Gotham Gazette Tue, 20 Aug 2019 03:14:30 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Council Hears 3 Campaign Finance Bills to Enhance Low-Dollar Impact, Limit Criminals, Curb Conflicts council comm hearing

Council Member Keith Powers (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

The City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations held a hearing Wednesday to discuss three bills related to campaign finance reform. Two of the bills would prohibit candidates convicted of felony corruption or misuse of public funds from receiving public matching funds and reduce the matching funds contribution minimum from $10 to $5. They are sponsored by Council Members Fernando Cabrera and Keith Powers, respectively. Cabrera is the chair of the governmental operations committee.

The third bill, also sponsored by Powers, would amend the definition of “business dealing with the city” to include an earlier trigger in the land use review process. That bill would make those entities with uncertified applications under the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and zoning text amendments part of the “doing business” database that severely limits what they can give to political candidates, with the goal of decreasing the influence of large real estate contributions in elections and the opportunity for pay-to-play politics.

The hearing included testimony from representatives of the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB), which runs the city’s public matching system and trains, monitors, and audits campaigns; and Reinvent Albany, a good government advocacy group. Each of the bills is based upon recommendations filed by the CFB in its 2017 post-election report.

Prohibition of Funds for Felons
Currently, the campaign finance act prohibits candidates from receiving public funds if they have been convicted of felony fraud in the course of program participation. It does not prevent candidates convicted of fraud or corruption more broadly from receiving public funds.

In 2017, a candidate participating in the city’s matching system, Hiram Monserrate, who received public funds had previously served 21 months in prison for using government funds to pay campaign staff.

“Ensuring individuals with a track record of fraud do not receive public funds is not only good public policy but is fundamental to the integrity of the matching funds program,” CFB Executive Director Amy Loprest said at the hearing.

While supportive of the bill, Loprest suggested that the Council could do more to ensure that public funds are not given to those who have a track record of misusing them. She encouraged the Council members to extend the bill to cover misdemeanors related to corruption, and to specify the language of the bill to explicitly tie previous crimes to an individual’s actions as a candidate or office-holder.

Loprest also suggested that the committee implement sunset clauses of five years for misdemeanors and 10 years for felonies, after which a candidate would again be able to receive matching funds.

Lowering of Matching Funds Contribution form $10 to $5
To qualify for the city’s public financing program, candidates must meet a two-part fundraising threshold. Depending on the office sought, candidates must receive a certain number of contributions of at least $10. This bill would lower the requirement to qualify for the threshold from $10 to $5.

Currently, all contributions are eligible for public matching, but contributions under $10 do not count towards meeting the threshold to receive public funds. Critics of the current system argue that a minimum contribution of $10 can impose too significant a burden on New Yorkers from economically-disadvantaged areas of the city. For candidates seeking to represent these areas in local elections, achieving the minimum number of contributions to reach the threshold can be a challenge exacerbated by the high minimum.

The campaign finance board discussed lowering the minimum to $1, but determined that $5 was “a balance between showing serious support and the financial burden from people from certain districts,” Loprest said at the hearing. The city typically encounters few $1 contributions, she said.

During the 2017 election cycle, just 186 contributions to Council candidates, or 0.72 percent, were under $10, and 30 contributions, or 0.12 percent, were under $5, according to a review by Reinvent Albany.

“Lowering the amount to $5 would allow more residents to participate in helping their favored candidates qualify for matching funds, and more candidates would be able to meet the threshold sooner in the election year,” Loprest said at the hearing.

“For large-scale elections in the city it would be an easier way to encourage people to get into the matching funds program,” Council Member Powers said of his bill.

Amending the Definition of “Business Dealings”
The third bill discussed would place limits on contributions to candidates running for office from persons with “business dealings” with the city.

Included in “business dealings” is applications for approval under ULURP and applications for zoning text amendments, but currently only after the City Planning Commission has certified an application as complete. Often, these applications are filed months or years before they are certified by the City Planning Commission. Those who file applications can thus make maximum contributions after filing their application for land use changes but before it is certified, providing more opportunity for a pay-to-play culture and undue influence, or at least the appearance of it.

Persons seeking land use approvals made up less than 1% of individuals doing business with the city during 2017 election cycle, but they were significantly more likely to make campaign contributions. Nearly 20% of those seeking land use contributions made contributions to candidates during the cycle, according to the CFB. Currently, there are 87 ULURP and land use applications in the city that remain uncertified, according to the CFB.

Amending the definition of “business dealings” will allow the city to include those who have filed an application but have not yet been certified by the City Planning Commission to hold them to the same standard as those who have already been certified. Maximum contributions to candidates vary based on the office sought, as do the much lower doing business limits. For example, the maximum donation someone on the doing business list can give to a candidate for mayor is $400.

Including applications that are not yet certified in “business dealings” is “an effective way to ensure that the matching funds program is doing everything it can to curb both corruption and the appearance of corruption,” Loprest said at the hearing.

In all other “business dealings,” with the city, people are compiled into and remain in the city’s doing business database for one year after the end of the transaction. This management system allows the campaign finance board to determine if a contribution is within the applicable limit. Loprest testified that land use application under the ULURP coverage period should also remain in the database for one year.

“If we’re going to have a system where we limit contributions for those doing business we should limit contributions when those business discussions begin,” Powers said at the hearing.

by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Council Hears 3 Campaign Finance Bills to Enhance Low-Dollar Impact, Limit Criminals, Curb Conflicts Thu, 20 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Council Passes Campaign Finance Bill Roiling Early Mayoral Race Johnson Kallos City Council

Council Members Kallos, left, & Rodriguez, right, with Speaker Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

The City Council passed a much-anticipated, controversial campaign finance bill Thursday, raising the cap on how much public funding a campaign can receive and altering other dynamics of the city’s matching system. The bill -- the source of significant consternation over the past several days, particularly among likely 2021 mayoral candidates - passed by a vote of 41-6, with one abstention, and three absences.

The legislation, which Mayor de Blasio has indicated support for, increases the public matching funds ceiling so that campaigns are able to raise only smaller donations and still have enough money to hit their spending limit. It also has a retroactivity component, a bill change within just the past 10 days, that caused a stir and appears likely to impact several upcoming races, including the Democratic primary for mayor.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a likely 2021 mayoral candidate, and City Council Member Ben Kallos, the lead sponsor of the bill, defended the legislation, including retroactivity that will make candidates return money raised in 2018 above new lower donation limits if they choose to opt into the newer of two programs that has more public matching.

That portion of the bill stands to benefit Johnson and hurt competitors like Comptroller Scott Stringer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

“We are literally doing something that is entirely consistent with what we did three months ago and now all of a sudden we are being criticized for it,” Johnson said at the press conference, referring to actions the Council took to make new campaign finance rules approved by voters last year apply to the special election for Public Advocate.

Johnson, who pledged in January not to take any donations larger than $250 as he explores a mayoral run, said he has long supported the legislation and it has nothing to do with the race. He and Kallos also pointed out that the retroactivity component was discussed during an April hearing on the bill and recommended by the Campaign Finance Board so that an entire four-year election cycle would be run by the same rules, for whichever of the two programs candidates choose.

