With the Citizens United ruling one year ago, Chief Justice Roberts and the Koch Brothers’ allies on the Supreme Court made an already lousy US campaign finance system much worse. In the 2010 midterms, we saw the floodgates open to unlimited corporate funding of candidates, and the facts on issues—as well as the voices of ordinary Americans—were often drowned out by record-breaking covert and corporate money. Bill Moyers got it right when he said this Big special interest money “is a dagger directed at the heart of our democracy.”

Now we’re seeing conservatives use the Supremes’ decision to challenge strong public campaign financing laws in Arizona and Connecticut. Also, the wholesale changes in governorships and legislatures may well bring attacks on good clean election laws in North Carolina, Maine, Wisconsin and New Mexico.

“Between the conservative legal attack and the forces of big money attack, there are a lot of defensive battles going on,” said Nicholas Nyhart, president and CEO of Public Campaign.

This dramatic assault on American democracy makes the positive signals on campaign finance reform coming out of New York State all the more striking. In his State of the State address, newly elected Governor Andrew Cuomo said plainly, “We need public financing of campaigns.  We must once again become the progressive capitol of the nation.” The Governor also included public finance as part of an “ethics package” in the official agenda his Administration is pursuing. 

For Governor Cuomo, this is a moment when he can clearly establish his reform credentials with activists and elected officials nationwide.

“It’s very significant that Governor Cuomo has laid this out,” said Nyhart. “Because it’s a direction he’s been supportive of and the question was—once he was no longer a candidate—would he still be supporting it as Governor? Also, when it’s clear that this is something on the Governor’s agenda, it makes it much easier to get people engaged and build a formidable campaign.

Marc Caplan, program officer of the Piper Fund—the primary funder of state-level campaign finance reform work in the country—agreed. “This is a tremendous opportunity,” he said. “New York by far would be the biggest plum to date of any state that’s enacted public financing and would be a great boost in states around the country and nationally.”

Governor Cuomo won’t have to look far to find an example of a system that works. In 2007, New York City adopted an approach in which the city matches small donations up to $175 at a 6-1 ratio (turning a contribution of $100 into $700), boosting grassroots fundraising.  According to the New York Times, the changes “drastically curtailed the role of businesses, political committees and lobbyists in campaigns” and, importantly, “caused a major drop in donations from those doing business with the city.”

Support for reform is strong in the New York Assembly which has passed public financing proposals in recent years. The question is whether a pro-reform majority will emerge in the Senate, where the Governor’s leadership will be key.

Nyhart puts it squarely: “Lawmakers often aren’t keen on making it easier for their challengers to raise money.”

To move forward with reform, the Governor could simply include public campaign financing as part of his budget, which will be taken up by April. Or, more likely, it would be introduced through legislation in June as part of an overall “ethics package” or as a stand-alone bill. 

“Over the next several months advocates will do both the inside and outside organizing necessary to enable a strong case made by the Governor to succeed in the State Senate,” said Caplan.

Both Caplan and Nyhart praise organizations and reform leaders working on this issue in New York as particularly strong advocates. Citizen Action of New York, Working Families Party, Common Cause, NYPIRG, the Brennan Center—as Caplan puts it, “They are all politically astute, knowledgeable, influential, and can mobilize significant grassroots efforts.”

Other groups like the National Organization of Women, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Rock the Vote, and People for the American Way are on board too, pledging their support and resources to work for reform. New York indeed has an opportunity to serve as a model for the nation in lifting the voices of its citizens.

“For a state as important as New York—where the entrenched interests are so powerful and the campaigns are big money races—for a state like that to say a solution to dysfunctional government is to end the big campaign money chase, would send a message out everywhere,” said Nyhart. “This would bode well for legislative battles in other states and also in Congress.”  

Governor Cuomo—the people have your back, and the ball is in your court. 

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