Small donors can propel political victory, James says
Public advocate tells her story at ‘Unrig the System Summit’
Brooklyn made its presence felt at the first-ever Unrig the System Summit when New York City Public Advocate Letitia James served as one of the featured speakers at an event to kick off the conference’s second day and later appeared at a panel discussion on the role played by government watchdogs. Another Brooklyn resident, Jennifer Rodgers, served as the panel’s moderator.
James is a former City Council member who represented a district that included Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. James, who is an African-American, is the first woman of color to be elected public advocate.
Unrig the System, which took place at Tulane University in New Orleans on Feb. 2-4, was organized by the Represent.Us, a nationwide group seeking bipartisan ways to change the country’s political system.
James told the audience at Tulane University that while big money donors can often swing elections to the heavily donated candidate, there are times when small money donors win the day. But it helps to have a public financing system in place, she said. And James used her career as an example.
“I do not represent the wealthy. I want our government to represent all Americans,” said James, who was first elected public advocate in 2013 and won re-election in 2017.
New York City’s campaign finance laws, which offer qualified candidates for public office a six-to-one system of matching funds, helps level the playing field, according to James. “My victory would not have been possible without campaign finance laws. I did not come from a wealthy family,” she said.
Most of the people who donated money to her political campaigns gave small donations, she said. That’s the way she likes it.
“There’s nothing wrong with being rich. But it’s better to have the support of the public,” James said. “My accountability is to my constituents. I’m free of the stranglehold of PACs and Super PACs.”
Her remarks drew praise from Steve Hilton, host of “The Next Revolution” on the Fox News Channel, who said James had “given an inspiring message for us all.”
Hilton, who coordinated former British prime minster David Cameron’s campaign, was at the summit in New Orleans to talk about Crowd Pac, a website he founded to help candidates raise money to run for public office.
James was also one of the speakers at a panel called “Fierce, Independent, and Fighting for You: Government Watchdogs.”
The panel discussion was organized to demonstrate that while wholesale changes are needed in the pollical system, there are some things that work.
The panel, which was moderated by Rodgers, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School, also featured Stephen Street, inspector general of Louisiana, and Ann Ravel, a former member of the Federal Elections Commission and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
Government watchdogs play an important role in public life, according to Rodgers. “This is an important function, the function we are talking about here,” she said.
Watchdogs work to make sure that “government is accountable,” Rodgers said.
She described her job as public advocate as serving as a watchdog over city agencies and offering a helping hand to everyday citizens who reached out for governmental assistance and found no help.
“My office has resolved over 30,000 complaints. I have stretched the boundaries of the job,” James said.
James highlights the problems of crooked landlords by releasing an annual list of the worst landlords in New York.
Her office has filed lawsuits to force New York City to address situations such as the lack of heat and hot water in New York City Housing Authority buildings.
Her litigation has sometimes led to tense relations with Mayor Bill de Blasio, James candidly admitted. “I have sued the mayor who is not speaking to me right now,” she said.