Campaign finance reformers playing hardball as budget deadline nears


Legislative Gazette photo by Katherine Borchert
Legislators join members of the Fair Elections coalition on the Million Dollar Staircase in the Capitol to call for a small-donor matching system for statewide elections and lower contribution limits as a way to remove special interests from politics.

A group pushing for campaign financing reform is planning a rally in the Capitol this coming Monday to pressure lawmakers who appear to be backing away from earlier proposals to fund some elections with public matching funds.

Even though the Assembly Democratic Conference — the largest in the state Legislature — has passed campaign finance reform bills in the past, their leader, Carl Heastie, recently made headlines when he said during a March 8 speech at a Crain’s New York Business forum in Manhattan that he doesn’t think there are 76 Assembly members who will vote to include those reforms in the next state budget.

Heastie’s statement spurred the Fair Elections Campaign into action, attempting to get on-the-record commitments from state lawmakers for lower campaign contribution limits and a small-donor matching system, seen by reformers as the best way to fix Albany’s notorious “pay-to-play” culture.

The Fair Elections coalition says that public statements by legislators, their previous voting records, past bill sponsorships and candidate questionnaires indicate that at least 88 sitting members of the Assembly support small donor matching legislation, with 76 being a majority. The Assembly has passed campaign finance reform bills many times in the past and Speaker Heastie was the main sponsor of the Fair Elections Act in 2016.

“The speaker’s claims don’t gel with what the public has been told. The public now has a right to know if the votes are in fact there or who has changed their mind,” said Rosemary Rivera, co-executive director of Citizen Action of New York. “We are asking every New Yorker and every reporter and news outlet in this state to expose the truth. All we want to know from each member not already on the record this year: ‘Do you support public financing of elections in this year’s budget: yes or no?’”

The Senate has 40 members on the record in support, which is a solid majority in the 63-member house. While the Senate has not publicly expressed any concern about a shortage of support for reform legislation this session, the Fair Elections for New York coalition is also asking senators to go on the record to ensure these reforms are not left out of the final budget.

The group is keeping a scorecard here to keep track of who is supporting the legislation and who is not.

Ahead of the March 25 rally, the Fair Elections Campaign has launched a multi-pronged effort to ensure the stated support for fair elections in the Assembly and Senate budget resolutions ends up in final budget language.

“There are nearly 90 Assembly members on the record in support of small donor matching. If they don’t deliver comprehensive legislation in the budget, that means a fair number of Assembly Members were elected with these reform credentials, but are backing off now at the height of demand for change,” said Dave Palmer of the group Fair Elections for New York. “Elected officials are entitled to change their minds from time to time when new information becomes available, but Albany’s money-in-politics problem has only gotten worse, and the solutions they’ve always supported remain the same.”

With less than two weeks to go before the budget is due, the group is launching digital advertising, grassroots pressure on social media, visits to lawmakers’ offices, and phone calls from constituents to their representatives.

The campaign released a new web page to enable the public to view – district by district – who is on the record in support this year, and who has made a past commitment but is not yet on the record this year.

The group also pledged to be in Albany every day over the next two weeks.

“Unless they publicly disavow their past positions, we should assume that all 88 members who have previously pledged support for public financing still support it. If they’ve suddenly changed their minds now that the prospect of passage is real, they owe it to the public to explain that change,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School. “It’s not only the right solution to fix Albany’s broken politics. The politics have aligned too. For years the Assembly and its members have strongly urged this reform. Governor Cuomo and Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins have ample reason to stand strong with the Assembly and keep this in the budget, no matter what.”

Late last month, the Fair Elections for New York Coalition rallied for campaign finance reform on the steps of the Million Dollar Staircase. The event attracted hundreds of activists from around the state to the Capitol to push for this cause, claiming that New York state campaign finance laws are among the worst in the country.

Legislative Gazette photo by Katherine Borchert
Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, Assistant Assembly Speaker Felix Ortiz, Sen. Rachel May, Sen. Zellnor Myrie and Sen. Jen Metzger are all showing support for reforming the state’s election and campaign laws.

“As a graduate of college in May 2018 and a young person, fair elections is important because it is about ensuring that young people like me can also have a voice in the political process,” said recent Syracuse graduate Ajit Bhullar. “The single largest issue facing college students and recent graduates today is the piling amounts of debt that will take many years to pay off. It is critical that we have our politicians fight on our behalf to help us have a future not loaded in debt.”

The small donor matching system that the organization is pushing for would increase the power of small donations and lower the influence of larger, more corporate, donations by introducing a $6-to-$1 match on small donations.

The coalition of more than 200 groups wants publicly funded campaigns for the office of governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, senators, Assembly members, and district attorneys.

“It is critical we implement a small-donor matching system for state elections, including district attorneys,” claims the coalition’s website. “This gives everyday people the means to run for office and represent their communities while relying on small donations instead of large checks.”

Watch excerpts from the Feb. 27 rally here:

One of the advocates for small donations in New York politics is Senator Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn who was a featured speaker at the Feb. 27 rally.

“When I ran, I had the good fortune of receiving a lot of small donations, but also crucial support from many of my former colleagues who could afford to give,” said Myrie, who now chairs the Senate Elections Committee. “But so many people don’t have that resource.”

Speaking on the extent of dissatisfaction that New Yorkers are showing with current campaign finance laws, was Senator Rachel May of Syracuse.

“During my campaign last year, I talked with thousands of voters, and I heard their anger about New York’s dysfunctional democracy. It seemed as if New York was putting up hurdles to exclude people from the political process. For too long, wealthy interests have been able to buy elections — and do it legally thanks to broken campaign finance laws.”

The rally showed that younger New Yorkers are especially troubled by the state’s current elections laws.

SUNY Binghamton student Sean O’Brien was among the young people who rallied in the Capitol last month to push for a small-donor matching system and lower campaign contribution limits.

O’Brien is a member of the Democracy Matters club at his school and was not afraid to share his thoughts on the matter, saying “As college students, my friends and I feel that we don’t have a voice in our state government. But with Fair Elections, we would have confidence that our representatives were listening to us, rather than to their big campaign donors.”

“It’s up to you; it’s up to us; and we’re gonna do it together,” said Assistant Speaker and Assemblyman Felix Ortiz.