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Michael Bouldin

UPDATED: Liveblog! Marketplace of Ideas: Getting Special Interest Money Out of State Elections

Welcome to this morning's Marketplace of Ideas on Getting Special Interest Money Out of State Elections with Activist Dennis Burke. "From the DMI website: "Dennis Burke helped pass the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act by ballot proposition. Since 1998, the Clean Elections have increased the number of women and people of color running for state office in Arizona, boosted turnout in communities of color, and reduced the influence of special interest campaign money."

Keep your eyes here for a liveblog of this event this morning.
marketplace clean elections panel.jpg
panel from left to right is Jessica Wisneski of Citizen Action of New York , Charlie King, National Director of National Action Network, State Senator Liz Krueger, and Former Director Arizona Common Cause, Dennis Burke.

The election system in America is broken at many points, but one of the key fissures is in the domain of financing them. The Drum Major Institute invited two of the leading voices for a new approach to campaign finance and put them on a panel with two New York political figures, state Senator Liz Krueger and Charlie King, who last year was, as he put it, elected by the voters to be a private citizen. Joining King and Krueger on the podium were Dennis Burke, a former Director of Arizona Common Cause, and Jessica Wisneski of Citizen Action New York.

As often happens when DMI puts on the Marketplace of Ideas at the simply ungodly bright and early hour of 8 AM on a Monday, a roomful of policymakers and interested citizens gathered over coffee and muffins to discuss Progressive ideas.

This post comes to you instead of a liveblog, as, unfortunately, the computer connection had a mind of its own.

Dennis Burke helped pass the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act by ballot proposition. Since the Act's passage in1998, Clean Elections has increased the number of women and people of color running for state office in Arizona, boosted turnout in communities of color, and reduced the influence of special interest campaign money. In polls, 59% of Arizonans support their state's election financing system, while voter participation is measurably up.

The system works as follows: once a candidate has managed to gather a given number of small donations – in the small-d democratic amount of $5 – he or she receives public funding, enough to enable the running of a serious campaign. Since the dollar amount of eligible contributions is capped, the system encourages candidates to convince a large but attainable number of people to involve themselves in the political process, and most importantly shifts the focus of fundraising away from high-dollar donations. Funding for this comes from a variety of sources, including a voluntary check-off box on income-tax forms, a voluntary tax credit and a 10% surcharge on all civil penalties and criminal fines.

The Clean Money Clean Elections system – read up on it here or check out the here - has benefited the Arizona political process in a number of ways, some immediately obvious, some not.

To begin with, more elections are now contested, and more candidates are taking part in the elections process, restoring the needed corrective of voter accountability that often enough atrophies in legislatures, such as that of New York, that see more change via indictments than actual election contests. In Arizona, anecdotal evidence suggests that public financing has had a positive effect on legislation, in that officeholders simply no longer need to curry favor with lobbies and are free to consider solely the public interest in crafting laws.

The impetus for Arizona's leadership on citizen-owned elections – another term favored by advocates for Clean Money Clean Elections – came from a scandal known there as Ascam. This ran as follows: a sheriff found himself in possession of a large amount of drug money. Thinking this might be a good occasion for an experiment, he set up an imposing office near the state Capitol, and began inviting over legislators, suggesting that a vote for legalization of casino gambling by a legislator would be appreciated, for example by an envelope containing cash; this provided by aforementioned drug money. They didn't mention that video cameras were running as the legislators took the envelopes, as some regrettably did. The resulting scandal became known as Ascam - and was the occasion for Arizona's reform effort.

Burke makes a simple and very compelling observation: we already have a system of public financing for elections. This because special-interest donors – lobbyists in particular – receive an astronomical return on investment for their contributions. This return comes in the form of legislation and administrative policies tailored to the interests of big-money donors. The cost inherent in providing this return is extracted from the public – always has been. This cost makes up for being indirect and immeasurable by being estimated as ten times higher, or more, than a publicly financed system. Effectively, elections, by their nature a public interest, have been privatized.

It's interesting, especially to an activist, to hear the observations of someone who's midwifed actual Progressive change for the better. One trenchant quote:

"If you want a wonderful vicious battle to the death, join a peace group."

Perhaps more to the point, and certainly analytically useful, is a quick primer on enacting reform. Burke identifies four necessary criteria: A good reform measure, vetted and supported by actual practitioners. You need a crisis - an occasion for action and headlines. Three, you need resources - people, money, and so on. Lastly, you need leadership.

So let's take a look at our leadership here in New York.


Senator Liz Krueger, Democrat of Manhattan, is one of the acknowledged leading lights of New York's reform movement. Her assessment of New York's campaign finance laws and general electoral process is scathing:

"Being in elected office can wear on you. In New York State, we have an incumbent protection program; people get re-elected every two years even if they get indicted. I believe there is a direct correlation between voter participation and the way we finance our elections. This is why people tick off 'none of the above' and don't vote."

Campaign finance is only one of the many encrusted legacies that deaden the electoral process in this state, of course; others include the drawing of districts by the legislators representing them. In other, perhaps more enlightened places, the people choose their legislators; in New York State, legislators choose their people. Helpful, if that isn't enough, is a financing racket that caps individual donations at $50,100, provides an LLC loophole large enough to accommodate a racecourse or two, and allows unlimited donations from next of kin. Thus, the unique Empire State phenomenon of checks with sequential serial numbers but differing company names.

Senator Krueger said at various points during her presentation:

"I'm disappointed in the progress of the Spitzer administration's lack of progress on campaign finance reform..."
"The loopholes in the state system are bigger than the system itself..."
"Bundling is a reality even in the city system, I mean, who's kidding who? "
"I hate fundraising. I hate spending a huge percentage of my time begging strangers for money."
Senator Krueger clearly identified the main obstacle for campaign finance reform in New York as being Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno. Even in New York City, proud as it is of ostensibly providing public financing, two thirds of campaign funds are privately raised, and 6% of donors provide 40% of all campaign funds. Charlie King, late a candidate for Attorney General, provided a counter-point to that. His 2006 primary campaign succeeded in coming in in second place in the money race after that of Andrew Cuomo; this would not have been possible without existing loopholes. The value in loopholes, under the present system, is that they provide an avenue of advancement for candidates who do not have, say, a few billion dollars in the bank. Here, too, CMCE can provide a remedy: Clean Elections candidates don't need to completely match self-funding billionaires. All that's required is to keep these candidates competitive, and able to reach every voter at least once.

Having run for office himself, King can tell tales of how money influences decisions made by campaigns. In his case, the fundraising effort was so consuming that it was not until a month or so before the ritualized pilgrimage to the various editorial boards that he began to put together policy proposals. It's hard to imagine a more damning assessment of the corrosive effect of the money race.

If there is one thing that is rare, it is having a group of Progressives, on a podium or elsewhere, unanimously agree on a verdict about a given subject. However, on campaign finance reform, Krueger, King, Wisneski and Burke agreed: incremental change does not work. The system we have – and again, New York labors under some of the most Byzantine rules in the nation – requires wholesale, bottom-up, root-and-branch change.

Perhaps that change can come about with this challenge, delivered in closing remarks by Dennis Burke in response to a question on what New York would have to do to be a national leader again: like every state, this state has conflict of interest laws. Apply them to the campaign finance system, and bar legislators from voting on anything that might affect anyone who has ever donated money to their campaigns.

Albany's Iron Triangle would go up in flames.

Michael Bouldin: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 8:00 AM, Sep 17, 2007 in Governmental Reform
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