Public campaign finance reform: clean money or throwing good money after bad?

Sheldon Silver

by Howie Hawkins
May 14, 2013

Sheldon Silver

Sheldon Silver

New York needs a Clean Money system of full public campaign funding. That’s how we end the privatized “public” elections funded by the 1% that make Albany a feeding trough for wealthy special interests.

The so-called Fair Elections Act (A4980C-2013), which passed the Assembly and was delivered to the Senate on May 7, merely supplements the existing system of unlimited private campaign financing with partial public funding.

This bill throws good public money after bad private money. The cesspool of pay-to-play influence peddling by wealthy private donors remains alive and well.

The bill is sponsored by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and supported in concept by Governor Andrew Cuomo and Democratic leaders. Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, object that public campaign financing will not stop illegal bribery, like that alleged by indicted Senator Malcolm Smith. Republicans miss the point. The point is legalized bribery. We need public campaign financing to end the buying of favors by private campaign donors.

Though touted as a state version of New York City’s matching funds system, the Silver bill is not. Unlike New York City’s system, Silver’s bill has no limits on private campaign spending. It doesn’t get private money out. It just adds some public money in. Why bother?

Proponents answer that Silver’s bill caps donations at $2000 per candidate, well below current limits. As always, the devil is in the details and the devil has been hard at work on the Silver bill.

Working people cannot contribute anything close to $2000. Moreover, the Silver bill contains giant backdoor loopholes for the 1%. These loopholes concern party committees that serve as soft money slush funds for party bosses.

Donations of up to $102,300 to state committees continue, which, in Silver’s bill, can contribute $2.5 million to a gubernatorial candidate, $100,000 to each State Senate candidate, and $50,000 to each Assembly candidate. Nor does the Silver bill end unlimited donations to party “housekeeping accounts,” to which both major parties receive huge donations, many over $100,000, that can be spent on issue ads and get-out-the-vote operations.

The coalition of liberal groups promoting the Fair Elections Act is itself funded by corporations and the super-rich, including Jonathan Soros, scion of multi-billionaire George Soros; David Rockefeller, Sr.; Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes; the big business lobby, Committee for Economic Development; and Organizing for Action, the Obama post-campaign dark money mirror of Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS that solicits donations of $500,000 to $1 million.

Many of these groups like Citizen Action and Working Families Party used to support the Clean Money system of full public campaign financing. Democrats introduced Clean Money bills in the state legislature for many years. But no Clean Money bill was introduced this session. Apparently, big money from big business elites has persuaded elected Democrats and the liberal organizations that support them to abandon Clean Money.

In the Clean Money states of Arizona and Maine, candidates qualify for equal public campaign grants by raising a reasonable number of $5 contributions from voters in their district to demonstrate support. The grant is sufficient to get the candidate’s message to all voters. Candidates who opt for public money may not raise and spend private money. They only use clean public money.

Isn’t New York more progressive than Arizona? Isn’t there one progressive Democrat left in Albany who will stand up, re-introduce a Clean Money bill, and lead a fight for full public campaign financing? Or will we get this phony reform that throws good public money after bad to provide camouflage for the same old corrupt system of two entrenched corporate parties financed by legalized bribes?

Howie Hawkins is a Teamster truck unloader in Syracuse who was the Green Party candidate for New York Governor in 2010.