Still, neither Kallos nor Johnson had a clear answer for why the amendment to the bill had come so close to the Council’s votes on the matter.

Johnson noted the difficulty in creating legislation that affects lawmakers themselves.

“It’s hard to vote on these things because every time you do you’re potentially affecting yourself and your colleagues in what you do. It’s one of the challenging things you deal with as a current elected official when you start to look at the system that exists and you seek to improve it or change it,” Johnson said.

“For the current election cycle, just like we did for public advocate, when no one criticized it, you need to pick option A or option B,” Johnson said at the press conference. “No one is being forced to opt into the 8-to-1 [matching] system. We are just saying if you are going to opt into one system, be consistent throughout the entire cycle,” Johnson said.

If Stringer or others opt into the new system, they would receive its 8-to-1 match on all qualifying donations $250 or under, but under maximum individual donations of $2,000 (down from $5,100 for citywide candidates), and they would, based on the new Council bill, have to return the difference on any donations above the new maximum. That last aspect is what has driven Stringer and others to call Johnson out.

Others have criticized the bill for using more taxpayer money.

“I’m not sure how we look a homeless person in the eye and tell them we can’t find them an affordable place to live but don’t worry we have money for our next campaign mailing,” Council Member Kalman Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat, said on the Council floor before the vote. He voted no, as he had done in committee on Tuesday.

Supporters of the bill pointed out it’s potential to decrease the power of special interests and large donors in politics.

“I can’t believe we’re standing here having an argument over how much big money people should get to take after the voters said they want politicians to get less big money,” Kallos said at the press conference.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone say to me ‘I don’t want my dollars matched.’ The public match is increasing participation and the taxpayers, the residents actually like it. They like having their voices amplified and direct access to elected officials that they otherwise wouldn’t,” Kallos added.

“There’s a lot of cynicism in government because people feel like big donors have too much access in government, and here’s a way to take big money out and have it be publicly financed,” Johnson said at the press conference.

Representatives for Stringer, who would likely have to return the most money under the new system, if he sticks with the program of lower donation limits and higher matching, called Johnson amending the legislation and pushing it through a “brazen power grab” and using his government position to advantage his campaign.

“Johnson is rushing through a law that explicitly benefits him,” wrote Stringer spokesperson Tyrone Stevens on Twitter. “It’s deeply unethical and it’s not good government. Shame on him.”

"I’m a firm believer you don’t change the game in the middle of the game,” Adams told the Max & Murphy podcast on Wednesday, “...any major changes in the system should not be beneficial to any party involved. And I think that’s part of what Scott Stringer was saying." Adams said he wasn’t yet sure which of the two campaign finance programs he’ll choose.

A spokesperson for Diaz Jr. did not respond to a request for comment.

At the Council on Thursday, among those voting no was Yeger, who sits on the Committee on Governmental Operations, which first heard and passed the bill, sending it to the full Council. Joining Yeger in opposition were Council Members Mark Gjonaj and Ruben Diaz, Sr., both Bronx Democrats, and the Council’s three Republicans: Council Members Eric Ulrich, Steven Matteo, and Joseph Borelli.

Council Member I. Daneek Miller was the sole abstention. Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who was absent for the committee vote on Tuesday, was also absent for the vote by the Council, despite having been present during the press conference preceding the full Council meeting.

by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

Council Passes Campaign Finance Bill Roiling Early Mayoral Race Thu, 13 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Amid Controversy, City Council Moves Ahead with Campaign Finance Bill Extending Public Match committee gov op

Council Members Yeger, left, and Cabrera, right (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

Significantly more public funding of political campaigns appears on the way given legislation that the City Council Committee on Governmental Operations passed on Tuesday.

The bill, sponsored by Ben Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, aims to prevent corruption and increase engagement with local communities by adjusting the public matching funds system to allow candidates to raise only relatively small donations and receive enough public money to reach the spending limit in their race.

Though the bill has over 30 sponsors in the 51-seat Council and passed the committee 4-1 on Tuesday, a last-minute amendment to the legislation caused a significant stir, including accusations of impropriety by Comptroller Scott Stringer against City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, both likely mayoral candidates in the next election.

Expected to be passed by the full Council on Thursday, the bill lifts the cap on how much public funding – or taxpayer money – a participating campaign can receive from Campaign Finance Board. The cap, currently set at 75 percent of the spending limit for participating candidates, would rise to 89.9%, effectively making it a full match relative to the spending limit when the private funds involved are also taken into consideration.

The city’s campaign finance system currently has two tracks, “Option A” and “Option B,” that only apply to the 2021 election cycle, before the newer of the two programs takes full hold. That program, “Option A,” includes lower individual donation thresholds and matches the first $250 of individual contributions at an 8-to-1 ratio for a maximum disbursement of $2,000 in public funds per contribution.

These rules are the result of a November 2018 referendum that both raised the disbursement cap and increased the public matching ratio. But it also left in place the old system, which has much higher contribution limits and matches the first $175 of donations at 6-to-1.

Different offices, from citywide posts like mayor and comptroller to borough presidencies to City Council seats, have different donation and spending limits.

The change to individual contribution limits in Option A dropped the maximum donation limit from $5,100 to $2,000 for citywide candidates who opt into that program.

Related to that new donation cap, an amendment to the legislation being passed this week has caused a rift among mayoral candidates and raised eyebrows around city government.

The amendment requires candidates who opt into the new system to return contributions from 2018 that go over the new maximums, which could mean a $3,100 return on each maximum donation for participants.

The November referendum allowed candidates participating in the system to choose between the new rules – with the higher public match but lower contribution limits – and the old rules until 2022, when candidates will have to conform entirely to the new rules to receive public funds. The 2021 city elections are expected to be highly competitive, crowded affairs, with almost all city seats open due to term limits.

Comptroller Scott Stringer, one of several likely mayoral candidates in the upcoming election, would be particularly impacted by the amendment. He’d have to return many thousands of dollars in campaign donations from the past year if he wanted to opt into the new matching system. As first reported by the Daily News, Stringer viewed this amendment as a “brazen power grab” by fellow mayoral candidate and Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

“The voters passed a groundbreaking campaign finance system to clean up government, not corrupt it,” a Stringer spokesperson said. “Speaker Johnson is trying to circumvent the will of the voters and change the rules to benefit himself. The Council should reject his brazen power grab.”

A spokesperson for Johnson reiterated that it’s optional for candidates to return their contributions and said that the amendment was created at the recommendation of the CFB.

“The changes were made at the strong urging of the CFB. Both because of fairness and administrative efficiency,” Jennifer Femino, a spokesperson for Johnson, said. “That said, no contributions made in a prior election cycle will have to be returned. Any candidate who wants to keep their big money donations from the last cycle is free to do so and maintain their edge over the competition.”

Council Member Kallos stressed to Gotham Gazette that not only did the CFB recommend retroactivity because it would then make administration of the program easier, but that Kallos led an extended conversation on changing the bill to include retroactivity during the initial April hearing on the legislation. The amendment wasn’t made until just days before the committee vote, however.

