It might not be easy to discuss the Greek playwright Euripides and the Dutch philosopher Erasmus in the same breath, especially considering they walked the earth 2,000 years apart. But they did have a shared philosophy, and it’s one all of us are familiar with: money talks. Especially in politics.
When it comes to government, if you want to make a splash, all you need is to flash — some green. The loudest voices in a campaign, or in any discussion, really, are typically those with the deepest pockets. Even running for local office can cost thousands of dollars, with that total easily hitting six digits for state office, and far more if you want to go to Washington.
Over the years, however, New York has worked hard to level the playing field. New York City, for example, has offered candidates a matching public-finance option for years. Anyone not taking large special-interest donations can qualify for public money, allowing their voice to be just as loud as anyone else’s, no matter how much anyone has raised. The option is intended to keep big business and heavily funded political movements away from lawmakers, while ensuring that taxpayer investments are returned to communities through campaign expenditures.
Lawmakers in Albany have paid attention as well, writing legislation that would provide matching funds to any Assembly candidate who raises at least $6,000 from 75 different donors in his or her district, and to any State Senate candidate who raises at least $12,000 from 150 donors.
Statewide candidates would see a match of $6 for every $1 of qualified donations. Assembly members and senators would see matching qualified donations ranging from $12-to-$1 to $8-to-$1.
Candidates would still have to campaign. They would still need to win support. But this law would help ensure that that support isn’t drowned out by opponents with massive campaign war chests, funded by special interests.
Everything was looking good for the proposed bill until the final week of the legislative session. Then lawmakers apparently had a chance to take a closer look at it, and suddenly remembered something really important: They have to run for re-election. The candidates with the deep pockets whom this law would weaken? It’s them, the incumbents. The politicians who already have a built-in advantage simply because they have “Assembly member” or “Senator” in front of their name.
So, those very lawmakers revisited the new law, and introduced some changes. Instead of raising $6,000, Assembly candidates would have to raise $10,000, from 145 donors, to qualify for matching funds. Senators would need to raise $24,000, from 350 donors.
Candidates wouldn’t need to win just some support — this is an exceedingly high bar.
In fact, the only people who would actually benefit from this bill, S.7564, if Gov. Kathy Hochul signs it into law are the very incumbents this kind of campaign finance reform is intended to humble by preventing them from winning races before they even start, simply because of how loudly money talks. If this revised bill becomes law, the voice and reach of the incumbents would be stronger — and further — than ever before. Not only would they have the big money of special interests, but they’d have taxpayer money backing them as well. And anyone challenging them? Well, good luck.
The reworked legislation easily passed the Assembly and Senate, but fortunately, not with the help of many of our local representatives. State Sens. Patricia Canzoneri-Fitzpatrick, Jack Martins and Steven Rhoads voted against it, as did Assembly members Jake Blumencranz, Ari Brown, Brian Curran, David McDonough, John Mikulin, Edward Ra and Michaelle Solages.
State Sen. Kevin Thomas was a “yes” on the bill, as were Assembly members Taylor Darling and Charles Lavine.
All are Republicans except for Solages, Thomas, Darling and Lavine.
A representative democracy mandates leaders who truly represent the people. If someone believes they can represent them better, they deserve to have every opportunity to prove it. The matching-campaign-funds program could have been a great start, helping this particular democracy achieve those goals.
But if the governor signs this monstrosity into law, not only will the potential gains of the earlier law be erased, but the entire democratic process will take 10 giant steps backward.
Hochul must do the right thing, and veto S.7564.