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Advocates see new hope for publicly financed election campaigns in NY

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More than 200 groups are pushing for New York state to enact a public campaign finance system for statewide candidates. And they say they’ve never been closer to achieving their goal.

The coalition, known as Fair Elections for New York, includes dozens of unions, the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and the Sierra Club.

Rosemary Rivera with the government reform group Citizen Action said under New York’s current system, big-money donors have had nearly an unlimited ability to contribute to candidates. She said that means the politicians who receive the money often push proposals that the big donors are interested in at the expense of other New Yorkers.

“People in our communities are suffering,” Rivera said. “On housing, on criminal justice issues, on education, on health care.”

Rivera said the real estate industry has been a major contributor to state legislative campaigns, and she believes, as a result, policy decisions have been made that adversely affect tenants. They include a measure passed several years ago that weakens New York City’s rent laws.

“Predominately black and brown tenants wind up being evicted,” Rivera said.

She said if everyone were on an equal footing, and only small donations were permitted, then elected officials might listen more to the needs of middle- and working-class residents.

Jessica Wisneski, also with Citizen Action, said the public financing of campaigns is not a new concept. New York City and other nearby states have had systems for several election cycles. From those examples, she said, it’s been possible to learn what works and what doesn’t.

She favors a program that would provide state funding to match small donations by a 6-to-1 margin.

“If someone gives you $10, it turns into $70,” Wisneski said. “And you fuel your campaign this way, instead of having to go to Albany fundraisers.” 

Wisneski credits Gov. Andrew Cuomo for putting the proposal into his state budget plan.

In past years, Republicans controlled the state Senate. They were resistant to public campaign financing, saying that taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for political campaigns.

This year, several new Democrats were elected to the Senate, and the party now holds the majority, giving Democrats control of the Senate, the Assembly and the governor’s office.

Many of the freshman senators refused to take corporate donations, and their campaigns were funded by smaller donations. Rivera said there’s a “core group” of Assembly Democrats who also are backing public financing.

But she said she and other advocates know there is some resistance to changing a system that’s worked well for many long-term incumbent lawmakers of both parties. 

“I don’t think we want to jinx ourselves, but we’re in the best position at this point for it to happen,” said Rivera. “With the ‘triple blue’ that we have, we really believe that if there’s the political will, we can get this done.”

Rivera and Wisneski say they know that even with the reforms, they can’t take money out of politics completely, in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. It said the government could not restrict independent expenditure committees from spending unlimited amounts of money on political issue advertising campaigns. 

“Unfortunately, where we are at with the Supreme Court, we’re never going to completely get rid of money in politics,” Wisneski said.

She and other advocates said they are glad that the governor and Legislature took a first step recently and closed a campaign finance loophole that allowed corporate donors to skirt limits by forming multiple limited liability companies, or LLCs. But they say that’s not enough.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.