On Tuesday, governmental operations committee member, Keith Powers, a Manhattan Democrat, referenced the Stringer-Johnson rift during the hearing, though he didn’t name either of them. He said he was “certainly sensitive to the concerns that have been raised amongst those who are current candidates that feel this bill has a negative impact on them,” but remained supportive of the bill and voted yes.

There was opposition to the bill at the hearing, from City Council Member Kalman Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat. He said it disregards what the voters decided with the 2018 referendum and amounts to little besides another big dip into taxpayers’ pockets.

“It doesn’t seem to me that when the voters voted in November, they put an asterisk next to their vote and said, ‘Hey, this is what we’re voting for, but just in case you get a chance, take some more money out of our pockets and do this a little better,’” Yeger said. “I don’t think we got that message. I didn’t get that message, that’s not what I heard. What I heard was, there was a yes/no question, and the yes won.”

Yeger was the sole no in the 4-1 vote, with Council Members Kallos, Powers, Alan Maisel, and committee chair Fernando Cabrera voting to approve. Two committee members were absent from the vote: Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez and Bill Perkins.

The bill now goes to the full Council for a vote on Thursday. If it passes there, it will go to Mayor Bill de Blasio for likely approval.

by Caitlyn Rosen, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Amid Controversy, City Council Moves Ahead with Campaign Finance Bill Extending Public Match Tue, 11 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Expected to Pass Bill - with Controversial Amendment - Raising Cap on Public Matching Funds for Campaigns Ben Kallos City Council

Council Member Kallos (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

A City Council committee is expected on Tuesday to pass a bill aimed at reducing the influence of large donors on New York City candidates and elections by creating the possibility for candidates to essentially raise all smaller donations and earn enough public matching funds to fully reach the spending limit imposed by the city’s campaign finance program. But the bill, which has recently been amended in a significant way, is stirring controversy as it heads to a vote, with accusations against Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Ben Kallos, the bill's lead sponsor, that they are playing political games.

If adopted, the bill would lift the cap on the amount of public money a campaign can receive as a percentage of the spending limits on candidates who choose to participate in the matching funds system, which is run by the city's Campaign Finance Board (CFB). If passed as expected on Tuesday by the Council’s governmental operations committee, the bill would then move to a Thursday vote of the full Council, where it would be overwhelmingly likely to pass.

The new amendment to the bill, however, poses a potential hiccup in the process. The legislation now requires any political candidate who opts into the new campaign finance system -- with its lower individual donation limits, more generous public matching of small donations, and the potentially higher match threshold that the bill would create -- to return any contributions over the new system's maximum received in 2018. The maximum has dropped from a $5,100 individual contribution to $2,000 for citywide candidates, meaning a $3,100 return on each maximum donation if a candidate decides to opt into the new system.

Comptroller Scott Stringer, a likely mayoral candidate along with Johnson and others, would particularly be impacted by the bill amendment, and his campaign is calling out Johnson and Kallos, as first reported by the Daily News. If Stringer wants to access the new matching system, which is optional for only the current 2021 election cycle, he would have to return many thousands of dollars in contributions he received last year as he built a significant war chest for the upcoming race.

"Speaker Johnson is trying to circumvent the will of the voters and change the rules to benefit himself," a Stringer spokesperson said in a statement. "The Council should reject his brazen power grab.”

With the vote scheduled for Tuesday's noon committee hearing, it appears unlikely the bill will be derailed.

Responding to Stringer's criticism, Jennifer Fermino, a spokesperson for Johnson said, “The changes were made at the strong urging of the CFB. Both because of fairness and administrative efficiency. That said, no contributions made in a prior election cycle will have to be returned. Any candidate who wants to keep their big money donations from the last cycle is free to do so and maintain their edge over the competition.”

If passed by the full Council, the bill would then be at the mercy of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who would be likely to approve it. If it becomes law, the new thresholds would alter the landscape for the already-underway 2021 city election cycle that is set to feature an estimated 500 candidates for a wide variety of city offices. Most current officeholders from the mayor through the borough presidents and City Council members are term-limited from seeking reelection. Many term-limited officials, including Stringer and Johnson, will be seeking election to higher office.

The city’s campaign finance system is among the most robust of its kind and is lauded as a model for regulating campaign spending while promoting competitive elections, regardless of the wealth of candidates. Its signature components include a voluntary public financing program that matches small-dollar contributions; spending limits and restrictions on expenditures for participants; and thorough disclosure requirements and auditing.

“This legislation expands the new campaign finance laws overwhelmingly adopted by 80% of the voters on November 6, 2018, from only matching 75% of contributions to matching all of them at 89.89% so that the voices of everyday working New Yorkers are amplified over that of big money and lobbyists,” Kallos said in an emailed statement to Gotham Gazette, referring to a successful ballot referendum that passed last year to increase matching funds and reduce individual donation limits.

The matching system encourages candidates to seek small-dollar contributions and, as a result, reach out to more constituents, rather than soliciting large contributions from the city’s wealthiest political donors who often have or want city business or favors.

Supporters say it reduces the risk of corruption and contributes to the diversity of candidates. Through a series of public referenda and legislation since it was established in 1988, the public match has been expanded along with limits on the types of contributions participating candidates can receive and the amounts they can spend. The most recent changes to the program came out of the referendum to revise the City Charter last November.

There is currently a cap on the amount of public funds a participant in the city’s program, administered by the Campaign Finance Board, can receive. Caps are set at a percentage of the total spending limit for the different offices, forcing candidates to rely on a mix of public and private dollars, which the CFB believes has important benefits. To the board, striking the right balance with sensitivity to the shifting demands of campaigning in New York is key to the program’s success.

“The Program remains strong because of our work with the Council over the years to ensure that it evolves to meet the challenges of an evolving political landscape,” said Amy Loprest, executive director of the CFB, before the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations when she testified on an earlier version of the bill in April.

Kallos’ bill is sponsored by 31 other Council members in the 51-seat chamber and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. It would tip the balance toward a full match and would also codify into the city Campaign Finance Act relevant pieces of the ballot referendum approved by voters last year.

Supporters of a full public match argue the system still leaves the city’s rich and powerful with outsized influence, especially in citywide races where candidates rely more on large contributions than candidates for City Council do. “In a system where every small dollar is matched, big money, PAC money, and lobbyist money that is not matched is far less valuable,” reads a press release from Kallos’ office.

One concern from the CFB is that increasing the amount of public funds limits the ability of candidates to spend campaign dollars on non-qualified expenditures -- things like childcare, post-election spending, payments in cash, and attorney fees for defending nominating petitions, among others. After an election, candidates must return any unused public funds and have to pay back money used on expenditures if they cannot show they were qualified. (Kallos’ bill, Intro. 732, has been amended since the April hearing to allow expenditures on ballot petition defense to become a qualified use of public funds.)

Candidates also have to return funds if they lack serious opposition or “do not end up running serious campaigns,” according to Loprest. For the candidates with the fewest resources -- the campaigns the program is intended to best support -- these liabilities can be discouraging and ultimately crippling.

