All politicians are enigmas. We are never privy to their innermost thoughts. But what we do know is that with very few exceptions they all are seeking to be re-elected or to ascend to higher office. This is certainly the case with a would-be Democratic presidential aspirant such as Andrew Cuomo. And it is because the Governor of New York is an ambitious politician that his endorsement of the public funding of election campaigns, contained in his State of the State address, is of great significance. Though we cannot be sure, Cuomo's support for this democratization of the political process may well represent his calculation that doing so will increase the likelihood of his political success.
If this is right, then Cuomo is betting that the country has turned a corner. For at least three decades, wealthy political funders have gone largely unchallenged in dictating the country's political agenda, a dominance that the 2010 Citizens United decision has only enhanced. But that ascendancy is now being confronted, a push-back spearheaded by the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Fueled by the inadequacy of the Obama Administration's response to the financial crisis of 2007-8 and by the fact that economic insecurity pervades American society at all levels but the very highest, the OWS's taking to the streets and the widespread support it received signaled that a large swath of the population is seeking democratic renewal.
How to ride that wave was the problem that faced the Governor. It was important that he establish his credentials as a reformer, and the public funding of elections fit the bill. By backing it, Cuomo is endorsing a reform that New Yorkers strongly support. A January 2012 Sienna College poll of New York voters indicated that almost three quarters of respondents (74 percent) supported "lower [political] contribution limits and a system of public campaign funding." 1.
If a new campaign finance system were adopted, the role of wealth in the political system would be sharply attenuated. Office seekers could mount their campaigns without having to become indebted to private financial backers who, particularly in New York, are concentrated in the financial sector. Nothing is certain in politics, but the probability is very high that a legislature composed of publicly funded members would be less concerned with the interests of the financial oligarchy and more supportive of those who have endured high levels of unemployment and lost incomes.
Further, many citizens of New York State are already familiar with public funding. Candidates for the New York City Council have long been able to run for office without having to depend on private funding for their viability. At the present time for every dollar raised in small donations, the city provides six dollars. The result has been a dramatic change in the composition of that legislative body, with both women and minorities greatly increasing their presence.
By advocating public funding therefore, Cuomo could identify himself as the champion of political change without having to propose an untested and unfamiliar initiative.
The problem in all of this is that though Andrew Cuomo has bet that the country seeks a leader who will break with the past, and though there is abundant political support for that reform, we still live with a politics dominated by wealth. It is not likely that the special interests who benefit from the current pay-to-play system will fail to perceive what is at stake with Cuomo's initiative. Rich big guns will be mobilized in opposition. Predictably, they will maintain that at this time of austerity the country -- much less the state -- cannot afford to undertake new government programs. Left unsaid of course is the fact that the need for that austerity is directly attributable to the fact that politicians undertook policies that benefitted those same wealthy special interests.
Whether Cuomo will be able to cash in on his bet will be determined by the New York State Legislature. Passage is possible, but it will be close. Public funding will almost certainly pass in the state lower legislative chamber as it has in the past. But the fight in the upper house will be a nail-biter.
Adoption will require intense pressure from the grassroots. Victory is possible only if legislators on the fence come to believe that they will lose the next election if they vote no. The required grassroots mobilization need not take the same form as OWS. But its functional equivalent - an organized and vocal electorate calling for change - is necessary for victory to be achieved.
More than Governor Cuomo's political career is at stake. Winning public campaign funding in New York will not only enhance the voice of the citizenry there. It will also encourage similar efforts elsewhere. And with that, wealthy political patrons will at long last be confronted with a powerful challenge to their dominance.
1. Siena College Poll, January 20, 2012, http://www.siena.edu/uploadedfiles/home/parents_and_community/community_page/sri/sny_poll/SNY%20January%202012%20Poll%20Releasst%20--%20FINAL.pdf