“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.
The ground troops include MoveOn.org, Public Campaign, New York Citizen Action and some of the state labor unions. An organizer I spoke with said that’s been the key to getting traction on the ground—an unprecedented partnership between good-government groups and constituency-backed organizations. Together, they are singularly focused on getting their elected officials on the needs of New Yorkers over the needs of their campaign coffers. Theirs is a high-risk, high-reward strategy: double down on the systemic overhaul and getting other vital issues addressed will be vastly easier.
One of our best hopes to nationalize this effort is the presence of progressive hero and reform champion Senator Russ Feingold, who is engaged individually and through his new group Progressives United. Senator Feingold’s strict adherence to his principles in 2010 by not allowing outside money in his race may have cost him an election, but it won him the undying gratitude of a movement starved for leaders. He laid out the opportunity at hand in New York Daily News op-ed last week.
If played well, the New York campaign offers three huge advantages to the 83 percent of Americans desiring more democratic elections.
Modeling of solutions. A successful campaign needs a proof of concept to garner resources and interest. If the public funding legislation passes in New York, we’ll have a legislative blueprint in place for the rest of the country. A victory in New York also begins dismantling psychological and cultural obstacles to action nationwide. New York ranks among the loosest states in the nation when it comes to campaign finance laws. Individual donors can give more than $60,000 to candidates in state-wide races. That’s more than twelve times the median cap of $5,000 by other states with limits! In 2011, just 127 individuals gave more than a third of all money collected by in state candidates and political parties. New York is awash in money, and Albany has sometimes made Washington look like a paragon of virtue. Successfully implementing a democratic election program in New York would effectively topple the excuse for not doing so anywhere else in the country.
State strategies. The effort in New York is part of a growing trend of savvy progressives treating state and local fights as part of our overall battlefield. With the federal Congress at a virtual standstill and confidence in their ability to move legislation at an all-time low, litigating this issue at the state level is not only a smart way to move towards a more democratic system, it may be the only way for now. The right wing has been adept at exploiting this tactic: look at how the Mississippi personhood initiative or the Alabama hate laws have catapulted fringe positions to the national spotlight. Because the desire to end pay-to-play politics is as mainstream as those are marginal, advances in New York could spread virally to other states and force federal movement more quickly.
National momentum. One of the toughest challenges to mounting a real campaign around money in politics is a common sense of futility about the closed-loop relationship between large donors and elected officials. Inertia is the enemy of reform, but a visible campaign in New York will provide new hope and opportunities for engagement. The campaign builds on the fall success of Occupy Wall Street that both revved up a dispirited electorate and irretrievably linked economic inequality to political inequality. Citizens United made the corporate co-option of our democracy impossible to ignore, and frustration and discontent are a tinderbox waiting to explode. When asked by e-mail why Americans should tune into what’s happening in the Liberty State, Senator Feingold said this: “New York can ignite a movement. A victory there will set a nationwide example for how public financing can combat the corrupting influence of corporate money.” In other words, the next couple months in one state could determine whether there’s sufficient momentum to keep this issue in the spotlight through 2012 and lay the groundwork for a concerted push towards federal reform in 2013.
The stakes are high. In that very same State of the State address, Governor Cuomo noted that New York’s voter turnout in the 2010 midterms was the lowest in the nation. It is possible that as the chief executive of his state, he has realized that his government is on the brink of crisis due to collapse of participation. Or maybe he thinks like many Democratic leaders that the system is so out of whack, he doesn’t stand a chance at re-election without substantial reform. Either way, Cuomo is poised to step into the leadership vacuum and provide a rare glimpse of hope on a mission-critical progressive priority. Let’s all pay attention.