Last year’s referendum, placed on the ballot by the 2018 Charter Revision Commission, resulted in the creation of new program parameters including increasing the public match on qualifying smaller donations from 6-to-1 to 8-to-1 and raising the amount of funds available from 55 percent to 75 percent of the spending limit.

The public matching funds program now matches the first $250 of contributions at a ratio of 8:1, meaning an individual contribution of that amount could trigger a disbursement of $2,000 in public funds. It also reduced the amount an individual can contribute from $5,100 to $2,000 for citywide races, from $3,950 to $1,500 for borough president races, and $2,850 to $1,000 for City Council races.

Another change allowed public funds to be disbursed to candidates earlier in the campaign cycle.

For the 2021 elections, participating candidates will have the choice of opting into the new program, known as “Option A,” or sticking with the old rules, “Option B.” After 2021, the new system will become the only option. The choice was created to allow candidates who have already raised money under the old rules to stick with them.

The earlier disbursement of public funds can exacerbate the risks associated with unqualified expenditures for candidates who rely too heavily on them, according to Loprest. While making payments earlier in the election cycle allows candidates to be more competitive from the start and provides more time to deal with compliance issues, it can also lead them to spend more money that may need to be returned later, if they or their opponents drop out.

Kallos, a Democrat representing parts of the Upper East Side, was the prime sponsor of a law passed in 2016, which dealt with the risks of early disbursement by setting a limit on the payments made before the ballot is finalized. The 2018 charter commission also bars early payments to candidates who could not show they were opposed by a serious candidate.

The original version of Kallos’ bill removed that prohibition, raising concerns for the CFB. The new version being considered Tuesday includes a number of changes apparently aimed at addressing those concerns. Financial disclosures would have to be filed prior to early payment dates and candidates would be required to complete a certification of participation in advance of any payment date, Kallos told Gotham Gazette. Candidates receiving funds before the ballot petitioning period would have to be “actively campaigning” in order to make qualified expenditures.

“We were pleased to work with the Council in this most recent version of the legislation to address some of the concerns we raised in April,” Matt Sollars, a CFB spokesperson, told Gotham Gazette by email. Kallos echoed the sentiment, saying that the Council listens to “a lot of testimony” and changed the bill as a result of feedback from the CFB and other experts.

Most controversially and at the last minute, the new version of the bill also has language that would make the new rules for Option A -- both the 8-to-1 match and the lower contribution limits -- retroactive to apply to contributions received before the referendum changes went into effect on January 12, 2019. Candidates seeking to benefit from the new higher match would have to return any contributions above the new limits, even if received prior to the law changing.

For candidates running for citywide posts, that means $3,100 of every maximum contribution would have to be returned.

This could be especially challenging for candidates like Comptroller Scott Stringer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, all of whom have been raising money in planned campaigns for mayor. The fourth expected Democratic mayoral candidate at this point is City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who began raising money for a mayoral run earlier this year with a number of self-imposed rules, including not taking any donations above $250. Johnson stands to benefit, comparatively speaking, from the amended version of Kallos’ bill that would make others return thousands of dollars if they opt into the new system.

The move that particularly stands to hurt Stringer and help Johnson, is being called a "power grab" and using of government position to impact a political campaign.

“If I need to pass a law to get people to do the right thing I'll do it,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette over the phone when asked about the amendment. “If they don't want to participate in the new system, there is nothing saying they have to,” he added.

The bill could also of course help Kallos and many of his other Council colleagues who may be seeking higher office like a borough presidency or the comptroller’s seat.

Kallos was also the author of a law passed this year that allowed candidates running in the February special election to replace former Public Advocate Letitia James to opt in to the new public matching parameters established in the referendum. For Loprest and the CFB, the election showcased the positive effects already unfolding from the increase in the partial match.

“Early data from that special election shows that this new iteration of the Program is working as intended,” she told the committee in April. “The most frequent contribution size across all candidates was just $10, compared to $100 in previous citywide races.”

For the bill on the table Tuesday, supporters in the Council are eager for the cap on public funds to be raised further. “We need these reforms now,” wrote Council Member Fernando Cabrera, a Democrat from the Bronx who chairs the governmental operations committee, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated, and will continue to be updated as the situation around the bill changes.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

City Council Expected to Pass Bill - with Controversial Amendment - Raising Cap on Public Matching Funds for Campaigns Mon, 10 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
With 500 Candidates Expected for 2021 Election Cycle, Campaign Finance Board Starts Early Outreach running

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

The city’s Campaign Finance Board is gearing up for what is likely to be the biggest and most competitive municipal election in its 30-year history. In 2021, 35 of the City Council’s 51 incumbents, as well as the mayor, comptroller, and all five borough presidents, will be ineligible for reelection due to term-limits, providing an inviting playing field for dozens upon dozens of candidates to seek elected office, whether for the first time or in pursuit of a promotion.

Some candidates have already filed with the Board to indicate which office they are seeking, while others have made their intentions known, and many more will declare in the coming months. With party primaries now scheduled for June of any election year for city or state contests, the 2021 city election cycle will likely be in full swing in 2020.

The CFB, responsible for administering New York City’s campaign finance program, is planning a “5 Borough Tour” of candidate trainings this summer to prepare potential candidates for the rigor of the city’s system and the fundraising, spending, and disclosures. Most candidates will also participate in the public matching program, which will ultimately involve many millions of dollars in public funds the board will distribute starting in December 2020.

The Campaign Finance Board anticipates up to or even beyond 500 campaigns will register in New York City for the 2021 cycle based on turnout from similar elections in previous years. To meet the high demand and ensure each campaign receives its legally required trainings, the CFB plans to hold over 250 training sessions over the next year and a half, both at its offices in downtown Manhattan and throughout the five boroughs.

Thousands of individuals may need to be trained, as candidates, campaign treasurers, and other staff are brought up to speed on the rules regulating campaigning, fundraising, spending, and participating in the matching funds program.

"The CFB's matching funds program helps more candidates run for city office, so we want to expand the pool of potential candidates by making our trainings accessible to more New Yorkers," said Amy Loprest, Executive Director of the CFB, said in a statement announcing the new effort, which will begin in June.

The CFB is partnering with public libraries in each borough to provide a venue for the upcoming satellite trainings, in addition to the regular sessions held at the Board’s Manhattan offices.

The five-borough tour will include a new training course geared specifically toward first-time candidates, with information intended to orient them to the demands of waging a campaign in New York City, where they will be subject to strict fundraising and disclosure obligations.

Unlike other trainings related to compliance rules and navigating the CFB’s online portal, which campaigns are mandated by law to attend, the new courses are not required but are strongly encouraged by the CFB, which wants to lay as much groundwork as possible for a smooth election cycle, which also includes a variety of new donation limits, matching rates, and other specifications passed by voters during a 2018 ballot referendum.

The city may be facing a perfect storm of potential stresses on campaign finance administrators in 2021, including the high number of officeholders who are term-limited from pursuing reelection.

