“Stupid” Scandals Could Help Pass Campaign Finance Reform

Schneiderman: Remarkably ‘stupid’ scandals could help pass campaign finance reform

Capital New York 

Reid Pillifant

June 5, 2013

Attorney general Eric Schneiderman thinks the rash of spring scandals in New York City and Albany could provide the impetus to pass campaign finance reform this year, even with just two weeks left in the legislative session.

“I have to say, I’ve been working on this issue for a long time, I don’t think we have ever had the combination and the confluence of events we’ve had this year,” Schneiderman told a crowd of good-government types at a breakfast speech hosted by the Brennan Center.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared campaign finance reform one of his top priorities for this legislative session, but his proposals have stalled over a dispute about whether state races should be funded by taxpayer dollars. Republicans have declared such a proposal to be a nonstarter, citing the recent scandals in New York City and Albany as evidence that such candidates shouldn’t receive taxpayer funds.

But Schneiderman argued this morning that scandals “provide the basis for a popular movement.”

His office has been a key player in pursuing some of those scandals, including the recent prosecution of former state senator Shirley Huntley, who was convicted of funneling member items to a sham non-profit, in what has become the preferred Albany racket.

“Some of the things that we uncover, the schemes of some of the folks in Albany are pretty remarkable, not because they’re brilliant but because they’re so stupid,” said Schneiderman, who didn’t mention Huntley, but did refer indirectly to another former colleague, State Sen. Malcolm Smith.

“One state senator’s plan to buy county leaders to get the Republican nomination for mayor, it’s sort of like uncovering a plot to invade Fantasy Island,” he said. “You can sort of see it, and understand what they were trying to do, but it is just—maybe if I’m his lawyer maybe I plead, you know, impossibility.”

“These scandals do create an atmosphere in which even those who would resist reform and would play the Albany game of slow-rolling things, passing different bills in both houses and saying we couldn’t agree, we’re adjourned,” he continued. “We can put an end to those games. We have two weeks left in the legislative session. And scandals provide the basis for a popular movement.”

Schneiderman served for years as a reformer in the upper chamber, before opting to bolt the State Senate in 2010 for a difficult, but ultimately successful, primary campaign for attorney general.

After the speech, I asked Schneiderman about the counterargument from opponents of campaign finance reform, that candidates like former assemblyman Vito Lopez, who is in line to recent public matching funds for his City Council campaign, shouldn’t be entitled to help from taxpayers.

“Folks like Mr. Lopez have never had a problem raising money,” he said. “If you don’t have a public financing system, incumbents outraise challengers something like six-, seven-, eight-to-one, depending on which year and which study you’re doing. It would guarantee that Mr. Lopez would have an opponent, if we have a public financing system, so that ordinary people will have a challenge.”

“The bigger problem in New York State is not that we’re spending too much on elections, it’s that in many many cases, as with Mr. Lopez last year in the Assembly race, people easily win re-election no matter what their conduct,” he added.

Schneiderman said in his remarks that he expects Cuomo could introduce a bill soon, but that his office won’t be releasing one.

“The governor still has a lot of sway up there and this is an issue he has indicated he wants to get done in the next two weeks,” Schneiderman said.

Toward the end of his remarks, Schneiderman had to pause for an extended coughing fit that he attributed to his seasonal allergies.

“As my voice fades,” he said, “I assure you my spirit does not.”

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