Now that New York State Legislature has finished its budget work (remarkable!), fair elections advocates throughout the state are organizing a massive push to enact fair elections reform including a public financing mechanism, reducing limits on contribution amounts, requiring greater disclosure of donors, and beefing up enforcement.
There is a 100-day window of opportunity before the Legislature adjourns in June. Advocates believe that they have the greatest chance to achieve election reform this year in decades.
“The stars might be aligned,” said Jessica Wisneski, Citizen Action of New York.
Indeed, it is certainly a hopeful sign that Governor Cuomo joined the conference call organized by Citizen Action of New York rallying good-government groups, who outlined a “battle plan” to get the NYS Legislature to adopt it before it recesses in June.
“No one argues that NYS campaign finance laws aren’t working well – limits are absurdly high, participation absurdly low, ” Governor Cuomo told the 1,000 people who joined the call . “The system hasn’t worked for years.
“We want a public finance system – $30 million in a $140 billion budget. Surely we can find the $30 million.
“Independent expenditures after Citizens United is a potential train of abuse coming down the track, a license to bring millions and millions of dollars unchecked, undisclosed into the campaign system.
Disclosure, he said is the antidote. “The state can’t overrule federal law, but we can mandate aggressive disclosure and can regulate when n is actually electioneering, thereby triggering disclosure rules.
“We want an aggressive disclosure plan – all contributions should be disclosed in 48 hours. Period. We have the technology, we have the website – we need real time tracking of contributions for candidates, political committees, lobbying groups, all up on the web in 48 hours.
“We want real enforcement power to state elections board.
“We have worked on [election reform] for many years. We are trying to get it passed this year in legislative session. I am cautiously optimistic on passage,” Cuomo said, noting, “You never know what will happen with legislature… but we’re working hard with them.”
A number of factors are at play that increase the likelihood of success, Cuomo said.
The 2012 Presidential campaign demonstrated to the political system the “tremendous power of small donors.” But the general public saw something else: the unleashing of a tidal wave of money. “They saw TV ad after ad and had no idea who was paying – all these names, Americans for America, Citizens for a Better Tomorrow – are nice but what mean, who are they, what credibility, whose paying for it, and follow the money.
“This is not just a New York problem, it’s a national problem, but New York once led the way in campaign finance – Theodore Roosevelt required disclosure – he was one of early leaders,” said Cuomo, who often points out that New York State has a tradition as a leader in progressive reforms.
Among the broad coalition of allies being marshaled in this effort is the labor movement.
“The federal system is totally broken down,” said Larry Cohen, president of Communications Workers of America, but “New York is taking the lead here in a major way on campaign finance reform. Public financing and disclosure are key to all of this.
“If New York moves ahead on this, it will send a signal across the country, and we can pick up in other states.”
Heather McGhee, Vice President of Demos, and a board member of Public Campaign, noted that Demos, which is headquartered in New York, was founded on an idea around the link between political and economic inequality.
The two are linked, mutually reinforcing: Those in office now have depended on the deep pockets of donors; if entrenched powers can block votes, there won’t be the fair elections reforms that would enable the people to vote out entrenched. Representation – who is sent to office to represent – is now dependent upon money.
“We know New York is the most economically unequal state in the union, and we have the chance in New York of being the first state to respond to Citizens United with comprehensive campaign finance reform and implement policies that would shrink the income gap and grow the middle class in New York.
“To put it into context, campaign finance in New York is dominated by Big Money – 90% of donations are over $250; only 127 donors accounted for one-third of all money raised by state candidates. Politics is a wealthy person’s game – that matters when they get to call the tune.
“Because of political inequality, policies are suffering in ways that stall our economic mobility for the rest.”
Demos has issued a “Stacked Deck” report which shows that under most circumstances, the preferences of the vast majority of Americans have no impact on what policies government adopts or not.
This is clearly the case in gun control, climate change, energy policy, tax policy, the Dream Act and comprehensive immigration reform, minimum wage, health care policy, and a score of other issues.
“The Earned Income tax credit, unemployment benefits, jobs and economic development – the wealthy who make up donor class have very different priorities than the rest,” McGhee said. “We’ve seen that elected officials are responding to donor class and not the rest of us.”
“Think about the kind of policies that can make difference more New Yorkers work their way to middle class – better of foreclosure policies, higher education grants (always on chopping block), pensions for all, sustainable economic development.
“Instead, we have wasteful spending on corporate loopholes, CEO compensation [policies which hurt stockholders and employees]. All of these can be on table with voters (ordinary people) in the drivers’ seat,” McGhee said.
What is more, because of how elections are financed, “the diversity of state legislators doesn’t reflect the diversity of community – that’s what public financing can change. And once in office, lobbyists writing checks and writing legislation wouldn’t have the same sway with elected officials as they did before campaign finance reform.”
Michael Brune, president of Sierra Club, noted that the environmental advocacy group may not be associated in the public mind with democracy movements, but who is elected to office determines whether the water is clean, the air breathable. “It is why we are putting so much into fair elections and democratic reform.”
New Yorkers, Brune says, “are against fracking and now for fair elections. I don’t have to tell Sierra Club members why it is important to get big money out of politics We are fighting polluters, and it’s the same fight to keep elections clean. Whether in Congress, state legislatures, city council, the big money from big polluters distort the process.
“BP, Chevron, Exxon can mobilize their army of lobbyists to protect millions in tax giveaways. And gas companies can block efforts to keep fracking out; they can dump toxins into the air we breathe without local officials taking action. Money spent by big polluters forces their reckless agenda into our political system and keeps families out. A small cadre of very rich people spending a whole lot of money to elect people who will do their bidding.
