Cuomo Picks Up the Perpetual Promise

For at least the past two decades in New York State politics, there has been a pattern for would-be governors: Declare the existing campaign finance system broken; embrace reform; see plans go nowhere; repeat.

After all, it doesn’t hurt politically to rail against a system with giant loopholes that effectively allow unlimited soft-money donations to pour in from interested parties, be it the health care lobby, the landlords or the banking industry.

Since 2007, there have been two separate campaign-finance proposals put forth by two separate governors-one of which came close to becoming law, but fell apart amid the troopergate scandal in the Spitzer administration.

So here comes the attorney general, and now candidate-for-governor, Andrew Cuomo, releasing a hefty policy book when officially announcing his campaign over the weekend, and devoting a prominent section to the issue, pledging a major reform.

‘The fact that it is at the top of his agenda is nothing new.’

 “In order to restore trust and accountability in government, we must reform the very foundation of democracy-the ballot box,” Mr. Cuomo’s 250-page policy tome reads. “Therefore, we must change our antiquated campaign-finance laws. Our current laws amplify the voices of wealthy
individuals and special interests and entrench incumbents at the public’s expense.”

The principles are clear and ambitious: Reduce limits significantly, close loopholes that allow for soft money, allow for a public financing system of matching funds, and restrict contributions from state contractors and lobbyists.

But it is unclear whether Mr. Cuomo’s plan-or, presumably, the plan of his eventual Republican opponent-would go down the same track as every other one during the past 20 years.

“Gubernatorial candidates talk about how to change Albany and one of the top three items is campaign-finance reform,” said Dick Dadey, president of Citizens Union, which advocates for such reform. “The fact that it is at the top of his agenda is nothing new,” he added, though he noted that Albany’s highly visible dysfunction might help, and he praised the specificity in Mr. Cuomo’s plan.

Of course, the devil is in those details, and there weren’t a lot in Mr. Cuomo’s plan. Mr. Cuomo, for instance, pledged to lower limits on donations significantly, but just how much he’d lower them is unclear. He pledged to restrict lobbyists and others who do business with the city, but did not specify just how much they would be restricted.

And, particularly notably, there was no discussion of unions, suggesting they could be exempted from limits. 

“In Cuomo’s language, you don’t know,” said Blair Horner of NYPIRG. “That’s a problem. Does it include 501(c)(3)’s? Because that’s what unions are. I would hope so. He doesn’t highlight it, so a reasonable person could read it and assume that it doesn’t. But you just don’t know.”

This was a major gap in the city’s restrictive campaign-finance system, implemented in 2007; it was widely criticized, particularly by those on the other side of unions on many issues (many in the real estate industry, by comparison, are restricted to giving a small fraction of the donations allowed by unions or standard individuals, giving the unions outsize power).

“It just skews the influence of those organizations, and you read about it every day,” said Sid Davidoff, a lobbyist who is challenging the city’s law for unfairly restricting those who do business with the city.

The good-government types, it seems, are trying to be realistic.

“From my perspective, it’s easy to have good ideas, it’s hard to get them enacted,” said Mr. Horner. “And that’s really where the rubber hits the road.”

-Additional reporting by Reid Pillifant

  Cuomo Picks Up the Perpetual Promise