The Cuomo Conundrum
Fittingly, perhaps, Cuomo’s single biggest misstep in office can be tied to the power of moneyed interests. After fighting long and hard, the governor was forced to abandon a scheme to build a $4 billion convention center in Queens, as part of a joint venture with the Genting Group, a Malaysian corporation. It was a surprisingly naïve notion from the start—conventioneers don’t choose the Big Apple only to find themselves in Queens—but Cuomo’s inspiration appeared easier to decipher when The New York Times reported that Genting gave Cuomo’s political support group, the Committee to Save New York, a $400,000 contribution, and the New York Gaming Association ponied up another $2 million. (The names of the contributors to this group, which amassed $17 million for the governor’s 2010 campaign, have never been disclosed, but it is widely assumed to be heavily populated by real estate and financial industry donors.)
To take another example with profound symbolic resonance: while Cuomo is not the only Democrat to accept contributions from the Koch brothers, he has received more—by far—than any other. Indeed, in 2010, David Koch and his wife, Julia, ponied up $87,000 for Cuomo’s campaign—more than twice what they gave (in direct donations) to Wisconsin’s Scott Walker. Though Cuomo’s aides insist they have no idea what the Kochs find so appealing about the governor, it’s really not that hard a call when one surveys the political landscape—particularly if Hillary Clinton should decide not to seek the presidency in 2016, which would leave Andrew Cuomo as its leading aspirant.
Given such ties, together with had been until recently (his unyielding defense of the economic interests of New York’s 1 percent of 1 percent—i.e., its multi-millionaires and billionaires—Andrew Cuomo presents a decidedly risky proposition for liberals and progressives. Ever since Barack Obama won re-election and Karl Rove sustained a string of humiliating defeats in almost all of the campaigns he helped to fund in 2012, many in the media have taken to arguing that the power of money in the post–Citizens United world has been significantly overestimated. But to examine only electoral results is to misunderstand the way money works its way through our politics. A recent Demos report, “Billion Dollar Democracy,” points out that it took just thirty-two wealthy individuals to match the combined donations of 3.7 million Americans who gave $200 or less to Obama or Mitt Romney during the last election cycle. As former FCC commissioner Michael Copps has explained, “The most pernicious influence of campaign spending comes not on Election Day but after…. That’s when the real scandals start. Special-interest donors who contributed six or seven figures are looking for a return on their investment. They’re looking real hard when a special-interest issue comes up before a congressional or statehouse or local committee or subcommittee. Their access is taken for granted.”
Financial power need not be justified merely on the basis of the votes it sways. Rather, it can define potential alternatives, invent arguments and create phony “astroturf” constituent campaigns—the possibilities are endless. And recipients need not embarrass themselves by changing their positions in a public fashion. They can bury bills; they can rewrite the language of bills that are presented or simply fail to show up on the day of a key committee vote; they can confuse the debate; they can bankroll primary opposition. Most lobbying efforts are invisible to the naked eye because they succeed in preventing change from taking place. As the political scientist Frank Baumgartner explains, “Sixty percent of the time, nothing happens.… What we see is gridlock and successful stalemating of proposals, with occasional breakthroughs.”
The key to all of the above, as well as the transformation of liberalism from the social democratic vision of Mario Cuomo to the bifurcated one of his son, is the power and influence that Americans have allowed money to assume in our politics. The massive investment by corporations and wealthy individuals since the mid-1960s has successfully remade Congress, many statehouses, much of our mainstream media and the balance of institutions in their own image. Today, with the never-ending spigot of corporate funding for antiunion legislation at the local and national level, unions have had to muster all their strength merely to defend their right to exist, while lacking the resources and, in many cases, the self-confidence to take the offensive. With Democratic politicians increasingly dependent on the largesse of socially liberal multimillionaires, those who sought, in Ted Kennedy’s famous words, “to sail against the wind” often found themselves on the outs not only with funders, but with tough-minded political operatives who knew how difficult it was to win elections without them. (Just ask former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, who ran a conspicuously clean campaign that rejected such contributions and lost his 2010 re-election bid.)
Andrew Cuomo understands all this. Indeed, he can be a compelling critic of the evils of the present system. “People…have become disassociated from their government, and they just don’t believe and they don’t trust and they think that government isn’t about them. And that is a killer,” he told the assembled crowd at the luncheon I attended, which had been organized by the Committee for Economic Development and the Brennan Center for Justice to demonstrate support for reform. “Nothing will restore the [public’s] trust more than campaign finance [reform],” Cuomo said. “And until we have [that], nothing else will.”
His aides’ protestations notwithstanding, Cuomo is clearly moving leftward from the early days of his administration, focusing on issues and positions that appear designed to appeal to Democratic primary voters. He did this first with marriage equality, next with gun control and now with his apparent reversal on higher taxes for the wealthy. But it may be the overhaul of New York’s antiquated campaign finance laws that will be the defining issue for his national political profile (and by definition, his political future), since money power lies at the center of almost all political reform.
