Must Be The Money: Background Check

Zuccotti Park in happier times.

Diving straight into number crunching would be a thrill, but for “Must Be The Money” to have legs, folks need to know a little background about the project, and about campaign finance reform in New York City.

During the summer of 2010 I helped civic groups fight for campaign finance reform in the wake of Citizens United.   Our work resulted in zero traction, even from the progressive community, and was despondence-inducing even by the normal standards of fruitless activism.   Then three things happened.  First, Occupy Wall Street put Citizens United back on everyone’s radar as a classic symbol of 1% power.  Then sugar daddies like Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess single-handedly propped Republican presidential primary campaigns with millions of quasi-coordinated dollars.   Finally, Stewart and Colbert brought the hammer down, and everyone realized what a mess we were in.

New York City has a special place in the debate over money in politics.   After one form of public financing (“trigger funds”) got slapped down by the U.S. Supreme Court in McComish v. Bennett a year ago, campaign finance reform advocates were left with few remedies unmolested by the Supreme Court.   If you’re interested in McComish, you can check out this article that I co-authored with New York Civic Executive Director Morgan Pehme.    In an excerpt from that article, Morgan and I describe the New York City matching fun system, one of many City Charter revisions coming on the heels of a brutal late 1980s political scandal:

New York City’s Campaign Finance Board (CFB), the nonpartisan government agency that administers the city’s campaign finance system, was created in 1988 through a voter-approved referendum aimed at limiting the influence of money on elections by providing neighborhood advocates the resources needed to run competitive races against wealthy candidates without having to depend on money from special interests, like real estate developers, big corporations and deep-pocketed unions.*

The way the CFB attempts to accomplish this goal is through a system of matching funds. Candidates who voluntarily abide by the city’s campaign finance rules, like spending limits and maximum donation amounts, are rewarded by the CFB with additional money for every dollar raised by the candidate through small donations from city residents. Currently, the match is $6-to-$1 up to the first $175 of any contribution…

*This was, in retrospect, a long sentence.

My old boss, Starquest, recently delved into whether New York State could adopt a similar matching fund model soon.   It’s a good system on paper, as it allows modestly-funded candidates with small donor support to compete, though the more than $200 million Mayor Bloomberg has spent on his three mayoral elections renders even the best of matching fund systems irrelevant.   In 2013, without such a financial juggernaut at the top of the ticket, it will be more interesting to trace the money flowing to mayoral candidates, other city-wide races, and even to local contenders.  It is a testament to the good folks at the New York City Campaign Finance Board that this data is easy to sort through, and hopefully we’ll get to chat with them throughout this series.

And now, as a reward for sitting through that background lecture, here are a few fun facts:

During the 2009 election, the twelve non-Bloomberg city-wide candidates raised a collective $34 million.  Mayor Bloomberg spent $102 million, or $183 per vote.

More than 50 attorneys from the prestigious law firm, Paul, Weiss, have donated to Speaker Christine Quinn’s mayoral campaign, with most contributions coming in at $500 or $1000.   Law firms obviously are omnipresent in the campaign donation game, and we’ll take a closer look at them down the road.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio may have taken a strong stance against SuperPACs, but his communications director left his office to join one.   No one is exactly sure what role SuperPACs will play in the 2013 elections, but I’ll bet a nickle that FIRE (financial, insurance, real estate) interests will get in the game, along with the teachers union, the anti-teachers union, and other big-monied players.

If Anthony Weiner had checked twice before hitting “send”, he’d be sitting on $4.50 million in cash to spend on the 2013 mayoral race.

‘Til next time…

About Janos Marton

Janos Marton is a lawyer, advocate and writer.
This entry was posted in Political ramblings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Must Be The Money: Background Check

  1. Pingback: Must Be The Money: The Speaker’s Still Waiting At The Altar | Living the Dream

  2. Pingback: Must Be The Money: Bill’s Backers | Living the Dream

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