New York Campaign Finance Reform Push Turns Toward Albany And Its Complications

In downtown New York City on Wednesday, state Sen. Jeff Klein, the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, launched the first of four public hearings meant to move campaign finance reform forward in Albany. Klein, the New York Senate's co-leader, has introduced a reform bill, which includes a proposal to publicly finance state candidates that is modeled on the system now used in the Big Apple.

With seven weeks left in the state's legislative session, these public hearings mark a new phase in New York's reform push. As similar legislation introduced by state Speaker Sheldon Silver (D) is set to pass the Democratic-controlled Assembly next week, the reformers' efforts have turned to the process of getting a bill out of the politically divided Senate and onto the desk of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

The Senate Republicans, who nearly all oppose public financing, are ramping up their efforts as well. On May 7, they have planned their own hearing to highlight what they see as serious problems with the New York City system.

To pass campaign finance reform in the Senate, the reformers need help from at least one Republican.

Democrats technically hold a one-vote majority in the Senate -- and all of them have expressed support for public financing -- but after last fall's elections, a splinter group of moderate Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Conference entered into a power-sharing agreement with Senate Republicans to control the upper chamber. The co-leaders, Klein and Republican Dean Skelos, must both agree to let a bill come to the floor.

"This is a real test of whether they can have a governing coalition that works," said Michael Kink, executive director of the Strong Economy for All Coalition of progressive, labor and community organizations and a former Senate Democratic staffer.

In a statement announcing the May 7 hearing, Skelos said, "We are deeply skeptical that providing politicians with taxpayer dollars to finance their campaigns is a solution to the recent scandals. As we've seen in New York City, it can be a recipe for more wrongdoing and more corruption.” (The wrongdoing to which Skelos alluded includes the recent indictments of six state and city politicians for bribery.)

Yet Skelos has not completely ruled out bringing a bill to the floor, as he did with pro-choice legislation. This heartens the large reform coalition, which is organized as Fair Elections for New York and includes Citizen Action NY, Public Campaign, the Brennan Center for Justice and a host of other labor, community and environmental groups.

Reformers are targeting a small handful of potentially persuadable Republicans to bring a bipartisan sheen to the process and convince Skelos to give the bill that floor vote. Their targets include state Sens. Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo), Phil Boyle (R-Long Island) and Jack Martins (R-Nassau County), all of whom have either taken stances independent of their party in the past, often on populist issues, or, in the case of Martins, won by just a narrow margin in 2012 against a no-name opponent. The coalition has spent between $700,000 and $800,000 on television, online advertising and direct mail to 10,000 households to pressure these Republicans.

This outside effort has been aided by the 800,000-strong New York chapter of Organizing for Action, the former Obama campaign-turned-nonprofit. Charlie Albanetti, communications director for Citizen Action NY, said that the New York chapter of OFA was responsible for the majority of the 100 house parties already held in support of public financing and will be relied upon when the reform coalition launches phone banks to contact legislators and organize volunteers for rallies in Albany.

"OFA working with coalition partners in New York have been holding petition drives, educational forums, house parties and phone banks because we believe NY Fair Elections is about restoring the balance of power back to the people of New York and freeing elections from special interests that have had a stranglehold on the process for years," OFA spokeswoman Katie Hogan said.

According to Albanetti, the outside campaign to pressure the Senate into action will escalate. Reformers will increase the number of households receiving mail by three times. Rallies are scheduled nearly every week, including one in opposition to the Senate Republican hearing on May 7. In June, celebrities will be brought in for events in Albany and lobby days will be held for citizens to address their senators.

The one piece of the legislative puzzle that remains unclear is whether Gov. Cuomo will get involved in the heavy lifting of shifting votes and pressuring legislators as he did in the battles for marriage equality and gun control.

"The same way that it's a test for Senator Klein, it's a test for Governor Cuomo," Kink said.

Campaign finance reform has been at the top of Cuomo's list in this legislative session. He promoted reform, and public financing in particular, in his State of the State address earlier this year; he joined a conference call with around 1,000 supporters of reform in April; and he has repeatedly stated that he would not accept a reform bill that did not create a public financing system for the state.

But Cuomo also recently raised questions about the potential costs of a public financing system, although he stated there are many ways to raise revenue to pay for it. And he has noted the "fundamental ideological difference" between Democrats and Republicans on the issue.

The governor could be laying back to allow legislators to work out a solution to the issue of raising political money, a matter on which they see themselves as experts, without his interference. But his failure so far to go headfirst into the reform effort has raised questions about whether he will show the leadership needed to push this bill through the legislature.

"It's not an easy job to change a culture that's put a very high priority on raising big checks, big money and in some cases kind of engaging in this legislative quid pro quo, but there is no question that we have an absolute front-burner opportunity to do that in the next seven weeks," Kink said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Charlie Albanetti, communications director for Citizen Action NY.

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