By David Schwartz
Alan Jennings, a candidate for City
Council in Jamaica, Queens, survived a challenge in
court from Anthony Andrews, the Democratic organization
candidate. "He had a whole laundry list of objections,"
Jennings said. "But I brought a case against him, so we
called a truce. I just wanted a shot to be on the ballot."
Just when Jennings was securely on the ballot, he found himself pleading in
front of five officials from the Campaign Finance Board.
Jennings is a single donation short of qualifying for
public money--ten dollars short of getting about $30,000--money
he needs, he says, to challenge the better-financed Democratic
"I'm being penalized because I didn't dot the i's and cross the t's."
Jennings said at the Campaign Finance Board's weekly public meeting. "It's
like I'm at the Board of Elections."
The Campaign Finance Board decides who gets the money and who does not
based, in part, on requirements candidates have to meet. Council candidates
need to raise at least %5,000 from city residents and receive 50 donations
of $10 or more from residents in their district. The Campaign Finance Board
counts 49 donations for Jennings. He says he has more than enough donations
from local residents, and has asked them to review the donations again.
Jennings, though, is not waiting on it and does not expect to receive public
money until a few days before the election day. "We're still going
forward," Jennings says.
After the tangle at the Board of Elections, it is time to worry about the
money. For the citywide races, the money is for television ads and
high-priced consultants. Council candidates do not usually have the budgets
to buy air-time. They still need to print fliers, brochures and buttons;
advertise in the local papers; and, of course, pay for the election lawyers
that kept them on the ballot and lobby for them in front of the Campaign
The new rules for the campaign finance program are supposed to help
grassroots candidates against big-money backers, and also prevent candidates
from being beholden to a few big contributors.
To some, it has worked. "It has been essential in helping many council
candidates to mount meaningful campaigns, and have competitive races," says
Nicole Gordon, executive director of the Campaign Finance Board.
Under the new
campaign finance law passed in 1998, there has been
an unprecedented flow of public money given to candidates
this year. More than $27 million has gone to candidates
this year. The next highest amount was in 1997, when candidates
received less than $7 million for the entire election.
Critics charge that this is costing the taxpayers too much money, but Gordon
says that the amount spent is on target with the Campaign Finance Board's
estimate that it would cost the city $63 million to make payments.
It is not just the packed mayoral field that is getting all the money. City
Council candidates have received about $8 million as of August 28, more than
four times the amount City Council candidates received in 1997.
Some of this increase is because more candidates are running, more than
twice as many as in 1997. But more money is flowing to each individual
candidate. Among the council candidates that have received public money,
candidates have gotten $40,000 more than in 1997.
More City Council candidates though, have not qualified for public money
than in years past. Compared to 1997, 15% fewer candidates who have enrolled
in the program have received public money.
Undoubtedly, more candidates will qualify for public funds as the election
progresses. But it also could be a sign of the often crowded contests.
"Council candidates have to demonstrate significant local support to justify
large amounts of public funds. Either they are not that serious in their
community’§|or another candidates has already gotten their donation and used
up the goodwill in the community," Gordon says.
So what makes this year different from years past? Under
laws, the city matched candidates' donations at a
rate of one dollar for every dollar donated, up to $1,000.
The city now gives four dollars for every dollar donated
from city residents, up to $250. For instance, four donations
of $250 means $5000 for a candidate, while one donation
of $1,000 means $2000.
Payments come at different times, and there is only one payment left before
the September 11 primary, on September 7. For the candidates who have not
met the threshold yet, that is precious little time before primary day.
Chan , a candidate in District
25 , is one such candidate. Even though she had raised
$5,000 and 50 residents in her district donated money
to her, she found herself pleading with the Campaign Finance
Board to bend the rules and send her money.
"I live in a poor neighborhood and I only asked people for $5," she said.
Those donations do not qualify towards the 50 she needs for matching funds.
When Chan started crying and brought up how her husband had been taken to
the hospital after campaigning so hard for her, the board offered their
sympathy-and then denied her funds. Chan will only get public money a few
days before the election, if at all.
"It's going to be hard without that money," Chan says.
Candidates are not only denied funds because they have not met the
requirements. When there is an appearance of fraud, payments to a candidate
Crowley's lawyer, Laurence Laufer, was in front of
the Campaign Finance Board during their weekly meeting.
While Crowley met the threshold requirements and is running
opposed, there was a problem.
Gerry Kilgus, a shop worker at an electrical shop, had been a supporter of
the politically prominent Crowley family.
"I told the guys in the shop, if you want to give $20, that's fine, I'd
collect it," Kilgus told Board.
About a dozen guys gave Kilgus $20 in cash, he said. Kilgus said he then
purchased money orders (cash is not accepted by the board) and signed his employees' names
to the money orders. "I figured it'd be easier," he said.
The money orders were numbered sequentially, sending up red flags at the
Campaign Finance Board. They asked for affidavits from the donors
testifying that they gave the money. The signatures on the affidavits did
not match those on the money orders. The Crowley campaign denies knowing
about any wrongdoing and quickly returned the money.
The board had withheld funds, and the Crowley campaign was lobbying to get
"It's my fault, but I didn't try to do anything wrong. Believe me, they
donated the money. I thought I'd make things easier," Kilgus said.
Nine of the guys from Kilgus' shop attended the Campaign Finance Board
meeting. At one point, they each
stood up, said their names, and declared that they willingly donated $20 to
"You signed the money orders?" Nicole Gordon, executive director of the
Campaign Finance Board, asked Kilgus.
"Yes," Kilgus answered.
"But it looks like you were trying to make the signatures look different."
"Well I wanted them to."
The room stirred and Kilgus was sweating. He realized he had said something
"Mr. Laufer," Father Joseph O'Hare, chairman of the Campaign Finance Board,
addressed Crowley's lawyer. "You should warn Mr. Kilgus that what he says
can be very damaging to him and he might want representation." Legal
representation, he meant.
The board did not make a decision on whether Crowley's campaign would get
public money, effectively delaying the payments. A few days later, though,
Laufer was confident that the campaign would get public money by the end of
After the hearing, Kilgus looked embarrassed and confused. "Believe me, I'm
not up to no good. If I thought it was a big deal, I wouldn't have done
(As for O'Hare's ominous premonition that he might be in trouble, Laufer
said, "I'm willing to bet Kilgus will go on leading a full and happy life,
But to the Board, the rules are a big deal. Some politicians who opposed the
bill thought the four-to-one matching funds were overly generous. So, to
assure everybody that the Campaign Finance Board is, as its chairman puts it,
"protecting the public funds," candidates will simply not get any money, if
they have 49 donors instead of 50 or $5 donations instead of $10, or if there
is even the appearance that something is not quite right.