Corporate cash is flooding council races
By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Corporate bigwigs are flooding City Council campaigns with cash, bypassing New York’s strict campaign finance system, according to lawmakers who are calling for the loophole to be closed.
Councilman Brad Lander (D-Park Slope-Windsor Terrace-Kensington) is among the council members who announced the introduction of legislation that would restrict so-called “independent expenditures.”
Under the independent expenditures provision, corporations and individuals can spend more money than is normally allowed in municipal elections, as long as the expenditures are not coordinated with a candidate. Opponents of the independent expenditure provision charged that the free flow of unregulated cash into council races can more easily overwhelm all other spending by candidates and become the majority of information available to most voters.
“New York City’s campaign finance system levels the playing field so that voters, not contributors, are deciding who will represent them. But huge, independent expenditures by corporations threaten to upend that system,” Lander said.
The legislation introduced by Lander would require transparency about who is funding the expenditures.
The legislation, which was announced last week, calls for three major reforms in the campaign finance system: closing the so called “LLC Loophole,” which allows corporations to exceed corporate spending limits; require the disclosure of top donors on communications; and requiring a “warning” label on independent expenditure communications so that voters will know they are not subject to the laws that govern New York City elections.
Under New York State law, individuals can give up to $150,000 in annual aggregate to political committees, but corporations are supposed to be capped at $5,000. LLCs, however, are treated as individuals and can give up to $150,000.
“In some City Council races, developers are spending several times more than the candidates themselves,” Lander warned.
In this current election cycle, “Jobs for NY,” an entity created by the Real Estate Board of NY (REBNY), has raised over $6 million in large contributions ($50,000 - $100,000), mostly from real estate developers, and is now engaged in massive expenditures in City Council races, including numerous negative mailings, Lander and other council members charged.
Council candidates are limited to spending just $168,000 per primary election and per general election.
Jobs for NY is on track to spend three to five times more than what candidates are allowed to spend.
“New York City has some of the strongest laws to keep campaign contributions and spending in check, but independent expenditures are an end run around the proper limits imposed by the city's campaign finance system, As a result, special interests can unduly influence elections from behind a veil of secrecy,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY.
Four City Council candidates that Jobs for NY is supporting, Margaret Chin, Laurie Cumbo, Kirsten John Foy, and Mark Levine, have spoken out against the organization's involvement in their races.
“As a candidate receiving unsolicited support from an outside special interest group I have witnessed first hand how it has divided our community,” said Cumbo, a Democrat running for the council seat in the 35th District (Fort Greene-Clinton Hill).
“I publicly came out against Jobs for New York when they began supporting my campaign and I will continue to publicly refuse their support,” Cumbo said.
“Voters don’t want shadowy independent expenditures dominating elections to help them decide who is best to represent their interests,” Councilman Stephen Levin (D-Greenpoint-Williamsburg) said.
“This package of bills will add needed transparency and reduce the harm caused by Citizens United,” Levin said, referring to Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, the famous 2008 US Supreme Court decision which opened the floodgates for campaign spending by corporations.