Capital New York
January 20, 2014
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo takes the wraps off his executive budget tomorrow, it will be a moment of truth for New York liberals.
The test of Cuomo’s progressive credentials, as laid out by liberal advocates in recent weeks, is not support for Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-K plan. Cuomo has already made it clear enough that he has no intention of heeding the new mayor’s call to let him tax rich city residents to fund that program.
But they will be keeping a close eye on something that Cuomo himself has been calling for ever since the 2010 campaign and has mentioned in every State of the State address since he took office. It’s something his own anti-corruption Moreland Commission called for: campaign finance reform, and in particular, publicly funded elections.
“This is a red-meat issue, not just a blue-haired old lady issue; it’s not just the goo-goos who want this,” insisted Mike Kink of Strong Economy for All, a coalition of labor and community groups.
“This links the populist economic message with the good-government message in a way that has a lot of emotion and drive behind it right now,” Kink continued. “This is about making government more responsive to regular people and less responsive to big donors.”
The left has been trying to convince Cuomo that public campaign financing is a big-ticket item with national implications—as big, if not bigger, than gay marriage and gun control. Advocates want the governor to allocate at least some money in this year’s budget for a publicly financed statewide system to demonstrate that he’s finally really serious about making it happen.
The New York Times reports today that Cuomo will include in his budget proposal the public campaign finance program, similar to New York City’s small-donor matching approach, that he first floated in an omnibus reform bill last year. But the paper also says Cuomo’s budget won’t actually fund this or any other election reform plans, except some $4 million intended to beef up enforcement at the state Board of Elections. It’s the sort of thing advocates say they most fear—that Cuomo will continue to pay lip service to public campaign financing without actually putting enough muscle or resources behind it.
The pressure on Cuomo to make more of a commitment to this year’s public campaign finance debate will hit a peak on Thursday when Massachusetts senator and national liberal darling Elizabeth Warren comes to New York for an event entitled “Taking on Big Money’s Power Over the Economy.”
Sources familiar with Warren’s plans say she will focus her remarks on the need to get the big money out of national politics to bridge the income inequality divide. She will studiously abstain from criticizing Cuomo or dipping her toe into the state-level campaign finance debate.
That task will fall to another poster boy for the liberal left, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, whose cool relationship with Cuomo turned downright icy last week when news broke of their power struggle over $613 million in settlement cash Schneiderman wrested from JP Morgan Chase.
And how’s this for irony: Just as Warren and Schneiderman are making their respective campaign finance reform pitches, Cuomo will be across the country in Los Angeles, at a high-dollar fund-raiser hosted in his honor by entertainment bigwigs like Jeffrey Katzenberg, Brad Grey and Steven Spielberg. The cost to attend starts at $5,000 a person and goes as high as $50,000 per couple.
Even as he has spoken about the need to reform the state’s byzantine election laws and establish a publicly financed campaign system, Cuomo has continued to exploit the existing limits and loopholes to amass a massive campaign war chest.
Last week, he announced he has raised an eye-popping $33.3 million—more than any other governor across the nation seeking re-election this year.
He got testy when asked about his fund-raising during a radio interview, calling questions about how put up such big numbers “baloney.”
Cuomo believes—and polling has backed him up on this—that what New Yorkers really care about is jobs and the economy, which explains his focus to date on tax cuts and programs and incentives designed to lure businesses to the state.
None of this bodes terribly well for the public campaign finance set, but they’re still holding out hope for something in Cuomo’s budget.
“The Democratic base is inspired and engaged by people like Bill de Blasio and Elizabeth Warren who are willing to fight for the 99 percent against the one percent,” said Citizen Action of New York Executive Director Karen Scharff. “Regardless of what the governor needs to do for his own fund-raising, he should do something to show he’s willing to do something for people who can’t give big campaign contributions. “
As of last Friday, a source in regular contact with Cuomo said a final decision had not yet been made, but the outlook was not good.
“If we were in a better cycle with a few less scumbags in the Legislature it might be a better sell,” the source said of using taxpayer dollars to fund political campaigns. “[Cuomo] would like to get it, but doesn’t want to screw up everything else to get it.”
An email seeking comment from the governor’s press office was not returned.
The problem for the liberal advocates now is that their leverage over Cuomo is limited. Even if progressive voters choose to blame Cuomo for the state’s inaction on public financing, they’re unlikely to vote for anyone else in the governor’s race this fall.
Theoretically, there is the possibility that the labor-backed Working Families Party, which is leading the public campaign finance charge, could opt not to give Cuomo its ballot line this fall.
The WFP had to fight to get Cuomo to accept its endorsement in 2010. At the time, the party was under investigation by federal prosecutors for the work of its now defunct for-profit arm, Data & Field Services, in the 2009 New York City elections.
No charges were ever filed in that case, and Cuomo did eventually agree to run on the WFP line, although only after the party agreed to back his entire agenda – including the property tax cap and wage freezes for public employees.
But now is a different time, and labor insiders believe there’s sufficient momentum for their progressive brand of politics that anyone – even a relative no-name candidate—could get 50,000 on their ballot line and preserve their party status for another four years.
But it would be a surprise if the party even entertained that option seriously.
Public campaign finance supporters point to polls that show significant backing for their cause when New Yorkers are specifically asked whether they support it.
A Siena poll released Monday showed 64 percent of respondents voiced support for the creation of a system that uses “state money to match smaller contributions to candidates for state office.”
That’s not too shabby, but it’s considerably less than the 82 percent who said they support Cuomo’s proposal to double the penalty for drivers under 21 who are convicted of texting while driving, or the 80 percent who said they favor making universal pre-K available to kids across the state.
The question now appears to be what the left is willing to accept.
If Cuomo merely throws them a bone on public campaign financing—creating a pilot project with just one statewide office, as state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has proposed, for example—that might have to be sufficient. Same goes for a publicly financed system created through a constitutional amendment, which puts the question to the people, assuming it could get past the Legislature, and ensures no changes would take effect for at least five years.
“The eight million-plus members of MoveOn and other organizations are not going to be satisfied a comptroller-only solution, or a constitutional amendment,” predicted a longtime labor operative.
“It’s not nothing to have even a comptroller-only bill. But I think at this stage we’d be very wary of allowing the governor to go down that path … liberals want to see if the governor who promised to make this state the progressive capital of America has any shred of honesty in him.”
For the governor, though, it’s not going to be about honesty. It’ll be about priorities. And it’s not clear the left can do much to make public financing one of them.