What will $24 Million in New York City’s taxapyer-financed campaigns get you?

April 21, 2009   •  By Sean Parnell
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A few weeks ago Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) introduced the “Fair Elections Now Act,” the most recent version of so-called campaign finance “reform” to challenge the First Amendment (trying to roll over the First Amendment is nothing new for Senator Specter, who in the Fall of 2007 introduced a bill to change the First Amendment to exclude campaign contributions from its protection).  

Although the new euphemism is apparently “fair elections,” this is basically the same so-called “clean elections” scheme that “reformers” have been pushing around the country for the past several years, handing out taxpayer dollars to politicians to pay for their campaigns instead of relying on the private, voluntary contributions of citizens.

In the course of researching and analyzing the Fair Elections Now Act proposal, I’ve been reading up on New York’s City’s taxpayer financed campaigns program, which has some similar aspects to the Fair Elections Now Act. Specifically, New York City will match the first $175 of any contribution made to a participating candidate, provided the donor lives in the city limits or for city council races, in the district.

There’s a tremendous amount of information available on New York City’s program, much of it helpfully provided by the city’s Campaign Finance Board in their official reports. For example, the report on New York City’s  2005 election reveals that the approximately $24 million in taxpayer money was distributed to candidates. So what did that $24 million buy?

Out of 51 city council races, only 7 featured open seats. All but 1 incumbent won re-election, most of them by significant margins (many of them didn’t even face opponents). And the incumbent that lost? He was beaten after allegations of harassment and discrimination by his staffers, which netted him a $5,000 fine from the City Council, along with penalties imposed by the Campaign Finance Board. Needless to say, he did not have the best press during the election.

Oh, and the candidate who beat him? A former incumbent, who had been term-limited out after 2001.

Of the 7 open seat races, 3 were won by obvious political insiders: 2 had served as chief of staff for the previous incumbent or Council speaker, and 1 was a district party leader and the daughter of a former State Assembly member. The other 4 also appeared to have strong ties to the political establishment – 1 was an employee of the powerful Service Employees union, who helped significantly in her campaign; another was district manager for the  Bronx Community Board, apparently a local government unit in New York City; the third was a leading public figure on civil rights issues and an attorney with 2 Ivy League universities on his resume; and the fourth is described as a “community activist.”

Of these 4 with less-obvious political ties, only the final candidate, community activist Darlne Mealy, could even possibly be described as a political outsider, someone who might possibly have had trouble raising funds without a matching program (although her endorsement by the New York Times and a variety of union presumably would have gotten her over this barrier).

As for the other citywide races in the program, there’s absolutely no sign of outsiders or the ever-vaunted “average citizen” challenging the political establishment thanks to the help of New York’s system of taxpayer subsidies for politicians. Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent $84.6 million of his own money in his winning re-election campaign, incumbents won the Public Advocate and Comptroller positions (each getting 90 percent or more of the vote), and 4 of 5 Borough Presidents were easily re-elected. The Manhattan seat was open, and was won by a sitting member of the New York State Assembly.

These numbers are important because schemes like the Fair Elections Now Act promise that “average citizens” will be able to run for office and win. One of the goals of the Fair Elections Now act is, in fact, to “[create] genuine opportunities for all Americans to run for [Congress] and encouraging more competitive elections.” Apparently, it hasn’t quite worked out that way in New York City.

So, $24 million in taxpayer funds shoveled into campaign coffers in New York City will, apparently, buy you (at best) one City Council seat filled by a candidate that might not have otherwise been able to raise enough money to mount a credible campaign. Maybe.

And the “reformers” wonder why we’re skeptical of these schemes…

Sean Parnell

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