In a landmark year for corruption in the state legislature, 2015 saw the arrest and conviction of two of the most powerful political leaders in New York. A crescendo of voices across the state -- from good government watchdogs to lawmakers -- expressed outrage and demanded stronger ethics laws and campaign finance reforms. In one sense, Albany now has the opportunity to put its money where its mouth is -- and all it needs is one signature.
New York is one signatory away from becoming the 17th state in the country to call for a constitutional amendment to negate the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case, which gave entities such as corporations and unions the same rights as individuals in contributing to electoral campaigns.
A successful bipartisan appeal for a federal constitutional amendment in the State Assembly has yet to be replicated by the State Senate, where 31 senators -- one short of a majority -- support overturning Citizens United to minimize the role of money in politics. While agreement by a majority of each house from New York would only be advisory, like the other states that have reached consensus, a groundswell for negating Citizens United could influence Congress.
"As we've seen again and again, Citizens United has opened the floodgate to unchecked and often opaque corporate political contributions, muscling real people out of the political process,” said State Senator Daniel Squadron, a Brooklyn Democrat, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Squadron is leading the effort among the Senate Democratic Conference and has 23 co-signers on a letter addressed to the United States Congress which calls for the constitutional amendment.
(Squadron also said that the state legislature should support his Corporate Political Activity Accountability to Shareholders Act, which would increase transparency and accountability.)
Senators Ruben Diaz Sr. and Simcha Felder are the only Democrats who have not joined their colleagues on the letter. The five members of the Independent Democratic Conference together signed an identical version of Squadron’s letter while Senate Democratic leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins independently wrote to members of Congress. (Felder is elected as a Democrat but caucuses with Republicans in the Senate, and Diaz Sr. is often difficult to pin down ideologically.)
Sen. Stewart-Cousins, in her missive, said that the independent contributions made possible by Citizens United “represent a deliberate effort to unfairly influence the electorate and empower a small group of individuals and corporations. Elected officials are becoming more beholden to the interests facilitating these outside funds while the public’s trust in our democracy erodes.”
Stewart-Cousins is adamant about reforming the state’s campaign finance system and believes that Senate Democrats have led the fight on many fronts. She lays blame with the members on the other side of the aisle. “We need to restore the public’s trust in state government and that will only happen when the Senate Republicans agree to listen to the voters and take meaningful steps to clean up Albany,” she said in a statement to Gotham Gazette.
While the Democrats who support overturning Citizens United total 29 votes, only 2 Republican state senators have supported the effort -- Senators Phil Boyle and Kemp Hannon, albeit in language different from the Democrats’ letters (it, for example, decries the massive potential outside spending to support Hillary Clinton's presidential bid). Sen. Boyle, who circulated his letter among his colleagues, refused to comment for this article.
Reluctance of New York Republicans to join the effort comes as a growing number of voters, including Republicans, oppose Citizens United. In a Bloomberg poll from September, 78 percent of respondents said they wanted the decision overturned.
“We’re at a crossroads in the movement where Democrats who hadn’t signed on are signing on, and where Republican voters are strongly in favor of a constitutional amendment, but we’re working to make that transition with Republican legislators,” said Jonah Minkoff-Zern, co-director of the Democracy Is For People campaign at Public Citizen, a nonprofit advocacy group that has been garnering a coalition to lobby state legislators for their support in the matter.
Senior attorney Gene Russianoff, from the New York Public Interest Research Group, is not surprised by the Republican legislators’ lack of support. Some of these state senators, he said, “feel teflon-proofed” and he applauded those who signed the petition. “Citizens United is the right target to fight the influence of money and political interests,” he said.
For good government groups like NYPIRG and Citizens Union of the City of New York, the Supreme Court’s decision to treat corporations as individuals in campaign finance has wreaked untold havoc on elections.
“New York State is severely hampered by federal court decisions in terms of how it can address the corrosive role of money in politics,” said Rachael Fauss, director of public policy, Citizens Union. “Action by the New York State Legislature would help drive attention to this national problem, and put New York on the record as being against campaign money being considered free speech.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whom many reformers look to be more of a leader on campaign finance reform in New York, recently made clear he thinks that as long Citizens United is around, his hands are largely tied. In an interview with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer on Dec. 21, the governor promised that he will advocate for campaign finance reform in 2016, but conceded that he could only do so much.
“If you say, 'Well, money influences,' then forget it, because [with] Citizens United you're not going to get the money out of the system until the federal government changes the court or the law or both,” he said. He was also dismissive of New York City’s public campaign financing system, calling it a “mockery” that independent committees can donate large sums of money to candidates as a result of Citizens United.
Advocates and reform-minded legislators continue to push Cuomo to call for a statewide public campaign finance system, which he has given lukewarm support for in the past.
Just a few hours after Cuomo’s Dec. 21 WNYC remarks, Mayor Bill de Blasio held a roundtable with members of the news media at which he also said passing a constitutional amendment was an “imperative” without which “we’re in an environment where a lot of very wealthy, powerful people will use their money to reinforce the status quo.”
In an editorial on Dec. 22, a day after Cuomo’s remarks on WNYC, the Albany Times Union called on the remaining state senators to take the bold step and join the growing call for an amendment.
On the surface, New York calling for a constitutional amendment may be symbolic in the absence of Congressional action. But, according to Common Cause NY executive director Susan Lerner, “In this instance, symbolism is especially potent.” She believes that owing to New York’s large congressional delegation, even symbolic measures carry significant weight.
“Remember, New York is a donor state,” she said, referring to New York’s influence on elections all over the country. “Everybody running for office comes to New York for campaign contributions. When New York elected officials say the system has gotten out of control, it’s particularly applicable.”
Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.