March 24, 2013
Cecilia Tkaczyk is the kind of person we need in government. She’s a third-generation farmer and currently lives with her husband and son on a small sheep farm in the rural Schenectady County town of Duanesburg. When she ran for the state Senate last year, she had everything necessary to get elected — everything except money. She won anyway.
Tkaczyk campaigned on a platform that included public financing of political campaigns, and she continues to trumpet that cause in Albany. It’s an issue that politicians love to talk about, and it’s time they put that money where their mouth is and reform campaign financing once and for all.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo is a staunch advocate of campaign finance reform. Last week he told the New York Daily News that “it’s probably one of the most important issues to complete.” Cuomo said he was “cautiously optimistic” it can get done this year.
The Brennan Center for Justice reports that a Siena College poll confirmed that 74 percent of New Yorkers approve of Cuomo’s plan for reform, including citizen-funded elections. By overwhelming margins, Independents (75 percent), Republicans (70 percent), and Democrats (77 percent) all declared they want to revitalize our democracy with broad reforms.
In addition, a 2012 poll from Zogby Analytics shows that 80 percent of New York state business leaders would support a small donor matching system, when coupled with other critical reforms.
Lawmakers must make this a goal. They’ve been reluctant because the current system allows incumbents to raise huge sums of cash in a variety of ways, not the least of which is through lobbyists looking for political favors. That discourages challengers. Token changes have been made through the years, but they’re filled with loopholes.
Incumbents also build campaign reserves by investing millions of campaign contributions in municipal bonds and companies, some of which have business before the state and have made donations to the legislative leaders. Last year, election records reviewed by the Associated Press found that Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver collected $41,571 in dividends and interest in just six months from more than $2 million his campaign has invested in 100 companies through mutual funds; Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos had more than $700,000 in investments in bonds as part of $2 million in investments, a fund built up over 20 years.
An added insult is that laws allow incumbents to help endangered or underfunded colleagues by dishing dollars into their campaigns to fend off opponents.
Tkaczyk overcame the odds by beating a wealthy political veteran in a Republican-friendly district that straddles the Mohawk and Hudson valleys. She continues the rally cry for public campaign financing, offering a formula that would match even the smallest donations with public funds. It would limit big donations and restrict how funds are spent. Supporters see it as a critical alternative to campaigns dominated by wealthy special interests. Opponents, however, including Skelos, say it would cost taxpayers because they’d have to pony up the matching funds.
Maybe. But it would be well worth the trade off to drive out special interests whose big bucks influence decisions that ultimately cost the public in many ways. It would also level the playing field and set the stage for competitive elections. Right now, talent, skill and commitment don’t really matter unless you have deep pockets and political connections.
Cecilia Tkaczyk was an exception to that rule, and campaign finance reform could be the game-changer we need to elect more people like her. People like us.