“We must reconnect the people to the political process and their government.… Let’s pass campaign finance reform and let’s do it this year.”
These words, uttered by Governor Andrew Cuomo at his State of the State address in January, could have been discounted as a rhetorical nod to a base issue by a Democratic governor a year into his four-year term. That’s the risk of a system where money in politics feels as pervasive as sand on the beach: its ubiquity creates a dangerous inertia that prevents citizens from seizing real opportunities for change. But thanks to a coalition of New Yorkers dedicated to elevating and actualizing Governor Cuomo’s pledge, this year could not only rewrite the rules in New York but also change the risk calculation on engagement for the entire country.
As the Supreme Court has chipped away at the protections in McCain-Feingold (a k a the Bi-Partisan Campaign Reform Act) and Citizens United has opened the flood gates to corporate money in the political system, the collective frustration has risen to an astonishing 83 percent of Americans who believe that there’s too much money in politics. But despite the rare across-the-board consensus, federal policy solutions have been at a standstill. The vicious cycle that gives rise to big-money candidates has produced overwhelmingly negative incentives to stepping out on government accountability. That gives wealthy and corporate interests a virtual lock on the status quo.
New York’s public finance legislation, if it comes to a vote in June, could be the beginning of the end of that dynamic, which is why it’s worth exploring the key elements that make this issue viable again.
First off, the people: grassroots groups in New York have joined with two key constituencies to force a new equation on legislators—high donors and business interests. On the forefront is the New York Leadership for Accountable Government (NY LEAD), a coalition of philanthropic luminaries and high-dollar contributors. With marquee names like media-mogul Barry Diller and Facebook founder Chris Hughes as the face of the effort, this is the first credible wedge of political donors on the issue of campaign finance reform. NY LEAD brings much-needed resources to the fight, but its real value is in breaking the psychological paralysis of politicians convinced that action equals electoral death. Real money backing reform candidates forces a new position on the issue.
Similarly, the early endorsement of the Committee on Economic Development (CED) was a key win for the fledgling campaign. The CED is a policy think tank backed by senior executives at a number of Fortune 500 companies. The group is actively encouraging business leaders to join the coalition, proactively blunting the hollow cries of the right that an accountable government is anathema to business interests.