Vote Big Money Out of New York City Politics on November 6
Everyone expects something back in return for their money. It’s simply how capitalism works. The more you give the more you want. Yet somehow voters are expected to believe that in this bastion of capitalism, that big money donors who write large checks to political candidates aren’t getting anything back in return for their millions — that despite being the shrewdest of investors, they continue to invest, despite not getting any return on investment.
As a progressive Democrat, I don’t agree with former real estate developer and now President Donald Trump on much, but at least he was surprisingly honest enough to say during a presidential debate:
“I gave to many people before this — before two months ago I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what, when I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. That’s a broken system.”
To limit the influence of big money, New York City has created one of the best public campaign finance systems in the country, which matches small dollars raised from residents with public tax dollars at a rate of 6 to 1 until the candidate reaches a little more than half of the money they are allowed to spend to win. This system has amplified the voices of small-dollar donors and encouraged more residents to participate by giving small amounts. When combined with term limits for city elected officials, this system has given us a more diverse city council, more reflective of the city it represents.
Because the current public matching program only provides a little more than half the money candidates must raise to be competitive, candidates are left to raise the rest on their own, likely with large checks, creating a big dollar gap. For city council races, the big dollar gap remains comparatively small at $68,083, which might realistically be filled with small dollars. For mayoral campaigns, however, the big dollar gap is a staggering $2.6 million, which would require tens of thousands of small contributions to fill. In the much more common alternative, candidates for mayor can take big money of up to $5,100. As you can guess, candidates for mayor focus on courting real estate developers to collect as much big money from them as possible.
Numbers don’t lie. Over the past two citywide elections since 2010, candidates raised $128 million, with more than half — $70 million — coming in big money contributions of more than $2,000, while only 11% came from small dollars of $175 or less. Only 1-in-20 contributions accounts for that $70 million in big money.
I don’t care what anyone says: politicians are going to pay more attention to that one big money donor over the rest. To be honest, whether someone just voted for me or gave me $10, they tell me they own me, demanding I help them, often to fill a pothole. It is only natural that expectations rise as donors give more.
I once offered someone a gift, with a value somewhere around $5,100, and I expected something in return–I asked her to spend the rest of her life with me. She said yes. Our daughter is 9 months old.
When the gift comes from a real estate developer, the consequences for New Yorkers are serious. Our City’s affordable housing crisis is a symptom of a campaign finance system that has empowered real estate over residents in local land use decisions. In fact, New York City has the second-highest housing costs in the nation, with a median rent of $3,220 for a 2-bedroom apartment, while the median household only makes $55,191 a year, leaving many families paying more than half their income in rent. This crisis must be addressed at the root, by changing who has the power to influence politicians.
Last term, as a New York City Council Member, I introduced legislation to match every small dollar so candidates wouldn’t have to take any big money. I used my position as chair of the powerful Governmental Operations committee to force a hearing. Despite having more than a majority of the city council sponsoring my bill and the mayor’s support, I somehow didn’t have the “support” to bring the bill to the floor. I failed.
This year, Mayor Bill de Blasio called a Charter Revision Commission on democracy. Through five months of hearings in every borough, by phone and online, I advocated for and won the inclusion of a question on the ballot asking voters to approve campaign finance reforms very close to those I could not win through the city council. While the commission has been criticized by some for its timing, pace and the end run it ran around the city council, as a city council member myself, I am just grateful to give voters the chance to do what politicians wouldn’t: reduce the power of real estate and empower the people.
Flip your ballot on Tuesday, November 6, to vote on taking half the big money out of politics by more than halving contribution limits to $2,000, matching each small dollar with eight public dollars, and providing candidates with 75% of the money they need to run and win on small dollars.
Some might argue that we can do more, that candidates may opt-out to take more big money, or waste tax payer dollars by taking public money for non-competitive elections. However, these reforms are a step in the right direction. Finally, voters would have viable alternatives to big money candidates, and every dollar a politician doesn’t take from real estate is an investment in a government free from the appearance of impropriety and corruption.
Vote “yes” on question 1 to get big money out of New York City politics so that our next mayor can run on small dollars accountable only to you, the voters.