April 8, 2013
The indictments last week of a New York state senator and five other New York politicians in an alleged bribery scandal once again focused the public spotlight on the dangers of influence money in the political system.
And as the late Sen. Russell Long of Louisiana once aptly noted, when it comes to buying influence, “The distinction between a large campaign contribution and a bribe is almost a hairline’s difference.”
The United States attorney prosecuting the bribery case pointedly stated, “A show-me-the-money culture seems to pervade every level of New York government.”
At the same time, however, a battle for campaign finance reform is unfolding in New York that could change American politics and open the door to restoring citizens to their pre-eminent place in our democracy.
The disastrous 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United unleashed record amounts of campaign spending by outside groups that was financed by huge contributions from wealthy Americans, corporations and special interest groups. Citizens United provided these funders with undue influence over our elections and corrupting influence over officeholders and government decisions.
The New York reform effort is designed to engage and empower citizens to combat the new influence-money world of super PACs, millionaires and corporate treasuries.
It is aimed at making ordinary Americans the key players in financing campaigns by matching their small contributions to candidates with multiple public funds and thereby making their contributions far more valuable and important to candidates.
In order to accomplish this goal, the largest and most diverse coalition has been assembled to pursue campaign finance reform since the national coalition that successfully lobbied to enact the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.
The coalition includes New York business, civic, religious and education leaders, former Democratic and Republican officeholders, citizen reform groups, labor and civil rights organizations, environmental groups and numerous other New York and national organizations.
The unique breadth of the coalition is truly remarkable: It ranges from business leaders David Rockefeller and Barry Diller to NAACP New York State Conference President Hazel Dukes and President Emeritus of Fordham University Father Joseph A. O’Hare; from former SEC Chairman William Donaldson to reform leader Jonathan Soros; from the Committee for Economic Development, a national organization of business leaders, and the Brennan Center for Justice to local SEIU unions and the Communications Workers of America; from Citizens Action of New York and Common Cause/NY, to the Working Families Party. (Democracy 21 is also supporting the effort.)
At the head of the New York reform effort is Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has put himself on the line by making campaign finance reform a top priority for his administration in 2013.
On March 8, Cuomo said, “I support an aggressive form of campaign finance. I support a public finance system basically modeled on the New York City system … it’s been a great laboratory … import the New York City public finance system to New York state.”
A victory in this tough battle could have national consequences for Cuomo and for the country as it could provide the spark and impetus for a national movement to “import the New York City public financing system” to Washington and to states around the country.
As a New York Times editorial (Dec. 1, 2012) noted, Gov. Cuomo “should use his considerable political influence to make it happen, changing the money culture in Albany and providing a model for the rest of the country.”
The New York state reform effort is modeled on a New York City system that has been successfully used for the past 15 years to finance city elections.
Under the system, the first $175 of a contribution to a New York City candidate is matched with public funds at a 6:1 ratio. Thus, if a donor contributes $150, the candidate ends up with a total of $1,225. According to studies, the New York City system has resulted in many new small donors and a more diverse group of contributors.
The New York effort illustrates that citizens are not going to stand by and allow monied interests to dominate the financing of our elections and the governing of our country.
Empowering small donors to become key players in financing elections will dilute the role and importance of big money, reduce the opportunities for government corruption and provide candidates with an alternative way to finance their campaigns without having to sell their souls to their funders.
A small donor revolution in American politics is essential to protect the integrity and health of our democracy.
Hopefully, the revolution will begin this year in New York.
Fred Wertheimer is the president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that works to strengthen democracy and empower citizens in the political process