In the last election, the Koch Brothers – two men who have made their fortune from fossil fuels and have done their level best to subsidize propaganda denying climate change and to block any development in renewables – spent $400 million, more than entire McCain campaign spent in 2008.
“And why not? It’s a smart investment for them. $15 million from Exxon to protect $600 million in annual tax subsidies.
“It is cynical, negative, destructive, but with that kind of buy in makes it difficult for anyone else to get heard. We know all this money changes the debate.
“When we were asked to join the call, everyone in Sierra Club was excited to be in movement. New York has a chance to make history by being the first to put people back in charge, to get money out.
“But we have to have a clear eye on dirty ways of politics We need your help – this is not an easy fight. Online, offline, you need to carry your message to elected officials, that your voice must be heard.”
Ben Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, linked voter suppression to the need for campaign finance reform.
“This past two years, we’ve seen more states push more voters out of the ballot than any legislative cycle in past century. All of us have to be committed to move the pendulum, to move to the offense,” Jealous said. “Suppressing voter rights is the mirror-image of buying votes – when they can’t buy enough, they increasingly suppress voices of those who would be likely to object to their agenda.
“We need to see money getting out of politics – to the same degree as the far right wing and corporate interests see getting money into politics.
“We don’t see any line, any difference in fighting for voting rights and fighting to keep money out of politics We see New York as one of the most exciting opportunities in the US to expand access to ballot box and to politics in general, this year,” Jealous said.
Jared Benjamin, Metropolitan Council of Housing, pointed to affordable housing issue as intimately connected to election reform.
“Any New Yorker who rents needs fair elections, said Benjamin. “The real estate lobby in New York is like Big Oil in Texas – deep pockets that drown out voices of anyone else. With their money and the lack of New York campaign finance laws it’s hard for elected officials to focus on the things they want to. Any elected official who wants to focus on affordable housing or fight homelessness is instantly the target of realtors and landlords. It is impossible to focus solely on policy and constituents.
“Tenants need a package of reforms – close the LLC loophole that the landlord lobby exploits, level the playing field, make elections more fair.”
That’s the why.
Jessica Wisneski of Citizen Action of New York outlines the “how” to get it done.
“The long haul is over, it’s about the next three months,” she says, “Clearly the Governor is with us and we have some real legislative champions, a new and growing coalition, and you on the grassroots – so the stars might be aligned.
“By the end of June we need an outpouring of support because what we hear most is that elected officials don’t think enough people out there who think we need reform We need you to prove them wrong.”
The New York State Assembly is supportive of fair elections for all legislative and state candidates. Indeed, Speaker Sheldon Silver has been introducing the bill year after year; and the Assembly has passed election reform bills multiple times, only to be killed in the Senate.
The Senate is more complicated – Democrats support the measure, but the oddly created “independent democratic conference” which caucuses with the Republicans, has shown concern but wants the details.
Republican Leader Dean Skelos said Republicans are opposed to citizen funded elections and other reforms, using the dodge that the state can’t afford $2 per New Yorker for a healthier democracy [This is the same talking point that Senator Jack Martins offered at the recent League of Women Voters-Port Washington and Manhasset forum on fair elections].
“What are they afraid of?” Wisneski asks. “We have to shame them. Pick out the loopholes in the state budget that cost more than $30 million.” (You can visit fairelectionsny.org/legislators to see the list and where they fall, whether shown support or oppose.)
She advised that even if you live in a district where the Legislator is supportive, “Your job and your neighbors is to talk to them. Just supporting isn’t enough. They need to be actively working, making it a top priority by June. Bring home the bacon and pass the law.
“But if your legislator does not support or opposes the bill, you need to kick into high gear. Let them know that their constituents not only support the reform, but expect it to be done.
“A good old fashioned letter to a legislator – not a form but a personal letter and follow up with a phone call, or visit to their office in Albany in May, on Lobby Day.
“If you are part of group or organization, make it an issue that the whole group works on for next three months. Get the group to take same action.
“Our basic strategy is an overwhelming show of public support and demand for change in the status quo and pass campaign finance reform.”
These proponents of campaign finance reform recognize that you can’t actually purge the system of Big Money, but the antidote is getting the small money in.
“We talk about getting big money out, but the truth is, money will always find a way in, it would be like trying to get water to stop running downhill,” said Working Family Party’s Dan Cantor. “But one way to get big money out is to get small donors and public money in.
“Opponents say they don’t want to give taxpayer money to fund elections, but the answer to that is, taxpayers are already paying. Taxpayers pay for the deals they make.”
As for what to say to a wavering politician, “show that system is better for the public and better for them as legislators,” says Sharp. “They spend time now raising money which most prefer not to do, and would rather be working for constituents than dialing for dollars, spending time in the district, talking to voters who are then also the donors.
“For most of legislators, they first ran for office because they wanted to impact public policy, and now they see how that goal is frustrated. This would allow them to concentrate on policy making, for ordinary New Yorkers.”
Here’s what Citizen Action NY is urging:
1) Host a Fair Elections House Party. During the week of April 8, activists across New York will gather in living rooms to spread the word about Fair Elections and take action; sign up at fairelectionsny.org/party, and you will receive a host package with the materials you need.
2) Sign the Fair Elections petition. We need to collect the signatures of tens of thousands of New Yorkers’ who are standing with Governor Cuomo in support of Fair Elections (fairelectionsny.org/petition).
3) “Like” on Facebook. Get the latest news, and learn about important events happening across New York at www.facebook.com/fairelectionsny.
4) Use the hashtag #fairelex on Twitter, to spread the word about citizen-funded elections on Twitter and follow the conversation.
Fair Elections advocates believe stars aligned for campaign finance reform
Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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