Brooklyn political activists push for publicly financed state campaigns

Should taxpayers be obligated to pay for candidates to run for political office? At a Bay Ridge rally Wednesday night organizers called a “Rally for Fair Elections,” dozens of people answered a resounding “yes” to that question. But a Bay Ridge lawmaker said the answer should be a firm “no.”

The Rally for Fair Elections, which organizers subtitled “Our Communities vs. Big Money,” drew an enthusiastic crowd of people to the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd on Fourth Avenue eager to change New York State’s campaign finance laws, according to Andrew Gounardes, a lawyer who was one of the event’s speakers. The goal of the rally was to educate people on the issue and mobilize the public to take action, he said.

Proponents of campaign finance reform want the state to adopt laws similar to those governing elections in New York City. The proposal includes setting a limit on the amount of money individuals can donate to a candidate. For example, an individual cannot make a contribution of more than $1,250 to a City Council candidate and no more than $4,700 to a mayoral candidate participating in the campaign finance program, under city regulations.

The city also has a program in which taxpayer money helps finance campaigns through a matching fund system. If a participating candidate raises a certain amount on his or her own, the city provides a 6 to 1 match in funds.

Such a system on the state level would take big money, and its potentially corrupting influences, out of politics, Gounardes said. “What if the person making a big donation has a business interest, or pushes the elected official for a favor? Also, a lot of money raised by candidates right now comes from PACs, corporations, or special interest groups. You wonder where the elected official’s loyalty is,” he told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

The proposal would be good for the state “because it levels the playing field,” said Gounardes, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for the state senate in Bay Ridge in November. “I can tell you as a candidate, the least favorite thing to do is to calling people to ask for money. It takes time away from meeting voters and talking to them about their concerns,” he said.

A new campaign finance system would also engage the public better, Gounardes said. “It would encourage community participation,” he said, citing the results of research conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law and the good government group Common Cause, which found that average citizens became more active in politics in cities with strong campaign finance laws.

“We have a two-month window to get the changes we need through the State Legislature,” Gournardes said. The legislative sessions ends on June 30. “Fortunately, Governor Cuomo is a strong supporter of this. And Assembly Speaker (Sheldon) Silver has introduced a bill,” he said.

But Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis (R-C-Bay Ridge-Staten Island) said she is against Silver’s campaign finance proposal.

“At a time when people are out of work, underpaid and overtaxed, the concept of using taxpayer dollars to fund political campaigns, at an estimated cost of $200 million, is an absolute disgrace,” she said.

“Campaign finance laws in New York are in shambles, but a sure way to make it worse would be to rob hard-earned taxpayer money to support this broken system. We must focus on removing the corrosive influence of money from politics, such as ending unlimited contributions to housekeeping accounts, rather than breaking the backs of taxpayers to fund this shell game. In the past, I voted against a proposal for matching public funds in the race for Office of the Comptroller, and I will continue to be a vocal opponent of taxpayer-financed political campaigns,” Malliotakis said.

Gounardes said the $200 million figure cited by Malliotakis is incorrect. “It would cost $2.00 per person to publicly finance campaigns,” he said.