About New York: Behind Closed Doors, Measures to Reform City’s Campaign Laws Raise Concerns


Three years after the 2013 elections revealed serious flaws in New York City’s campaign finance laws, the City Council may finally be moving to fix some of the worst problems — but not without including a few changes that would benefit individual Council members.

Up to a dozen new bills are being shaped behind closed doors, and although no drafts have been released yet, word coming from the Council has alarmed some of the city’s most persistent and careful advocates for better and fairer elections. At least some of the legislation being discussed would make it easier for candidates to amass war chests of public money for future races, or to spend campaign money on expenses that are not permitted by the city law but are for state politicians. By way of egregious example, one powerful state senator used campaign money to buy covers for his swimming pool, somehow deeming them not to be a personal expense.

“What I am hearing definitely raises concerns,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York.

Gene Russianoff, a lawyer with the New York Public Interest Research Group who helped drive reforms 30 years ago, said, “The Council is considering what additional goodies it wants to put onto these necessary changes.”

New York City has one of the country’s premier campaign finance laws, a system of public funding designed nearly three decades ago, when some of the most powerful figures in government were raking in millions from companies doing business with the city.

That law turned city politics around. It rewarded candidates who collected many small donations over those who got big ones. The first $175 of a contribution is matched at a rate of $6 in public money for each $1 donated. An individual may give up to $4,950, but only the first $175 is matched. That is a way to spread financial power to people of moderate means.

Admirable as the law’s record has been, it gets stress-tested every election as candidates, power brokers, businesses and unions figure out new ways to funnel money.

The 2013 primaries and general elections for mayor and City Council were swamped with nearly $13 million in what was, in essence, unmarked cash from secretive groups, operating as technically “independent” organizations that were exercising their right to free speech. They were attack dogs operating on behalf of specific candidates.

In other forays, lobbyists and others in the influence business were able to get $1.2 million in city matching funds by bundling contributions.

Back in 2006, the Council contemplated not matching “bundled” contributions, but passed on it. Three years ago, the city’s Campaign Finance Board proposed changes that would exclude the bundled money of lobbyists from being matched. The change was supported by the mayor. The Council, inexplicably, has sat on the legislation, but is now getting ready to take action, Council officials said.

It is also prepared to curtail the fund-raising of groups like Campaign for One New York, an organization associated with Mayor Bill de Blasio that accepted contributions up to $350,000. The campaign board said that since the group was involved in advocating the mayor’s legislative agenda, its fund-raising was not a violation of the city’s campaign law. But the chairwoman of the board, Rose Gill Hearn, said that “more than 95 percent of the funds it received would have been prohibited under the laws that apply to candidates for office — including contributions from corporations, limited liability companies and people doing business with the city.”

“Most contributions exceeded the limit applicable to candidates,” she continued, “and at least a dozen were as large as $100,000.”

The City Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, said through a spokesman that the new bills would address the bundling and the independent expenditures of groups like Campaign for One New York.

“The Council’s legislative package, which is still being drafted, builds on the strongest campaign finance law in the country, closes loopholes, increases transparency and reduces the influence of lobbyists and entities which do business with the city,” the spokesman, Eric Koch, said. “The City Council has been engaged in rigorous discussions about campaign finance reforms and expects to introduce several bills in the very near future.”

Two Council members said to be involved in the legislation, Dan Garodnick of Manhattan and David Greenfield of Brooklyn, did not respond to requests for comment on any of the bills. The chairman of the Council committee that will hold hearings on them, Benjamin Kallos, said he was skeptical, adding that “I am concerned about undermining the best parts of a system that has worked for the people.”

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