NY Times, April 12, 2012
ALBANY — An unusual and well-heeled coalition, trying to tap public anger over the flood of money into politics, is pushing to enact a public financing system for elections in New York State.
The backers include media moguls — Barry Diller and Chris Hughes, a founder of Facebook — as well as investment bankers, unions,MoveOn.org, the restaurateur Danny Meyer and the philanthropist David Rockefeller Sr.
They say New York, which they call a symbol of institutionalized corruption, could become a national model for the effort to free elections from the grip of big money. The campaign will start next week with mailings to the constituents of four state senators.
For years, government watchdog groups have pressed unsuccessfully for public financing of elections. Leaders of the coalition say the Citizens United ruling and the role of “super PACs” in the presidential race have made campaign finance a more broadly understood and urgent issue.
“Right now people are feeling a little bit helpless about super PACs and how to get money out of the system at the federal level,” said Sean Eldridge, Mr. Hughes’s fiancé, who runs an investment fund and is a leader of the effort. “An opportunity to pass campaign finance reform in New York is an opportunity for people to do something — to actually be able to pass a bill, to make progress.”
The coalition, called New York Leadership for Accountable Government, is notable for its diversity and its well-known names: its roster includes Jonathan Soros, the son of the philanthropist George Soros; Jerome Kohlberg, a co-founder of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Company; and several former elected officials, including Mayor Edward I. Koch.
The group is also supported by the Committee for Economic Development, a nonpartisan public-policy group backed by executives from dozens of Fortune 500 companies. The committee is holding meetings in New York this month to encourage business leaders to join the coalition.
Many of the executives involved have given generously to candidates in the past.
“With this effort, you have people who are big donors, who are involved with the campaign system, saying: ‘You know what, this doesn’t make sense. This isn’t what democracy is supposed to be about,’ ” said David L. Calone, a venture capitalist based on Long Island who has raised money for Democratic candidates.
New York’s campaign finance system is among the least restrictive in the nation, with individuals permitted to give up to $60,800 to candidates running for statewide office. The median cap among states that limit contributions is $5,000 for candidates for governor, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The proposal the coalition is pushing would be modeled after the system that New York City adopted in 1988: in return for abiding by limits on their spending, city candidates can receive $6 in public funds for each of the first $175 city residents donate.
The group sees the successful campaign to pass same-sex marriage in New York as a blueprint for its effort. Like same-sex marriage, public financing has been embraced in the past by the Democratic-led State Assembly, but blocked by the Republican State Senate.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s response will be pivotal: Mr. Cuomo ran for governor on a platform that included enacting public financing, and in his State of the State address in January, he promised to push for it in the legislative session this year. But he has not pressed the issue since then, and he has raised prodigious amounts of money under the existing rules.
Asked at a news conference last month if he still planned to pursue public financing, Mr. Cuomo responded, “Yes.” He did not elaborate, and a spokesman declined to comment on Wednesday.
Coalition leaders said they were prepared to spend more than $1 million promoting public financing, but they acknowledged that it could take beyond this legislative session to persuade lawmakers to embrace their proposal.
The issue could be sensitive for Mr. Cuomo. Some liberal leaders and government reform groups are unhappy that Mr. Cuomo broke his promise to veto redistricting maps drawn by incumbent lawmakers, and they are hoping that the governor will make campaign finance his next big cause.
National groups are also getting involved. MoveOn.org, for instance, is planning to e-mail its members next week to rally them in support of the cause.
“Our New York members will be watching to see if Governor Cuomo shows leadership on the issue,” said Justin Ruben, MoveOn’s executive director.
The campaign will get under way as lawmakers return from a two-week recess next Tuesday.
At the outset, the Public Campaign Action Fund, a group based in Washington that supports public financing, is paying for direct mail advertising to target four Republican senators who some advocates believe could be receptive to the proposal: Martin J. Golden of Brooklyn, Gregory R. Ball of Putnam County, Roy J. McDonald of Saratoga County and Mark J. Grisanti of Buffalo. Voters in each senator’s district will soon receive a mailer featuring a photograph of the State Capitol awash in $100 bills and declaring, “It’s time Albany put voters before big-monied corporate lobbyists.”
Asked about the irony of wealthy donors pledging money to an effort to get big money out of elections, Mr. Eldridge responded: “Creating legislative reform is expensive, particularly on an issue like this where the resistance we’d get from special interest groups would be tremendous.” Educating the public and organizing voters, he said, “requires resources, and that requires money, and there’s no shame in that.”
Advocates of public financing say the system frees politicians to spend more time focusing on the issues and interacting with constituents, rather than dialing for contributions from special interests. They also believe it encourages competition for electoral offices.
“It’s a double victory,” said Frederick A. O. Schwarz Jr., chief counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “You have lower amounts of money that can be given, and No. 2, ordinary people become engaged in political campaigns and candidates change their approach to campaigning.”
Given the state’s shaky finances, however, anything that requires new spending of taxpayer dollars also tends to draw scrutiny. “The taxpayers have enough on their backs as it is,” said Michael R. Long, chairman of the state’s Conservative Party.
“If Mike Long wants to run for office, why should the taxpayer have to pay for my campaign?” Mr. Long asked. “Let the taxpayers donate their own personal money to candidates they want to donate to.”