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Chelsea Community News Op-Ed: “Let’s Get Big-Money Special Interests Out of NY Politics”

By Assembly Member Richard N. Gottfried

Assembly Member Gottfried. | Chelsea Community News File photo by Winnie McCroy

(Nov. 22, 2019) New York badly needs to combat the influence that big-money interests exert on State government—and I’ve been fighting to change the system.

This is not a new cause for me. I wrote New York’s first bill on public campaign financing. That bill, modified over the years, has passed the Assembly many times. It served as a model for New York City’s very successful public campaign finance system.

Under our current laws, large, well-heeled donors can exert an outsized impact on elections in New York. State campaign contribution limits allow a single donor to contribute up to $22,600 to a statewide primary campaign and $47,100 to a general election bid—a total of almost $70,000 to a single candidate, far more than that donor could legally contribute to a campaign for President or U.S. Senator!

A report earlier this year by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice showed that deep-pocketed donors dominated New York’s 2018 State elections, with the top 100 donors contributing more in campaign donations than all the estimated 137,000 small donors combined. Smaller donations were only 5% of all the money donated to candidates for New York State offices last year.

To help address mega-donors’ outsized influence on New York’s government, the new State Senate majority this year joined the Assembly in enacting a bill to close the “LLC loophole” that allowed real estate and other interests to eviscerate the spirit and intent of our campaign finance laws. But much more needs to be done: along with demanding greater transparency about the source of campaign funding, New York State needs to create and implement a small-donor matching system for elections for State offices. By matching small donations with public funding, we can strengthen the voices of all New Yorkers, instead of letting them be overwhelmed by well-heeled special interests.

Unfortunately, the Legislature and the Governor did not come to agreement on a campaign finance reform program before the end of the legislative session in June. Instead, we created a “Public Financing Commission” charged with approving a campaign finance reform package by December, with Governor Cuomo promising that it would establish a campaign finance system that would serve as a “model for the nation.” Its recommendations will become law unless the Legislature amends or repeals them before the end of the year.

This commission process has been highly questionable, with its members apparently getting side-tracked by questions like whether to ban “fusion” voting, which allows different political parties to nominate the same general-election candidate; how many votes a “minor” party’s candidate for governor would have to receive in order for that party to maintain a regular ballot line for the next four years; and limiting “matchable” campaign contributions to only those donations made by persons who live in the Assembly or State Senate district in which a campaign is waged.

I’ve joined with 38 of my colleagues in the Legislature in writing to Commission members asking them to achieve several critical goals whose realization inspired the Commission’s formation in the first place.  Among several strong recommendations, we urged the Commission to ensure that:

–small donations be provided at least a 6-1 match, to ensure that participating candidates are able to raise significant sums from small donors

–the maximum amount of a campaign contribution by an individual donations be greatly decreased so as to minimize the disproportionate influence of mega-donors and increase the impact of small donors

–the State establish a truly independent campaign finance agency, separate from the NYS Board of Elections, to guard against fraud but also to help candidates comply with campaign finance regulations

–fusion voting and cross-endorsements by “minor” political parties—which are completely unrelated to public financing—be maintained

At the end of our letter, we reminded the Commission members that the Legislature takes “seriously our statutory responsibility to craft and sponsor legislation” in December if needed.

As we await the Commission’s findings, we remain resolute in our determination to fix New York State’s broken campaign finance system. Candidates don’t need to out-spend their opponents to win elective office. They need a winning message and enough money to get their message out to the voters. A small-donor matching system with meaningful restrictions on special-interest big money contributions can help make that possible. Our democracy demands no less.

Assembly Member Gottfried represents the 75th Assembly District, which includes the neighborhoods of Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, Midtown, and part of the East Side and area around lower Central Park.