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Bringing Public Matching Funds to New York Elections

For the government to work, we need competence and public trust. Nothing will restore public trust more than campaign finance reform. And a small donor matching system, like New York City’s program, is critical.

Published: March 8, 2013

These remarks were delivered at a lunch event sponsored by the Brennan Center for Justice, the Committee for Economic Development, and NY LEAD, among others.


Good afternoon to all of you. Yes, I did bring the snow from Albany. I plead guilty. Could have been worse — it’s not a hurricane. It’s not a flood. Not locusts, and it’s not even that much snow.

First to Jonathan Soros, who is the man in the arena on a very difficult issue and has really committed himself to making a difference, we all applaud you. Let’s give him a round of applause, Jonathan Soros. To the CED and the Brennan Center and Covington & Burling for your hospitality today, thank you very much, and let’s give them a round of applause.

Michael Waldman, I worked with Michael back in the old days when we were young people in the Clinton administration running around. And I’ll tell you a joke that will make him nervous. At that time, they thought that Michael and I looked a lot alike, believe it or not, and they would mistake us for each other. Not to disparage Michael, that was a long time ago and I have not aged well. But there was a similarity back then. But Michael was doing great work at the Brennan Center, and it’s a pleasure to be with him again.

Phillip Howard, thank you very much for being here and working so diligently on this issue and as a point of personal privilege, Jeremy Creelan — who Michael mentioned worked at the Brennan Center, and he’s now in my administration and he is the brain — what’s the best word for you? The brainiac on all ethics reforms, and it’s a pleasure to be with him — Jeremy Creelan.

I’ve been asked to address several points that give context more than anything else for the discussion that you’re going to have today. I think the policy is relatively straightforward and clear. We know what we want to do, we know why we want to do it.

The real question is a political question. How do you bring change to the political system, and how do you bring change this year? Now this year is an interesting year in and of itself. It’s my third legislative year and it is an off year for the legislators, and that is good news, I think, because if there’s going to be a display of political courage, it normally comes in the off-year election, and that’s where we are during this current year.

We have put forth the most ambitious legislative agenda that we have had thus far in this third year. They’ve all been ambitious and reform-oriented, but this one is the most ambitious. We have a women’s equality agenda that we’ve proposed, which I’m very excited about, that has a New York State codification to freedom of choice in the Women’s Equality Act. We have campaign finance, we have a minimum wage proposal to increase the minimum wage. We want to decriminalize low levels of marijuana in connection with the stop and frisk program, which has given many largely black and brown young people a criminal record for the arrest of a small amount of marijuana. We need to do more pension reform in the state. We are trying to get a constitutional referendum done that would allow casinos in upstate New York. We want to reform LIPA, the Long Island Power Authority. Gun control was right up at the top of the list as a top priority, and then we need to get a budget done.

Gun control we did as the second bill on the second day of the legislative session. Gun control and marriage equality are two of — what I believe — are the best legislative acts that have been done by this legislature over the past two years. Some people say we did gun control very fast, I think we did gun control very slow, actually. I think gun control should have been done 30 years ago or more. I think it’s been insane how many people society let die year after year after year because government and society couldn’t come to grips with the politics of the gun control issue. I think in some ways the recent rash of gun violence in Newtown, Connecticut and Webster, New York actually awoke the public and gave them a good shake to where they should have been. And that increase in public awareness is what allowed us to actually get the gun control bill passed, because wakening that silent majority is what so many of these issues are all about. The Newton, Connecticut’s, etc., awakened that silent majority. We passed the bill quickly because some bills if you don’t pass them quickly, you don’t pass them at all, and a controversial bill like gun control I think fits that regard.

We’re trying to get a budget done for the third year in a row on time. That might sound fairly boring to most of the people in this room. It’s actually not — it’s a high point of drama. For many years, Albany did not get a budget done on time. April 1 is the constitutional deadline, and every year there would be this great run-up of anticipation to April 1 — will they get it done on time, do you think that they’ll get it done on time? This one says maybe, this one says maybe — and then it would never get done on time. And then the clock would start ticking the other way — it’s one day late, it’s two days late, it’s two weeks late, it’s three weeks late — and it became this great symbol for the dysfunction and chaos of government. It really became the flash point because people, people said — in my life I have to live by certain rules. I have to balance my budget, but my government is immune. And it also was a damning condemnation to a level of dysfunction because — they can’t even agree on doing the budget for the institution. So it really fed that distrust and the disgust with government.