Open seats tend to be far more competitive than races with incumbents, typically comprising more candidates and resulting in narrower margins of victory. As intended, the public matching system also appears to encourage more candidates to run.

In 2001, an election year similar to 2021, 37 City Council seats, all citywide offices, and four out of five borough presidencies were open due to new term limits imposed and upheld by voters in successive ballot referenda in the early- and mid-nineties. That year 443 candidates filed petitions to run for those offices, and 353 of them participated in the matching funds program.

Somewhat similar dynamics played out two city election cycles ago, when, after the one-time term-limit extension pushed through under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, in 2013 a majority of the City Council faced term limits, as did Bloomberg and most of the borough presidents. The public advocate and comptroller at the time -- Bill de Blasio and John Liu, respectively -- also left their posts to run for mayor, creating additional “open seats.”

In Brooklyn, the borough that will see the most City Council turnover in 2021, 12 out of 16 Council seats will be open because of term limits. Also opening up: 10 out of 14 seats in Queens, two out of three seats on Staten Island, five out of eight seats in the Bronx, and six out of 10 seats in Manhattan. Some of the openings for City Council, Queens Borough President, and other seats could change if there are special elections before the 2021 election hits, potentially introducing new incumbents seeking reelection.

The ballot referendum passed last year expands the public matching funds program from a 6-to-1 match of qualifying contributions to an 8-to-1 match, while it also lowered individual contribution limits. Candidates participating in the CFB program in 2021 will have the option of raising money either under the 6-to-1 rules or the new 8-to-1 rules (in subsequent elections they will only have the option of the 8-to-1 matching system). The referendum also encourages candidates for citywide offices, who tend to rely on larger contributions, to participate in the public matching program by increasing the amount that can be matched in a single donation.

The Campaign Finance Board advocated for those changes before the 2018 Charter Revision Commission, empanelled by the mayor, that put the referendum on the ballot. The reforms are intended to “make running for office more accessible for all New Yorkers” by providing more support for newcomers who may not have access to the same networks of well-heeled donors and political allies that more established politicians have, Matt Solars, director of public relations at the CFB, told Gotham Gazette.

The new landscape in 2021 means the CFB will have to reach more potential candidates and, eventually, pay out more money.

“We estimated that the increases to the maximum public funds payments would lead to about a 30 percent increase” over the cost for the public matching program in 2013, Sollars said. The Board paid out $38.2 million in matching funds to 149 participating candidates that cycle. And the increase could be even higher as the Board expects the new rules to encourage more people to get into local races (it’s also yet to be seen if more challenges to incumbents are waged given the current political climate).

The Board has not yet determined exactly how much it estimates the public matches and operational costs of the program will be for the 2021 cycle.

To reach potential candidates the CFB will rely on its public library partnerships to publicize the trainings and is identifying community-based organizations to collaborate on this and other efforts of NYC Votes, which leads the board’s voter engagement campaigns.

The first event of the five borough tour will take place in Queens on June 8 (at Queens Central Library), followed by June 22 in Brooklyn (Eastern Parkway Library), July 20 at Bronx Library Center, August 3 on Staten Island (at Richmondtown Library; and September 14 in Manhattan (at Schomburg Center).

“From the voter’s perspective, 2021 may seem like a long way off, but for a candidate who may have a goal of running for office and being elected in 2021, it’s right around the corner,” Sollars said. “Our program is really strong and powerful but it also requires a lot of the candidates and they need to know those requirements.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

Read more by this writer.

With 500 Candidates Expected for 2021 Election Cycle, Campaign Finance Board Starts Early Outreach Mon, 27 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
More Like a Presidential Year: Report Details Extent of 2018 New York Voter Turnout Boom voters new york city

(photo: Edwin Torres/Mayor's Office)

The tale of the 2018 midterm elections has, so far, been one of groundswells and precedents lending credence to the populist narratives that have come to characterize post-2016 America.

In New York, anecdotes about crowded poll sites, and near-heroic efforts to cast ballots amid the congestion, were ubiquitous during and after the election.

A report, published on Tuesday by NYC Votes and the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, arms of the city’s Campaign Finance Board, now reveals just how significant the changes were in 2018, when New Yorkers voted for members of Congress, statewide positions including Governor, and members of the state Legislature.

New York typically suffers from voter turnout rates below the national average and, in general, voter participation across the country drops off during midterm elections as compared to presidential election years. But the 2018 midterms in New York City unsettled that arithmetic.

The picture painted by the report, which is mandated by law after an election year, is of a 2018 midterm election that more closely resembles a presidential year than a typical midterm in terms of voter registration and turnout.

According to the report, turnout in New York City hit 39.1 percent, a significant leap of about 10 percent from the previous midterm in 2014 and closing the gap to within 15 percent of the 2016 presidential election. By comparison, the gap between turnout rates in 2016 and 2017, a mayoral election year, was 35 percent.

Even more unusual, 11 neighborhoods in New York City had turnout rates above the national rate. All numbers for November general elections.

Over a million more ballots were cast in 2018 than in 2014, marking the first time New York City has seen a significant uptick in turnout in a midterm election in nearly two decades. At the same time, there was a shift in the behavior of new voters, especially when considering certain demographic factors.

Registered to Participate
While typically there is wide variability in turnout across age groups, in 2018 new voters of all ages turned out at more uniform rates. There were more than 250,000 new voter registrations in 2018, the report says.

Turnout among newly registered voters in the 18 to 29 age range -- the group least likely to vote -- was only 7.3 points below turnout among 30 to 39 year olds -- the group with the highest rate. This same comparison in the 2014 midterms yields a difference of 17.1 percent, though in 2016 the difference was much closer to last year, at 7.5 points.

The behavior of newly registered voters, as described in the Campaign Finance Board report, indicates an electorate that became more intentional as it expanded.

“Generally, in midterm election years, new registrants do not turn out at higher rates than those who registered before the election year,” the report reads. “In 2018, however, voters registered in order to participate in the 2018 midterm elections specifically.”

Last year, turnout was actually slightly higher among newly registered voters than the overall pool of registered voters. This was also the case during the 2016 presidential election when polarizing campaigns drove people to the polls in record numbers. By contrast, the turnout among new registrants in the previous midterm was more than seven points below the overall rate.

This was true at the neighborhood level, too, where the neighborhood registration rate had a stronger positive relationship with neighborhood turnout than it did in the previous midterm.

Naturalization and Voting
The CFB report also points to naturalization as a factor in turnout, although it does not speculate as to why.

A number of the lowest turnout districts identified in the report have a large immigrant population. Neighborhoods like Sheepshead Bay, which has a large Russian immigrant population, and Richmond Hill, a third of whose population is naturalized citizens, have very low turnout rates.

Places like South Ozone Park, whose population is 36 percent naturalized, of which a large portion are English-speaking Guyanese Americans, make it hard to say that the impact of naturalization has more to do with language access than with other factors. Less than 30 percent of South Ozone Park voters cast a ballot. (City Council Member Mark Treyger currently carries a bill to expand language access at the polls, but it is unclear if the Council has jurisdiction given that the city Board of Elections is a state entity.)

