Diane Savino Discusses Campaign Finance, Diversity and Who She Won't Work With

Diane Savino (Photo: NYSenate.gov)

Diane Savino (Photo: NYSenate.gov)

Governor Andrew Cuomo has made it absolutely clear that the new Senate leadership coalition between the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference and and the Republicans will draw his ire if they do not support certain items on his agenda. Yesterday, we noted that it seemed the IDC and the governor might not be seeing eye-to-eye on one of the item on the governor’s “litmus test” for the coalition, campaign finance reform. Last night, we received a call from one of the five IDC members, State Senator Diane Savino, seeking to clarify the conference’s position on the issue. She also discussed the IDC’s goal, the racial controversies that have dogged the group and revealed the one person she’s not sure she’d allow to join the conference.

When he laid out his agenda for this year, he defined campaign finance reform as including both limits on contributions and a statewide system for public matching funds like we have in New York City. However Ms. Savino and the leader of the IDC, State Senator Jeff Klein, have both recently suggested the Senate could just adopt one of these initiative and enact limits wihout establishing public financing. In her conversation with Politicker last night, Ms. Savino said she absolutely supports both aspects of campaign finance reform, but thinks there may be obstacles along the way.

“I’m going to fight for a campaign finance program that has public matching money, but I only have one vote and if people don’t want me to explain or discuss the realities of trying to enact that piece of legislation, then they obviously don’t know who I am,” Ms. Savino said. “That’s part of what being a legislator is, you’ve got to figure out what your opposition is and try and address it.”

Ms. Savino said she sees objections to public financing coming both from conservative Upstate legislators and New York City members who have experienced the matching funds system firsthand.

“The biggest obstacle to getting a campaign finance reform program like the New York City program for the State of New York is not the Upstate members who are opposed to it because they don’t want to use tax money,” said Ms. Savino. “There’s a lot of people who have a concern about that, you know were cutting budgets everywhere, how does it look for us to spend the taxpayers’ money on our own campaigns?…It’s a valid criticism, but the biggest obstacle is current legislators who are former New York City Council members who participated in the program. Democrats and Republicans, they hate it.”

To make progress on the issue, Ms. Savino said lawmakers will need to “figure out…what goes wrong on the city level and not replicate it on the state level.” She also said she expects numerous solutions will be put forward.

“There’s going to be more than one proposal on campaign finance reform and there have been for a long time,” Ms. Savino explained. “There’s more than one way to get to it, but let’s have that discussion. We really haven’t explored campaign finance reform, I think the last time we attempted to was when Eliot Spitzer was governor.”

Though the governor has identified campaign finance reform as one of the key elements of his agenda that he will judge the coalition on, Ms. Savino said the IDC has not decided as a group what type of campaign finance proposal they would support.

“We haven’t actually conferenced it, I think we all feel that there should be some reforming of this process,” she said.

She added that it also is unclear what type of campaign finance reform the governor wants to see.  Though he outlined the two-pronged approach including contribution limits and public matching funds when he unsuccessfully pushed for reform last year, this time around, Governor Cuomo has simply said he wants to see campaign finance reform without going into more specific detail.

“He really hasn’t put forward a comprehensive proposal. Now, look, he’s going to come out in January and lay out in the State of the State what his agenda items are for this year. I’m assuming he’s going…to flesh out what he believes is a camp finance program,” said Ms. Savino. “I don’t know what that is yet. It could be the whole ball of wax, it could be pieces of it….The governor’s proposal is obviously going to be the starting point, or the end point depending on how you look at it.”

In general, Ms. Savino said the goal of the IDC would be to find common ground between the two parties in Albany.

“In the era of Joe Bruno’s Albany…we became almost like enemy combatants…you’re not allowed to have even a conversation with a member of the other party otherwise you’re a traitor. Well, that’s absurd, that’s really an absurd way of doing business,” Ms. Savino said. “So, that’s, to me, that’s the main motivating factor for the coalition. It’s time to stop pointing at the problem and start looking for solutions.”

Along with discussing campaign finance reform, Ms. Savino responded to the criticism some elected officials and activists have made that the IDC is not sufficiently diverse. There are no African American or Latino members of the conference apart from IDC State Senator Malcolm Smith. Ms. Savino countered that anyone is welcome to join the conference and they are eager to work with Democrats.

“We are not an exclusive club. We welcome anybody who wants to work with us,” said Ms. Savino. “We welcome the leadership of that conference once they can figure out who it is….We want to make sure that there’s access. We want to make sure that they’re able to move a progressive agenda that they determine from their conference. We are not looking to deprive anybody of anything.”

We asked Ms. Savino whether a few specific Democrats who have been especially critical of the IDC would be allowed into the fold if they wanted to join. Ms. Savino said any Democrats would be welcomed into the IDC–except perhaps for one.

“Anybody is welcome to join. Anybody except for maybe Ruben Diaz,” she said with a a laugh. “I’m not sure if I like him.”