We took it the exact opposite way, and getting a budget done on time became very important. So we got the budget done — first budget was done on time, April 1, second budget done on time. This is now the third, which would be the budget equivalent of a hat-trick. The last time three budgets were done in a row on time is about 30 years, believe it or not. So it goes back to 1984. Piece of trivia: Who was the governor in 1984? Mario Cuomo was the governor in 1984. Another piece of trivia — detected by the Lieutenant Governor Bob Duffy, not by me, three budgets were done in a row in 1984. However, two of them were Governor Cuomo’s, one of them was Governor Hugh L. Carey — it was the last year of his administration. So if we get three in a row, technically, I will beat my old man’s record of two in a row, but who’s being competitive?

In terms of campaign finance, my position is, I support an aggressive form of campaign finance. I support a public finance system basically modeled on the New York City system. We’ve had experience there, it’s been a great laboratory, so my point is basically just import the New York City public finance system to New York State.

We put forth a very aggressive disclosure bill, which is very simple — disclose all contributions in 48 hours, period. No subchapters, no caveats, all political contributions — political committees, lobbying organizations, everything — within 48 hours. So it’s basically real-time disclosure, rather than periods that can now be up to six months in between disclosure periods.

A real enforcement mechanism at the board of elections, which right now doesn’t exist, and real rules — campaign funds can’t be personal funds, and that line has been blurred over the years, and it needs to be clarified. I want lower campaign limits because New York State has some of the highest limits in the country now. Starting from the reformer in this area, we’ve gone to the exact opposite extreme. And more regulation on the independent expenditure committees, because I think as Jonathan mentioned, they are in some ways the most dangerous aspect that is now in this system, albeit a recent intervention.

We want real enforcement on the independence of the independent expenditure committee. That’s the premise, that they were independent. But these ties now are so close that it really begs credibility that they’re truly independent. I would also be more aggressive as to when they’re actually engaging in campaigning, thus triggering the disclosure laws, because I think the more disclosure the better, especially with the independent expenditure committees.

The outlook for this year — I am cautiously optimistic, if we do what we have to do. Why? Because first of all, change is hard. You know, change is hard in any venue, in any regard. Change is hard in our own personal life, right? Eat less and you will lose weight. Yeah, I get it, but that eating less piece is a problem. So change is hard. Change is then been especially hard when you’re trying to move a bureaucracy and the status quo. It gets even harder when the change involves the individuals personally. See, for the legislators, this is not about changing a policy that will affect someone else. This is changing a policy that affects them in their livelihood, and they know this area up close and personal. So it is challenging.

I believe the independent expenditure committees have made it more complicated because the juxtaposition between an independent expenditure committee and public financing is truly difficult to explain, and the politicians feel a public financing system will handcuff them, and if an independent expenditure committee then parachutes into the race, they’ll be defenseless. And on one hand you’re limiting contributions to $175 matching funds. On the other hand, an unnamed committee can come into the race and spend a million dollars. And they have seen that happen. So they have a real substantive issue with what protection do they have from an independent expenditure committee, which is a good question and a question frankly I haven’t been able to fully answer at this point. I’ve spoken about the independence, I’ve spoken about the disclosure, but it is not a prophylactic to the basic vulnerability of Citizens United, which is yes, you could come up with a very restrictive system with very restrictive limits and then have an independent expenditure committee come in and totally violate the spirit of what we were trying to accomplish. That has made it more complicated.

The good news is, people get — especially after President Obama’s election — the power in small donors. And the political system gets it — the power of the money in the small donors, the power of the participation in the small donors, the power of the emails in the small donors, and the grassroots and showing up. So that whole world of politics has really been awakened, and that’s good news.

I think there’s also good news in that the public is aware more than ever of the money in campaigns. This presidential election showed them up close and personal, night after night how distortive large sums of money can actually be. And everyone sat in their living room and watched those television ads, and they didn’t know who any of these people were and any of these groups, you know. They all have basically the same name. Americans for America, you know. Americans for the Red White and Blue. New Americans for a New America, you know. And they see these ads night after night after night, and you have no idea who they’re about. So I think that the public is fed up, and I think that’s our opportunity.

I also think — as Jonathan suggested, so I don’t have to be a boastful governor — the exciting news is, when you make a change in New York, it is a change that resonates across the country. We changed the marriage equality law. I saw within weeks the change reverberate across the country. People watch New York. It’s not just another state. And when New York does something, other states follow. For many years, we were the progressive capital, the progressive leader. We had to deal with these issues first. We were the most complex, the most diverse, the most sophisticated. So the power of example from New York, especially in a field like this, I think could have a national effect.

The question for you — if I’m on the panel discussion, which I wouldn’t have been invited to be because I’m not as smart as the people on your panel discussion — but the question for you is how do you best effect change at this time in this system?

And there are two basic alternatives, I believe. One alternative is to go to the politicians and effect change through the politician — by changing politicians, by getting a politician to agree with you, by getting a politician to promise — but  change through the politicians. The alternative is to effect change through the people. Through the politicians, you are assuming that the politicians will act as they suggested they would act at the time you had the conversation.