Unanswered questions about immigrant communities and voter turnout form something of a problem for a city with such diverse ethnic, linguistic, and political communities.

“We have an obligation to serve voting populations that are underrepresented,” said Matthew Sollars, Director of Public Relations at the CFB.

The report recommends a number of "reforms with immediate impact," including restoring voting rights to people on parole, automatic voter registration, changing the party enrollment deadline, and instant run-off voting, among others intended to expand access to the polls. Some of these changes are being debated in Albany, others by the 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission.

The Federal Factor
The 2018 elections saw an uncommon confluence of competitive races at the state and federal level, including in June congressional primaries and September state primaries, as well as the November general election.

But the Campaign Finance Board report suggests that not all competitive races are equal post-2016.

Several high-profile primary challenges for the state Senate were part of an effort to unseat members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), the now defunct group of breakaway Democrats who caucused with Republicans for most of a decade. But despite receiving a bulk of the attention from the media, interested onlookers, and passionate activists, there was not a dramatic difference between voter turnout in those IDC elections and others.

“This shows that the perceived competitiveness of an election does not necessarily lead to increased turnout in that district,” the report states, “and that in this high-profile election, voters turned out regardless of whether they were voting in a competitive election.”

The observation that IDC affiliation had little impact on turnout raises the question of what did. Some other figures in the report indicate that, while the Trump presidency appears to have an impact on federal races across the board, that effect has not fully extended to the level of local politics.

Last year’s midterms looked a lot like the presidential election, but 2017’s municipal elections did not. The report states registration rates in 2018 were “nearly double the number of new registrations the city saw in 2017.”

Most newly registered voters who cast ballots in 2016 did not return in 2017, when the city’s elections were mostly not seen as particularly competitive. “Only about 80,000, or 24.7 percent, of people who registered in 2016 and voted in the presidential election voted in any election during the 2017 citywide election cycle,” the report says.

Still, about 60,000 more voters turned out to vote in the 2017 general election than in the 2013 general election, according to Sollars of the CFB.

Whatever the factors, the report is careful to point out that all of these races “pale in comparison to the surge of voter registrations that occurred in 2016 during the presidential election cycle.”

“In October 2016 alone,” the report says, “124,000 new registrations were processed, which is nearly half of the total number of registrations processed throughout all of 2018.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated with a paragraph about the report's recommendations that was accidentally left out of the original published piece.

More Like a Presidential Year: Report Details Extent of 2018 New York Voter Turnout Boom Wed, 01 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Hears Bill to Expand Public Match in Campaign Finance Program Kallos City Council

Council Member Kallos (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

The City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations heard testimony on Monday on a bill to expand the public matching funds available to candidates under the city’s campaign finance program.

The campaign finance system incentivizes individuals to seek small dollar donations when running for office, matching those contributions with public funds. Under a recent city charter amendment approved by voters, a citywide candidate can receive public funds at an 8-to-1 ratio for the first $250 of each contribution (an increase from 6-to-1 for the first $175), and they can cover up to 75% of the spending limit for the office through public funds (up from 55%).

That charter change was quickly implemented through local law, sponsored by Council Member Ben Kallos, for all special elections before the 2021 general election, thus applying to multiple races this year.

Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, has also proposed increasing the public funds cap to roughly 89% of the spending limit, effectively allowing candidates to run their campaigns entirely on small contributions and the subsequent public match, and diluting the effect of wealthier, larger donors. And he hopes to put that reform into effect for the 2021 city election cycle, which will feature a massive number of local races, from citywide and borough wide posts through the City Council. Kallos estimates it will lead to roughly $61.7 million in public funds disbursements, about $10.3 million more than if the 75% match is kept in place. His projections are based on participation rates in the 2013 election when the CFB gave about $38 million to qualifying candidates. 

“I think this is a gamechanger,” Kallos said at Monday’s hearing, citing the recent citywide public advocate special election as proof that increasing the public funds match reduced big donations. He pointed to the latest campaign finance disclosures from all the campaigns, which showed that contributions of $250 or less made up 61% of all contributions, up from 26.3% of all contributions in the 2013 public advocate race, according to his office’s analysis of the numbers.

“We have flipped how campaigns are financed, upside down,” said Kallos, who is term-limited and expected to seek higher office in 2021, emphasizing that he believes the system must be expanded to fully eliminate big money donations.

[Read: Council Member Kallos Pushes Next Increase in Matching Funds Available Through Public Campaign Finance System]

Kallos’ bill has the support of the committee chair, Council Member Fernando Cabrera, and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who is exploring a run for mayor and only taking donations of $250 and under. But other city officials seemed less sure about the exact proposal while supporting its goals more broadly.

Ayirini Fonseca-Sabune, the city’s new chief democracy officer who runs Mayor Bill de Blasio’s DemocracyNYC initiative, generally praised the campaign finance program and the recent improvements that were enacted within it by the charter amendment, which was set into motion by the mayor’s formation of a charter revision commission.

She emphasized the need to increase public engagement in the city’s democracy by increasing public trust. “Establishing this trust begins with rooting out corruption and even the perception of corruption by getting big money out of politics,” she said in her testimony. But she said while the administration “support[s] the values” of Kallos’ bill, there would need to be more discussion of its specifics with advocates, the Council, and the city’s Campaign Finance Board (CFB), which administers the campaign finance program.

Similarly, Amy Loprest, executive director of the CFB, and Frederick Schaffer, chair of the board, said they were “supportive of the goals of this legislation” but had practical concerns about the current version. For one, Loprest noted, the recent charter amendment imposed a prohibition on early payment of public funds unless a candidate submits a Certified Statement of Need, in order to prevent unserious candidates or those without any opposition from getting public money. Kallos’ bill removes that prohibition, and Loprest said it should find a way to address it.

She also pointed out that candidates who rely overwhelmingly on public funds -- which are subject to fairly strict standards for campaign use -- would lack the flexibility to spend campaign funds on expenditures that do not qualify for the public funds program. For instance, cash payments or post-election spending.

The bill has the support of Reinvent Albany, a government reform group, and Dawn Smalls, an attorney who ran for public advocate in the February special election.

Tom Speaker, a policy analyst at Reinvent Albany, pointed out that with the current 75% cap on public funds, candidates for City Council would still have to raise about $47,000 in private donations and could look to wealthy donors. ‘“Raising the cap can reduce that dependency and allow for more donations from small donors,” he said.

Smalls, who was a first-time candidate in February, emphasized the importance of the small dollar matching program, which she said, “allowed me to communicate with voters and effectively compete in this race.” She did, however, criticize the CFB’s compliance regulations, which she said are "an unnecessary burden on all candidates, but one that falls excessively on candidates that may be new to the process and have less infrastructure." She emphasized her campaign's sophisticated operation and team of professionals, which she said shouldn't be necessary or reasonably expected of first-time candidates.  

Not everyone in the Council is a fan of the bill, of course. Council Member Kalman Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat and former campaign finance consultant, criticized the proposal and sought to repeatedly poke holes in the campaign finance program more broadly.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to clarify Dawn Smalls' comments.

