Lessons from the 2009 Elections
September 1st, 2010

Looking back at the 2009 city elections, the city Campaign Finance Board is urging changes in laws governing how elections are paid for in the city. In particular, the board reiterates its call for the city to ban all campaign contributions by organizations. Although the board does not say so in so many words, this would forbid donations by labor unions, a move the City Council has rejected.

Overall the board, in its required report on last year’s campaigns, finds the city’s public financing of campaigns — and the rules about how those funds are provided — encouraged small donors and made the elections more competitive. It found many people opened their wallets to candidates who had never done so before and that most gave $175 or less. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the city only provides a full — six to one — match for the first $175 of a contribution made by a New Yorker.)

As indications of competitiveness, the report found in 37 of the 51 City Council districts, two or more candidates received public funds — up from 26 in 2005, the last City Council election year. And while only one incumbent was outspent by a challenger in 2005, last year seven challengers in the primary and five in the general election outspent the incumbent.

Primary Day last year saw five incumbents go down to defeat and a few more hang on only by the narrowest of threads. While that may not seem like much, it represented a sharp increase from 2005 when only one incumbent who sought re-election lost.

If the goal of campaign finance is to level the playing field and increase competitiveness, this could be seen as a success. But the board offers a number of recommendations for further changes.

The board notes in its report that is has long sought to ban all organizational contributions and that the city already forbids contributions by corporations, limited liability corporations and partnerships.

But some organizations can still give — and they do. In 2009, the report said, political committees (many affiliated with unions) and employee organizations donated more than $3.1million. On average, “organizations are able to make substantially larger contributions than individuals, which may represent attempts to gain influence,” the report says.

The report also raises concerns about so-called legal defense funds — money raised by candidates to help pay off Campaign Finance Board penalties. Earlier this year, Gotham Gazette’s Courtney Gross reported that at least three City Council members had such funds. In particular one — Annabel Palma – used money from labor unions to pay off fines arising from charges that her 2003 campaign had been too closely associated with a union..

In discussing such legal defense funds, the board report says, ” These contributions are yet another way for contributors to seek influence with a candidate. The board believes that all fundraising for the purpose of paying off debt arising from a political campaign should be fully disclosed, and should be subject to the same contribution limits and restrictions that apply during the election.”

The board also would like to see disclosure of so-called independent expenditures — money spent by a third party that, while it may help a particular candidate, was supposedly spent with that candidate’s involvement. Although the Supreme Court has ruled government cannot restrict such contributions, it has said it can require disclosure of them. The board also recommends making it more difficult for candidates running against very weak — often only token — opposition to get public funds.

While not surprisingly lauding the 20-year record of the Campaign Finance Program, the board does see difficult times ahead in an era of high spending, independently financed candidates and when, it notes, ” Courts have sought to tie the hands of campaign finance reformers across the nation.”

By on September 1, 2010, 1:02 pm
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