Mayor Ed Koch, God rest his soul, spent a lot of time getting pledges from the politicians on redistricting, where they would literally sign cards and they then got to Albany after the election and they didn’t want to follow through on the cards. Now, we had the pledge cards, but there’s no real legal action — you can’t sue someone for a pledge, you know, maybe in the court of morality, but that court meets rarely in Albany. It was sort of a breathtaking revelation, that you could have people who said, I pledge, I’m there, I promise, and after the election the memory fades.

I prefer route two, which is — you go to the people and you convince the people, you change public opinions and you create public opinion, and the politicians follow the people. I believe in the system more than I believe in the politicians, because the system is flawless. The system has a very simple equation. You develop popular will, you create a majority of people supporting an issue, and if the politician doesn’t follow the people, then you can replace the politician.

Now, developing public will is hard, and it’s time consuming, and it’s expensive. But every initiative that we have won, especially in the past two years, followed that model. I’ve laid forth a State of the State agenda — the agenda that I went through with you — each one of those agenda items, I do community forums all across the state. My cabinet, between my cabinet and myself, will do hundreds and hundreds of meetings all across the state. We’ll spend millions of dollars on TV commercials on those issues — developing the political will, because my formula is the opposite. I leave the politicians there, develop the popular support, and then introduce the politician to the popular support. And you would be amazed how politicians tend to follow the public support.

We’re taught that the politicians lead, right? That’s what’s civics course said. Politicians, we elect them to lead and they get up and they say I have a vision of where the future is, and we’re going here and they lead the people. Maybe, sometimes, rare exceptions. More often, the people move first, and the politicians follow. That’s what I have seen.

Marriage equality in this state — how did we get it passed? Millions of dollars in advertising. Hundreds and hundreds of meetings all across the state. And you saw it go up continually in the polls. One point, it was close to 60 percent support, marriage equality, which was remarkable, by the way, because at one point it was like 20–30 percent. And it was a very affirming demonstration of how progressive society can be and how quickly it can change. But it became popular, and then politicians were introduced to the popularity, and politicians quickly do the calculation, what it means to be against a popular position. That’s what we’re doing with women’s equality, campaign finance, minimum wage, all of these issues — getting them to a tipping point where they are strong enough that the politicians need to follow.

That’s the lesson I learned with Michael Waldman in the Clinton administration for eight years, that’s what we did whenever there was an initiative, you build the public support first and then you call the question. It’s the way LBJ did it, it’s the way Nelson Rockefeller did it in Albany for many years, and it’s a formula that works. It is a time-consuming, exhausting effort, hence why I look this way when I’m roughly Michael Waldman’s age, because it is a lot of work and a lot of hours. But, it is also I think the most effective way to do it.

And my last point is, why do it? And I read the CED report. “Pay-to-play” is a problem, I understand that. I was the attorney general for four years. I literally put people in jail for pay to play — was acting in the public capacity in response to a contribution. That’s, quote unquote, pay-to-play. And part of the danger in this system is politicians will do things for money. Politicians will perform acts or be influenced by contributions. And I think that tends to be the apparent and the obvious danger, and it’s real. Again, I’ve done a number of investigations. A number of people went to jail just for that.

But I think there’s an even worse problem that campaign finance is creating, in that the people in this state, people across the country, they have become disassociated from their government, and they just don’t believe and they don’t trust, and they think that government isn’t about them. And that is a killer. That is a killer because every relationship is only as good as its level of trust, every relationship. And even a relationship between a citizen and their government. And what they’re saying today is — I’m not electing these people. My voice, my vote has nothing to do with this. There’s money coming in from all sorts of sides, tremendous money, corporate money, big money, and it’s not me. So I feel disassociated during the electoral process. And when they get there, not only are they dysfunctional, gridlocked politics, but they’re not about me, and now I’m isolated and I’m alone. And the one source, my government, that was supposed to give me strength, was supposed to give me confidence, I feel no connection with.

And for someone like myself, who I believe inherently and innately in the power and capacity of government. Why? Because government is just us. I never saw government as some alien creature. Government is us. It is the vehicle for collective change where we come together and say, we’ll do things through government that we can’t do alone. That’s government. So I believe in government because I believe in us, and I believe in the commonality. But government is only as good and only as powerful and only as effective as the trust from the people, and we don’t have it.

For, my governorship, what politics is about today is a very simple formula: demonstrate government competence and capacity — that the government can actually work, that it can do something efficiently effectively, that it’s not gridlocked and it’s not incompetent. Government competence, capacity, and public trust. That’s the two elements you need to make the whole situation work: competent government, public trust. Nothing will restore the trust more than campaign finance. And until we have campaign finance, nothing else will. That’s why what you’re doing is so important. Thank you and God bless you.