The Brennan Center regularly compiles 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 Syed Zaidi.
Reform Advocates Meet With Moreland Commission Co-Chair Fitzpatrick
Representatives from three good-government groups met with Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick at the end of August. Fitzpatrick is one of three co-chairs of the Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, a body appointed by Governor Cuomo to examine political corruption in the legislature. Representatives from Citizen Action of New York, the Brennan Center for Justice and Democracy Matters were present at the meeting. Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action, noted that the commission is “very willing to do investigations.” Already it has subpoenaed five major political donors – real estate developers in New York City – who received tax abatements from the state legislature. The advocates stated that Fitzpatrick was attentive to their comprehensive campaign finance reform proposal, which includes lower contribution limits, pay-to-play restrictions, public financing and better enforcement of existing laws.
Public Financing Keeps Focus on Small Donors in NYC Elections
Wall Street is noticeably absent from the campaign chests of New York City mayoral candidates. Three candidates in the Democratic primary ran on a platform of reducing income inequality and imposing higher taxes on the rich, and yet the city’s financial elite have been relatively inactive. New Republic senior editor Alec MacGillis explains that the city’s public financing system helps ensure that money does not speak louder than the voices of voters. Candidates that can garner small donations from enough city residents are provided with six dollars for every one dollar raised up to $175. Individual donations are capped at $4,950 for mayoral candidates. The system has encouraged mayoral candidates to spend time raising small donations from constituents rather than a few mega-donors. A 2012 study by the Brennan Center and the Campaign Finance Institute showed that 89 percent of census block groups in the city had at least one person who donated up to $175 to a City Council candidate, whereas only 30 percent of census block groups had a donor for the New York State Assembly races – where public financing is absent.
Independent Spenders Active in NYC Races
Although the New York City public financing system has done much to reduce the influence of special interests on electoral campaigns, independent groups can still spend unlimited funds as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC. In the first citywide election since the Supreme Court’s 2010 verdict, special interest groups are flexing their muscle through independent expenditures. Approximately $12.7 million has been spent by these groups on all races, with Jobs for New York, a real estate developers’ group, topping the charts with $4.8 million for and against City Council candidates. In the Democratic primary, Bill Thompson received the most favorable spending on his behalf; $2.9 million by a teachers’ union organization and a firefighters’ group, among others. On the Republican side, independent spenders preferred Joe Lhota. New Yorkers for Proven Leadership, co-founded by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani aides, spent $120,001 in support of Lhota.
The Donors and Lobbyists Behind the President’s Syria Resolution
In August, President Obama sought Congressional approval to engage in limited military action in Syria. On Wednesday of last week, a resolution authorizing the strike cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a 10 to seven vote. Analysis by MapLight illustrates that Senators who voted for the resolution received, on average, 83 percent more in campaign contributions from defense companies and defense-related interests, compared to Senators that voted “no.” Senators authorizing military force received on average $72,850 from the defense industry, whereas those rejecting the resolution received $39,770. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) who has been leading the effort to convince fellow Congressman on the issue received the greatest amount: $176,300. The American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has also been active, dispatching 250 members and activists to D.C. to lobby undecided lawmakers. AIPAC and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are both supportive of the strikes, seeking to send a bold message to the Syrian regime’s key ally, Iran, and punish Bashar Al-Assad for the alleged use of chemical weapons. After Russia presented a diplomatic opening, Obama has asked Congress to postpone the vote on his resolution.
Independent Group Spent $3.5 Million on Recall Elections in Colorado
Recall elections held last week in Colorado that were seen as a referendum on gun control provided a battlefield for outside spenders as the issue gathered national attention. Four Colorado state Senators were challenged in the recall election for voting to expand background checks on private gun sales and limit ammunition magazine capacity in the aftermath of the tragedies in Newtown and Aurora. Two Democratic state Senators, John Morse and Angela Giron, lost their seats. An estimated $3.5 million was spent by both sides, much of it from out of the state, and it’s likely much more spending went unreported. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $350,000 to Taxpayers for Responsible Democracy, a new Denver-based organization opposed to the recalls. Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by former U.S. Representative and gun violence victim Gabrielle Giffords, spent $400,000 on TV ads in support of the Senators. The National Association for Gun Rights, spent $100,000 on this anti-Morse ad. The Virginia-based National Rifle Association, which put forth $400,000 for the recall efforts, accused Mayor Bloomberg of “coming in and trying to buy elections.”
Disclosure Proposals Introduced in Several State Legislatures
A new analysis by the Sunlight Foundation shows that legislators in nearly half of all states have introduced legislation to expand disclosure and transparency in state politics following the Citizens United decision. Thirty-nine of the 66 bills introduced in 2012 and 2013 on campaign finance include proposals for greater disclosure, whereas 25 remain neutral on the issue, and two would actually damage transparency. Measures in D.C., Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Minnesota and Rhode Island, if passed, would improve disclosure around “dark money.” For instance, in Delaware, HB 300, which was introduced back in April and just passed last week, requires the prompt reporting of third-party spending on campaign ads. Unfortunately some states, such as Connecticut, Maryland, Florida, Arizona, Wyoming, and Minnesota have responded to heavy independent expenditures by dismantling or increasing contribution limits for candidates, political action committees, or political parties. For example, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed HB 2593 into law last April. The law raised the legal contribution limit, as well as the total amount one individual may donate to PACs. Reformers fear that the law threatens the survival of the state’s public financing system.
Kentucky Senate Race Drawing Outside Groups, Big Donors
The Senate race in Kentucky is drawing national attention and consequently attracting big checks from major donors as well as expenditures from outside groups. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is up for up for reelection, contending with a tea party-backed primary challenger, Matt Bevin, as well as Democratic front-runner Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grimes, for the general election. The Senate Conservative Fund has launched $340,000 worth of TV ads criticizing McConnell’s unwillingness to defund the Affordable Care Act. A 501(c)(4) called Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, founded by Caleb Crosby – the treasurer of Karl Rove’s American Crossroads Super PAC – has raised $1.4 million. Most of the money is from 17 out-of-state donors, including $50,000 from Donald Trump and $100,000 from a Super PAC run by conservative pundit Dick Morris. KSL has released ads painting Grimes as a “rubber stamp” for the President’s agenda. On the liberal side, the Senate Majority PAC, which has raised $3 million, including $1.6 million from labor unions, will be assisting Grimes. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who bundled more than $500,000 to reelect Obama, is slated to hold a fundraiser for Grimes in Los Angeles. He has already maxed out on personal contributions to her campaign. McConnell, seeing the field of challengers, is also actively raising money, gathering $13.7 million so far. He has already spent $4 million. Grimes’s contributions and expenditures will be revealed on September 30th.