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If New York Didn’t Have One of the Best Systems of Small-Donor Public Financing…

J. Mijin Cha

Last week, we talked about the role that outside spending played in the New York City Council race and how of the 20 candidates Jobs for New York supported, 16 won. However, as Mark Schmitt at the New Republic pointed out, over half of the candidates Jobs for New York supported also had the support of the Working Families Party, who are often on the opposite side of the real estate debate.

According to Common Cause’s scorecard, both groups supported the same 13 candidates, the vast majority of whom won their races. It’s unclear why Jobs for New York would support candidates that also have the backing of their opponents—perhaps they were just shrewdly banking on the winners—but it is clear that the group’s spending highlights the rise of outside spending and the importance of public financing.

Jobs for New York’s spending raises two issues: One, as Schmitt points out, New York City at least has a public financing system that allows small donors to offset some of the impact of outside spending. Under New York City’s public financing system, small donations are matched 6:1. So, a $50 donation becomes $300. As a result, candidates can rely on small donors to finance their campaigns. In fact, candidates that participated in public financing have far smaller average donations than non-participating candidates. That means that in New York, this slate of candidates didn’t need to solicit large checks from real estate developer lobby.

But apparently that didn’t stop the developers from opening their pocketbooks. Jobs for New York may have hedged their bets and supported candidates that were not their ideological match but who were likely to win to show their potential for influence with elected officials. This is confusing for constituents, and I imagine frustrating for candidates who have no control over outside spending. In fact, several of them held a press conference on the steps of City Hall to denounce the spending. As successful candidate Mark Levine said:

“A lot of money was spent here to buy influence. But thanks to the city's small-donor, public-matching system, the only people I'll be accountable to are the residents of the 7th Council district."

As we’ve written about often, public financing brings more donors into electoral system, allows candidates to be less dependent on big money, and results in policy priorities that are more aligned with working families, than with affluent or corporate interests. In systems without public financing, special interests have double the power: they can directly use campaign contributions to influence candidates in addition to airing their own advertisements.

Yet, while public financing is a strong tool to maintain candidate independence from big money, the developer lobby in New York just showed that they still see an upside to currying favor. The lesson here is that public financing system is an essential bulwark—but unlimited outside spending is flexing its muscle.