Campaignful: Big money in politics hurts to watch

Pat Gareau, Creative Editor

Start exercising your thumb. This fall will bring a bombardment of campaign advertising to our television screens and it will take agility and endurance to flip channels fast enough to avoid them.

The highest profile election that will affect the local area is for Governor of New York. Andrew Cuomo has already raised over $30 million for the race, the most of any gubernatorial candidate in the country.

A local congressional election will also bring big money to the table. Chris Gibson is running against Sean Eldridge in the 19th district. Eldridge is married to Chris Hughes, cofounder of Facebook, and is poised to use some of their immense wealth to unseat Gibson.

Along with the gubernatorial and congressional races, elections will be held for both houses of the New York State legislature.

Neil Breslin, State Senator whose district includes the Albany and Troy, expressed disappointment that major campaign finance reform was not included in the state budget passed last week. “I totally support public financing,” he said.

Cuomo’s executive budget contained an ethics reform package, known as the Public Trust Act, that included a public financing system for state elections. While most of the Public Trust Act remained in the enacted budget, the public financing portion was negotiated down to a “pilot.”

One election, for state comptroller, will be used to test the system this year. However, Tom Dinapoli, the current comptroller, said he will not use the public funds that match small donations under the new program.

Progressive advocates across the state have been critical of Cuomo for not getting a full public campaign financing deal. Those that support public financing believe it will reduce the disproportionate influence of big money on politics and make elections more competitive.

Breslin, who was first elected to the NYS Senate in 1996, supports reform despite benefiting from many of the existing problems.

“I have a tremendous advantage over a challenger. The people who contribute more, they contribute to the incumbents,” said Breslin.

Over the course of his career, Breslin has seen the amount of money in the political system climb higher.

“There’s so much more, there’s a lot more money. It widens the gap. No incumbents generally lose,” said Breslin.

Using government funds to match small donations would allow those who can’t raise a lot of money to be more competitive.

“If it’s going to be a competitive race, you’ll get better people,” said Breslin.

In 2013, 170 big donors accounted for over half of all campaign funds in all of New York, according to New York Public Interest Research Group.

A small number of wealthy contributors dominating campaign contributions is not a situation unique to New York. The problem of the wealthy being able to buy influence in politics has been a hot issue in recent years nationwide.

While many in New York are trying to fight against the power of money in politics, recent Supreme Court rulings have increased the level to which wealthy individuals and organizations can contribute.

Just last week, the McCutcheon ruling eliminated limits on combined contributions to campaigns. Although there are still limits on contributions to one candidate, there no longer can be a limit on how much a person can give in total to all candidates and organizations per year.

Critics have called it the sequel to Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a 2010 Supreme Court case that ruled corporations can not be excluded from giving to candidates because that would violate their right of free speech.

Being a typical person and knowing how money can be used to gain political influence is frustrating. How can the majority of us, without millions in the bank, compete with those that can give thousands to political candidates? How can we be confident that the interests of the middle and lower classes are considered to the same extent as the wealthy?

 Public financing may improve the competitiveness of elections and reduce corruption a little, but it is far from a cure all. It’s not an ideal situation to use tax dollars in political campaigns, especially with the cost of political campaigns rising. It replaces one broken system with another.

The only way to effectively battle corruption and big money is to have a more active and intelligent electorate. If people decided to conduct their own research on candidates so that candidates would not have any incentive to spend millions on campaigns, candidates would be better off not accepting funds from big donors.

Improving our democracy can’t be a top down endeavor where things are fixed with the signing of legislation. It’s going to have to be a long, incremental process where society consistently progresses in intelligence and ethics at all levels. When we reach a point where people can no longer be tricked by manipulative political advertising and false promises, then our political system will have no choice but to be honest and ethical.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: