Sure Winners Set
To Receive Subsidy
They Do Not Need
By Henry J. Stern
October 7, 2009
There are two problems relating to the September 29 runoff election that we would like to discuss today.
One was that very few people voted. Sam Roberts discusses that situation in today’s Times: CITY OF 8 MILLION WAS A GHOST TOWN AT THE POLLS. The story appears on pA1of the New York edition of the Times, which is now published nationally, so there are different editions for different regions of the country.
In “DRIZZLE OF VOTERS: With An Idea to Save $15 Million”, on September 30, we recommended Instant Runoff Voting, an idea that dates back to 1870. Under IRV, voters pick their first and second choices for each office. If no one gets 40% (or any predetermined percentage), the last place finisher is eliminated and his votes redistributed to his supporters’ second choices. This is done until one candidate hits 40%. That way 1) the city will save the $15 million or so it takes to run a primary, 2) the voters and the candidates will be spared two weeks of campaigning , and (3) the choice of the bulk of the electorate will be honored, not only the handful that vote in a runoff.
The second problem is that candidates who have received public funds can get additional subsidies for the general election campaign, even though their victory is certain. We will explore this in more detail today, as well as offer digressions on recent elections.
Candidates for public office who are certain winners in November have received millions of tax dollars from the Campaign Finance Board. With the election twenty-seven days away, some candidates have already received eighty thousand dollars or more to subsidize their romps over unknown opponents.
Some have declined this largesse, but others cannot wait to gobble it up.
Public financing of political campaigns was first enacted in New York City in 1988, twenty-one years ago. Its purposes were to reduce the advantage that richer candidates had over poorer ones, and lessen the influence of special interests on city elections. By matching citizens’ campaign contributions with public funds, and imposing a spending cap on all participants in the system, it was believed that fairness and equality would be promoted, and that races would be more likely to be decided on the merits of the candidate’s message, rather than the extent of its amplification through paid commercials.
SUPREME COURT ALLOWS UNLIMITED SELF-FUNDING BY CANDIDATES
Whether you agree with it or not, the United States Supreme Court decided in 1976 in the case of Buckley v. Valeo that the Constitutional First Amendment right to free speech prohibited the government from imposing limits on individuals’ contributions to their own election, which they held to be a form of speech. This was not a 5-4 split: the court vote was 7-1, with Chief Justice Warren Burger the lone dissenter. Justice Stevens, the only justice still on the court 33 years later, did not participate in the case. The majority consisted of Justices Brennan, Stewart, White, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell and Rehnquist. They represented both liberal and conservative viewpoints.
BTW, the Buckley in the court case was US Senator James L. Buckley of New York, who had been elected on the Conservative Party line in 1970. He was defeated for re-election in 1976 by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who served four terms. When he retired in 2000, Hillary Clinton was elected to succeed him. She was re-elected in 2006, but resigned in January 2009; you know why. James Buckley was the older brother of William F. Buckley, Jr., who was never elected to public office, although he was the Conservative Party candidate for Mayor of the City of New York in 1965, polling 343,226 votes, about 13% of the total. (That was the year John Lindsay won his first term.)
Valeo, the defendant, was the Secretary of the United States Senate, a basically ministerial position. He managed the day to day operations of the Senate, originally keeping minutes and purchasing supplies. Now the office is in charge of clerks, curators and computers, payroll, maintains public records and oversees the Senate pages. The current Secretary of the Senate is Nancy Erickson of South Dakota.
Despite the Constitutional right conferred on candidates by Buckley v. Valeo to spend their own fortunes (or their wives’ inheritances) in pursuit of public office, there are relatively few candidates who are both willing and able to spend tens of millions of dollars to elect themselves to public office. Of course, one such candidate can change the course of an election. Many wealthy candidates have, however, been defeated. One example of this is Ross Perot, who ran for President in 1992. Although he lost, he received 18.9% of the popular vote but no electoral votes. His candidacy is credited with defeating George H. W. Bush and electing Bill Clinton by splitting the conservative vote.
THE NEW YORK EXPERIENCE
The great majority of office-seekers are pleased to receive bounty from the New York City government, especially at the new rate of six public dollars to one dollar they raise themselves. The generous match applies to gifts up to $175. The ratio used to be four to one, with a $250 ceiling for a matchable contribution. Originally the match was one to one, with a $1000 maximum for each donation.
Caps apply both to the amount of public funds a candidate may receive, and to the amount of private funds a campaign that is receiving public funds may spend to pursue a particular office. There are two sliding scales, beginning with Councilmember and topping off with Mayor. The limit in public funds that a City Council candidate may receive is $88,500 for the primary and $88,500 for the general election. For Borough President, the limit is $762,300; for Public Advocate and Comptroller, $2,117,500. For Mayor the limit is $3,386,900. These limits apply separately to the primary and to the general election. In a runoff (only held for the three city-wide offices, although borough presidents probably should be included), the candidate receives an additional 25% of the funds already granted for the primary
In addition to the cap on money the candidates can receive from the city, there are also spending limits. They are: City Council - $161,000 for the primary and the same sum for the election. Borough President - $1,386,000 for each race. Public Advocate and Comptroller: $3,850,000 for each candidate for each election. Mayor - $6,158,000 for the primary and the same sum for the general election.
Now you know the statutory limits. The actual application of the limits is the subject of periodic disputes. Phone banks, volunteers, gifts in kind, and other forms of assistance can be used to circumvent the rules. Regulating politicians is like herding cats. The Working Families Party’s use of a for-profit entity, Data and Field Services, further complicates the enforcement of campaign spending rules.
One aspect of the law which has led to considerable dissatisfaction is the appropriation of public funds to candidates who are certain either to be elected or defeated. Runaway races are often the case in New York, particularly in general elections in certain boroughs. New York City is deep blue, in that it consistently elects Democrats, with the exception of the last four races for Mayor, two of which were won by Rudy Giuliani (1993 and 97), and two by Mike Bloomberg (2001 and 05). At the top of the ticket, people are much more likely to make individual judgments about the candidates. If they read newspapers, watch TV or scan the internet, they gain information about the election and the issues involved. They are exposed to commercials from both sides. They vote more for candidates than for political parties.
As New Yorkers proceed down the ballot, where the names and the records of the candidates are less familiar, voters are much more likely to vote Democratic, the party which they and their parents have been accustomed to support. Election results become increasingly predictable as one examines the results of contests for relatively minor offices.
Voters in small districts are expensive to reach by city-wide media, which serve much larger areas. Partisan decennial gerrymandering has had a substantial ill effect, and districts, once drawn mainly to accommodate incumbents and frustrate political challengers, are now also designed to be non-competitive racial enclaves.
These districts can become hotbeds of extremism, because candidacies are based on the identity politics of the predominant group in the district. Years ago, in multi-racial district like Congressman Rangel’s in Manhattan, a candidate has to appeal to several ethnic groups. The new segregated districts have been deliberately designed, at the behest of the US Department of Justice, under both Republican and Democratic attorneys general, to elect public officials of a particular race, ethnicity The City of New York added sexual orientation to the mix. This is modern politics, since post-modern has not yet arrived in either Emerald City or the Empire State.
Two articles illustrate the problem: One is from the October 2 Daily News, written by Frank Lombardi, Celeste Katz and Adam Lisberg of the City Hall bureau, and headlined “CASH FOR CLUNKER RACES – $3.1m in tax funds for candidates.” That is a really good headline, which we used on September 15, at the suggestion of our man LeeRoy, who has since graduated from NYCivic and been succeeded by Pogo. We quote:
“Ydanis Rodriguez, who won the Democratic for a Washington Heights Council seat, faces Independence Party challenger Ruben Dario Vargas next month. Vargas also ran in the Democratic primary and got just 5% of the vote. But Rodriguez still got $60,939 in matching funds, which he said he will spend to boost turnout.
‘I care about getting more voters out to vote” he said. “If I get a lot of votes, it will help show I have strong support and I will have more influence in the Council.’”
That may be a reasonable goal, but it is not what public financing is about. The law is intended to assure fair elections, not to aggrandize sure winners. If Rodriguez wants to show strong support for himself, he should use his campaign funds for that purpose, and not promote himself on the taxpayer’s dime, because a perennial losing candidate is running on a minor party line. This is an example of the misuse of public financing.
The Daily News listed six certain victors who are likely to ACCEPT CFB money. They are Lew Fidler (Bk) $ 84,122; Inez Dickens (Man) $21,032; Mathieu Eugene (Bk) $20,132; Robert Jackson (Man) -$14,432; Michael Nelson (Bk) $21,031; Larry Seabrook (Bx) $15,715; All six are Democrats. CM John Liu, the next Comptroller, is said to have told Sam Roberts he will not accept the $4,845 he was given, but his press office did not return several calls when we inquired about his intentions.
Eleven prospective winners have indicated they will DECLINE the money offered them by the CFB. They are: Marty Markowitz, BP-Bklyn; Scott Stringer, BP-Man, Christine Quinn, Speaker; Gale Brewer, Daniel Garodnick, Jessica Lappin, CMs, Man; Oliver Koppell, Joel Rivera, James Vacca, CMs, Bx; Dominick Recchia. CM-Bk; and Peter Vallone, Jr. CM-Q).
The October 2 Post has an article by Sally Goldenberg and David Seifman, COUNCIL MEMBERS’ MATCHE$ BURN CITY, which begins snappily:
“Take the money and run.
“That’s what a slew of City Council members are doing – accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer matching funds to mount new campaigns, even though they have virtually no opposition in November…
“The Post counted at least 20 candidates, primarily Democrats and all virtual shoo-ins in the general election, who were happy to collect a total of $482,527, courtesy of the taxpayers.”
The Campaign Finance Board will meet again Thursday, October 8, at its offices, 40 Rector Street, in lower Manhattan. We will be there, and report to you what funds are dispensed, and what the likelihood is of these moneys affecting the outcome of the November 3 election for any public office.
StarQuest #604 10.07.2009 1992wds