By: Caiti Anderson
It seems that New York politicians can’t catch a break – or they just can’t stop getting caught for their indiscretions. Celia Dosamantes, a 25-year-old rising star in Queens, learned this the hard way. Arrested on September 7, 2016, Ms. Dosamantes allegedly forged campaign donations to receive the 6-for-1 matching funds during her failed 2015 run for City Council. While other news organization will surely cover Ms. Dosamantes scandalous trial, New York City’s unique and progressive campaign finance laws stand at the center of this story, and deserve recognition.
In 1988, New York City made the decision to remove big money from politics by enacting a public campaign financing program. Any candidate for municipal office (including mayor, city council, and borough president) may join the matching fund program.
Those candidates who opt into the program can “receive public matching funds at a $6-to-$1 rate for contributions up to $175” from New York City residents. This means that the city will provide the candidate six-times the amount of the private contribution.
Here’s a simple example. Harriet contributes $10 to a mayoral candidate. In response, New York City provides the candidate $60, meaning that her $10 donation is really worth $70.
Candidates who enroll in this program must agree to specific spending limitations, which vary based on the office sought. Public funds are restricted to 55% of a candidate’s spending limit and may only be spent to further his or her campaign. At the end of the election, whatever funds are leftover must be returned to the city, which then audits all campaigns. Campaigns must account for every use of public funds, or else face legal punishment.
Further, candidates can only receive contributions from private donors and these contributions cannot be anonymous. Any candidate who signs up for this program cannot receive funds from a political committees, corporations, or partnerships.
So what have all of these rules done? According to the Brennan Center, a whole lot. In a 2012 study, the Brennan Center combined both census and campaign finance data to analyze what percentage of a “census block group” (approximately “600 and 3,000 people… with an optimal size of 1,500) donated to 2009 City Council candidates and 2010 State Assembly candidates. The results are striking. Nearly 90% of the block groups had at least one person (often numerous people) who donated less than $175 to a City Council candidate. On the other hand, only 30% of the block groups gave small donations to the 2010 State Assembly elections.
Even more compelling is the impact on minority donors. “Twenty-four times more small donors from the poor and predominately black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and the surrounding communities gave money to candidates for the City Council than for the State Assembly. For Chinatown the advantage was 23 to 1. In the heavily Latino neighborhoods of Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, it was 12 to 1.” With more donations coming in from these areas, candidates were willing to spend more time and energy with these often-ignored communities. That is the main goals of this public financing system – improving the relationship between public officials and their constituents.
There are, however, criticisms leveled against the public matching funds system. Taxpayers do not want their dollars spent fruitlessly on corrupt politicians, or even on those who they disagree with. On the other hand, public financing could, in fact, save money. Defenders argue that because public financing necessarily means that politicians are not funded by special interest groups, they will not spend their time (and our tax dollars) trying to help those groups. To see more concerns and responses, click here.
You may be asking yourself, “Why did I just have to read all of that information?”
Answer: Groups within New York State seek to adopt New York City’s public financing program throughout the state. The Brennan Center for Justice, alongside New York Leadership for Accountable Government (NY LEAD) have encouraged New York lawmakers to adopt a state-wide campaign finance overhaul, with the public financing program featured front-and-center. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has reiterated the need for campaign finance overhaul – specifically for public matching funds – yet this has fallen on deaf ears in Albany. In a recent editorial the New York Times Editorial Board slammed both Governor Cuomo and Albany lawmakers for failing to implement campaign finance reforms, especially after the “two men who once ruled the Legislature, Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, have been sentenced to long prison terms for corruption.”
Perhaps, after this seemingly-unending election year, New York lawmakers will take another look at the Big Apple’s public matching funds system and determine how to implement this tool on a state-wide basis. Rather than leading the nation in corruption convictions, New York could lead nation in a new era of campaign finance laws.