This year was supposed to be different in New York. After failing to pass a comprehensive public financing system during the last legislative session, advocates for the measure believed this year, they would get the deed done, and New York state would match small-dollar donations with public funds, allowing campaigns with low-level donors to compete with those whose supporters can write big checks. But on Tuesday, the effort to get public financing in New York had been dealt a major (if not a fatal) blow. Highlighting the stakes of such legislation, Wednesday morning the United States Supreme Court removed one of the last vestiges of the nation’s campaign finance system, banning caps on the total amount individuals can give to candidates in the McCutcheon v. FEC decision.
Now, the progressives who formed the Fair Elections Campaign have begun a new set of strategies to pass their public financing plan, largely by going to war with the most powerful Democrat in the state—Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Ostensibly, Cuomo, whose office did not respond to interview requests, is in favor of public financing. It was part of his campaign platform, and he’s mentioned it in every State of the State address. Last year, however, the legislature ended without passing any legislation on the issue, despite proposed plans being offered by the governor, Democratic lawmakers, and the Independent Democrats who currently share power with Republicans in the state Senate’s “coalition” model.
At the time, many advocates blamed Cuomo for his inaction. The New York governor, who has national ambitions, plays the angles. He does not always back incumbent Democrats, even in general elections, and benefits from the state senate’s unusual set up. Even though Democrats have the majority, a faction of rebel Democrats, the Independent Democrats, joined with the Republicans to rule the legislature, which means Cuomo has an easy pressure-release valve. He doesn’t receive any legislation that’s too far to the left of him. Despite the Republican hold on the Senate, the governor usually gets what he wants—his state was the first to pass a major piece of gun regulation after the Newtown shootings and he also rammed through a marriage equality measure. Cuomo can usually find Republican votes when he needs to, but public financing didn’t make the cut in 2013.
After the session ended, the Fair Elections Campaign got active in districts, including that of the head of the Independent Democrats, Senator Jeff Klein. Phonebanking and blockwalking helped raise awareness of the issue and showed lawmakers the reformers meant business. Among the coalition was the Working Families Party, a third party that endorses Democrats but pushes them left, and Friends of Democracy, a super PAC funded by Jonathan Soros, son of the famous philanthropist George.
Most importantly, this year advocates expected Cuomo to have more leverage. He included a public financing plan in his budget proposal. By tying the plan to a must-pass piece of legislation—which also had plenty of room for deals to placate Republicans—advocates thought they’d have more tools available to get a plan over the finish line. Furthermore, the governor had set up a commission, known as the Moreland Commission, to make recommendations about how to clean up the system. Advocates expected the governor would only agree to end the commission when lawmakers passed a public financing measure. With Democrats controlling the governor’s office and the state House, and a Democratic faction with major clout in the Senate, the Fair Elections campaign had a strong hand it seemed, and over the last two months, the New York legislature frequently seemed close to getting a deal. Senate Republicans, the only group that didn’t have explicit support for the measure, appeared open to negotiations.
But, according to advocates, Cuomo was largely absent on the issue and when he did get involved, only complicated negotiations. He agreed to disband the Moreland Commission for support on some other anti-corruption measures, without a deal on public finance. On Tuesday night, the legislature passed a budget with a number of carve-outs for business, but only a paltry pilot program for public financing. Rather than some sort of matching system that could be implemented carefully and would apply to the governor and legislators, the pilot program is simply for one race, the 2014 state comptroller, and would have to be put together in a matter of weeks. Many in the Fair Elections coalition once supported such a pilot program, but not on such a short timeline and not after comprehensive reform seemed so close. “In obsessively driving for an on-time budget, Governor Cuomo and his office actively worked to both spoil and shut down negotiations that may have led to a more comprehensive result,” wrote David Donnelly, in a memo to supporters this week. Donnelly, in addition to his role as executive director of the pro-reform Public Campaign Action Fund, is also involved in Soros’ super PAC,
If advocates were looking for a silver-lining to the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision, it’s timing. Coming a day after the budget passed without a comprehensive plan, the decision helps illustrate how public financing has become one of the only options left for reformers, after years of the court chipping away at key campaign finance laws. “It’s the most promising thing that’s left,” says Ian Vandewalker, counsel in the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, one of the leading legal groups pushing for campaign finance reform. According to Vandewalker, Wednesday’s decision leaves the door wide open for more cases that can knock down the few remaining limitations for donors. Because the court argued that the only reason Congress can regulate donation is to prevent bribery, any regulation that doesn’t explicitly tackle bribery is now an easy target for lawsuits. A voluntary public financing system, which would help small-donation campaigns compete, may soon begin to look more appealing across the country.
Blaming Cuomo for the loss—and in so doing, trying to show some muscle—has become the coalition’s main goal. “For those among us who want very tangible things to do and to ask others to do, the best thing that can be done is to blame the Governor for failing to achieve what would have been an historic victory,” read Donnelly’s memo.
Cuomo’s national ambitions put him in a tough position. While he obviously isn’t eager to take huge political risks for public financing, he does want to curry some favor with progressives. For instance, the Working Families Party often will put progressive Democratic candidates on their ballot line, rather than nominating independent third party candidates. Cuomo is eager to win big this November, and show his popularity. But without a public financing win, Karen Scharff, the head of Citizen Action New York, one of the lead groups in the Fair Election Campaign, says “it’s certainly a very open question as to whether he gets the line.” A recent report from the progressive New York Public Interest Research Group showed that 170 wealthy contributors, each of whom donated $50,000 or more to state politics, represented half of all the money campaigns received last year. Cuomo was the main recipient of those big checks.
But Cuomo won’t be the only official facing electoral pressure. Scharff says a session with no public financing will also show the failure of the power-sharing model in the senate, an arrangement from which, as noted, Cuomo benefits. While the Fair Elections Campaign will not engage in political activity together, Friends of Democracy has promised to fight against those who didn’t do enough to pass the measure. “Every single political actor in this mix, from the assembly to the senate to the governor know that their actions have consequences,” says Donnelly, who declined to name any targets and says he’s hoping the legislature will still find a way to pass public financing before the legislature adjourns.
Still, that possibility is looking increasingly remote, and as advocates look to new strategies for November and next year, support from the governor is no longer part of the plan. “We went into this fight with the governor, the state assembly leadership, senate Democrats and Independent Democrats all in favor,” says Scharff. That the campaign could not get public financing in the budget is “a real sign of either the governor’s weakness or his lack of commitment.”