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Money in Politics This Week: Public Financing Remains Robust Alternative to Big Money Races

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

  • Syed Zaidi
  • Katherine Munyan
November 8, 2013

Crossposted at ReformNY

The Brennan Center regularly compiles 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 and Katherine Munyan.

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


Senate GOP Challenges Anti-Corruption Commission in Court

Earlier this year, New York’s anti-corruption Moreland Commission sent a subpoena to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee demanding internal documents and emails regarding the operation of party “housekeeping accounts.” By law, housekeeping accounts are only to be used for administrative costs and party-building activities. Some suspect that the funds have been utilized to advance party-favored candidates as well. Last week, the Senate Republican Campaign Committee filed a challenge to the subpoena in the state Supreme Court, asserting that the demand was politically motivated. Michael Chertoff, the attorney for the Senate Republicans, said that the request involves the “committee’s most sensitive internal documents and communications” which “go to the heart of the committee’s political functions.” Senate Republicans allege that it infringes on the committee’s free speech rights and unfairly targets their political party. The Moreland Commission has also subpoenaed the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, state Democratic Party, and Buying Time LLC, the company the party used to purchase televisions ads. “We had hoped the Senate Republicans would willingly cooperate and they did not. We will prevail in court,” commission chair William Fitzpatrick said.

New York City Elections Prove Public Financing Remains Robust Alternative to Big Money Races

The New York City general election for 2013 is now over. As the winners emerge, and the campaigns reflect back, it is important to point out the historic performance of the system that made all this possible. New York City provides a 6-to-1 match for the first $175 contributed by in-district residents, which incentivizes candidates to reach out to a broad base of constituents. As of July of this year, 74 percent of all contributors gave $250 or less to city candidates. An interactive map by the Campaign Finance Board, provides a detailed break-down of the donations by district.  Although independent groups poured $15.83 million to prop up their favorite candidates, 76 percent of active candidates participated in the public financing program.

Buffalo Council Introduces Resolution to Study Public Financing

Buffalo Common Councilmember Joseph Golombek, Jr. has introduced a resolution for the legislature to study the public financing of elections for local races. Advocates in support of the proposal held a press conference on the steps of the Buffalo City Hall on Wednesday, urging local legislators to adopt reform. Golombek said that even small local races are now dependent on extensive big-money fundraising. “Try to raise it. I had a race the last time around. My opponent who I’ve gotten to be friendly with said they were hoping that they’d be able to raise $25,000 and they raised $2,000,” he said. At the press conference, Ellen Kennedy of the Working Families Party stated that “Our City of Buffalo can lead the way, doing what Senators at the State Capitol were unwilling to do last legislative session, put the people back in control of our democracy through a small donor matching funds system of campaign financing.”

New York Times Shines Light on Pay-to-Play Deal in Albany

New York’s big-money system of financing elections continues to foster pay-to-play deals in Albany. The New York Times reported last week that state Senator Jeffrey D. Klein (D-Bronx/Westchester), the co-leader of the chamber, and state Senator Martin Golden (R-Brooklyn), sponsored a bill back in the spring that would increase the cost of the security stamp placed on cigarette packages by three cents. The stamps, the senators argued, would prevent smuggling and help raise $6 million for enforcement. State Senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), suspicious about these supposed benefits, asked the sponsors on the floor why the bill was proceeding without proper debate on the matter. A New York Times investigation revealed that Leonard Schwartz, chairman of Global Wholesale Tobacco, a company that stamps cigarettes, would’ve profited from the new law. Since 2002, he has contributed $29,500 to Senator Golden and since 1999, $43,000 to Senator Klein.



Ballot Initiative Spending Passes $1 Billion Mark

On Tuesday, Washington State voters rejected a ballot initiative requiring labels identifying genetically modified food. The initiative fight cost $30 million, with $20.1 million spent in opposition – nearly all by out-of-state corporations including Pepsi, Monsanto, and General Mills. In Colorado, millions of dollars from unions and national donors poured in to support a ballot initiative to increase state income taxes to pay for school improvements, although voters rejected the measure. In Maryland, supporters and opponents of a ballot initiative to build a new casino spent a combined $90 million in two months. These examples are a part of a national trend towards increased spending on ballot measures. In the past 18 months, individuals and corporations have spent more than $1 billion on ballot initiatives in 11 states – a new record.  Many states do not require detailed disclosure for spending on ballot initiatives, meaning the sources of much this money remain hidden.

Establishment Republicans Prepare for Expensive Fight in Primaries

With midterm elections looming, establishment Republicans are preparing to take on Tea Party opponents in heavily-contested primary battles. The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) plans to hire Jeff Larsen, an experienced fundraiser and strategy consultant, to run its independent expenditure arm next year. NRSC kept out of primary fights in 2012 in an attempt to reduce intraparty conflict, but now plans to get involved in some primaries.  The NRSC is a powerful force, with millions of dollars for ad spending at its disposal.  It has already announced that it will refuse to hire any advertising or consulting firms working with the Senate Conservatives Fund to unseat Republican incumbents.  With a goal of promoting moderate candidates who will have a better chance in the general election, NRSC Executive Director Rob Collins says “all options” are on the table.

Candidate-Created Super PAC Raises Coordination Concerns

In July 2012, Montana State Senator Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, founded the Special Operations for America (SOFA), a super PAC supporting Mitt Romney’s bid for presidency.   SOFA raised more than $100,000 during the 2012 campaign, and kept raising money after Romney’s loss.  In September 2013, Zinke stepped down as the group’s chairman, leaving another former Navy SEAL, Gary Stubblefield, to take the helm. Three weeks after his resignation, Zinke announced his candidacy for the U.S. House – and his former Super PAC declared its support.  Zinke insists that there is no illegal coordination between his campaign and the Super PAC (Romney’s former attorney presided over the transition).  Rather, he says, he and the Super PAC he formed just happen to share the same values.  The story reveals the weakness of the Federal Election Commission’s definition of “coordination.”