As the state Public Financing Commission prepared to vote on proposals concerning a campaign-financing system using public monies and changes that could have a severe effect on the state’s smaller political parties, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams accused the panel of acting as a tool in Governor Cuomo’s bid to kill the Working Families Party while offering a pretense of campaign-spending reform.
Accompanied by about 60 members of activist groups demanding meaningful changes, Mr. Williams during a press conference outside Mr. Cuomo's midtown Manhattan offices Nov. 21 accused the Governor of “a Trumpian way of governing. He fears anything that deals with accountability, with transparency.”
A spokesman for the Governor, Rich Azzopardi, did not respond to a request for comment on those and other critical remarks by Mr. Williams, who before gaining election to his current job early this year was narrowly defeated in a long-shot bid for Lieutenant Governor after campaigning on a pledge that if he won he would serve as a check on Mr. Cuomo.
Announcing Decisions Thanksgiving Eve?
Although the panel had until Dec. 1 to approve proposals meant to bring reforms to the state election process, it was expected to vote on them Nov. 25—the day this newspaper goes to press—but not reveal the full outcome until two days later, according to Laura Friedenbach of Fair Elections for New York. Delaying an announcement until the day before Thanksgiving would have the effect of minimizing public attention over what for many will be a long holiday weekend.
Adding to the air of secrecy, one opponent of the proposal said, is that the commission has not revealed where the vote will take place or at what time.
Ms. Friedenbach told the crowd that the commission’s reported plans to eliminate fusion voting while sharply raising the number of votes a political party must get in gubernatorial and presidential elections in order to retain the ballot line constituted “an irrelevant attack on minor parties that has absolutely nothing to do with public financing.”
The commission was created in the final hours of the state budget process in early spring. Although the Governor has said the authorization of it became a budget add-on under an agreement with legislative leaders, the New York Times had quoted Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins as saying privately that it was pushed through strictly at Mr. Cuomo’s behest.
The subsequent selection of Nassau County Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs to the panel—a longtime critic of fusion voting, under which candidates nominated by the Democratic or Republican parties can also run on minor-party lines in general elections—has prompted charges that the Governor put him there to weaken, if not destroy, smaller parties, with a particular eye on gutting the WFP.
Quintuple Vote Threshold?
Under a proposal floated this summer, Mr. Jacobs was seeking to raise the threshold for parties retaining their ballot lines from 50,000 votes in a gubernatorial election to 250,000. The commission on Nov. 25 approved raising the threshold to 2 percent of the statewide vote of 130,000 votes, whichever was higher.
The Conservative Party got 253,000 votes on its line last year after endorsing Mr. Cuomo’s Republican challenger, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro. The WFP, which infuriated the Governor by endorsing his opponent in the Democratic primary, actress and activist Cynthia Nixon, gave him its line for the general election and got 114,000 votes on it, a small fraction of his 3.6-million total (96,000 of which came on the Independence and Women’s Equality lines, while the overwhelming majority was cast for him as a Democrat).
The Conservative and Republican parties are also challenging the changes reportedly being sought by the Public Financing Commission in tandem with the WFP, with a hearing on their lawsuit scheduled for Dec. 12. Conservative Party Chairman Jerry Kassar said in a Nov. 14 phone interview that his party viewed the possible end of fusion voting as not just a threat to its viability but to the democratic process.
While it is permitted in just eight states—California and New York are the biggest—Mr. Kassar noted it took effect here more than a century ago after a drive by reformers “to help combat endemic corruption in Tammany Hall Democratic politics, and it has thrice been upheld as constitutional by state courts.”
A Mutual Advantage
Fusion voting offers a mutual benefit to the smaller parties and the candidates who add their lines to their spots on the Democratic or Republican ones. In addition to giving the minor parties a chance to help their members vote for a winner, they often are able to get jobs for some of their supporters in a winning administration. For the candidates, the additional lines can give them votes from people who have quarrels with the major party that is supporting them, as well as the smaller parties’ members.
Mr. Kassar said, “We believe the two major parties are limited in their ability to emphasize certain views and philosophies” that some of their members might view as too outside the mainstream, and that third parties became sanctuaries for those who subscribed to those positions.
Mr. Williams, who has long benefitted from the WFP’s support, brushed off the suggestion that the Conservatives also believed they were targets of the Governor’s using the Public Financing Commission as a proxy, saying, “I don’t think this is an attack on the Working Families Party; I know this is an attack.”
He called the Governor “a brilliant bureaucrat,” then added, “What Jay Jacobs proposed hurts the Working Families Party more than the Conservative Party.”
‘Party Hacks’ Get Even?
The changes reportedly under consideration had been widely condemned in the media, including a New York Times editorial headlined, “Don’t Let Party Hacks Hijack Election Reform.” The piece went on to state that with a chance to “help bring good government to Albany,” the commission instead seemed to be inclined to “set up an incumbent-protection racket.”
Whatever changes were approved by the commission would become law within 20 days unless state legislators intervened. While both the Assembly and Senate have significant Democratic majorities, there is enough opposition within the ranks that a Special Session of the Legislature appears likely sometime next month.
City Council Member Ben Kallos, a leading proponent of public financing of elections, joined the press conference outside the Governor’s office and said, “What we see happening with the campaign financing commission is a travesty.” He said the changes regarding smaller parties, which would also include requiring them to satisfy the voting threshold every two years rather than at four-year intervals in gubernatorial elections, reflected a mentality of “How can we gut third parties and try to weaken them?”
‘Anything Less is a Joke’
And regarding Mr. Williams’s protest that the panel was said to be considering setting maximum contributions for Governor somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 (it reportedly settled on $18,000)—in contrast to the city’s existing Campaign Finance Law in which the maximum for presidential races is $5,400—Mr. Kallos declared, “Anything less than the [controls under] the city system is a joke.”
He added that there was no justification for setting the maximum any higher than what’s on the books for presidential races.
Alex Camarda, a senior policy adviser with the reform group Reinvent Albany, told the gathering that if the Public Financing Commission followed through on its most-recent blueprint, “They preserve the big-money status quo instead of amplifying the voice of small donors.”
And Gigi Hernandez of Make the Road New York said, “Our democracy has been controlled by billionaires for too long.” She said of the incursions against third parties under consideration, “New Yorkers want more options, not fewer ones.”
Mr. Williams contrasted the difference between the city’s campaign-financing system and the lack of a similar attempt to balance the scales statewide, contending that if he had gotten an extra $50,000 in funding last year, he could have upset incumbent Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul.
City System an Equalizer
By the same token, he said, “I probably would not be Public Advocate without the public-financing system in New York City.”
He said the Public Financing Commission had gone about its business largely in secret while veering off from what had been expecting to be its mandate when created eight months ago because “the Governor makes political calculations and assumes no one will be paying attention to the atrocious things he does…What’s happening at the commission is an abomination [of] what public financing should be.”