Another major election year is upon us. It is mid-term election time for Congress but those of us in New York also find it time to re-elect our State Legislature. Millions of dollars will be poured into elections from Jamestown to Montauk and as is often the case, to the most bulging pockets will go the spoils. We New Yorkers have grown cynical in the face of the most lax campaign contribution limits in the country, and the antics of Albany mover and shakers who desperately juggle a desire to maintain a status quo they benefit from and a need to look like they want to fix it.
How bad are things in Albany? Bad enough that a bill to limit individual campaign contributions to $2000 per donor would make for an astounding improvement. I want you to wrap your head around that for a moment. Paring down contributions to what constitutes two full weeks of pay for your average New Yorker (and a month and a half for far too many of us) is a drastic cut in what can be given. How much can be given now? It varies, but non-family contributions for Assembly members can be $4100, for Senators in is $10,300. For family members of Senate candidates the limit can be as high as $57,000.
In other words in some districts in our state a family member can give more than almost half of all New Yorkers will make in a year (average income is determined by median, that is, the middle of the pack of all incomes, not the total income divided by population. The latest data puts NY’s median income at $59,000.) How can any of us hope to have our voices heard by our elected employees (and never forget that they are our employees) if they are so busy fundraising, because the other guy certainly will, with people who can drop that kind of money? That, by the way, was a rhetorical question.
Because the obvious answer is we cannot. When those who want to have any hope of getting elected have to seek big donors it means the little ones get lost in the shuffle. Small donors give to a candidate out of faith, big donors do to buy access, and they get it. Whose phone call do you think your Senator is going to take, the assembly line supervisor making thirty-five thousand a year who sent a fifty dollar check, or the financial adviser who wrote a ten thousand dollar check? Even the proposed limits make it too hard for most New Yorkers to get involved, but they are a start.
Better than limits though would be giving the little guy a loudspeaker. Make his contributions count for more, and suddenly his Senator, Assembly Member, and who knows, maybe even the Governor, will have time for him. Fortunately there are bills waiting to be brought to the floors of our legislatures that would do just that, bills that would match small donations of up to 250 dollars 6:1. that would make our above mentioned assembly line supervisor’s check worth $350. Not gigantic but a start. Tying acceptance of matching funds to limiting, or even forbidding, non-matching funds would make it worth a candidate’s time to listen to the little guy.
Or maybe encourage the little guy to run. Maybe you want Bob down the street to run. He’s a smart, decent guy, with good ideas and a spine of steel, but with the current big money culture he has no chance. Maybe you and your other neighbors could scrape together $1000 for Bob, but that won’t do much. $7,000 though, and you can start putting together a staff, you could start sending out mailers, you could start making a go of it. You could give Bob, or maybe his wife (hey, a girl can dream can’t she) a chance, and with it, the gumption to actually run.
It seems bleak, I get that, I really do. It is easy to just shrug your shoulders and say it cannot be fixed. After all, that is what the guys in Albany do. Oh sure, they like this detail of campaign finance reform or another, but because they don’t like all the details they excuse themselves from the fight, well most of them seem to in any case. Some say corruption will always be around and there is no point trying to reform the system. Please pardon me but I find that a really lame reason not to do so.
Maybe the fundraising culture does not affect you directly, though I seriously doubt that. It affects you when the banks get a $350 million tax break while our schools do not get the funds they need to keep going. It affects you when your mother or grandmother do not get necessary services. It affects you when our roads are deteriorating and the DEC is over worked and run by people having expensive lunches with energy industry executives. It affects you when the attorney general does not have the funds to protect us, when our fire departments are poorly equipped, and when state residents can no longer afford to go to SUNY schools.
It affects you in so many ways, and if not you, someone you know. You deserve to have a voice. You deserve the chance to have equal say to those who can drop hundreds of thousands of dollars on elections. You deserve the chance to actually be an elected employee of the New York State, but all of that is woefully out of reach if we do not change that and your best chance of doing that is using the voice you do have. Share your stories, and get your friends to do the same. Share them on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr using the hashtag (well just tag in Tumblr) #FairElex. Let the boys in Albany see how their desperate scramble for funds hurts us all, and more importantly that you are paying attention and plan to vote on how they act on this. It is your state government, they work for you, and it is time to remind them.