THE BLOG

New York's Long Road to Fair Elections

06/14/2013 10:14 am ET | Updated Aug 14, 2013

The fight for serious campaign finance reform in New York State is nearing its peak with the conclusion of Albany's 2013 legislative session in late June, and we're closer than ever to winning true reform that will not only curb the influence of big money in campaigns, but change the very nature of the way public policy is made in our state.

But the Fair Elections for New York campaign didn't just burst onto the scene -- it took years of patient work to build the broad-based grassroots coalition we have today.

The broad, robust group of organizations and activists now known as the Fair Elections for New York campaign is actually the culmination of a sixteen-year, grassroots effort to win robust public financing of elections in New York State.

It started in 1997 at a conference organized by Citizen Action of New York and Public Campaign. The first major task was a 1998 ballot referendum in New York City aimed at dramatically increasing the amount of public financing available to City candidates. While for legal reasons the referendum never made it to the voters, the day after 60,000 qualifying signatures were submitted, the Speaker of the City Council introduced legislation that was enacted that fall over Mayor Giuliani's veto. The law increased matching funds from 1-1 to 4-1.

On the heels of this major victory that turned a good system into a great one, our focus switched to the Governor and State Legislature, where the State Assembly had regularly passed a small donor matching system similar to the New York City system since 1986. We knew we couldn't enact public funding of elections at the state level without a Governor supporting it, so Citizen Action of New York worked to make Clean Elections public financing a major issue in every Governor's race, starting in 2002.

After hundreds of thousands of postcards and petitions, hundreds of local meetings, and dozens of public forums, we won the support of both Democratic candidates - Carl McCall and Andrew Cuomo - for public funding of elections. Unfortunately, Republican candidate George Pataki won the election. He failed to advance such transformative reforms during his 12 years in office.

In 2006, Eliot Spitzer, with a push from the Working Families Party, endorsed Clean Elections public financing early in his bid for Governor. Activists for reform pushed to ensure that this issue was a cornerstone of the Primary election that year. As Governor, Spitzer was actively engaged in pushing campaign finance reform, including public financing, before he resigned in 2008.

Our hopes for real reform were renewed in November 2008, when Senate Democrats finally took control of the Legislature's upper chamber from Senate Republicans and made a commitment to pass public funding of campaigns. We now had a supportive majority in the State Senate and the Assembly, and a supportive Governor.

The State Assembly passed an updated bill in 2009, sponsored by Speaker Sheldon Silver, which included robust public financing with a six to one match for small donations. However, hopes that the State Senate would pass the bill were dashed by the Democrats' own implosion when four Democratic Senators temporarily caucused with the Republicans.

The campaign's relentless momentum bore fruit when Governor Cuomo was elected in 2010 as a supporter of public financing and campaigners formed the Fair Elections for New York coalition, as an even broader effort to win the two-decades long campaign.

Governor Cuomo made comprehensive reform that included public funding of elections part of his New York Agenda during the campaign, and included it as a priority in his first State of the State address in 2011 and again in 2012. Fair Elections for New York, led by Citizen Action of New York and the Working Families Party, brought together over 100 organizations in early 2012, including labor, community, issue advocacy, civil rights and good government groups in support of public funding of elections modeled on the NYC system. The Brennan Center for Justice organized major business and civic leaders in a parallel coalition called NY LEAD.

After we were stymied in 2012 by the refusal of Senate Republicans (who had regained control of the Senate) to take up any reform measure, Fair Elections supporters made reform an election issue in the 2012 senate races, including spending by two super PACs supporting Fair Elections in one hotly contested senate race. Senator Cecilia Tkaczyk was elected primarily due to her support for Fair Elections, giving the Democrats a senate majority of 33. Unfortunately, six Democrats decided to caucus with Republicans, giving the Republicans a functional majority.

That led us to this year's campaign. Governor Cuomo again made Fair Elections a priority in his State of the State address in January 2013. The Fair Elections campaign intensified its mobilization of a statewide grassroots movement of everyday people fighting to restore New York's democratic integrity and partnered with Public Campaign Action Fund and Friends of Democracy to add a direct mail program as well as television and radio ads in support of Fair Elections.

The campaign was strengthened by the string of corruption scandals that have engulfed state lawmakers since April, with several sitting legislators now under indictment and rumors of more to come. New Yorkers know that the line between the 'legal bribery' of our current broken campaign finance system and the illegal corruption that has dominated recent headlines is a thin one indeed.

It's been a long fight, but we are finally getting close to enacting reforms that will put voters back in charge of our democracy. The State Assembly passed the Speaker's Fair Elections bill in May. The Senate Democrats introduced the same bill as the Assembly, and the Independent Democratic Caucus of four senators also introduced a comprehensive bill. Governor Cuomo released his comprehensive reform package including public financing just earlier this week.

But, despite agreement between the Governor and all the Democratic legislative factions that New York needs Fair Elections, a bill hasn't yet reached the Senate floor. Senate Republicans are blocking any bill that includes public financing, and the 'Independent Democratic Conference' that formed a coalition government with the Republicans has yet to break with the Republicans and force a floor vote on comprehensive reform.

Nearly two decades of intensive grassroots organizing has culminated in one of the strongest, most powerful campaigns I've ever seen. Now, it comes down to this: will our Democratic Governor and Democratic legislators come together to overrule the status quo Republicans and pass a small donor matching system this month? Will they make history in the face of Citizens United, and restore a voice for everyday New Yorkers to our electoral system? We'll know in less than two weeks.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, Public Campaign, and Fair Elections for New York in an effort to raise the voices of everyday people in New York State through comprehensive reform of the way elections are financed. For more information on Public Campaign, click here; for more information on Fair Elections for New York, click here.