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Campaign Finance Reform May Come with Mandatory Debates for Statewide Elections

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2014 NY gubernatorial debate (photo: C-SPAN)

With Democrats in charge of the state Legislature, there’s broad optimism that New York may finally create a state-level public financing system for electoral campaigns modelled after the program in place in New York City, including mandatory debates for candidates for statewide offices who receive public campaign funds.

In his executive budget released last month, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a voluntary public campaign financing program that would provide a 6-to-1 match for the first $175 of each contribution. The proposal also requires that statewide candidates, though not those running for State Senate or Assembly, participate in official debates before each primary and general election if they receive public funds, unless a candidate does not have an opponent.

Debates at the state level, particularly in gubernatorial contests, have been a thorny issue in previous elections. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, is notoriously averse to debating his opponents and has often limited the number of debates he agrees to participate in, and he almost always attempts to strictly dictate the terms of those debates.

In 2014, Cuomo refused to debate primary opponent Zephyr Teachout and would only partake in a general election debate open to all candidates, something he also insisted on in 2010, instead of any one-on-one with his Republican challenger, Rob Astorino. Cuomo used the messy 2010 debate to justify his lack of participation in debates. “I’ve been in many debates that I think were a disservice to democracy,” he told the New York Times in 2014. “So anyone who says debates are always a service to democracy hasn’t watched all the debates that I’ve been in.”

Last year, Cuomo did agree to one debate with his primary opponent, Cynthia Nixon, who nevertheless hammered the governor for only agreeing to one, a scenario that played out quite similarly for the general election when Cuomo participated in one debate with Republican Marc Molinaro. The governor’s insistence on a low room temperature at the primary debate venue even triggered a discussion about sexism in the workplace.

Incumbent state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli participated in two televised general election debates last year after facing no primary challenger. Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul similarly debated her opponent, City Council Member Jumaane Williams, twice before the primary though only one of the debates was televised. In an attorney general race with no incumbent, eventual winner Letitia James participated in a series of debates and forums in the Democratic primary, then agreed to just one general election debate against Republican Keith Wofford.

In New York City, the Campaign Finance Board, which administers the public matching funds program, organizes two official debates before each primary and general election for the three citywide offices of mayor, comptroller, and public advocate. Participation is determined based on financial thresholds for initial debates and additional nonpartisan criteria for subsequent ones. Participation is mandatory for any candidate receiving public matching funds.

Notably, the governor’s proposal only includes statewide candidates, which is more limited than the Fair Elections Act, versions of which have been introduced in the past in both the state Senate, by now-Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and in the Assembly by Speaker Carl Heastie. Both those public financing proposals included provisions for mandatory debates for all candidates who participate in the public campaign finance program.

But neither Stewart-Cousins nor Heastie have reintroduced the Fair Elections Act and it’s unclear if they intend to do so, indicating that Cuomo’s proposal may form the basis for negotiations with the Legislature. Asked about the Fair Elections Act and the governor’s proposal, a spokesperson for the Senate majority, Mike Murphy, simply said by email, “It is being discussed and we look forward to moving forward.” Heastie’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Jonathan Timm, a spokesperson for Senator Zellnor Myrie, who chairs the elections committee, said Myrie is working with other senators to improve on the governor’s budget proposal but had yet to finalize their plans. “The Senator is a strong supporter of public financing...and he is working with all parties to see how we can get to best system possible. Everything is on the table, including, possibly, debate requirements,” Timm said in an email.

Though a mandatory debate program is a desirable element for any public financing proposal, it’s not a top priority for advocates. “We don’t want the excuse of something not being perfect as a justification for not doing anything, which happens all too often in Albany,” said Alex Camarda, senior advisor at Reinvent Albany, a government reform group that is part of the Fair Elections for New York coalition.

What’s more important, he said, “is establishing the foundation for a public matching funds program in New York State and following the city model of improving it over time.”

He also said that though debates are important in informing the public and for allowing candidates to contrast their policy platforms, they tend to be more essential for elections that aren’t as high profile. For instance, the public advocate special election in New York City, which has 17 candidates, many of whom with little name recognition, running for a seat that many New Yorkers are unaware about. That’s the “poster child for the importance of debates,” Camarda said. Qualifying candidates in that field have now participated in two official, televised debates ahead of the February 26 vote.

At the statewide level, where the stakes are higher, voters tend to be more engaged. “In an era of social media and the 24/7 news cycle, debates are certainly not as critical as they once were,” Camarda said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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