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Grassroots 2020 candidates demand major campaign finance reform to ‘level the playing field’

November 8, 2019 Emma Whitford
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More than a dozen Democratic primary challengers for state office gathered on the steps of City Hall Thursday to demand a strong public campaign finance program that would match small donations from their supporters across the state.

Currently, New York State does not match any small donations for State Senate or Assembly campaigns — a precedent that grassroots candidates say makes it difficult to run robust, uncompromised campaigns against incumbents with deep pockets. A state-appointed commission will propose a public campaign finance program later this month, but candidates fear it will simply protect the status quo.

“Listen up and listen good,” said Phara Souffrant Forrest, a nurse and tenant leader who is challenging Crown Heights Assemblymember Walter Mosley. “The Public Campaign Finance Commission is under watchful eye. We want more people in the working class, grassroots, to have a chance to make a difference.”

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“Public campaign financing can level the playing field for people like myself: black women and women of color, grassroots leaders,” added Sandy Nurse, who founded a composting nonprofit and is challenging Assemblymember Erik Dilan in Bushwick.

Nurse and her fellow candidates have refused to accept contributions from for-profit real estate interests and corporations, and are therefore relying heavily on small donors.

Many in the diverse group of candidates work full time, meaning their campaigning hours are condensed. Some, like Boris Santos (who is also running for Dilan’s seat) and Jason Salmon, who is running for State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery’s seat in Central Brooklyn, left legislative staff jobs in order to run for office. “Our pockets are bleeding right now,” Santos said.

“It is absurd the amount of money that we have to raise as candidates to actually produce a viable campaign,” Salmon added.

Grassroots candidates and fair elections groups were particularly concerned last month when the state Public Campaign Financing Commission voted 5-4 to confine small-donor matching to in-district donations after advocates called for a 6 to 1 statewide match.

“We can set a new course and be creative, as long as we meet our objectives,” commission member Jay Jacobs, chair of the New York State Democratic Party, reportedly said at the time.

State Assembly and Senate candidates in New York received roughly half of their donations from outside their districts in 2018, according to Michael Malbin, director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute and a political science professor at Rockefeller College.

Malbin has agreed to compare the commission’s district-focused proposal to advocates’ statewide proposal. He will present his findings to the commission on Nov. 13.

“The question is, if you lose out-of-district donors at 6 to 1, are you making up for it by giving [a] higher rate in-district?” Malbin told the Brooklyn Eagle. “I can say, preliminarily, this plan does not skimp on resources. It’s shifting resources. It’s not taking resources away.”

But advocates question why the commission is delving into uncharted territory, when New York City has a time-tested matching funds program already in place that is inclusive of out-of-district donations and could be replicated — albeit on a larger scale.

“There’s no downside to more people trying to figure out the best solution to the problem, but given there’s so little time, so little resources, I’m mystified why they would ignore a successful program with a three-decade track record in the same state,” said Blair Horner, director of the nonpartisan New York Public Interest Research Group.

Through the city’s program, a $10 donation to a City Council candidate can release an additional $80 in public matching funds. About 90 percent of primary candidates and two-thirds of general election candidates participate in the program each election cycle, according to the NYC Campaign Finance Board.

Jacobs has also indicated that he’d like the commission to raise the threshold for New York’s minor political parties to qualify for the ballot — a move he reportedly said would reduce voter confusion and knock out “sham” parties.

Jacobs is a Cuomo appointee to the commission, and some advocates believe the move is a veiled attack on the Working Families Party.

Jessica Wisneski, co-executive director of Citizens Action, believes Jacobs’ efforts are distracting from the commission’s mission. “It’s the commission’s job to transform the campaign finance system, and that has nothing to do with third parties,” she said. “And we can only assume that’s politics.”

The more time is spent discussing third parties, Wisneski fears, the less time is spent considering other reforms. For example, lowering campaign contribution limits overall, and establishing a “well-funded, robust, dedicated campaign finance unit” to administer the new program, independent of the state Board of Elections.

The commission’s forthcoming proposal will become law in December, unless the state legislature raises objections. Whether the program will go into effect immediately remains to be seen.

A letter to the Public Campaign Financing Commission from state legislators, including Bushwick Sen. Julia Salazar, echoes Citizen Actions’ demands and has signatures from 17 senators and 22 assemblymembers. Some Brooklyn incumbents have yet to sign on. These include Flatbush Sen. Kevin Parker, whose challenger Josh Pierre rallied Thursday, and Assemblymember Dilan.

“Why not sign onto this letter?” Santos challenged legislators at the rally.

Santos and Nurse weren’t the only candidates present Thursday who are competing against each other for the same legislative seats. Edwin Delgado, a third challenger in that Bushwick race, also spoke. From Queens, Nuala O’Doherty and Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas are both running against Michael DenDekker in the 34th Assembly District and stood near each other on the City Hall steps. They spoke of a united front.

“Everyone knows this commission is a farce and we’ve got to really push them to make sure they do the right thing,” O’Doherty said Thursday. “So how do we get the commission to do the right thing? It’s called public pressure. The best way to bring public pressure to incumbents is to challenge them. So everyone here is doing exactly that.”

Emma Whitford is a freelance reporter based in Brooklyn. You can follow her work on Twitter

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