Gov. Hochul and other state leaders (photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)
This November, New York launched a new public campaign finance program for statewide and state legislative candidates. By providing candidates with generous matching funds, the program aims to increase the influence of everyday New Yorkers in Albany.
I have put a lot of money into politics over the years — and I think that this program is a great idea. I want every New Yorker to enjoy the same level of access and influence that I have, and I want elected officials to be accountable to everyone, not just rich people like me and my friends. The program will take monumental steps in doing just that.
In last year’s New York elections, the 200 largest individual donors contributed $15.9 million to candidates, which was about $2 million more than all 206,000 small donors combined. In the federal midterm elections for the U.S. Congress, just 21 of the biggest donor families spent a total of $783 million, which was more than the combined contributions of 3.7 million small donors. Small donors have certainly increased their giving in recent years, but unfortunately, big donors like me have completely and utterly swamped them, especially after the 2010 Citizens United ruling opened the floodgates to independent spending by Super PACs.
The result of the dominance by big money in campaigns is a political system where elected officials are more responsive to the interests and preferences of the rich and special interests. While I benefit personally from this, it’s not what I want in a democracy. Wealthy people definitely vote more often and volunteer more on campaigns, but, at the end of the day, it’s our money that makes the difference to candidates and elected officials.
With its new initiative, New York has taken a significant step in the right direction in fixing this mess. Eligible candidates can voluntarily opt into the program to receive matching funds on small, private donations (up to $250) that they receive from their would-be future constituents. For example, for statewide elections like Governor and Lieutenant Governor, candidates can receive $6 in matching funds for every $1 they receive from small-donor New York residents.
The program will not stop wealthy people like me and my friends from spending big in elections, but it will certainly make our spending less important to our representatives. 11% of contributions to New York legislative candidates in the 2022 cycle came from small donors of $250 or less. By one estimate, under the new program, that figure could increase to as much as 67%.
The initiative will also incentivize candidates to spend their time fundraising among more of the people that they seek to represent. I don’t want candidates to spend their evenings at swanky law firms rubbing elbows with a smattering of wealthy people like me and my friends – especially if we won’t even be their constituents! Instead, I want candidates to spend their time among everyday New Yorkers, listening and learning about what action really needs to be taken in Albany to improve lives.
Lastly, the program will also break barriers to entry for diverse political candidates like women and people of color, who may not have friends or brothers-in-law who are rich real estate developers or Wall Street financiers. Launching successful campaigns for office is extremely expensive in America, which effectively means that candidates cannot launch viable campaigns without the backing and approval of affluent donors like me.
The new public financing program breaks this cycle and will bring a new set of demographically diverse candidates onto the scene, all of whom will bring a different, unique perspective to Albany with regard to the problems that everyday New Yorkers are facing today. We’ll likely see the same results across the state that we saw in New York City: thanks to the expansion of its own municipal public campaign financing program, in 2021, the city elected its most demographically representative City Council to date.
The program has officially launched, but that doesn’t mean the fight for political equality in New York is over. There are now reports that lawmakers may vote to delay payouts for the program for another two years, despite the fact that over a dozen candidates have already signed up to participate. Moreover, in her 2024 executive budget, Governor Hochul included $39.5 million for the initiative; while generous, it’s not enough to give the program the wings it needs to deliver on its promise.
In their ongoing budget negotiations, legislators need to take action. According to a newly-released poll, 62% of voters across the Empire State support the new campaign finance program and want to see it fully funded. Lawmakers must do it - without delay.
I am a wealthy New Yorker who wants my voice to be heard, but not any more so than anyone else in the state. I want this program to succeed because I want to get big money out of politics — especially my money. Now it’s up to officials in Albany to make it a reality.
Morris Pearl is a former managing director of BlackRock and is the Chair of the Patriotic Millionaires. This piece was written in conjunction with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. On Twitter @morris_pearl, @PatrioticMills, & @BrennanCenter.