Cynthia Nixon outside Tweed Courthouse (photo: Gotham Gazette)
Standing on the steps of the Tweed Courthouse in Manhattan, a symbol of corruption in New York government, Andrew Cuomo launched his run for governor eight years ago last month, vowing to clean up the rot in Albany. On Monday -- as the corruption trial of a close ally to the two-term governor began in federal court -- Cynthia Nixon, the actor and activist and Democratic primary challenger to Cuomo, stood at the same spot to criticize the governor’s broken promise and to propose a far-reaching plan to fight the graft and corruption that she says has become further entrenched under Cuomo’s tenure.
“Instead of taking on corruption in the state capital, Andrew Cuomo’s administration has taken it to new heights,” Nixon said at an afternoon news conference. “Cuomo’s two terms in office have been a greatest-hits reel of dysfunction, corruption, and pay-to-play politics. If Washington is a swamp, then Albany under Andrew Cuomo is a cesspool.”
Taking aim at the “legalized bribery” rampant in the state’s election system, Nixon proposed “Government by the People,” a 15-page plan to promote public financing of elections, close loopholes in state campaign finance laws, reduce pay-to-play in state contracting, and shore up independent ethics oversight of state government.
The plan also details many conflicts and corruption scandals that have emerged from Cuomo’s administration and political campaigns in recent years, while the announcement coincided with the start of the corruption trial of Alain Kaloyeros, the former SUNY Polytechnic Institute president who was charged with rigging state contracts under Cuomo’s signature Buffalo Billion economic revitalization program. Prominent real estate developers who are major Cuomo campaign donors are also charged in the scheme.
Nixon critiqued the “networks of vast wealth” and power that she said are necessary to run for office in New York and that historically shut out women and people of color. “Too many of the people in power, and the donors who keep them there, don’t want things to change,” she said, insisting that she can herald reforms as an “outsider” to Albany. New York is known to have porous campaign finance laws, which allow large individual and corporate contributions to candidates, alongside loopholes that effectively do away with those limits for entities that created multiple limited liability companies, each of which can give up to the individual corporate limit. There are also no “doing business” limits that would place restrictions on entities with or seeking government contracts.
By exploiting the current rules, Cuomo has raised many tens of millions of dollars over his handful of statewide campaigns, including his now third consecutive gubernatorial run. At the same time, the governor has expressed support for campaign finance reform, but seen almost no changes move through the Legislature. A pilot campaign finance program with public matching was passed in 2014, but quickly fizzled. In a statement, Abbey Fashouer, a spokesperson for Cuomo's campaign, claimed credit for the reforms that Nixon proposed. "We thank Ms. Nixon for her support for our reforms. Unlike others who claim to be good Democrats, the governor is 100 percent focused on flipping the State Senate to pass these important reforms to increase government transparency and accountability,” Fashouer said.
Nixon’s plan envisions phasing in a voluntary statewide public financing system for elections, largely resembling the current program administered in New York City by the Campaign Finance Board, where small-dollar donations are incentivized with public matching funds. Some of Nixon’s ideas are nearly identical, proposing a 6-to-1 match for campaign donations up to $175 or a greater match of 9-to-1 for donations below $50.
Nixon proposed similar thresholds to qualify for public funds as those used in the city, including a minimum amount raised from a minimum number of contributors. Under her plan, for instance, a candidate for governor would have to raise at least $500,000 from a minimum of 5,000 contributors who gave at least $10. The plan proposes similar thresholds, with lower amounts, for the posts of lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, state Senate, and Assembly.
The plan also brings individual contribution limits for all state offices in line with the $2,700 limit for members of Congress, for each of the primary and general elections. It would also require candidates to participate in a debate and return unspent public funds after satisfying a campaign’s liabilities.
Nixon proposes creating a new agency called the “Fair Elections Board,” with enforcement powers, to administer the program, with a seven-member board appointed by the governor, comptroller, attorney general, and each of the four legislative major-party conference leaders. The entire program would cost between $100 and $160 million for each four-year cycle, the plan estimates, and would be paid for by a “New York State Fair Elections Fund” with several funding sources.
Nixon also reiterated proposals that she has voiced over the last few months while pitching herself as the progressive alternative to Cuomo’s centrist politics. She said she would ban campaign contributions from companies or individuals who hold or are actively seeking state contracts. She has insisted that the state should do away with the so-called LLC loophole that allows limited liability companies with opaque ownership to donate virtually unlimited funds to candidates. She also said she would ban donations from political appointees, an apparent reference to a New York Times expose showing that Cuomo has loosely interpreted an executive order limiting donations that the governor can receive from appointees or their family members.
Throughout her campaign, Nixon has derided Cuomo’s reliance on wealthy donors -- over years the governor has raised more than $30 million in campaign cash available to his current campaign while Nixon has raised a little more than $1 million during her few months in the race -- and insists that his policies on everything from affordable housing to criminal justice are driven by fealty to those contributors. “When candidates have to start their campaigns from day one by asking the wealthy for contributions...the culture of pay-to-play becomes inescapable,” she said.
The upstart candidate’s plan would give more teeth to state watchdogs to fight corruption. Nixon promised to dissolve the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics -- which many have criticized for being beholden to the governor and generally ineffective -- and said she would empanel a new independent Moreland Commission to tackle corruption unlike the one convened and abruptly disbanded by Cuomo in his first term.
She also proposed giving the attorney general a “standing referral” to investigate corruption on an ongoing basis, something Cuomo called for during his time as AG but has not granted his successors in the post -- and said she would restore the comptroller’s oversight powers over various state contracts that was stripped by Cuomo and the Legislature in 2011. She said she would sign a “database of deals” bill that was recently passed by the Republican-led state Senate but has been held up by the Democrat-controlled Assembly.
Recent polls have shown that New Yorkers have jaded views of their state government, but also that Cuomo is in relatively strong position with less than three months until the Democratic primary. Nixon argued Monday that voters do care about honest government, though corruption is not generally seen as a winning focus issue, taking a back seat to “kitchen table” or “pocketbook” issues like jobs, education, and health care. Nixon did recently release her campaign platform on education, her top issue area of focus.
She also presented her campaign finance reform platform the same day that former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, a Democrat, announced she would run for governor this year as an independent, creating her own ballot line. Asked about Miner's candidacy, Nixon said that she is focused on winning the Democratic primary and understands Miner is running in the general election. She also called Miner "more of a moderate" and referred to herself as "definitely part of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party."
Nixon wasn’t the only candidate to use the Kaloyeros trial as the backdrop to pounce on the governor’s record. On Monday morning, outside federal district court just around the corner, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, the Republican nominee for governor, and his lieutenant governor running mate, Julie Killian, called out the governor for enabling Kaloyeros’ corruption.
“Every instance of corruption and corruption charges being brought against individuals around New York’s corrupted government is about enabling and benefitting a governor who has consumed an obscene amount of campaign contributions,” Molinaro said.
Zephyr Teachout, who unsuccessfully challenged Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic primary and is now running for attorney general, also held a separate news conference outside the court. The Kaloyeros trial, she said, highlights the need for an independent attorney general willing to challenge the state’s top elected official and root out graft. “When people break the law in New York state, even if they are powerful people, it is the job of the attorney general to make sure that justice is done,” she said.
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
Note - This article has been updated with comment from a Cuomo campaign spokesperson.