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New York's Election Laws Suck

And that’s not Steve Pigeon’s fault

The whole political system is built on “pay to play.” If you want to be a US ambassador, on average according to some reports, you have to contribute $1.8 million to a president’s election campaign. How is it that Governor Andrew Cuomo can raise $28 million in campaign funds? How is it Mayor Byron Brown can build a campaign war chest of $1.3 million in one of the poorest cities in the nation? How do you raise the money to become a judge? It’s all based on “pay to play” donations from developers seeking public money, people seeking patronage jobs, contractors seeking government business, and lawyers seeking favorable decisions and assignments.

An analysis of Cuomo’s campaign contributions by the New York Public Interest Research Group earlier this year showed:

• Over the last two years, only one percent of the money raised by Cuomo’s campaign came from donors who gave him less than $1,000.

• Only about five percent of donations to the governor came from donors who gave less than $2,500.

• Nearly 40 percent of money raised by Cuomo for his campaign fund came in donations of $40,000 or more.

• 79 percent of the money raised by Cuomo since he took office has come from entities and individuals who have given him $10,000 or more apiece. 142 corporations, unions, or individuals have donated at least $40,000 apiece and seven contributed between $100,000 and $500,000.

New York’s lax rules

New York has one of the highest contribution limits in the nation—$60,800 for statewide candidates. The donation limit for federal campaigns is $2,500. The average citizen does not donate to political candidates because he cannot afford to do so, and smaller contributions are typically not sought by candidates for many offices. The politics of money involves a small world, as less than half of a percent of New York State residents contribute to political candidates.

As the New York Times reported:

But even the high contribution limits in New York are easily evaded. The name of the governor’s largest donor, the real estate developer Leonard Litwin, does not appear in new campaign finance records, because he takes advantage of what has long been seen as a loophole in state laws—using limited-liability companies to legally circumvent the contribution limits. Mr. Litwin has donated $500,000 to the governor over the past two years.

Litwin’s firm currently owns and operates approximately 23 buildings in Manhattan. In 2006, Litwin ranked number 374 on the Forbes 400, with a net worth of approximately $1 billion. Larry Norden, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice, a research and advocacy group, said, “It’s troubling to see such a small slice of the population essentially running and paying for our elections.”

In a Buffalo News article, Bill Mahoney from NYPIRG stated, “There’s no reason one individual should be able to direct half a million dollars to a candidate in New York State.” The best quote of all, courtesy of Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi: “Donations of any size from anyone play absolutely no role in the decisions and functioning of state government.” Who actually believes that statement?

What do big money contributors want from Cuomo? Perhaps some want good government but most want tax dollars for their projects, special consideration regarding laws/regulations and patronage jobs for friends and family. The same reasons people contribute to Byron Brown or any other candidate.

The Committee to Save New York

In 2010 a nonprofit organization named the Committee to Save New York was formed and spent large sums of money on television commercials that were supportive of Cuomo’s policy goals. Operating like a political action committee, over a two-year period the Committee to Save New York raised $17 million, making it the largest spending lobbying group in New York State.

The Committee to Save New York has refused to disclose who its donors are and by law until very recently disclosing the names of donors was not required. Susan Lerner of Common Cause, an organization supportive of reforming New York’s campaign finance laws, testified at an ethics hearing that the Committee to Save New York was setting a bad precedent. According to Lerner, the Committee, formed as a nonprofit 501c4, is using rules intended to protect givers to charitable and civil rights concerns as a “cloak” to “shield from disclosure” names of donors who give money for more purely political purposes.

“I think it has become a loophole” said Lerner, speaking to reporters after the hearing.

How amazing is it that a secret group of special interest wealthy individuals can fund an organization to influence and promote policy initiatives. When the state Ethics Commission recently adopted a rule requiring nonprofit organizations to disclose the names of their donors, the Committee to Save New York disbanded.

Political action committees

At election time, a lot of noise is often made locally about political operative Steve Pigeon’s involvement in various campaigns. Allegations have been made that the WNY Progressive Caucus, a political action committee with Kristy Mazurek as treasurer and at least $50,000 in contributions from Pigeon, is engaging in illegal activities. I am no expert on the ins and outs of campaign finance laws, but what I know about PACs is this:

• Believe it or not, there are no limits on what a person can contribute to a PAC.

• There are no financial limits on what a PAC can spend.

• The major limitation on a PAC is that their activities cannot be coordinated with any candidate.

• There is no requirement under New York law that a political mailing state who paid for it.

The problem is not Pigeon/Mazurek

The recent United States Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has opened the floodgates for unlimited money to flow through PACs. In this case, the court ruled that money spent on political causes constitutes free speech, and limiting expenditures on political speech is unconstitutional.

The Committee to Save New York has spent an unprecedented amount of money, $16 million, promoting Cuomo’s agenda and has been criticized for working closely with and coordinating their efforts with Cuomo. It’s not just PACs that have opened the money floodgates. Committees for political parties under New York law can receive more than $100,000 from a single donor, and can accept unlimited checks on behalf of their “housekeeping” committees. Housekeeping committees are supposed to be limited to non-election purposes, but most of it is spent on purchases such as maintaining campaign offices, polling voters on behalf of candidates, etc.

The whole campaign finance system sucks. To attack and demonize Steve Pigeon or Kristy Mazurek for their involvement in political campaigns misses the bigger picture. I have no idea whether Pigeon and Mazurek have violated the law, but some have already tried and convicted them. What I do know is the open-ended campaign finance rules allow governors, wealthy developers, political operatives, corrupt politicians, and political party bosses to play all sorts of games.

Local elected officials can act

The only way to clean the system up is to change the rules, and a lot of powerful people and politicians like the rules just the way they are. The Buffalo Common Council and the Erie County Legislature can introduce legislation regulating elections at the local level. Buffalo and Erie County can lessen the influence of big money contributors by implementing public financing of elections, like New York City has done. The Buffalo Common Council and Erie County Legislature can pass a local law making it illegal to directly solicit government employees and contractors for campaign contributions, like other municipalities have around the country.

Instead of focusing on personalities and political wars, we need to focus on adopting policies and legislation to change the influence of money not only at the state level, but the local level as well. Politicians react to pressure and locally reforming election rules is not on the radar screen. As a cynical and disillusioned public votes less and less, the money from a select few individuals is impacting elections.

Paul Wolf is an attorney and the founder of the Center for Reinventing Government.

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