Note - This article has been updated with cost projections from Council Member Ben Kallos.

City Council Hears Bill to Expand Public Match in Campaign Finance Program Mon, 15 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Report: Under New Law, Small Donors Drove Public Advocate Special Election Campaigns  poolnytdebate 001

The first public advocate debate (photo: Holly Pickett for The New York Times (pool))

Small-dollar donors were behind 63 percent of the first wave of campaign contributions to candidates who ran in the February special election for public advocate, up from 26.3 percent in 2013 when there was an open race for the seat, according to an analysis by New York City Council Member Ben Kallos. The Manhattan Council member sponsored the law to implement in the public advocate special election the new campaign finance rules overwhelmingly approved by voters in a ballot referendum last year.

The public advocate special election, in which City Council Member Jumaane Williams emerged victorious, was the first citywide race under the new rules that lowered contribution limits for special elections for citywide offices from $2,550 to $1,000 (special election limits are half of the regular election limits, which changed from $5,100 to $2,000), increased the ratio of public matching funds given to candidates from 6-to-1 for the first $175 of a qualifying contribution to 8-to-1 for the first $250, and increased the limit for public funds payments from 55 percent of the spending limit for a race to 75 percent. Soon after the referendum was approved -- by just over 80 percent of voters -- the City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio expedited legislation in order to apply the rules to elections before 2021, after which they were set to be mandatory. For the special election and those through 2021, the next citywide election year, candidates must choose the old or new system.

Of the 17 candidates on the public advocate ballot, all but one opted into the voluntary public matching funds program, which is administered by the New York City Campaign Finance Board. Only four decided to stick with the outgoing matching program while the rest chose lower contribution limits that came with higher public matching funds. In total, the 11 candidates who eventually qualified for public funds received $7,178,120 via the CFB.

According CFB’s own analysis released the day after the election, the most common contribution amount was $10, down from $100 in previous public advocate elections. “The matching funds give candidates the incentives to raise money the right way, by going to the New York City voters they want to represent in government, not to big-money donors or special interests,” said Amy Loprest, CFB executive director, in a statement on February 27. “If we want a government that is closer and more responsive to the people, it has to start with how candidates fund their campaigns.”

Kallos, the City Council’s resident good government wonk, has pushed improvements to the city’s campaign finance law for years and felt vindicated by seeing the campaign finance numbers behind the election. The ballot question, proposed by a charter revision commission created by Mayor Bill de Blasio, was largely similar to a bill Kallos had sponsored in the previous legislative session of the Council.

“One of the reasons I was so eager for this to apply in the public advocate’s race is I was worried about the time between the vote in November [2018] and 2021 and I wanted to prove to people that this could work,” he said. There will be another public advocate election this fall to decide who will hold the seat vacated by Attorney General letitia James for the final two years of her public advocate term. Kallos’ bill also lowered the thresholds for candidates to qualify for official debates sponsored by the CFB and for public funds payments.

His analysis, which covers the candidates’ pre-election campaign finance disclosures till February 11 (the most recent filing deadline - final numbers are due March 25), found that contributions of $1,000 and more accounted for 26 percent of the $2.2 million raised to that point in the election, compared with 60 percent throughout 2013. In total, all the candidates raised $2.6 million for the special election, which was “nonpartisan” and did not have party primaries. In 2013, candidates raised $4.9 million running for public advocate in the primary and general.

Kallos has long been critical of big money in elections, particularly donations from the real estate industry which have been a large force at the city and state level. “This is the first time a citywide elected official has been elected without real estate money,” said Kallos, who himself rejects real estate donations.   

Several candidates in the special election similarly refused real estate cash, which is of a piece with broader calls for candidates to rely on small donors. Public Advocate-elect Williams was among those who signed a pledge floated by New York Communities for Change, a housing justice advocacy organization, to refuse corporate and real estate money.

“New York City has changed forever: we will no longer be held hostage by big-money real estate developers and landlords who aim to profit through policies that incentivize the displacement and gouging of low-income tenants,” said Jonathan Westin, NYCC executive director, in a statement calling on other candidates to follow Williams’ lead.

Several candidates running for citywide office in 2021, or exploring a candidacy, have already said that they will rely on the new campaign finance system, including Comptroller Scott Stringer and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

Real estate donations are increasingly becoming a litmus test for progressive Democrats, some of whom were elected to the state Legislature last year and are also pushing to implement a public financing program for state elections similar to the city’s model. For advocates and labor leaders, the public advocate election was proof positive that small-dollar financing is effective and should be replicated by the state. “Jumaane Williams's victory, and the public participation in the process, is a glimpse of what we could accomplish if we pass campaign finance reform at the state level,” said Stanley Fritz, campaigns manager for Citizen Action. Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU, said, “The major shift towards small donor financing in city wide elections shows that working people in our state want a more democratic system.

Kallos notes that candidates can spend fewer hours dialling for dollars from wealthy donors if they rely on small contributions from the tens of thousands of residents of their districts, or from millions in the case of citywide races. “My hypothesis was that if we increase the public match...that that would halve big money and it actually did that,” he said. “It wasn’t a modest success. It literally cut it almost in half.”

The expanded matching funds program has been widely praised for elevating the voices of everyday New Yorkers. “Normally, a special election for public advocate would probably be very much of an insider’s race. It would be funded by insiders and people who follow politics closely,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a good government advocacy group. “And I think that what putting this legislation into effect now did was incentivized candidates to reach out to ordinary New Yorkers to campaign.” Camarda also expects this momentum to carry forward and that candidates will feel “real pressure” to participate.

Many of the candidates who ran for public advocate were also first-time contenders, including Nomiki Konst and Dawn Smalls, who were among the ten candidates on stage at the first official debate in the race, and among the seven candidates at the second official debate.

There have been arguments levelled against the public funds system, of course, and it’s hard to predict exactly how it will work for a full-fledged citywide race rather than a truncated special election. Some candidates have said the regulators of the program are sometimes overly harsh and fine them for small, technical violations. Others criticize the cost to taxpayers -- the entire special election is estimated to cost the city around $20 million in administrative and public campaign financing while the annual budget of the public advocate was only about $3.6 million last year. Former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who stuck with the old campaign finance rules and came in third in the special election, argued that the new system was being pushed through to prevent her from winning, apparently in part because she was transferring a significant sum of funds from her prior campaign account, an advantage more easily mitigated with the new system.

But there is otherwise broad agreement that the city’s program is a model to be emulated, as other jurisdictions have done across the country, and it is progressively being improved. “I’m still not done yet,” Kallos said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to clarify that total candidate fundraising was $2.6 million for the special election. It has also been updated to clarify the contribution limits for special elections. 

Report: Under New Law, Small Donors Drove Public Advocate Special Election Campaigns Mon, 11 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
7 Candidates Qualify for Second Public Advocate Special Election Debate Public Advocate debate 10 candidates

The first debate (photo: Holly Pickett for The New York Times (pool))

Seven candidates running in the special election for New York City Public Advocate have qualified for the second and final official televised debate, which will take place Wednesday night, just six days ahead of the February 26 election.

