Anna Eleanor Roosevelt
March 1, 2014
Dear Governor Cuomo,
My grandfather, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was known for bold government action in the face of crisis. We could use a dose of that now. But to lots of people, the federal government itself seems broken and unable to respond to the needs of everyday people. The role of big money in our politics is at the heart of the problem.
With Congress deadlocked, the hope for bold government action today lies in the states. And in New York, governor, I’ve seen a glimmer of hope: your proposal for a voluntary system of public financing of election campaigns.
My grandfather railed against the corrupting influence of concentrated private power. He insisted that, “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself.” It’s fair to ask if we’ve reached that point.
You propose a small donor public matching program that would incentivize candidates to fundraise from small donors, lessening their reliance on big money. Since big donors often give to get public policies in return (lots of it not exactly crafted with the public interest in mind), having elected officials less reliant upon big money is a good thing.
Had she been witness to this era of money-driven politics, I’m certain that my grandmother, Eleanor Roosevelt, would have been a staunch supporter of public financing of elections. She would have seen the democratic value of empowering average people, but I suspect she would have been especially drawn to public financing’s track record of helping women compete for elected office, which in turn increases the chances for passage of progressive legislation to benefit women and families.
Katrina vanden Heuvel, who serves with me on the Roosevelt Institute board, writing for The Nation, has pointed out that the No.1 reason women decline to run for office is concern over the ability to raise the necessary funds to compete. Indeed, she explained, women are more likely than men to accept public funds to run for office, and their participation in public financing programs appears to make a difference. “New York state,” she wrote, “despite its progressive reputation, is tied with Arkansas for thirtieth place when it comes to the proportion of its legislature made up of women.” Each of the three states with a public financing program is ahead of New York.
If public financing passes in New York, it could energize the movement to empower small donors in other states, and nationally. The reason is simple, and the impact is huge. The governors of New York state — from Theodore Roosevelt and Al Smith, to my grandfather, toHerbert Lehman, to Nelson Rockefeller, to your father, Mario Cuomo — have long understood that New York can set the pace for the nation.
You ran for office on this reform; you’ve promoted it in your annual State of the State address each of the four years you’ve been in office. And now, by placing public financing of elections in your state budget proposal, you have the leverage to ensure a vote on it. You have the speaker of the Assembly on record in support of this legislation, as well as the Senate minority leader and a Senate co-majority leader. The stage is set for passage.
However, some reports suggest that your legislation could be dropped in final budget negotiations with the Senate Republicans. It has been said that despite you having proposed public financing of elections, it may not be on your “short list” of “must-have” pieces of legislation that you are insisting be part of any final budget deal. I sincerely hope that this is not the case, but if it is, I ask that you change course and put it on that “must-have” list.
Our democracy is under stress. Citizens are skeptical and believe in their hearts that the political game is rigged by big-money interests. In light of some pretty terrible Supreme Courtrulings, the establishment of a system of public campaign financing is the single most important reform possible to lessen the corrupting influence of big money, and to empower small donors.
The need for a system of fair and clean elections is something that all New Yorkers — of all political beliefs — can support. I urge you to hold your ground and not allow the status quo to continue.
My fear is not “fear itself,” it’s disillusionment: I fear that this remains just a proposal. But as was true during the time of that famous inaugural address, “This Nation asks for action, and action now.” You alone have the power to insist that public financing is part of the final budget deal, and I know that millions of New Yorkers — and many millions more beyond New York — will be grateful if you indeed accomplish this.