David M. Rubin
June 8, 2014
Buckling to pressure from the Working Families Party (WFP) last weekend, Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised yet again to force the Legislature to pass a bill supporting the public financing of elections. He cut this controversial deal with the WFP to secure its ballot line in November.
Forgotten in the weekend drama, however, is that Cuomo has already wrangled from the Legislature an experiment in public financing for this November involving a single, unsexy race: state comptroller. The incumbent, Tom DiNapoli, cried foul at being singled out and opted not to participate. But one candidate in that race is happy to play the guinea pig: Robert Antonacci, the Onondaga County comptroller.
This is a very significant experiment, now made even more significant because of the governor’s promise to the WFP. If public financing is going to be extended to all statewide races, we can study in this race how it might work. Antonacci is hoping to demonstrate that public financing can help voters take elections back from the lobbyists, unions, corporations and plutocrats who have purchased the governance of the United States at the polls.
As is the custom in Albany, the experimental law is 10 pages long with 21 more pagesof regulations. Because public money is involved, the reporting requirements (for money in and money out) make one’s head spin. As Antonacci told me, he is the right candidate for this experiment because he is an accountant by training, and it will take an experienced auditor to follow all the regulations.
The basics of the law are simple. Any resident of New York state who makes a contribution of between $10 and $175 to Antonacci will have that contribution matched six to one with public money. For example, a maximum contribution of $175 will produce an additional $1,050 for his campaign in public money.
To trigger this magic and keep out candidates with no political organization at all, Antonacci must first raise $200,000 from at least 2,000 New York state donors; only a maximum of $175 per donor will be matched. (If a donor gives more, it doesn’t count toward the match, although Antonacci can spend it on the campaign.) Therefore, at least 2,000 New Yorkers must hand him a modest check. Non-New Yorkers don’t count.
The maximum match in public money for the general election is $4 million. To trigger the release of all $4 million, Antonacci has to raise $667,000, all in donations of between $10 and $175. He would then have $4.67 million to spend on the campaign. This is a sum Antonacci believes would allow him to run “a heck of a campaign.”
The value of this approach should be obvious, although I know some of my readers gag at spending tax dollars on political campaigns. I admit it causes me indigestion, too, but it is far better than the way we fund campaigns now; that is, with wads of outside, often secret, money flowing to candidates willing to deliver what the donors want. Our modest donations are like minnows in an ocean.
Public financing empowers local donors who can actually vote for the candidate. It forces candidates to court us, one small donation at a time.
It allows candidates who are not wealthy to get into a race. Antonacci told me he would not have run if not for public financing.
It turns small contributions into much bigger ones.
Most important, it means the winner, if publicly financed, is beholden to us, and not to the trial lawyers, the NRA, the Chamber of Commerce, the Hollywood crowd or the Teachers Union.
I don’t blame DiNapoli for not participating in this experiment, although I wish he had. He has enormous advantages as the incumbent. He doesn’t need the headaches of public financing and $10 checks. Because he is not playing, he can accept up to $41,000 from any single donor, as can all other candidates in New York. Only Antonacci is limited to $6,000 from a single donor (just $175 of which is matchable). Antonacci also has to worry that the Board of Elections could catch him in some reporting error and boot him out of the public financing program. DiNapoli doesn’t have to worry about that.
Win or lose, if Antonacci demonstrates he can run a competitive campaign with public financing, he will have blazed a valuable trail. His experience will, or should, shape whatever bill Cuomo shakes out of the Legislature to pay his debt to the WFP.
I put my money where my mouth is and wrote one of the first checks to Antonacci’s campaign — for $50. I wanted to be one of his charter 2,000. Maybe we’ll make history. If DiNapoli had embraced public financing, I would have written him a check, too, because he has been a good friend to Syracuse.
But at this point it’s about changing the system. Until we do that, we will get elected officials purchased for us by others, with the awful results we see in Albany and Washington. I’ve had enough of that.