The success of Michael Bloomberg’s $69 million race for Mayor of New York against Mark Green was widely seen as a setback for campaign finance reform. But the Bloomberg campaign demonstrated the limits of campaign finance reform under the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution, not its failure. On the whole, New York City’s reformed campaign finance law worked remarkably well in its first real test. Still, Bloomberg’s victory showed that the law needs to be improved.
This was the first full election under the 1998 reforms to New York City’s public campaign finance law. The revised law provides four dollars of public funding for every dollar of private money for contributions up to $250, to candidates who accept spending limits. Public funds are limited to 55 percent of the spending limits. Anticipating a Michael Bloomberg, the law provides a bigger public match and lifts the spending cap for a candidate whose high-spending opponent doesn’t join the public finance system.
Every major candidate for citywide office other than Bloomberg ran under the city’s campaign finance system, as did all five of the victorious borough presidents and forty-seven of the fifty-one members of the incoming City Council. All eleven major Democratic candidates for citywide office ran under the system and had nearly the same amount of money available for their campaigns. The elections were decided on the quality of the candidates, their issues and organizations, not on which candidate had the most money.
The law changed the nature of fundraising. While candidates still sought big donations, up to a $4,500 limit for mayor, they also spent lots of time at small donor events. A $50 contribution became $250 under the new law, so relatively small donors now met candidates for mayor at fundraising events.
At the City Council level, grassroots candidates flourished under the campaign finance law. Virtually every credible City Council candidate was able to raise the spending limit. Many of those opponents beat the machine, resulting in the victory of grassroots candidates in at least eleven races. Fundraising for the candidates ended early, allowing them to focus on the voters, not the contributors.
Bloomberg’s opponent, Mark Green, benefited from the enhanced funding that was available to him because Bloomberg spent more than the legal limit. Green collected $4.5 million in public funds and legally spent $16.24 million, 51 percent more than the limit. However, Green could have collected millions more in public funds had he raised additional small contributions.
Bloomberg’s narrow victory, like all narrow victories, was not just about money or any one issue. Giuliani’s endorsement of Bloomberg after September 11 and the bitter racial divisions in the Democratic Party were major factors in Green’s loss. But Bloomberg’s all-out spending allowed his campaign to amplify the Giuliani endorsement and even the racial divide.
Bloomberg was allowed to spend whatever he wanted because the Supreme Court, in the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, decided that money equals speech and therefore that the First Amendment prohibits limits on campaign spending. Buckley overshadows every attempt to reform the campaign finance system, even Clean Money, Clean Elections laws, under which candidates receive full public financing and eschew private money. The public will never open its wallet as wide as a billionaire who won’t miss $100 million. Yet under most circumstances–and the 2001 New York City mayoral race was a far cry from most circumstances–a well-designed public campaign finance system will work even against a billionaire.
Reform can lessen the impact of Buckley. Under a typical clean money law, Green would have been awarded as much as $40 million, compared with the $16.24 million he spent. Clean money reforms would have improved on New York’s system in other ways as well. Public campaign finance laws have two principal goals: reducing the influence of big money in elections and allowing candidates who don’t have big-money connections to run for office. Clean money laws–which had their first test runs in the 2000 legislative races in Maine and Arizona–do both, since candidates who collect a set amount of very small contributions receive a block grant of public funds and then are entirely freed from raising private funds.
New York’s matching law did pretty well on the second goal, allowing grassroots candidates to compete. But the law doesn’t do nearly as well on the first goal, eliminating the influence of big money. Candidates for mayor and other citywide offices still had to raise a lot of money from fat cats. Although 77 percent of the contributions to candidates for all city offices were $250 or less, these smaller contributions added up to only 21 percent of the money raised. The lion’s share, particularly for candidates for mayor, came in larger contributions.
The 2001 election proved our group’s assertion that New York City has the second-best campaign finance law in the nation. The flaws in the city’s system demonstrated by Bloomberg’s spending should be enough impetus to push the city to take that final step toward Clean Money, Clean Elections.