Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Meditations on Hockey and Democracy

So what does a professional hockey game have in common with New York political campaigns? It’s not that they can both end up looking like sloppy street fights on ice. Rather, they are both getting astronomically pricey.

As a New Yorker, I’m used to perpetual sticker shock. The latest offenders are Rangers tickets. My husband is an avid hockey fan, and much to my chagrin, every winter Center Ice blares from my television every other night. Recently, he snagged last minute tickets to a Canucks-Rangers game at Madison Square Garden for $140. I asked him, “Weren’t there any cheap seats left?” He deadpanned, “Those were the cheap seats.” At $140, tickets are still out of reach for many New York hockey fans. (Granted, if he had planned ahead he could have paid half as much, and if he had waited longer he would have shelled out over $260).

Like Rangers tickets, the cost of political campaigns in New York State is also on the rise. At last count, the 2010 state elections in New York totaled nearly $200 million in political contributions, according to Part of the reason why those totals are so high is contribution limits in New York State are through the roof. For example, an individual can give more than $50,000 to a candidate for governor or attorney general. This structure incentivizes candidates to gather as many big checks as they can, ignoring the smaller donors. For example, the top 80 donors to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s campaign gave him $2.5 million. And anyone can give unlimited amounts to our state’s political parties.

The other reason why New York State candidates chase the big dollar donors is the lack of a public financing system, which would incentivize them to focus on smaller donors. Albany doesn’t have to look far to see how a small donor-focused system would work. In New York City, candidates receive a six to one match for small donations. This means a modest $15 contribution from a middle-class family can be worth $105 to a city candidate. For more than two decades, the New York City system has shown that publicly financed candidates really do shift how they campaign to focus on smaller donors. New York City’s approach ensures there are still affordable cheap seats in local political campaigns, both for potential candidates who don’t have a rolodex full of thousand-dollar donors and for everyday people who need their public officials focused on them.

Encouragingly, Cuomo made reforming the role of money in politics a centerpiece of his recent election campaign, and he endorsed the need to rein in high contribution limits and to adopt a New York City-style version of small donor-focused public financing in his State of the State speech. There’s no time to lose if Cuomo is going to follow through on those promises.

As lyricist Conor Oberst has noted, “Victory is sweet, even deep in the cheap seats.” This is true whether the battle is a hockey game or a tight election. But when it comes to our democracy, we need to make sure that cheap seats even exist. We don’t want a democracy that’s priced like MSG, where even the lowest priced ticket is out of reach for the average New Yorker. For that to be true, we need new campaign finance laws in our fair state.

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