In fact, numerous candidates for city office have used small donations from average constituents to defeat opponents funded by big donors. A statewide public financing could have the same effect on Albany.
New York City’s public financing system helped David Dinkins become the first African-American mayor of our great city. The system also contributed to the elections of the first Dominican-American, the first Asian-American, the first Asian-American woman and the first African-American from Staten Island to be elected to the New York City Council. Our City Council now more accurately reflects the diversity of our city by being “majority minority.” We deserve a state government that similarly reflects New Yorkers’ diversity.
As we continue the debate on how best to allocate limited public resources, our communities need representatives who share our values and for them to be at the table fighting for our interests. We need candidates from diverse backgrounds—ethnic, socioeconomic and professional—who are willing to take a risk and accept the challenges associated with running for public office. What we do not need is a system that continues to favor the candidacies of the independently wealthy and those with an elite network of deep-pocketed donors or special interest friends.
A public financing system eliminates this tension and gives legislators the option of funding their campaigns by using small donations from average constituents. This encourages legislators to advocate for constituents’ concerns, instead of big donors’. In addition, it can reduce the influence of corporate and special interest money in state legislative and policy debates that impact all New Yorkers.
Decades after the push to clean up Albany began, we’re closer than ever to passing comprehensive reforms. It’s ironic that the power to elevate the diverse voices of thousands of New Yorkers rests largely in the hands of just four men—Cuomo, State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Co-Leaders Jeffrey Klein and Dean Skelos. We need to let them know how much New York needs change, and to hold them accountable if they squander this opportunity.
Hazel Dukes is president of the New York State Conference of the NAACP. DeNora Getachew is campaign manager and legislative counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.