The Journal News: Campaign finance reform – less talk, more action [Editorial]

Campaign Finance Reform – Less Talk, More Action 

The Journal News

June 10, 2013

With just days left in a legislative session too often transfixed by scandal and corruption, there has been plenty of talk, but no action, on campaign finance reform — seen as a tool for bringing about fairer elections. Despite much grandstanding and fist-shaking, action has been elusive in the Senate. Republican co-leadership, invested in the status quo, has stifled the possibility of a vote on the popular legislation. A small coalition of Senate Democrats has been no help, too.

Members of the Independent Democratic Conference, which shares Senate power with the GOP, contend they are in the camp of reformers. The IDC has introduced wide-ranging legislation that would go a long way toward ensuring more competitive elections. But the IDC — down to four members after one was accused of corruption — won’t commit to a vote without the GOP’s blessing. That is as good as endorsing the broken prevailing system.

Public opinion is running in the other direction — and against the Senate members throwing up roadblocks. Poll after poll shows support for matching, public financing of political campaigns — to reduce candidates’ reliance on deep-pocketed special interests. Other research shows more turnover of officeholders in jurisdictions with some form of public financing in place. That means less success for the beholden and entrenched.

There ought to be no question on whose side members of the IDC stand, but there are. Without a turnabout, the people’s work and interest will lose out once again. That is a kind of power sharing that favors political leaders but not people.

Voices without vote

The IDC — Senate co-leader Jeffrey Klein, D-Bronx; David Carlucci, D-New City; Diane Savino, D-Staten Island; and David Valesky, D-Oneida — has offered its own campaign reform proposals. Those proposals include creating a public financing system that matches small donations and bans corporate contributions; empowering the state attorney general and an independent campaign finance board with the ability to enforce election laws; and changing the way candidates earn “cross endorsements” by minor parties by ending the Wilson-Pakulacertificates that let party leaders hand out their party lines (sometimes for trinkets).

Sen. Malcolm Smith, D-Queens, a former IDC member, was accused of trying to bribe his way onto the GOP line in the New York City mayoral race through the Wilson-Pakula process. Klein, et al., made a great flourish out of defrocking Smith of the IDC mantle.

The Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are so uninterested in campaign reform that they held a “public hearing” in Albany on this issue in May — behind a closed door, in a small room, from which they excluded the public. The IDC held its own campaign-reform hearing at the Valley Cottage Library just a day after the Senate GOP’s farce in Albany. In a Journal News Community View by Klein and Carlucci, the IDC members pledged “expert testimony” and “a venue for members of the public to make their voices heard.” And that’s what happened, with different approaches discussed by Savino, Klein, Carlucci and a slate of speakers. But it was all for show — wasted air — if these strange bedfellows produce no vote.

Calls for action

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has his own ethics reform proposals, has threatened to unleash a special investigation panel — known as a Moreland Commission — to seek solutions if lawmakers fail to act. The governor on Monday said on “The Capitol Pressroom” radio show that he could consider holding legislators in Albany to accomplish “a number of priorities,” including the “corruption agenda.”

There was pressure from elsewhere; full-page ads appeared in The Journal News and Staten Island Advance beseeching the IDC to act. The “Open Letter to the NYS Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference Regarding Fair Elections” was funded by the Brennan Center for Justice, a government watchdog group, and signed by 60 individuals, many of them leaders in the business and nonprofit world. The open letter begins: “This has been a strange and difficult year in the New York State government. It is in your hands whether it is remembered as one of reform and renewal in the face of scandal, or just another year of business as usual in Albany.”

Indeed, Albany’s spring fling of corruption charges has demonstrated the need for reform. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, in one of his all-too-frequent news conferences announcing more charges, decried the “casualness and cockiness” of Albany corruption. The scandals included a bundle of arrests April 2 tied to a convoluted corruption probe that stretched from Albany to Queens, intersecting in Spring Valley. The mayor and deputy mayor of the tiny Ramapo village are charged with mail fraud, accused of taking bribes tied to an urban renewal project.

Also charged were: Smith, Bronx GOP Chairman Jay Savino, Queens GOP Vice Chairman Vincent Tabone, and New York City Councilman Daniel Halloran. They are accused of bribery and other charges in connection with Smith’s alleged NYC mayoral ballot-line buying scheme. On April 4, Bronx Assemblyman Eric Stevenson was charged with bribery, and it was revealed that another Bronx assemblyman, Nelson Castro, had worn a hidden microphone for federal investigators to help uncover more wrongdoing.

Time to act

Last month, federal prosecutors revealed that another Albany lawmaker — Democratic Sen. Shirley Huntley of New York City — had been accessorized with a hidden wire. Huntley, already snared in a corruption case, hid a device in her cigarette case while holding court in her living room with fellow lawmakers. One of those was Sen. John Sampson, who in May was accused of embezzling $440,000 in escrow funds from mortgage foreclosure settlements.

Against that backdrop, talk of reform soared. But as the session dwindles, the chances of campaign finance reform making it to the Senate floor fade.

Klein and Carlucci wrote in their May 8 Community View: “As we know all too well, Albany is resistant to major change. But by building momentum toward reform, we can get there. The people of New York deserve nothing less.”

There’s no doubt about that. It is past time to put such rhetoric into concerted action.

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