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Albany has a chance to elevate the people over special interests

A small-donor public financing system would transform politics in the Empire State.

This composite photo shows Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie

This composite photo shows Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) Photo Credit: AP/Hans Pennink/Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

After years of stalemate, Albany has finally begun to stir. We saw the State Legislature make quick moves to begin to fix our broken election system, establishing early voting and closing some campaign finance loopholes. It’s encouraging.

But now comes the biggest, most important step: passing small-donor public financing, a system that uses public dollars to match small contributions and amplify the voice of working New Yorkers. After years of promises, now leaders in Albany have a chance to act. Will they?

It’s an issue that brings together groups like ours – labor and public policy think tanks – as well as environmentalists, housing groups, criminal justice reform advocates, and like-minded progressives statewide.

We need it more than we realize. In American politics, it’s no secret that big money talks. In New York, it shouts.  

In last year’s state elections, a small circle of 100 large donors gave more money to candidates than all the roughly 137,000 small donors combined. Hedge fund managers, health care executives, opponents of environmental regulation, and other corporate interests drowned out the voices of New Yorkers. They inevitably have a bigger say over what policies get attention – and which ones fall by the wayside.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A small-donor public financing system would give the working people of New York a far louder voice, even in the face of dark money and super PACs (unleashed by the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision in 2010).

How would it work? The bill under consideration in Albany would match small donations with public funds $6 to $1. That means your $10 donation to an assembly candidate automatically becomes $70. A gift of $100 is worth $700. Candidates who choose to participate would need to accept smaller individual contributions, but would face no cap on total fundraising or spending (so they could still compete with candidates who choose to opt out).

In 2017, Suffolk County enacted a similar plan. There’s national momentum, too. The U.S. House of Representatives will likely vote soon on public financing as part of the sweeping democracy reform bill, H.R.1, pushed by Spearker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democratic leaders.

A system like this in New York City has worked well for three decades. Donors now come from every neighborhood, not just from a few high-rises on the Upper East Side. The donors are vastly more diverse than before, reflecting far more of the racial and class diversity of the city. So are the candidates who run and win.  

Think of how this could transform politics in our state. In 2018, small donations amounted to just 5 percent of campaign contributions. With matching funds, that figure would increase at least six-fold. That would just be the immediate impact. Over time, public financing would give candidates the chance to build a donor pool based in their own communities, fusing organizing and fundraising.

This reform won’t get all money out of politics. That’s an unrealistic goal. But it does offer a path toward a different, more participatory, more inclusive, more truly representative politics.  

Lawmakers in Albany have promised a system like this before, only to shrink back at the last minute. The Assembly has passed it before, both Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins have sponsored it, and the new majority in the Senate has backed it. This time, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed it in his budget. In public, at least, the State Legislature and the governor have never been more aligned.

But politicians have been known to get cold feet, especially when it hits so close to home. Behind closed doors, some of them already are grumbling that they never really wanted to do this. That’s plain hypocrisy. Leaders in both chambers and the governor’s mansion have long championed this very change. Failure to act now would be a stain on Albany. It would reveal just how in thrall to big money our political system has become.

More than in any recent time, regular New Yorkers get it. They’re watching, furious about a system that is rigged against their interests. They voted for change in 2018. They will reward candidates who back bold reform. They won’t forget candidates or leaders who block reform just when it’s finally poised to pass.  

Change is hard. But the voters are watching. If legislators are serious about making our democracy work for the people, small donor public financing is the only way forward for New York. 

Héctor Figueroa is president of 32BJ SEIU, the largest property services union in the country. Waldman is president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

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