Editorial: CFB’s Power Play

The city’s Campaign Finance Board essentially ended the mayoral candidacy of Comptroller John Liu this week when it decided to deny him millions in public matching funds—money he and his supporters were counting on.

The CFB found that Mr. Liu’s campaign finances remain a mess, and that may be putting it lightly. But the panel’s decision also serves as a reminder of the extraordinary power that the CFB wields in city politics. And it’s fair to wonder if the entire system of public campaign finance creates more problems than it solves.

This page has been tough on Mr. Liu, and with good reason. His campaign rhetoric has been divisive and irresponsible—for example, he has pandered to cop-haters and others by portraying stop and frisk as a grave threat to young men of color. And the CFB found unforgivable irregularities in the Liu campaign’s fund-raising practices—the board found that some donors do not live at the addresses listed in filings, while other donors didn’t know the names of the Liu staffers who solicited their contributions.

That’s bad, and bear in mind that two of Mr. Liu’s top aides were convicted of fraud earlier this year because of shady fund-raising practices.

However much we may disagree with Mr. Liu, we also recognize that he is precisely the sort of candidate that the city’s campaign finance system was designed to help. He is running a grassroots fund-raising operation, relying on small contributions, especially from Chinese immigrants, rather than reeling in the big bucks from special interests. Under the city’s voluntary campaign finance system, candidates receive $6 in public money for every $1 they raise from private sources who give $175 or less. Mr. Liu would have been eligible to receive as much as $3.5 million in public money, based on his private fund-raising.

There’s an argument to be made that the six-to-one match is far too generous and, in fact, invites corruption—City Council candidates in safe districts could be tempted to recruit faux opposition in order to raise money and fatten their campaign accounts with public dollars. There’s a lot of money at stake in City Council elections, and most of that money comes out of the city’s treasury.

The CFB may have had good reason to deny Mr. Liu the money. But the larger concern remains—the city’s overly generous system of matching funds could lead to faux elections designed not to promote democratic choice but to enrich the campaign treasuries of incumbent officeholders, at taxpayers’ expense. New York City voters ought to choose our elected officials, not five political appointees to the Campaign Finance Board.