(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)
“Black humanity and dignity requires Black political will and power. Despite constant exploitation and perpetual oppression, Black people have bravely and brilliantly been the driving force pushing the U.S. towards the ideals it articulates but has never achieved. In recent years we have taken to the streets, launched massive campaigns, and impacted elections, but our elected leaders have failed to address the legitimate demands of our Movement. We can no longer wait.”
Those words launch the policy platform that more than 50 organizations that make up the Movement For Black Lives policy table signed onto last year.
A key component of this policy platform is public financing of elections -- because we know that we can’t truly build Black political power and combat racism and oppression if wealthy donors continue to hold outsized influence.
While Black representatives may be gaining in number and power, without systemic campaign finance reforms these gains will be fleeting. This is true here in New York, where we celebrate a historic occurrence -- leaders of both chambers in the state Legislature are Black: Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.
To get true democracy -- especially for historically oppressed people -- you need to have fair elections. That includes both public financing and easier access to the polls.
It’s time for New York to become the leader in campaign finance reform. All three top leaders in New York State government (Stewart-Cousins, Heastie, and Governor Andrew Cuomo) -- along with the majority of sitting Senators and Assembly members -- have long supported this important reform that would give public matching funds to candidates who raise small-dollar donations from average New Yorkers. With “fair elections” legislation in place, elections would no longer be funded primarily by wealthy, white donors.
New York, under “fair elections,” would be more likely to prioritize the needs of poor and working class New Yorkers, including poor and working class Black people.
The current situation is stacked against us. All too often the donors that are funding campaigns in New York have very different needs than the working families that make up a majority of a politician’s constituency. When implemented, these campaign finance reforms -- and specifically, a small dollar matching system -- can bring more and continued diversity to New York State’s candidate and donor pools and improve responsiveness to and accountability with voters.
It’s no secret that our country has a legacy of racism and has systematically disenfranchised Black people through our political system — whether through mass incarceration or voter suppression laws. But campaign finance plays a similar, if more hidden, role. The dominance of big money in our politics makes it much harder for poor and working-class Black people to express political power and effectively advocate for their interests. For too long the power and wealth in our country -- and in our state -- is consolidated to a very small, very white population and the Black community has been left behind.
New York’s Legislature, now with all-Black legislative leadership, shows that change is possible, but we can’t rest until we change the system for the long-term. For such a progressive state, New York has some of the worst campaign finance rules in the country. Yet finally, with progressives in both houses of the Legislature and a governor who wants to change them, New York campaign finance laws could, should, and must quickly change to make sure everyone's voice is heard -- even if you don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to donate.
Monifa Bandele & Richard Wallace are on the Leadership Team of the Movement for Black Lives Policy Table.