POLITICS
06/06/2013 11:43 am ET

Campaign Finance Reform Coalition In New York Steps Up Efforts In Legislature's Last Weeks

AP

WASHINGTON -- Fake hundred dollar bills rained down on the New York State Senate in Albany on Wednesday as protesters called for the passage of campaign finance overhaul measures. Just one week earlier, hundreds of protesters from around New York state came to Albany to rally in the Capitol's Million Dollar Staircase in support of campaign finance reform.

With two weeks remaining in the 2013 legislative session, the largest and most active coalition in the state's history is increasingly staging actions such as these in an effort to overhaul New York's notorious campaign finance system.

"It's definitely a much bigger effort than it's ever been before," said Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York, one of the co-leaders of the pro-reform coalition under the Fair Elections For New York banner.

Reformers are seeking to lower contribution limits and introduce a public financing system based on the one used by New York City, which matches every dollar in small donor contributions with six dollars in public funds. They are also looking to send a signal nationally that campaign finance reform is possible in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision.

Environmental, labor, housing and business groups have all joined in the effort, some lending their voice for the very first time. Democratic campaign donors sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo to express their support for reform. And national organizations have empowered their state chapters to get involved, as they see New York as the best hope to fight back against the big money they see blocking their issues in state capitals across the country and in Washington, D.C.

State organizations with a history of supporting reform decided that with a supportive governor, a Democratic Assembly, a numerical majority of supportive Democrats in the Senate and a bevy of corruption scandals, "the time was right for a full-out, 'throw everything we've got at it' kind of campaign," according to Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party, a main coalition partner.

And to achieve its goal, the coalition is pulling out all the stops in the final weeks of the legislative session.

Paid media on television and radio are ramping up with help from financier Jonathan Soros and his Friends of Democracy super PAC. Mail is going out to 25,000 "independent-minded" voters who were identified using data in the Catalist voter file. Earned media, from editorial placement to op-eds by well-known figures like former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, is increasing. Billboards and banner drops can be seen along highways around the state. Organizers have been sent out to canvass in targeted Senate districts. The coalition is also pushing its efforts on social media from Twitter to Tumblr.

The highly coordinated campaign has organized a handful of progressive groups, often with unconnected interests, for the common purpose of passing campaign finance reform. It has also been a campaign in which non-campaign finance reform groups have taken an uncommon leading role.

"This issue is too important to leave to just the reform community," said David Donnelly, executive director of Public Campaign Action Fund, a leading member of the Fair Elections For New York coalition. "I think that membership organizations that represent millions of Americans, most of whom are not making large contributions [to political campaigns], are not doing their members a good service unless they engage on this issue at some level."

The organizations that are now prioritizing reform have both local and national reasons for their involvement. The Sierra Club, NAACP and the Communications Workers of America are among the progressive groups collaborating on a new national effort to advance a set of issues called the Democracy Initiative.

Campaign finance reform has emerged as a priority for these groups because they contend that their issues are blocked across the country by the influence of money in politics. This is a sentiment shared by their local arms, as well.

"For us, the toxic money in politics and our inability to pass legislation to keep toxins out of the environment -- they are just so related right now," said Roger Downs, the conservation program manager for the Sierra Club's Atlantic Chapter.

"We've had the experience of, time and time again, of going up against Verizon, Time Warner and Cablevision, the big television communications companies in New York, and they vastly outspend us in campaign donations," CWA New York State Legislative Political Director Pete Sikora said. "Consequently we find it extremely difficult to beat them on public policy issues."

The 14 environmental groups with a lobbying presence in Albany decided, for the first time, to branch out and include the non-environmental issue of public financing of elections in their list of priority legislation. The groups did this after the state legislature failed to pass any of their priority environmental bills in 2012 -- the first time in seven years. None of their bills even made it out of a Senate committee.

The involvement of national groups, and potentially their state chapters, would not be taking place if it were not for the already fertile environment for reform in the state made possible by the efforts of state-level groups like Citizen Action and the Working Families Party, said Donnelly.

"If it weren't for the competency of the groups in the state and the prospects of what they've done, those national groups wouldn't spend a dime," Donnelly said.

While the reform coalition in New York has never been larger, the state has seen efforts to enact public financing in the past. A 1981 New York Times letter to the editor in favor of public financing of elections bears the signature of then-Lt. Gov. Mario Cuomo, the father of the current governor. It echoes current themes, stating that, "The influence of special-interest spending is greater than ever ... the need for public financing of elections has never been more urgent."

Previous reform efforts have come close, without success. In 2009 Democrats briefly controlled the governor's mansion and both chambers of the legislature, but didn't have enough votes in the Senate. That is where the current effort is stalled, as an uneasy alliance between the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference runs the chamber in concert with the Republicans, who almost universally oppose public financing and the reform effort.

Under the current ruling agreement, the IDC and the Republicans must agree to bring any bill to the floor for a vote. The reform coalition's main focus in these final weeks is to show them that they can and should bring their bill to a vote.

"Our job is to persuade the IDC that there will be an upside to doing this, and the downside to not doing it is also substantial," Cantor said.

Success, reformers argue, could provide a national jolt and an organizing model for supporters of public financing in other states -- and in Congress.

"A win in a place like New York opens up major avenues and major opportunities in other places, simply because it is on the map that you can do something to push back on Citizens United in a legislative arena that makes a real difference and is possible," Donnelly said.

If the Senate fails to act, however, and the bill remains stalled, reformers are considering a handful of options. Cantor suggests calling for a special session to focus solely on campaign finance reform. Failure could also have electoral consequences for some senators.

"If it doesn't pass this session, then we've got to figure out: How do we make sure that the people who opposed it pay a cost and come back and do it next year?" Scharff said.

Cantor noted that a legislative loss rarely puts an issue to sleep for good. "As is often said, politics is not a sprint, it's a marathon. Citizens United isn't going away; probably politics isn't going away, [2012 top political donor] Sheldon Adelson isn't going away -- much as we wish he would -- so we can't go away, either."

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