The reform issue has haunted the state’s political institutions since the creation by Mario Cuomo of the State Commission on Government Integrity in 1987. Eighty-three percent of Americans surveyed say they would like to see the power and influence of corporate money in political campaigns curbed. The problem facing reformers, however, is that while this support is wide, it is rarely deep. As with almost all process-related reforms, it takes a back seat, in terms of media coverage and activist-inspired passion, to the issues that appear to affect voters’ lives more directly. Now add to this the fact that the people whose lives it will affect directly are the legislators who vote on it. And while few of these legislators enjoy all the time they must spend begging rich folk and corporate lobbyists for money, many fear for their livelihoods should the system be changed to their disadvantage. Moreover, the complexity of the issue makes it easy for politicians to portray themselves as supporters of reform and then defang it behind closed doors.
Campaign finance experts generally say they approve of Cuomo’s announced agenda, which includes lowering contribution limits, closing the loopholes that would allow donors to get around them, toughening reporting requirements and implementing a system of publicly financed campaigns. All of these are necessary and significant steps—but as Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, explains, it is the final item in particular that will determine the level of Cuomo’s commitment. “Most people recognize the biggest problem with our political system is that elected officials have the wrong priorities,” he notes, “because they spend so much time raising money from a few special interests whom they need to pay for their elections.” Indeed, a December 2012 survey of 504 New Yorkers conducted by Lake Research Partners for the Public Campaign Action Fund found close to 80 percent support for a reform package that included the public financing of elections. Norden calls public matching funds for small contributions “the game changer” in the current system of legalized corruption. An example of a relatively successful system along these lines can be found in New York City, and the result, as Norden points out, is that “political contributions come from nearly every ZIP code in the city, as opposed to almost exclusively from the three or four wealthiest neighborhoods. That means candidates and elected officials are spending more time with their constituents and less time with a few big-money donors.”
Andrew Cuomo says all the right things about these issues. He endorses the New York City example as a goal—indeed, I’ve rarely heard a more effective argument for publicly financed campaigns than the one he offered to the pro-reform business leaders at Covington & Burling. The trillion-dollar question manifests itself in the uncertainty as to whether Cuomo really means what he says, or whether he is simply saying all the right things to appeal to potential 2016 Democratic primary voters, only to abandon the most important aspects of the reform in some backroom deal once the moment of truth arrives. Cuomo and his staff insist that the Legislature can be brought around only by a campaign of public pressure similar to the one that won the day for marriage equality, which benefited from a privately funded multimillion-dollar campaign.
Activists are hopeful that once the governor passes his budget in early April, he will turn to this issue and put the full power of his office and influence behind it. It is, after all, an off year for legislative elections, and that’s the only time to take a difficult vote. (“The court of morality,” Cuomo ruefully notes, “meets rarely in Albany.”) But they are also worried—as well they should be, because if his first three years as governor have demonstrated anything, it’s that Andrew Cuomo does nothing except on his own terms and in his own way.
Indeed, during the 2012 election, the gods who govern political drama offered Cuomo a near-perfect opportunity to demonstrate his bona fides on campaign finance reform. The victory of Cecilia “Cece” Tkaczyk in her 2012 State Senate race was enough to melt the cynicism of the most jaded observers. Tkaczyk was hardly a likely victor in the race: she found herself running in one of the districts that the Republicans had gerrymandered to their advantage (with no objections from the governor), against a millionaire assemblyman with a much-easier-to-pronounce name, George Amedore. Badly outspent and with little to lose (the polls showed Tkaczyk as much as twelve points behind a month before Election Day), she decided to turn her campaign into a crusade for campaign finance reform. Embraced by good-government groups, she succeeded in turning the race into a referendum on democracy itself. Amedore took the bait and demagogued on what he termed a “Cece tax” that would be needed to pay for elections. But with neighbors and activists going door to door on her behalf, Tkaczyk surged—and even though the Republicans mounted a last-ditch George W. Bush–style attack on the vote counters, attempting to suppress roughly 450 votes, it worked on only about 350 of them. And when the final ninety-nine contested ballots were opened months after the polls closed, Tkaczyk was looking at an eighteen-vote victory.
Alas, New York’s governor—the leader of the state Democrats—didn’t lift a finger to help her campaign. Cuomo’s aides admit this, attributing it to differences with the candidate on “other issues.” But Tkaczyk’s campaign provides a near perfect model of the type of engagement Cuomo insists is necessary not merely to win the campaign finance issue, but to restore the faith of citizens in their government. Will he find a way to make the issue his own, pass it on his own terms and emerge on the national slate in 2016 as the prudent-but-progressive hero his supporters would love to believe he really is?
Campaign finance advocates insist—and Cuomo agrees—that a victory for publicly financed elections in New York State has the potential to be a watershed for the issue nationally. This proved true for marriage equality, and given the state’s center as the nation’s financial capital, the reverberations this time around may prove no less volcanic. Given Cuomo’s acknowledgment that “nothing will restore the [public’s] trust until we have campaign finance” reform, his willingness to make it the next signature issue of his effort to ensure that New York “remains the progressive capital of the nation” will tell us a great deal not only about Andrew Cuomo’s future in 2016 and beyond, but also that of liberalism itself.
Katrina vanden Heuvel writes that freshman New York Senator Cecilia Tkaczyk’s underdog victory on a campaign finance reform platform should stir up the struggle against money in politics—and push Governor Cuomo to take a stance.