New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

Gotham Gazette Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Campaign Finance Reform by Ben Brachfeld

Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Campaign Finance Reform

The commissioners, including Chair Perales, a former Secretary of State under Governor Andrew Cuomo, appeared receptive to the changes proposed by the CFB and the other testifiers, for the most part. Most lines of questioning were of an inquisitive rather than adversarial tone. The commissioner who was most skeptical and critical of the proposed changes was John Siegal, an attorney and a de Blasio appointee to the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

“The reason, clearly, that mayoral candidates rely more on big contributions is because it takes a lot of money to run an effective mayoral campaign,” said Siegal, who donated $4,500 to de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign. “And while it sounds good and feels good to say ‘let’s lower the contribution limit,’ that is going to have consequences. Candidates are going to have to work way harder to raise money. They’re going to have to spend a lot more time raising money.” He noted that there is an “efficiency to getting on the phone and getting 500 people to give $4,500 or $5,100 that is going to be lost here.”

The CFB’s Chair, Frederick Schaffer, said that he would agree with Siegal if the only recommendation made by the Board was to lower the contribution limit.

“That’s why we want to increase the match for citywide officials from 6-to-1 to 8-to-1, and increase the actual amount from $175 to $250,” Schaffer said. “We crunched those numbers precisely with this problem in mind, and we think that the overall effect of those three things together meets the concern that you have just expressed.”

Siegal was also critical of a proposed “geographical requirement” for citywide candidates, which would force them to fundraise around the city. Malbin’s presentation to the commission noted that most money raised for citywide contests comes from only five City Council districts, representing Manhattan around Central Park and Brownstone Brooklyn. For citywide candidates, Malbin recommended that they must show a minimum number of contributors in 20 of 51 Council districts to qualify for public matching funds. The CFB suggested that citywide candidates raise 50 contributions from each borough.

Siegal called this a “fundamentally different requirement than we’ve ever had in the system,” saying that previous campaign finance law was limiting the money candidates can raise rather than explicitly saying who it must be raised from, which he said would set a bad precedent, “engineering campaign fundraising.”

“Have you actually looked at how many Republicans raise 50 matching contributions in [the] Bronx? Or how many Democrats actually raise 50 contributions in Staten Island? And do we really want to tell candidates that they have to go out and introduce themselves to communities where they have no background and no ties, and the first thing they have to do is go ask for money. That doesn’t seem to me that it’s getting money out of politics, it seems to me like it’s pushing the fundraising race into places for other reasons,” he added.

Schaffer dismissed the notion that 50 contributions per borough was unattainable for a seeker of citywide office.

“We’re trying to identify people who are reasonably likely to be real candidates, and so we thought the number 50 was really quite minimal, even for a Democrat in Staten Island or a Republican in the Bronx,” Schaffer said. There are currently three citywide elected offices: Mayor, Public Advocate, and Comptroller.

Other commissioners also had questions and concerns. Dale Ho, of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, questioned whether it was appropriate to put such specific numbers, limits, and thresholds into the city charter, which he characterized as difficult to change and rarely brought up for debate, versus the easier-to-change city code.

“As you can see from all this machinery here, [the charter] is quite difficult to amend,” Ho said. “If it turns out that the number should change over time, maybe the limits need to be reduced even more, maybe the match numbers need to go up even higher, maybe we miscalibrate something and we need to adjust something. If these changes are in the city charter, that kind of ties the hands of the city in a way that if they’re in the code, maybe they’re a little easier to adjust.”

Schaffer, a former top appointee in the office of the city’s Corporation Counsel, its top lawyer, said he believed that the City Council can amend the charter “just like ordinary legislation,” which Perales agreed with.

Other issues beyond those encompassed by the CFB’s recommendations also arose.

Government reform group Citizens Union remained neutral on increasing public funds disbursement to candidates, but gave suggestions for transparency measures if the commission decided to increase the disbursement. Rachel Bloom, Citizens Union’s director of public policy, called on the commission to prohibit public funds disbursed to candidates to be used to pay consultants that also lobby the city, subject candidate coordination with union members to campaign finance regulations, tighten Local Law 181, which regulates the nonprofits of elected officials, restrict the transfer of campaign funds running for one office to another office, and to transfer lobbying reporting and enforcement to the CFB.

When asked by Siegal if the CFB was interested in regulating lobbying, Loprest was ambivalent on whether the organization’s independence lent itself to being a watchdog on lobbying.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams advocated for eliminating money from politics entirely and moving to a 100 percent publicly funded system. Adams said that candidacies receiving public funding could be gauged by petition signatures, or by reaching a threshold through $1 donations that would end up in the public finance system. He also suggested that the members of the commission, none of whom have held elected office, were not fully equipped to know what raising money as a politician is like, and that they should hold a “mock election” to gain fuller experience.

“I think a good mock exercise is for everyone at CFB, everyone who’s making these decisions, to run a mock election,” Adams said. “Those who have never felt what what you go through to run an election can never really understand. I think to run a mock election, give them the task of calling people and giving them $500, if ever you want people to lose your number, try to raise that $500.”

Adams has already made his own appointee to the charter revision commission empaneled through City Council legislation, which will begin its business soon and put forth recommendations next year. Adams has chosen former City Council Member Sal Albanese, who has been a proponent for campaign finance reform, organizing much of his 2017 mayoral run around the “democracy vouchers” program that has been implemented in Seattle.

“Money is the enemy,” Adams said. “It is always going to be the enemy. We are always going to have a problem with corruption until we get money out of campaigns.”

The mayoral charter revision commission will meet twice more next week, on Tuesday and Thursday, to hear expert testimony on community boards and land use, then civic engagement and independent redistricting.

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