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Public finance commission hearing overshadowed by arguments on fusion voting

Tempers flared at a public hearing of a commission formed to enact a public campaign financing system for New York. But the tensions centered not on that proposal, but on the commission's decision to consider whether to end fusion voting, which allows candidates to run on multiple ballot lines.

story in Politico reported that commission member Jay Jacobs, who is also head of the state's Democratic Party, was actively recruiting opponents of fusion voting to come testify, to counterbalance an anticipated number of speakers who support the practice.

Jacobs was appointed to the commission by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has had a long feud with the leaders of one minor party, the Working Families Party. The progressive-leaning group initially endorsed Cuomo's primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon, in the 2018 elections.

In March, Jacobs shepherded a nonbinding resolution through the state's Democratic Party to ban fusion voting.

Working Families Party committee member Susan Webber, during testimony, confronted Jacobs about the news story.

"This is an example of big money and government by Prince Andrew putting its thumb on what goes on with this commission," Webber said. "And I'm very, very upset."

Jacobs responded by saying that the Working Families Party was also drumming up support for its position.

"I am in receipt of several emails from the Working Families Party calling on people to come and testify," Jacobs said.

When Webber tried to speak over him, Jacobs admonished her.

"Excuse me, I am answering. You spoke, I am now going to respond to you," Jacobs said.

Jacobs says he did not send out emails, but that people contacted him wanting to speak against fusion voting. And he denied that the commission was trying to get rid of an inconvenient third party.

"This is about fusion voting, this about the process that is in many areas of the state as unpleasantly corrupting as other aspects campaign finance and the rest are in the state," he said.

The state's Conservative Party also accused the commission of trying to "artificially gin up 'public' testimony from party subordinates," saying in a statement that "the fix is in."

Both parties have filed lawsuits against the commission.

Cuomo, at a news conference in New York City on an unrelated topic, said he didn't see the article, but he doesn't see anything wrong with recruiting speakers.

"I don't think it's anything out of the ordinary that people try to get people to go to a hearing," Cuomo said.

Jacobs has said he'll keep an open mind on the issue, and Cuomo has refused to take a public stand on whether to continue fusion voting in the future, saying it's up to the commission to decide.

Jessica Wisneski of Citizen Action, who is for fusion voting, urged the commission members to act independently.

"I fear for all of you that in the 11th hour you'll get the call from the people who appointed you to say, 'We've figured it out, here's what's going to happen, here's what we need you to do,' " Wisneski said. "I implore you to use your knowledge that you bring to this to do what is best for the people of New York."

The commission will issue its decision in December on whether to end fusion voting as well as a plan for public financing of political campaigns.

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.