Cuomo wants to change campaign finance system

Cuomo wants to change campaign finance system

Star Gazette 

January 17, 2014

ALBANY — In his written State of the State message last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for reforms to the state’s campaign finance laws that he said would help give “a voice to small donors” and “enable a diverse pool of candidates.”

On Wednesday, his re-election campaign revealed it had raised $7 million in the last six months and had $33 million on hand. Less than 1 percent of its cash came from donors of less than $1,000.

Cuomo has continued to publicly support reshaping the way state and local candidates raise funds, even as his campaign reaps the benefits of the current system and connections to wealthy, politically active donors.

In a radio interview on Friday, Cuomo defended his prolific political fundraising, arguing that he has to live in the “real world” and protect against a potentially wealthy opponent who could “dwarf” his campaign’s spending during a re-election year.

“You have to live in the real world, and the real world is somebody can run for office who has a ton of money, and money in and of itself can almost win a campaign,” Cuomo said on public radio’s “The Capitol Pressroom.”

“If you don’t have personal wealth — which I don’t to the magnitude that this business would require — then somebody could come in with personal wealth and just win the office because they can outspend you. You see that all the time.”

Cuomo has publicly supported the creation of a publicly funded campaign-finance system, in which small political donations by private individuals would be matched with state money at a 6-to-1 rate.

But his re-election campaign has relied largely on big-money donors. About 81 percent of donations in Cuomo’s coffers came from donors who gave $10,000 or more, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group. Just 0.69 percent came from individual donors who gave $1,000 or less.

Cuomo’s donors have also taken advantage of what reform advocates call the “LLC loophole,” in which donations are funneled through multiple limited liability companies controlled by a single individual or company to get around the state’s maximum contribution limits.

About 19 percent of Cuomo’s six-month fundraising totals came from LLCs, according to NYPIRG research director Bill Mahoney. One Cuomo donor, New York City developer Leonard Litwin, has contributed $800,000 largely through LLCs since 2011, according to Mahoney’s analysis.

Cuomo has called for closing the LLC loophole.

“He’s certainly one of the most talented people in the state at exploiting the loopholes in the current system,” Mahoney said of Cuomo. “I have every reason to believe that he’s as ethically honest as any official we’ve had in the state in recent years, but when people get away with writing six-figure checks, the unfortunate reality is they’ll have a louder pulpit from which to make their concerns heard.”

In the radio interview, Cuomo said that’s not the case. The concern raised about his campaign’s reliance on wealthy donors is “baloney, frankly,” he said.

Cuomo said the people of New York “want to know that you’re working for us, you’re not working for anyone else.”

“Forget the money — the campaign contributions and what people give — I’m going to do what I believe is right, what I believe is right for (the people of New York),” Cuomo said. “I’m going to make the decision that I’m proud of, because at the end of the night I go home, I put my head on the pillow and I have to be able to fall asleep. And I can’t fall asleep if I don’t believe I’m doing the right thing.”

Cuomo is heading to Los Angeles next week for a fundraiser hosted by some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, including CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves, director Stephen Spielberg and DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, according to an invitation obtained by the New York Daily News. Tickets run from $5,000 to $25,000 per person.

Cuomo faces re-election in November with no announced Republican challenger at this point. But two have been publicly weighing a run: Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino and celebrity real-estate developer and “The Apprentice” host Donald Trump.

Trump has vowed to fund a campaign with his personal wealth if he decides to enter the race, though some Republican leaders are skeptical of his seriousness. He told The Buffalo News on Wednesday that he would spend $30 million to $50 million on a run and could afford to spend up to $200 million.

Conversely, Astorino would have to rely on donors to lessen the gap with Cuomo’s campaign. His county executive campaign filing, which was posted Friday after being delayed by a clerical error, showed he raised about $400,000 since early December and has about $1 million on hand — or $32.3 million less than Cuomo.

Jessica Proud, a spokeswoman for Astorino, was critical of Cuomo’s fundraising haul at a time when Cuomo is supporting changes to the system. It’s “classic Andrew Cuomo,” she said.

“He wants New Yorkers to believe he wants money out of politics, yet he spends his time aggressively fundraising with big money special interests,” Proud said. “Like much of his record, his words don’t match up with reality.”

Astorino appears to have the support of state Republican Party Chairman Ed Cox, who has repeatedly praised the county executive for winning re-election in a county with a heavy Democratic enrollment edge.

Astorino’s filing shows Cox donated $27,603 — nearly the maximum amount to a county-wide campaign in Westchester — in mid-December, more than a month after Astorino was re-elected.

A spokesman for Cox and the state party declined comment Friday.

Reform advocates, meanwhile, are hopeful Cuomo will continue to push for the passage of a public campaign financing system, which has been staunchly opposed by Republicans in the Legislature who are against using taxpayer funds for political races.

Good-government groups said such a system would emphasize small donors and take power away from wealthy individuals. The groups wrote to Cuomo this week, urging him to include a public-finance program in his budget proposal Tuesday.

“By including public financing of elections in his budget, Governor Cuomo would be sending a strong signal that he intends to restore the public’s trust in their government by enacting meaningful reform,” Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York, said in a statement.

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