State must reform its bloated system of campaign financing
Welcome to the Most Serene Republic of New York — where talk is cheap, influence is expensive and campaign fi nance reform just does not get done.
Despite what we may have learned in school, a republic is not necessarily defi ned by elections, freedom and liberty. You don’t have to have a monarch or a dictator to have a government that usurps the power from the people.
Indeed, throughout history, states like Venice, Genoa — even Gilded Age America — have purported to be republics. And as such, they’ve been characterized by ruleby-money, political patronage, and power oftentimes staying within the same family — both through political dynasties and estate inheritance.
No, we’re not there yet, but as time goes by, don’t be surprised if our state starts to resemble one of these merchant republics of days gone by. Why?
CLEARING UP CONFUSION
Last month, if you had any confusion as to why campaign finance wasn’t getting done, despite much of Albany’s proclaimed support for a package, you now have your answer. On Monday, the New York Public Interest Research Group released an analysis of Gov. Cuomo’s 2014 fundraising totals thus far — and it’s quite a haul.
Of the more than $27 million Gov. Cuomo has raised so far, 43.84 percent has come via donations of $40,000 or more. That’s twohundred people giving a total of $12 million to one man’s campaign. In fact, NYPIRG says at least 26 people or groups have donated more than $60,800 since December 2010.
The biggest donor? Through various avenues, real estate mogul Leonard Litwin has donated a whopping $650,000 to the Cuomo campaign.
And the spread between big-money and small-money donors has only widened since January. Then, it was 78.89 percent of his money that had come from donors giving over $10,000, and 1.03 percent coming from donors giving under $1,000. Now, it’s 80.18 percent and .89 percent, respectively.
How can this possibly happen? Well, if you have various corporate holdings, decent knowledge of the law and its loopholes, and the connections necessary to make the investment worth it, you can donate essentially unlimited amounts.
This kind of political infl uence isn’t available to most. So, faced with that — people who give more than most Americans can hope to make in half a lifetime — why even bother throwing petty change into the pool, hoping your wishes might come true? Isn’t this all essentially (legalized) bribery, given that who’s listening to who based on money donated factors into the equation?
Cuomo agrees it’s pretty unpleasant — at least on a personal level. “The least favorite part of my job is the fundraising part,” he said back in March, before the rubber hit the road on reform.
Yet the proposal languished and died, unlike so many other bills that Cuomo has viewed as worth fi ghting tooth and nail for. We therefore must assume that he doesn’t actually want campaign finance reform to happen — and for his own benefit, he’ll happily plug his nose, hold his breath and do the fundraising that has thus far been not just tangential but essential to his success. (Unless he made that up about fundraising being “the least favorite” part of his job, which would not be a shock.)
However — and this may surprise some — I don’t blame Gov. Cuomo, or the people who donate. I blame the system that this behavior is endemic to — and in the end, the public that endorses it through tacit acceptance. Our unwillingness to make campaign finance a top issue in New York state politics disenfranchises us. If anyone is at fault, it’s us for not caring.
Our system is one riddled with perverse incentives, and we cannot expect Cuomo to unilaterally disarm given this system that is benefiting him immensely. Is it any wonder that those who have devoted their lives to government want to keep the system functioning as is?
This finance system needs to end, and be replaced by a comprehensive public financing system. For an extremely minute cost, we could do wonders to cleanse our state democracy of legalized corruption and restore power to the people.
And in order to do so, we need to make politicians pay a cost at the polls. If they don’t support campaign fi nance reform, we don’t support them. Everyone — Democrats, Republicans, independents — should be able to agree that the powerful interests should not be able to drown out the people’s voices.
If we truly believe in democracy, we should do what we can to prevent it from sliding into oligarchy.
Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to The Gazette Opinion pages.