There will be 17 candidates on the ballot, 10 of whom qualified for the first televised debate. Now, for the “leading contenders” debate, seven candidates met the threshold set by city law, which includes raising and spending $170,813, according to a spokesperson for the city’s Campaign Finance Board. Candidates made their latest filings to the Campaign Finance Board by midnight Friday.

The seven candidates who will debate Wednesday night on NY1 television are former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, attorney Dawn Smalls, activist Nomiki Konst, City Council Members Jumaane Williams and Rafael Espinal, and state Assemblymembers Michael Blake and Ron Kim.

Of the ten candidates who made the first debate, City Council Members Ydanis Rodriguez and Eric Ulrich and Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell did not meet the threshold for the second debate.

To make it into the “leading contenders” debate, the candidates then had till February 11 to raise and spend $170,813 and needed to be endorsed by an elected official representing New York City at the local, state or federal level, or by a membership organization with at least 250 members in the city (a labor union or political club, for instance).

Ulrich, the only Republican at the first debate, Rodriguez, and O’Donnell did not meet the financial threshold for the second debate.

At the first debate on February 6, the ten candidates made their pitches to city voters and weighed in on everything from funding for the MTA and NYCHA to the then-happening Amazon deal, and their disagreements with Mayor Bill de Blasio. To qualify for that debate, the candidates were required to show $56,938 in campaign fundraising and expenditure by the filing due just before the debate.

[Read: In First Debate, Public Advocate Candidates Take on De Blasio, Amazon & Each Other]

The debate at 7 p.m. on Wednesday (February 20) will broadcast by Spectrum News NY1 and will be publicly accessible on NY1’s website and Facebook page. It will also be simulcast by NYC Life, the city’s media channel. The hour-and-a-half debate will again be moderated by Errol Louis of NY1, with questions also coming from Laura Nahmias of Politico New York and Bobby Cuza of NY1.

The public advocate special election was triggered after the former office-holder Letitia James was elected New York State Attorney General. James filled a vacancy created by the resignation of former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in the wake of allegations of physical abuse by several intimate partners.

The public advocate is a watchdog over city government and an ombudsperson, with the power to introduce legislation to the City Council. The public advocate is also first in line to the mayor if the mayor is unable to serve out his or her full term. The position helped launch James to become attorney general, and her predeccessor, Bill de Blasio, to become mayor.

The sponsors of the debate include Politico New York, Citizens Union, the League of Women Voters, the Latino Leadership Institute, Borough of Manhattan Community College, NAACP New York State Conference Metropolitan Council, and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., East Kings County Alumnae Chapter.

Beyond the ten candidates who made the first debate, the other candidates on the February 26 ballot will be Benjamin Yee, Manny Alicandro, David Eisenbach, Jared Rich, Tony Herbert, Helal Sheikh, and Latrice Walker, an Assembly member who has dropped out of the race but was unable to have her name removed from the ballot.

The election, open to all registered voters across the city, is expected to be low turnout. The winner will hold the seat at least through the end of this year -- there will be a primary election this June and a general election this November to determine who holds the seat for 2020 and 2021.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

7 Candidates Qualify for Second Public Advocate Special Election Debate Sat, 16 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Passes Legislation Authorizing Electeds to Create Legal Defense Funds mayorcouncilfisacl

(Photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

Update: This article was published on Wednesday and the City Council passed this legislation on Thursday afternoon with a 42-5 vote. Council Members Joe Borelli,  Chaim Deutsch, Steven Matteo, Carlos Menchaca and Eric ulrich voted against the bill. Council Member Jumaane Williams abstained from the vote. 

A bill that would allow elected officials to set up trusts to raise money from private sources to cover legal fees is set to be approved by the New York City Council on Thursday.

The legislation, sponsored by City Council Member Stephen Levin, would allow city officials to raise as much as $5,000 from individual donors through trusts, to pay for legal fees arising from criminal or civil investigations that are unrelated to their governmental duties, such as those involving campaign activity (legal fees related to government duties can be covered by public funds).

The trusts would have to file detailed quarterly reports on fundraising and spending with the city Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB), and would be prohibited from taking donations from lobbyists, corporations, LLCs, and people doing business with the city. The reports will be posted publicly online.

Levin’s bill is meant to fill a gap in the city’s legal framework that allows elected officials to use taxpayer funds to cover their defense in investigations arising from their official duties, but not in the case of non-governmental activity. Mayor Bill de Blasio found that out the hard way after facing dual state and federal probes into his fundraising activities through outside nonprofit groups and, in one, related government actions, which eventually led to no charges being filed but left the mayor with hefty legal fees running into the hundreds of thousands, even after he reversed course to utilize public funds to cover the bulk of over $2 million in fees related to the federal inquiry of whether he directed government favors based on campaign donations.

The mayor initially sought to use a legal defense fund to cover the costs but the COIB issued an advisory opinion limiting any donations to a mere $50, viewing them as gifts to an elected official which are severely limited by law. The mayor then used public funds to pay for the costs related to his government duties -- about $2.6 million -- but said he could not cover a separate bill that related to his non-governmental activity. De Blasio is not the only elected official who has had significant legal bills to deal with related to their official or non-governmental activity, he and others have pointed out.

The legislation is scheduled for a vote at a hearing of the City Council’s Governmental Operations Committee on Thursday morning, in what seems to be a rushed vote -- the bill was introduced on January 9 and the committee held an initial hearing on it last Monday, at which several questions were raised by COIB representatives and Council members. Spokespeople for Levin and for Council Speaker Corey Johnson said the bill is expected to pass through the committee and to be approved at a meeting of the full Council in the afternoon. It is very rare for any legislation at the City Council to move so quickly from introduction to passage.

The government reform community is split in its opinion on the legislation. Groups like Common Cause New York and Reinvent Albany have supported the effort to create a framework around legal defense funds, while another reform group, Citizens Union, disagrees with the very concept. In a letter of opposition sent to the Council on Wednesday, Citizens Union argued that the bill “creates the risk or appearance of corruption and undue influence, and will necessitate a complex regulatory scheme to mitigate.” The group urged the Council to, at minimum, tweak the legislation to bring donation limits in line with the lower limits that apply to campaign contributions.

The Campaign Finance Board, which monitors campaign fundraising and expenditure in municipal elections, also raised concerns about the bill. Executive Director Amy Loprest noted in her testimony before the governmental operations committee on January 14 that the legislation seems to allow officials to use trusts to pay for fines incurred from campaign finance violations. Officials can already cover those costs from their campaign accounts, which are subject to stricter fundraising limits.

“By providing certain candidates, i.e. those who are elected officials or public servants, with an additional vehicle to raise funds, Int. No. 1325 creates a path for those candidates to solicit and accept contributions from individuals that aggregate well over the existing contribution limits,” Loprest said in her testimony, urging that the bill be amended. “A clear majority of voters in last November’s Charter referendum voted to reduce these limits by more than half, with reducing the risk of corruption as the main rationale.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Council Passes Legislation Authorizing Electeds to Create Legal Defense Funds Wed, 23 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000