contributions from a few mega-donors. “The new way of raising money will lead to a new Albany.” Elected officials will be more responsive to their constituents instead of out-of-district donors. If New York follows through with lower contribution limits and public financing, it can serve as a great model for the rest of the nation.  

Citizen-funded Elections Would Correct the “Democracy Deficit”
In an op-ed in the Poughkeepsie Journal, the executive director of Citizen Action of New York, Karen Scharff, marshals powerful arguments in favor of citizen-funded elections. She laments that lobbyists and fundraisers use their political contributions to “skew lawmaker priorities away from the public interest and toward their own narrow concerns,” resulting in a loss of public faith in government. Scharff argues that this “democracy deficit needs to be corrected with bold reforms that transform our politics and put the people at the center of election campaigns.” The matching-fund system that the Governor and others in Albany are pushing for would encourage candidates who are raising funds to talk to voters and not to big donors who represent the special interests. Scharff points out that the cost of citizen-funding is well worth it: “Fair elections will also produce a high return on investment through a more effective and efficient government.”

Siena Poll Shows 61% Support Public Financing of Campaigns in NY
A significant majority of New Yorkers favor citizen-funded elections, according to a new Siena College poll. In response to the question “Do you support or oppose creating a system of public campaign financing in New York that would limit the size of political contributions to candidates and use state money to match smaller contributions made to candidates for state offices?,” 61 percent of registered voters replied that they support the idea. The figure is a slight increase from January of this year when 59 percent were behind the initiative. According to Siena pollster Steve Greenberg, “two-thirds of Democrats, 60 percent of independents and a plurality of Republicans [are] behind it.” Sixty-nine percent of New York City residents, 56 percent of suburbanites and 56 percent of Upstate voters are in favor of the reforms. Jonathan Soros, chief executive officer of JS Capital Management, said the poll shows that New Yorkers want the state to implement a public campaign financing system. With respect to the Governor’s proposal, he stated that "Cuomo has recognized this problem and has identified the solution.”


New Report by Demos Shows How Our Campaign Finance System Undermines Economic Mobility
A new report by Demos, Stacked Deck, evaluates the mutually reinforcing relationship between political inequality and economic inequality. Our current political system magnifies the voices of large donors, and minimizes those of average Americans. Consequently the policies that are produced by our politicians neglect the preferences of a large majority of Americans, exacerbating the general trajectory of increasing economic inequality. Big donors and the general public have different policy preferences. For example, when asked if they agree with a minimum wage high enough so that no family with a full-time worker falls below the official poverty line, 78 percent of the general public concur compared to only 40 percent of those with an average annual income greater than $1 million. The Demos report draws in part on research by Dr. Martin Gilens. According to Dr. Gilens, “For people at the top 10 percent, you could predict what the government would do based on their preferences. But when the preferences of people at lower income levels diverged from the affluent, that had no impact at all on the policies that were adopted. That was true not only for the poor but for the middle class as well.”

Senate Considers SEC and CFPB Appointments
This week, the Senate Banking Committee considered the nomination of Mary Jo White to head the Securities and Exchange Commission. White has spent most of the past decade litigating on behalf of large financial institutions. She also served as a U.S. attorney in Manhattan for nine years, prosecuting terrorists and mobsters. The Banking Committee seemed more interested in White’s recreational habits than potential concerns about the revolving door between Wall Street and the SEC. When pressed regarding her white-collar defense work by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), White insisted that as a lawyer “you represent different kinds of clients, and you are ethically bound to represent them to the best of your ability, and I have done that. That doesn’t mean I embrace the policy thoughts of any of my clients in particular.” In contrast to White’s nomination hearing, Richard Cordray, Obama’s pick for the watchdog Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, faced a much tougher audience. Eight Senators, who had vowed to block his reappointment earlier, questioned Cordray about the CFPB’s “transparency.” These eight Senators, listed on the Public Campaign website, have accepted nearly $25.7 million from the financial sector over their careers.

Aggregate Contribution Limits Increase Electoral Competition
In response to the Supreme Court’s decision to hear a case challenging aggregate contribution limits, Jonathan Backer, research associate at the Brennan Center, explains in the Huffington Post why striking down those limits would dramatically alter the nation’s campaign finance landscape for the worse. Aggregate limits restrict the total amount of money that a donor can contribute to political races. They ensure that candidates do not solicit $1 million donations to benefit themselves and their party. Recent legislative proposals as well as statements by campaign strategists argue that raising or eliminating contribution limits can allow new candidates to compete against incumbents. However in reality, high contribution limits make the task of fundraising much easier for incumbents as they can tap into established networks and amass even bigger war chests. Empirical research by the Brennan Center and Dr. Thomas Stratmann, a professor of Economics at George Mason University, shows that higher contribution limits lead to less competitive elections. When compared with states with the highest limits, low contribution limits ($500 or less) reduce an incumbent’s margin of victory by 14.5 percent.