No half-measures in democracy

BROOKLYN BOROUGH PRESIDENT ERIC ADAMS | 1/31/2019, 12:47 p.m.
Last year, Mayor de Blasio appointed a commission tasked with proposing revisions to the City Charter that would improve our ...
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Last year, Mayor de Blasio appointed a commission tasked with proposing revisions to the City Charter that would improve our campaign finance system and enhance participation in our local democracy. With great fanfare, the commission put forward a proposal that sought to “address persistent perceptions of corruption associated with large campaign contributions, boost incentives for campaigns to reach out to small donors and create more opportunities for candidates to run diverse types of campaigns without the need to rely on large donors.”

So why didn’t I vote for it? I can’t support half-measures in democracy. Tinkering around the edges is no substitute for the only true reform that counts: removing the influence of money from politics.

Most notably, the maximum total amount that a candidate in the city’s public financing program can receive from a contributor per election cycle has been reduced. In the case of candidates running for mayor, comptroller and public advocate, the limit decreased from $5,100 to $2,000. That looks good on paper, but it will not change the underlying power dynamics of this city. The original launch of our campaign finance system had an impact on who can have a meaningful say in municipal elections, but the new proposals don’t do enough to ensure those without money have a meaningful say in how our city is run.

If we acknowledge that the magnitude of contributions makes a difference, then we must acknowledge that a family living in Soundview Houses or Wyckoff Gardens cannot afford a $5,100 contribution or a $2,000 contribution. The gross monthly pay of a New Yorker earning a $15 minimum wage is $2,400. Is it reasonable to expect minimum wage workers to donate 83 percent of their pretax monthly salary to make the impact of a maximum contribution? Let’s go a step further: Is it reasonable to expect those same workers to donate 42 percent of their pretax weekly salary to maximize the value of a matchable contribution, as some have suggested? If we intend the voices of public housing residents to matter equally to the voices of luxury housing residents—to say nothing of our neighbors who lack any form of stable housing—we need a level playing field filled with truly diverse and small-dollar donors.

The only way to get a say for those who cannot afford to buy it is to engage with them directly. That’s something that candidates who have to dial for dollars cannot do sufficiently. Where do we want candidates for public office spending their energies? Raising funds or talking to NYCHA residents about their laundry list of decades-old complaints? Glad-handing with bundlers or riding the subways every day and experiencing the signal failure madness firsthand? There is an underappreciated reason why crises at the MTA and NYCHA have gone on for years: They tend to have a larger effect on people who lack equal access to campaigns.

We cannot, according to the United States Supreme Court, make public financing mandatory, but we can make it the only acceptable path to election in New York City. True campaign finance reform will be full public funding that sets contribution maximums at a significantly low level and only contributes to candidates through a public pool of funding, rather than direct individual contributions. Public financing should be sufficient to run a legitimate campaign and promoted enough so that no one who wants to get elected will opt out. I spoke at length with Mayor de Blasio’s charter revision commission on ways to make that happen, including interesting models from Arizona, Connecticut and Maine that afford candidates more time to engage their entire electorate rather than the privileged few. Whereas last year’s commission punted on its chance to make a real impact, I haven’t given up hope that this year’s new commission, convened by the City Council, will seize the mantle.

There are critical changes that must be made on the national level to make our shared mission of getting money out of politics into a reality, most notably a constitutional amendment outlawing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allows corporations to spend unlimited money in our elections. This change was supported by three out of every four respondents to a nationwide poll conducted by the University of Maryland last May. However, we can’t wait for Congress to untangle itself from gridlock. New York City’s job is to lead from the front, to be a model for what’s possible in progressive public policy. There is nothing more progressive than a reform that increases the number of women and people of color running for office, removes quid pro quo corruption and restores faith in our electoral process. It’s time for this city’s leaders to be fully committed to fully public-financed municipal elections.