Let small donors power the system
New York Daily News
Ed Koch And Peter Zimroth
January 6, 2013
Nearly 25 years ago, we helped craft a campaign finance system for New York City that has enhanced our democracy ever since. By sharply limiting the amount any one person can contribute — and providing public matching funds for small donations — we empowered New Yorkers of all income levels and minimized the role of big money in city elections.
Unfortunately, New York State legislators never followed suit. As a result, our system of electing state officials is broken in a way that is undermining the democratic process.
The state system breeds cynicism. It isolates and distances citizens from their government.
Extremely high contribution limits — $41,000 for statewide races — mean that it’s more efficient for candidates to spend their time courting big donors, who in turn expect, and often get, disproportionate influence in government decision-making.
The end result is that the vast majority of citizens who can’t afford to make big donations feel shut out, and in many cases actually are.
The New York City model proves that, even in an era in which campaigns are growing every more expensive, even in a pricey media market, big money doesn’t have to distort the process. A recent report by the Brennan Center and the Campaign Finance Institute reveals that the city’s public financing system has contributed to a fundamental change in the relationship between candidates and their donors along with a dramatic increase in the number and diversity of the city’s residents who participate in the process.
This stands in stark contrast to state elections. For instance, while 90% of the census blocks in New York City housed someone who contributed less than $175 to a City Council candidate in 2009, two-thirds of census block groups housed no small donors whatsoever to candidates for State Assembly in 2010.
The statistics are equally striking when it comes to diversity, with participation in City Council elections more accurately representing New York City as a whole, with more donations from areas with lower incomes, higher poverty rates and higher concentrations of minority residents.
Indeed, 24 times more small donors from the poor and predominately black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and the surrounding communities gave money to candidates for the City Council than for the State Assembly. For Chinatown, the advantage was 23 to 1. In the heavily Latino neighborhoods of upper Manhattan and South Bronx, it was 12 to 1.
Those people weren’t buying access or influence, because the sums were far too small for that. They were simply getting involved — and improving the quality of governance in the process. The City Council is not perfect, but in a whole host of ways, it’s far more accountable than the Legislature in Albany.
We have every reason to believe that replicating the city’s system of public financing at the state level will have precisely the same effect.
This is obviously not a new idea; good government and community groups have supported it for decades. The surprising thing is that, for the first time, there appears to be broad support from an unlikely source: New York businesses. Prominent New Yorkers in business, finance, real estate and philanthropy, who have come together under the banner of an alliance called NY LEAD, have woken up to the fact that good governance is good for business.
They are fed up with elected officials not doing the people’s business and sick of reading about corrupt state officials being indicted. And as the ones on the receiving end of so many fund-raising pleas, they know that elected officials are spending too much time courting big donors and not enough time doing the people’s business.
Earlier this year, Gov. Cuomo pledged his support for lower contribution limits and public financing. We must hold the governor to his word.
Koch was mayor of New York from 1978 to 1989 and Zimroth is an attorney with Arnold & Porter who served as the city’s corporation counsel from 1987 to 1989.