Will Cuomo Champion Campaign Finance Reform?

AP Images/Mike Groll

The fight to make elections fairer in New York has become a primary goal for campaign finance reformers. A majority in the assembly and a majority in the senate support giving additional public dollars to campaigns that raise money from small donors, matching each dollar raised with six taxpayer dollars. Among voters, the idea is popular. Most importantly, Governor Andrew Cuomo has beaten the drum, declaring his support in state of the state addresses and other speeches. But now with just two weeks left in the session, the efforts have stalled, and Cuomo has not actively championed the issue. Some are starting to worry whether public financing might become a victim of Cuomo’s presidential ambitions.

There’s still time to pass a bill but time is of the essence. “A lot can still happen—but a lot needs to happen,” says Karen Scharff, the head of Citizen Action of New Yorkone of the leading groups in favor of public financing legislation.

If New York could pass a major public financing system it would be the biggest victory for campaign finance reformers in years. The state has long struggled with corruption, and a public matching system, which would begin to even out the power between big and small donors. If it can pass in New York, most advocates believe it will give momentum to the entire movement and even jumpstart similar reform efforts in other states.

Fair Elections Campaign, the most active coalition advocating campaign reform, wants to pass a measure modeled on New York City’s public financing system, which matches every small dollar donation with six taxpayer dollars. It also seeks to cut campaign contribution limits and create strong enforcement provisions. So long as these principles are respected, the advocates aren’t too concerned about the details, like how contributions to party apparatuses are treated or exactly how low the contribution limits get. “Everything’s negotiable as long as those principles are met,” says Dan Cantor, head of the pro-public-financing Working Families Party and a leader in the movement.

Campaign finance reformers started the legislative session with a huge sense of optimism. Cuomo’s support in particular emboldened the movement. The supporters include not just the usual good-government groups, but Facebook co-founder and New Republic editor Chris Hughes, entertainment executive Barry Diller,  and even Bill Donaldson, the Republican former chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission. In January the closest campaign in the state was called for Senate candidate Cecilia Tkaczyk. Tkaczyk had taken on a Republican opponent with a campaign focused on the need for reform, with support from groups like Citizen Action and the Jonathan Soros-funded Friends of Democracy super PAC, which gives big checks to candidates focused on getting money out of politics.

Big money has long been a major factor in New York state politics, and a slew of scandals in recent months, from bribery to embezzlement, has only highlighted the prominence of money in politics. Voters in the state also began getting behind the measure. A March poll from the Siena Research Institute showed that 61 percent of New Yorkers supported public campaign funding, and another in May registered the support at 57 percent. By early May the assembly had passed a bill.

But while the support seems to be everywhere, the momentum has hit a major wall known as the state senate, where a bizarre shared leadership arrangement allows Republicans to block legislation. Republicans lost their majority in the 2012 election. But a group of Democratic dissidents who had already broken from Democratic caucus after intraparty power struggles and formed the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), decided to join with the Republicans. The two groups share power and don’t bring bills to the floor unless both the IDC and the Republicans support them. That only compounds what’s already an unusual standard in New York; leaders rarely bring measures unless they’ve already been pre-negotiated and the details ironed out. All year, Democrats have struggled to get their bills to the floor, even with a majority.

Republicans have objected to every measure put forth by Democrats, and last week Republicans Senator James Seward told The Daily Gazette that “taxpayer funded elections is dead on arrival” in the Senate. (Dean Skelos, the leader of Senate Republicans, did not respond to interview requests by press time.) While The Brennan Center, a legal group that supports the reform, estimates the cost at between $26 and $41 million per year, Senate Republicans say it could come out to more than $80 million per year. Advocates who once hoped for a bipartisan solution have decided their only chance of getting the measure passed is to pressure the IDC to join with the Democratic caucus. While the IDC has drafted its own version of a reform bill, which resembles that of the assembly Democrats on most key issues, so far, they’ve refused to break with Republicans (and join with other Democrats) to bring the bill to the floor. In response, campaign finance reform advocates have mobilized voters to call and email IDC senators, hoping to show how much voter-support there is for such legislation. “Our path is to bring enough political pressure to bear that the decision makers make a decisions—instead of to slow walk us to death here,” says Cantor.

The person who can bring the most pressure to bear has been absent from the negotiating table so far. Andrew Cuomo is known for his ability to use the bully pulpit to force political opponents into line, and he’s worked successfully with Republicans. He famously pushed same-sex marriage through the legislature even when the GOP controlled the senate outright. Cuomo has voiced his support for public financing publicly in speeches and privately to advocates. He’s called for the initiative in state of the state addresses for three years. However, the governor has not put his muscle behind it the way he did same-sex marriage. Rather than waging a hard PR campaign around the state, the governor has stayed out of the way. When Senate Republicans argued the cost would be much higher than think-groups had estimated, Cuomo didn’t defend the initiative but said he’d have his staff do “a closer scrub on the numbers.”

Advocates want Cuomo to introduce his own package of public financing, one that would offer grounds for negotiation between the assembly and the senate. They also want him to get more active in pressuring the IDC and Senate Republicans—groups he’s worked with successfully in the past. “Even though he is a supporter of public financing, he’s not championed the issue,” says Marc Caplan, the leader of the Piper Fund, which advocates for public financing. “It’s really his leadership that’s needed.”

But Cuomo is in a difficult political position. He’s got national ambitions and wants to burnish his liberal credentials—without getting labeled as a big-spending, Northeastern liberal. From the beginning, that’s been a hard balance. When Republicans made a play for power, despite losing the majority, Cuomo largely stayed silent. He hadn’t supported several Democratic candidates in competitive races, and didn’t try to convince the IDC to stick with the Democrats. With the GOP in control, he doesn’t need to worry about legislation going too far to the left. When it comes to campaign finance, some advocates worry that while Cuomo wants credit for his lip service to reform, while also benefitting from the system that elected him. (The governor’s office did not return calls this weekend.)

But with time of the essence, it’s still possible Cuomo will unveil his own legislative package for funding reform and push hard for it. He’d remained quiet on his other big issue—a ten-point women’s equality package—until he introduced his measure last week and started putting his shoulder to the legislative plough, demanding that the senate bring his bill up for a vote. Some advocates have faith he will do the same with campaign finance. “The governor has told the Fair Elections Campaign that he’s going to push hard at the end of session,” says Citizen Action’s Scharff. To date, Cuomo has been able to negotiate between different factions of the senate to get his priorities passed. If he chooses to set his mind to campaign finance reform, he'll likely try to get the leaders to negotiate in backrooms and get a deal. And there’s always the chance that he still can’t get an agreement.

If Cuomo does throw himself into the fight and successfully pass a public financing program, it will be the most significant step forward for the reform community in years, and go a long way towards closing the power gap between big and small donors. It might even prompt other states to take a more serious look at passing similar legislation.

But that’s only if things go just right—and happen fast. 

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