You know the old saying, “He who pays the piper calls the tune?” Well, today in New York politics, the already-wealthy and powerful are paying to run state campaigns, and once candidates get into office, these donors get to call the tune. While not all of our elected officials are swayed by the power of big money, the system makes it hard for average New Yorkers to be heard in Albany.
That’s how we end up with billions in special interest loopholes and sweetheart deals for CEO donors, but we have to cut education for our kids and raise MTA fares for working folks. Too often we’re getting shut out of a system that’s overwhelmed by campaign checks bigger than most Black New Yorkers’ yearly paychecks.
Fortunately, some of our leaders are as ready for change as we are. There is a proposal in Albany that would finally let the rest of the people of New York pay the piper so that we can finally call the tune. Fair Elections would lower the contribution limits, provide real-time disclosures of all donations and, importantly, match small donations to provide citizen funding of elections like we have for the City Council. According to a Campaign Finance Institute-Brennan Center study, the city’s small donor system has made neighborhoods like Harlem, the South Bronx and Bed-Stuy between three and 11 times more important to City Council candidates than they are to state legislator candidates, who are still operating under the broken system.
Under the new system, it’d be worthwhile for a state legislative candidate to knock on doors in our neighborhoods, listening to our concerns and earning our trust. That’d make for a much healthier democracy than one where politicians are forced to spend their days at $500-a-plate fundraisers with lobbyists. And it would allow regular folks who don’t have millionaire friends to run for office–your barber, your kids’ teacher, you.
But would it really work? After a corruption scandal put their governor in jail, the citizens of Connecticut demanded a reform similar to New York’s proposal. The result, documented in a report soon to be released by Demos, has been a brand-new kind of politics. Legislators of both parties say they pay less attention to lobbyists and more to voters. And that political change translated into change in the lives of people. Hard-working folks won an overdue minimum wage raise, a guarantee of paid sick days and a DREAM Act allowing all immigrant children to pay in-state tuition–all after publicly-financed legislators came into office.
So what can you do? Call your legislator and tell them to support Fair Elections for New York so they can work for their votes and their dollars in the same place–our neighborhoods.
Heather McGhee is a vice president at Demos, a national public policy organization working for an America where we all have an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy. She lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.