Albany Times Union
By Jimmy Vielkind
April 16, 2012
ALBANY — The good-government advocates. The wonks. The progressive groups appalled by the profusion of money in politics.
All plan to unite for a six-week push for partial public financing of campaigns, a perennial reform issue for which they’ve beaten their heads against a wall over the better part of a decade.
This year they have two new allies: a popular governor and the cream of the donor class. With echoes of last year’s successful push to legalize same-sex marriage, this year’s push, including some of Gov. Andrew Cuomo‘s close allies, comes at a “unique moment in time,” according to Citizen Action Executive Director Karen Scharff.
Cuomo talked up his support during his State of the State presentation in January. Democrats who dominate the Assembly have long favored a system of partial public campaign finance, under which taxpayer funds match donations up to a certain level, usually under $250. Republicans who narrowly control the Senate, though, say they “continue to oppose using taxpayer dollars to fund political campaigns,” according to spokesman Scott Reif.
Can the Senate be moved?
The first salvo will arrive at homes around the Capital Region this week. It’s a flier showing the state Capitol bursting with $100 bills, urging voters to call Sen. Roy McDonald and say, “It’s time Albany put voters before big monied corporate lobbyists.”
McDonald, R-Saratoga, couldn’t be reached for comment Monday.
But Scharff pointed to the Senate Republicans’ malleability on two major issues last year — same-sex marriage and renewal of an income tax surcharge on New Yorkers making over $1 million — as instances where “political leadership” from Cuomo and others came to bear.
In February, a rarefied group of New Yorkers including Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, Seagrams President Edgar Bronfman, media mogul Barry Diller and former Congressmen Scott Murphy, Mike Arcuri, Harold Ford Jr. and Amo Houghton pledged its support for the effort.
While the group has always been coy about how much money it is willing to commit to any lobbying campaign — the mailers were sent by the Washington-based Public Campaign Action Fund — The New York Times reported the coalition was prepared to spend up to $1 million.
They’ve hired BerlinRosen, a Manhattan-based campaign advocacy organization that has in the past pushed to legalize the sale of wine in grocery stores. It has deep ties to labor and progressive groups. Also involved in the effort is Jennifer Cunningham, a Cuomo confidante who is a managing director at the communications firm SKDKnickerbocker, according to Jeremy Soffin of BerlinRosen.
“The people who are part of New York LEAD, who care a lot about this issue, will be involved in the campaign in New York in many ways,” said Sean Eldridge, a gay rights advocate who now serves as president of Hudson River Ventures. His partner is Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes.
Is the system really broken? The good-government advocates note the contribution limits to New York state candidates like Cuomo are 12 times greater than those allowed to federal officials.
Michael Malbin, a University at Albany professor who directs the Campaign Finance Institute in Washington, will publish a study Tuesday claiming adoption of New York City’s campaign matching system — where donations less than $175 are matched 6:1 and individual donations are capped at $2,750 — would increase the pool of small-dollar donors in the Empire State to 54 percent.
They now make up just 9 percent, Malbin finds.
“Even if only the same people gave who gave the last time around, the importance of small donors would go up about five times. And that’s just the same donors — the whole point of the system is that candidates would go looking for people to participate,” he said. “You’re not going to have the same static donor poll.”
This will generally increase participation in government, he said.
The cost? Roughly $30 million a year.