Campaign Finance Musings

This election, with all the grumbling about Mike’s money, provoked a round of concern about the city’s public financing system, and a range of proposals from the probably-illegal (make self-financers pay their opponents’ bills too) to the very expensive (have the city match whatever the Bloombergs of the world spend).

But some of the close watchers of the public financing system are also worrying about its bread-and-butter, financing for City Council elections, on the principle that if the system becomes a piggy-bank for politicians, it will be hard to sustain.

Molly Watkins, the former spokeswoman for the Campaign Finance Board, now at the Hillary-ite Glover Park Group, and one of the people who knows the system best, emailed over these thoughts:

“The Mayor’s money, for the second election in a row, is in danger of obscuring a larger problem in the program.
“The real problem is at the Council level, where incumbents are taking huge payouts to face nominal challengers and there is way too much money in the system. The program has succeeded in driving up the cost of campaigns for the lesser offices.

“But the post election hearings and any resulting legislation will be entirely focused on the Mayor’s race. And let’s face it, Bloomberg still would have won if he had capped his spending. Incumbency is a huge factor – especially a successful incumbency. I’m not saying that there aren’t some things that can be done to help a challenger facing a well financed candidate, but it’s hardly the glaring problem that people seem to think it is…

“If the size of the Council program is shrunk, compliance responsibilities also shrink, which is the central complaint of candidates in the program (and one I don’t necessarily disagree with).

“A new Council speaker has a real opportunity here to come out of the box with legislation that would require real political courage, go a long way to strengthening the program, would likely be supported by the Mayor, and would win him or her big big chits with the Times for a future race.”

While we’re flinging suggestions around, another possibility might be to limit public financing to incumbents whose opponents also qualify for matching funds.

Anyway, it does seem that the city’s model public-financing system is headed for a change-or-die period. Campaign Finance Musings