Russianoff in NY Daily News: McDonald Threatens NYC Elections Laws [Op-Ed]

The right way to fund campaigns 

Mayoral candidate George McDonald’s defiance of the city’s election laws threatens the democratic process

The New York Daily News

Gene Russianoff

March 4, 2013

How does an average New Yorker afford to run for mayor?

The answer for one mayoral candidate — Republican George McDonald — is to be able to accept big-bucks contributions, including from people doing business with the city.

A far better answer for mayoral candidates, as well as for the voters, is for candidates to join New York City’s landmark campaign finance program. That law sets much lower limits than New York State’s notoriously high contribution levels.

McDonald — who penned an Op-Ed on this issue for the Daily News last week — is challenging a city law that limits candidates for mayor to $4,950 in contributions from an individual for the primary and general election combined. Those limits apply regardless of whether the candidate is participating in the city program.

Instead, McDonald wants to run under the “limits” set by state law. There, contributors can give a whopping total of $60,800 in a race for mayor this year: $19,700 for the Republican primary and $41,100 for the general election.

Not only does the city program set lower limits, but it provides other important kinds of restraints on contributions, which a McDonald lawsuit is putting at risk. For example, contributions from people doing business with the city itself are limited to $400. That includes private contractors, lobbyists or those seeking approval of land-use projects.

These city limits are not an abstract issue for the McDonald campaign. One of his contributors has already given the maximum for the general election ($41,000) and three others have given about $15,000 each. He has also received a loan for an eye-popping $120,000 from an outfit called National Enterprises Corporation. Such loans become contributions if not returned by Election Day and are prohibited by the city’s campaign finance program (as are all corporate contributions).

Taken together, these five contributions alone constitute more than three-fourths of the money McDonald had raised by early February.

McDonald argues that the city limits favor billionaires and incumbents. They have, he argued in these pages, either the personal wealth to finance their campaigns or the political connections and know-how to raise many smaller contributions.

But that ignores one of the central features of the city program. It awards a six-to-one match of public funds for the first $175 of a contribution raised from New York City residents, liberating candidates from reliance on fat-cat contributors. Contributions are not matched if they come from out-of-towners or are made by someone doing business with the city.

In fact, the program has made it possible for candidates of modest means to run competitive campaigns. Non-incumbent David Dinkins beat incumbent Mayor Ed Koch in the 1989 Democratic primary. Non-incumbent Rudy Giuliani won the general election in 1993.

Facing massive spending by two-term incumbent Mayor Bloomberg, Bill Thompson came within only five percentage points while following the program’s contribution limits and receiving public matching funds.

Analyses by the city Campaign Finance Board show that since 1989, when the program started, more and more New Yorkers over a wider geographic area have been making contributions in races for mayor and other city offices.

As the CFB found: “While Manhattan still dominates, contributions from other boroughs made up a larger proportion of contributions in 2009.”

Candidate McDonald has the right to refuse to participate in the city’s campaign finance program. But it’s worth pointing out the cost of his nonparticipation to the voter. For example, participants in the program must agree to debate their opponents during the election. Nonparticipants like McDonald are free to boycott them.

McDonald argues that some state officials can and do accept legal contributions in the tens of thousands “from supporters as diverse as hedge fund traders, investment houses, leveraged buyout artists and family members.” That’s no justification for opting for higher contribution limits for the city.

Outrageously high state limits are why all three statewide officers — Gov. Cuomo, Controller Tom DiNapoli and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman — strongly support the state moving to the city’s campaign finance model.

Campaign finance reform is being seriously debated in Albany this year. Let’s hope that the state learns from the city and follows its lead.

Russianoff is senior attorney for the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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