NYC mayoral candidates let campaign cash do the talking

mayoral candidates

mayoral candidates

Dan Janison

Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison, Dan Janison

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday for 10

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New television ads are cropping up for the Sept. 10 primaries -- productions that rank among the biggest of big-ticket spending items for New York City campaigns.

This season's campaign finances in the city are uniquely multilayered -- with candidates for mayor and other municipal offices relying on three main portals for cash. Let's call them the front door, the side door and the opening in the roof.

The front door is the most closely monitored. Under the city's strict financing rules, candidates receive contributions limited by caps on what individuals and political committees may kick in. Candidates may qualify for public matching funds, if they agree to limit their expenditures and take part in debates, like one Wedesday night at The Town Hall for Democratic mayoral primary candidates.

But there's also a less-guarded side door for funds -- newly legitimized "independent" committees. These are the first New York City municipal elections since the U.S. Supreme Court reinforced the idea in its landmark Citizens United ruling that corporations, wealthy individuals and unions couldn't be barred from spending on political messages. The full impact should become clearer in the coming weeks.

And in the past dozen years, the billionaire Michael Bloomberg blasted an opening through the roof, shattering all precedent by tapping his personal fortune and shunning the city's voluntary limits. In his 2009 race, for example, he burned through a reported $102 million.

While Bloomberg almost certainly will leave Dec. 31 with the record for sky's-the-limit financing, others may follow suit, if less extravagantly. On the Republican side, John Catsimatidis, a billionaire and newly minted Republican, has talked of spending $30 million to $40 million. His primary ads are self-financed.

Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer is also deploying personal wealth in his bid for city comptroller. He eschews preset limits. Despite having called unsuccessfully for a public-finance program when he was governor, Spitzer took a shot at rival Democrat Scott Stringer for participating in the city's program, saying: "He'll be spending your money, I'll be spending my own."

Spitzer argues he must use this spending skylight because he faces attack through that newly empowered side door. Business, labor and women's groups are gearing up their own independent efforts to block his comeback ambitions.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn's candidacy is also targeted by a purportedly independent political committee called "Anybody But Quinn," with Arthur Cheliotes, president of Communications Workers of America Local 1180, one of its leading voices.

Will Spitzer and Quinn be the only contenders to fend off side-door spending? It seems unlikely, with a probable runoff and a general election looming.

Some candidates, meanwhile, have trouble using the front door. Consider the mayoral candidacy of Comptroller John Liu. Citing violations of its system, the Campaign Finance Board denied him $3.5 million in public matching funds for which he applied.

Rival Anthony Weiner, on the other hand, caught a break by raising funds for a 2009 race and then ducking out. He took thousands of dollars in contributions that came from limited liability corporations -- before the Campaign Finance Board barred such entities from the program. He was allowed to spend it this year.

In a noisy city founded on commerce, front-door, side-door and skylight money is talking, loudly. Turn on the TV and you'll hear it.