2001, a Campaign Oddity: Candidate Alan Hevesi Must Return $100,000

If you think your post-holiday returns are a drag, pity New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi.

Regardless of political contributions to be filed with the Campaign Finance Board at the next deadline, coming up on Jan. 15, Mr. Hevesi, one of the approximately 300 Democrats whom everyone expects to enter the 2001 mayoral primary, already must return more than $100,000 of the cash in his coffers. Such is the amount received by Mr. Hevesi in excess of the $4,500 limit on individual contributions imposed by the campaign finance law co-sponsored by City Council Speaker Peter Vallone and Public Advocate Mark Green, passed by the City Council in August and sustained over Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s veto in October. And, unless the city’s Corporation Counsel enjoys significant success in any attempts it may make to litigate away the legislation, such may be a foretaste of life in a campaign climate where money matters-but not nearly as much, or as straightforwardly, as it once did in New York City, and still does almost everywhere else in American politics.

“I’m not the slightest bit worried that we can raise the maximum under whatever rules there are,” said Mr. Hevesi’s consultant Hank Morris, who is likewise confident that “the person who’s going to get elected mayor is going to be the person who has the combination of the best ideas and the best qualifications,” and that that person is, naturally, his client. Whatever the validity of the second part of that statement, there’s no quibbling with that of the first. Reform or no reform, the notion that access to plenty of big contributors is less than fabulous for any candidate is, of course, demented. Similarly silly is the idea that, however real its benefits may turn out to be, the tightened legislation reflects nothing but the good, the true and the beautiful on the part of those who pushed it.

“Mark concocted this new law in the middle of the cycle and he thinks it’s clearly designed to help him,” said Mr. Morris, reflecting the fact that the new provisions favor exactly the broad, low-donor fund-raising network that the Public Advocate has spent a career building. That network, it bears noting, was realized before its creation could feel the pinch of any 2001-related spending restrictions. “Based on his performance the last time he ran in a primary in New York City, he needs all the help he can get.” Mr. Morris was referring to Mr. Green’s recent run for the U.S. Senate, where Mr. Morris’ client, Chuck Schumer, left Mr. Green in the dust. But for purposes of 2001, the degree to which this was a function of the fact that Mr. Schumer had also exponentially outspent Mr. Green may be the operative question.

Still, for a politician who presumably hopes to balance the matching-funds needs of the non-Perot with the customary shakedown privileges of the sitting official with a citywide jurisdiction-privileges that once went much further toward weeding out smaller-pocketed opponents-this has got to grate. “Alan Hevesi no longer has a huge fund-raising advantage over any of his opponents,” said Democratic election lawyer Henry Berger. “Nobody can walk in and pre-empt the field.”

But, beyond this, nobody can say anything very authoritative on the effects of our new campaign-finance world order. For the moment, at least, this seems a well-meaning but weird little realm in which the fat cats are barely zaftig (the cap on individual contributions has fallen from $8,500 to $4,500); a $100 contribution is worth $500 (thanks to the 4-to-1matching fund formula now in place for contributions of $250 and under, and for the first $250 of larger sums); and corporate contributions are both optional and illegal. (Under the Vallone-Green bill, only those candidates who refuse corporate money get to receive matching funds. But as a result of the referendum question posed by the Powers Commission, all corporate contributions are banned, anyway. That contradiction may provide the corporation counsel with grounds-or a sufficiently grounds-like pretext-for contesting the 4-to-1 matching provision.)

“The one boilerplate across the board is that it helps candidates who raised a large number of small contributions,” said Richard Schrader, a longtime campaign-finance reformer and the new spokesman for Mr. Green. As seen in the fondest hopes of its supporters, the new legislation would lead to an altogether more democratic Democratic primary in which more candidates, fueled by more New Yorkers, get to be contenders. It would lead, too, to a reinforced relevance for entities, such as labor unions, African-American churches and advocacy groups, that can either harvest many modest contributions or provide organizational muscle. Such muscle, in turn, would have greater impact with the decline in the disparities among candidates’ respective abilities to purchase various forms of support.

Then again, we could just be in for a riot of slimy sleight of hand, foreshadowed by all the fiddling done with the reforms made on a national level in the 1970’s. After all, money in politics, like a skin on curdling cream, can hardly help but surface. Many bucks will no doubt stop in the realm of independent expenditures, which count as free speech and hence get a free ride away from the do-gooders. And, whether or not the average voter gets anything out of the new rules of the game, the average political hack sure will: Between term limits that will turn almost the entire City Council out of office and a Campaign Finance Board that will hand $100,000 to any candidate who can raise $20,000 in small bills, even the crummiest New York political operative can look forward to a cushy millennium. And that’s not even counting the burgeoning lawyer-accountant class now comprising the growth industry that is campaign-law compliance. This will be balanced, of course, by the similarly swelling ranks of specialists in campaign-law circumvention.

“We’re already figuring out what’s legal under the new system and what we can get away with,” said a typically young, idealistic aide to a frequently mentioned mayoral possibility. “I could tell you some really good loopholes.”

2001, a Campaign Oddity: Candidate Alan Hevesi Must Return $100,000