Every Friday, the Brennan Center will be compiling the latest news concerning the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics—and the ongoing need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform. We’ll also be linking to dispatches from around the country highlighting the national scope of this crisis. This week’s links were contributed by Matthew Ladd and Dan Rockoff.
For more stories on an ongoing basis, follow the Twitter hashtag #moNeYpolitics and #fairelex.
New York Campaign Finance and Ethics News
1. The latest Newsday op-ed to call for public financing in New York state, by Make the Road New York member and community organizer Maria Magdalena Flores, explains why public financing is needed to combat apathy among working-class and minority voters. Flores offers some startling statistics: in the most recent state elections for New York assembly, state senate and governor, a mere 6% of contributions came from donors giving $250 or less, compared to a whopping 64% in the last city council elections. New York City’s public financing program has opened the door “for meaningful participation from working-class communities,” resulting in a city council that is not only more racially and economically diverse, but that is also better positioned to represent the interests of ordinary New Yorkers.
2. On Thursday, the Times Union editorial board strongly urged Gov. Cuomo to continue pushing for campaign finance reform, especially in light of its harsh criticisms of last week’s redistricting deal. New York’s campaign finance laws are “embarrassingly weak,” creating a regime that invites abuse and lets “the special interests overwhelm ordinary voters.”
3. The results of a nationwide State Integrity Investigation conducted by the Center for Public Integrity were published this week, giving New York an overall grade of D, ranking it 36 out of the 50 states (based on a numerical score of 65 out of 100), and issuing D or F grades for its handling of ethics enforcement, political financing, and state budget processes, among other areas. The full report card can be found here. The least corrupt state? New Jersey. In the wake of the investigation’s findings, the Times Union argues that a voluntary matching funds system, similar to New York City’s public financing program, remains “the only way to limit the power of big campaign checks,” and that Albany’s dismally low grade is simply “one more indication of the broken system of campaign finance in Albany that puts the interests of CEO campaign contributors before the interests of our communities.”
4. The state report accompanying New York’s report card singles out the ineffectual State Board of Elections for special criticism. The report card cites NY PIRG’s Bill Mahoney for the view that the Board is underfinanced, understaffed, and unable to enforce its regulations, and concludes that “the 19.5 million citizens of the Empire State can agree on one thing: Albany is defined by dysfunction and corruption.” The State Integrity Investigation also highlights another anti-corruption report, jointly published in February by the University of Illinois political science department and its Institute for Government and Public Affairs, finding that New York’s number of federal public corruption convictions since 1976—over 2,500 and counting—is the highest in the nation.
5. As if to illustrate the findings of the State Integrity Investigation, the federal corruption trial of former state Senator Pedro Espada, Jr., continued this week, with Judge Frederic Block excoriating Espada’s attorney for using questionable courtroom tactics, and with Espada characterized during trial as a “puppet master” for his alleged embezzlement of funds from the Soundview Healthcare Network. The Times reports that more than a dozen witnesses testified on Thursday that Espada had paid them for personal services with funds from a subsidiary of Soundview.
National Campaign Finance News
1. A New York Times editorial this week blasted the Campaign for Primary Accountability, a super PAC that has raised nearly $1.8 million with the stated purpose of defeating long-serving incumbents in both parties. As the Times pointed out, while political entrenchment is a problem given partisan gerrymandering, this is a case where the end does not justify the means. Super PACs give corporations and the wealthy disproportionate influence: for instance, 95% of the money donated to the Campaign for Primary Accountability comes from just “four wealthy men with conservative bents.”
2. As the Republican presidential primaries continue into the spring, the remaining candidates are maxing out their donors and may be unable to sustain their current spending levels, allowing super PAC spending to drive their campaigns. For example, Mitt Romney’s super PAC Restore Our Future, which is overwhelmingly funded by just a handful of wealthy individuals, spent more than $12 million in February on attack ads.
3. Payday lending companies contributed more than a quarter of a million dollars last month to Mitt Romney’s super PAC Restore Our Future, a finding that emerged as major payday lenders are drawing heightened scrutiny from federal regulators at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The Romney campaign refused to comment on the specific contributions.
4. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney fended off criticism this week that President Obama spends too much time fundraising, arguing that the President spends the “vast preponderance” of his time on official duties. The incident serves as a reminder that 2012 presidential election will likely be the most expensive in history, which creates additional costs for the voting public: less time for public officials to focus on the interests of their constituents. For reformers and public officials alike, this should suggest the growing need for public financing of elections.