Blair Horner: A Bad Situation Made Worse By The U.S. Supreme Court

Sep 16, 2013

New York State’s campaign finance system has been awful for many years.  It is a system that has extremely high campaign contribution “limits” (for example you can give over $100,000 legally – assuming you had that much), lousy disclosure requirements, and impotent enforcement.

But thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, that bad situation has gotten worse.  In its landmark decision Citizen United, the Court ruled that corporations have the same free speech rights as flesh and blood human beings.  As such, corporations could spend as much as they wanted on elections, as long as such spending was not coordinated with a candidate.

That part of the story we have heard a lot about.  But because of that decision, New York City’s campaign finance system has been dramatically weakened.

Unlike the state law, the City of New York has established a system of public financing that allows candidates of average means – but with grassroots support – to mount serious campaigns for city office.  Thus, candidates can raise small donations that do not exceed $250 per donor and have that amount matched by public monies in a ratio of $6 in public dollars for every $1 raised in small donations.

The City system is also bolstered by stringent disclosure requirements, strict limitations on the spending of the campaign monies and one of the most aggressive enforcement agencies in the nation.

But due to the Citizens United decision, New York City’s system got weaker.

As mentioned earlier, under the Citizens United decision, corporations have the same free speech rights as humans.  Thus, New York City’s restrictions on corporate campaign activity have been eroded.  Corporations can spend as much as they like on the candidates of their choice.

As a result, in the recent Democratic primary, corporate campaigns got involved with a vengeance and had a serious impact.

As reported in the Times, a political consultant asked to meet with an aide to the Speaker of the City Council, Christine Quinn, at that time the leading Democratic contender for Mayor.  As written in the Times, “Call it an offer, a threat, a promise: … an aide to the speaker of the City Council was asked to meet … with a political consultant for a group that wanted a bill passed.  The consultant explained that the group he was representing was prepared to spend a lot of money attacking the speaker unless she supported legislation that would allow a pilot program of electric cars in Central Park.”

Ms. Quinn did not support the legislation. A coalition of groups called “New York City Is Not For Sale” introduced advertisements attacking Ms. Quinn, ultimately spending $879,000.

The consultant met a second time with the Speaker’s staff, this time on behalf of “New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets,” was which opposed to the horse carriage trade in Central Park and wanted a law allowing a pilot program of electric cars.  Ms. Quinn rejected that idea too.

Had she gone along with them, she could have avoided their barrage.  Instead, despite being the front-runner in early polls, she finished third in the Democratic mayoral primary.

This was one example of how “independent” campaign money is reshaping New York City’s elections.  Between the Council, mayoral and other citywide races, outside groups spent an unprecedented $12.7 million.

Given that the New York City system is about as good as can be, this story is unsettling to say the least.  Imagine what impact this new “wild West” campaign finance system could have on the state program with its already weak disclosure requirements and ineffective enforcement.

Of course, this is not to say that all is lost.  The absence of a clean money public campaign financing option means that only those who are wealthy or represent the interests of the wealthy and powerful can mount serious electoral challenges.  In New York City, its system still does allow those of modest means and connections to seriously run for office.  So, it is important for reformers to continue to push for public financing, better disclosure requirements and a robust enforcement system.  It just means that we have to push for a constitutional amendment that will overturn the terrible Citizens United decision as well.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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