Fmr. Senator Feingold in NY Daily News: End Big Money’s Stranglehold on NY

Op-Ed: End Big Money’s Stranglehod on New York

New York Daily News

Russ Feingold

April 19, 2012

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Citizens United ruling, which is doing more damage to our democracy than any decision in modern American history. In 2012, led by Gov. Cuomo, New York has a chance to fight back by enacting state-based, publicly funded campaign reforms.

Passing such reforms would do more than just benefit New Yorkers — it could ignite a wave of changes in other states, advancing the kind of national movement that, to date, has been smothered by corrupting corporate interests.

The now infamous Citizens United ruling overturned more than a century of settled law, including safeguards enacted under President Theodore Roosevelt, that protected our electoral process from the overpowering financial muscle of corporations. Now, corporations are free to spend unlimited amounts to support or oppose candidates, directly from their treasuries.

No one can doubt that the super PACs unleashed by the decision have dominated the race for the Republican presidential nomination. One supporting Mitt Romney has already spent nearly $42 million in the past 12 weeks.

And with Karl Rove’s group, American Crossroads, and the Koch brothers together poised to spend over a half-billion dollars, they will continue that domination, not only in the presidential election, but also in the elections of thousands of federal, state and even local offices.

Overturning the ruling must be the highest priority, but other steps can and must be taken in the meantime. Foremost among them would be a voluntary publicly funded campaign finance system of the sort advocated by Cuomo and a bipartisan coalition of business, civic and philanthropic leaders known as New York Leadership for Accountable Government.

Currently, New York has contribution limits to statewide candidates of $41,100 for general elections and $19,700 for primary contests. On top of that, donors are allowed to make unlimited contributions to political parties’ so-called housekeeping funds.

The system, awash in the influence of big donors, is crying out for reform.

Publicly funding campaigns — by providing matching funds that encourage small donations from a diverse base of contributors, while simultaneously lowering limits on how much individual donors can give — is not a new idea. Both the City of New York and the State of Connecticut have already enacted successful systems.

I can attest to how well it works: I won my first election, to the Wisconsin state Senate, with public financing.

For decades, our presidential campaigns were publicly funded. Put into place after Watergate, the system protected our democracy and preserved the integrity of our presidential elections. While it was completely voluntary, every major-party candidate for President from 1976 to 2000 took public funding in both the primary elections and the general election.

Implementing a voluntary publicly funded option at the state level also makes good strategic sense for progressives. At the federal level, the corporate-backed interests that were swept into power in the 2010 elections are delighted with their increasing dominance of the electoral process enabled by Citizens United. And sadly, Republicans in Washington have acceded to Sen. Mitch McConnell’s promise to block even the most modest of reforms.

So until Citizens United is overturned and the influence of these obstructionists is forcefully repudiated, it is up to states to provide an effective counter to the exploding corporate influence over our elections. Cuomo and New York are well positioned to lead that charge. The challenges New York faces are certainly significant, but the stakes are too high not to try.

Feingold, a former U.S. senator from Wisconsin and lead sponsor, with John McCain, of the landmark 2002 federal campaign finance law, is founder of Progressives United.

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