It’s often assumed that money fuels elections, painting a picture of money-grubbing politicians who are after constituent dollars. But is that true? With the general election on Nov. 8, the Amsterdam News decided to dig into this year’s state legislature races by comparing campaign finance data and asking Black and brown candidates about their fundraising to find out what the true impact of money is on New York political races.
To really examine the root of fundraising and campaign finance rules at the heart of New York’s democracy to see who benefits from the current system, we focused on the State Senate and State Assembly primary and general races from 2022 and 2020. State elections operate differently than city level campaigns.
New York City implemented a rare public matching financing system that encourages small donors and helps more diverse candidates fundraise that started in the 1980s under The Federal Election Campaign Act. The FEC Act was in response to rampant corruption scandals, and the program has inspired local versions over time. The voluntary program matches small contributions from city residents, and candidates who participate get up to $2,000 in public funds per contributor. The New York state legislature isn’t slated to have a public financing program until 2024 and statewide elections until 2026.
“Our democracy works best when everyone has a voice; when candidates who don’t have access to large sums of money can be competitive; and when people who can’t afford to contribute large sums to campaigns are still worthy of candidates’ attention,” said Alexis Anderson-Reed, chief executive officer of State Voices, a non profit voting advocacy organization. “Part of creating an inclusive, multiracial democracy at the local, state, and federal level means reforming our campaign finance system to better work for our communities rather than for major corporations and mega-donors.”
Among elections experts and candidates the Amsterdam News reached out to, the general consensus was that large sums of money, though necessary in many cases, will not always guarantee a given candidate a win.
The average total of contributions made to Black primary and general candidates in 2022 was approximately $122,417 and $92,162 in 2020. For Latinx/Hispanic candidates, there was an average of $144,808 in 2022 and $89,895 in 2020, based on numbers from the New York State Board of Elections. There’s also a notable increase of an average of $104,182 in contributions to Asian candidates from 2020 to 2022.
There’s also the fact that New York State is a blue-leaning Democratic state despite there being a number of Republican candidates and districts. Manhattan Institute fellow John Ketcham pointed out that in general elections in New York City, Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-to-1. So a Republican running in a progressive assembly or senate district in the city will face an “almost insurmountable obstacle that money cannot fix.” Long story short, you have to have some good ideas that resonate with voters.
Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus represents the 46th Assembly District in Coney Island and Sea Gateparts of Bath Beach, Bay Ridge, Brighton Beach, Dyker Heights and Gravesend in Brooklyn. Frontus is one of the first Black women in the city to win a seat in a majority white district and traditionally Republican district. She was first elected in a special election back in 2018 and has had pretty narrow and heated races to hold onto her seat since.
“My campaigns have never been awash in money. They just never have. When I ran in 2018, we always felt like the little engine that could. It was a very scrappy and grassroots campaign,” said Frontus.“For my opponent on the other hand, it was like night and day. Everything was taken care of. They had a fancy consulting firm, mailers, maxed out donations, and that didn’t bother me one way.”
Frontus ended up raising about $103,750 in reporting year 2018, while Working Families Party candidate Ethan Lustig-Elgrably had $130,523 in contributions and Republican Steven Saperstein had $80,772 in contributions. She compared fundraising to operating a small business, paying salaries and managing cash flow. In the beginning as a newcomer, she remembers accepting checks from all sources, but now that she’s an incumbent she is more discerning and on occasion has sent money back to a particular donor.
In 2020’s reporting year, she raised about $19,959 and so far this year about $59,465 in contributions. She said she truly believes in the people’s choice and isn’t worried about going into the general election this November against Republican candidate Alec Brook-Krasny. She added that most of her donors are working class on one side of the district and more affluent on the other which is starkly represented in how much people can donate.
“Money is mother’s milk,” said Sen. Kevin Parker about fundraising. “Not a sole determinant. You have to have enough for messaging. You can have a lot and still be spending it wrong.”
Parker is a 20-year veteran in politics, a lifelong Brooklynite, and has held his seat in the 21st Senatorial District through two cycles of redistricting. Due to this year’s court-ordered redistricted maps, the district now covers the Flatbush, East Flatbush, Ditmas Park, Flatlands, Marine Park, and Bergen Beach neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Parker was challenged in the August primary by Kaegan Mays-Williams and Democratic Socialists of America backed candidate David Alexis. As an incumbent he already had a clear advantage based on name recognition and legislative record.
In 2020’s Senate election Parker raised about $79,570 in total contributions. Going into the general election, he raised about $507,141 for this reporting year (starts in January) in contributions. His challenger Alexis raised about $565,744 this reporting year in contributions and still lost the Democratic primary to Parker. Mays-Williams raised about $80,548 in contributions.
Ketcham explained that money is necessary “but not sufficient to win elections.” He said it can help build name recognition, momentum, and a talented campaign team, but it can’t overcome other disadvantages.
“Money doesn’t guarantee a win in primaries,” said Ketcham. “These low-turnout elections reward those who can best mobilize ideological supporters and interest groups.”
Ketcham said that another good example is August’s primary for Senate District 59 in Queens. Elizabeth Crowley, a former two-term Councilmember, was endorsed by Mayor Eric Adams and Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, yet she was still defeated by DSA-backed candidate Kristen Gonzalez, 27. Crowley had raised about $651,267 in contributions a month before the election. Gonzalez had $249,290 in contributions this reporting year. Ketcham said because of low turnout to the polls, less than 20%, Gonzalez won with about 13,000 votes compared with the roughly 7,000 for Crowley.
A few candidates and experts highlighted the financing system itself as a barrier to diversity and they’re genuinely excited to see the public financing program take effect for state elections.
“It does level the playing field because there are people in office, incumbents and sometimes others, that come to this space with a lot of resources for petitioning, messaging, and then challenging the petitions submitted,“ said Assemblymember Al Taylor. “People I represent for the most part cannot afford to play in the financial arena in terms of giving.”
Taylor was elected in a special election in 2017 in the 71st Assembly District covering Hamilton Heights, Harlem, and Washington Heights in Manhattan. He believes there’s no amount of money that can guarantee a win, it’s about the will of the people who vote. He conceded that if you’re not an incumbent a candidate can face much greater challenges without money. In those cases, connections with the community and messaging are more important than how much is raised, especially in racial voting blocs in Black and brown communities that are hard to reach, he said. Taylor is running for re-election in Assembly but he’s “kicking the tires” and considering running for Coucilmember Kristin Richardson Jordan’s seat in the future.
Tayler joked that in terms of fundraising he feels like he “just gets by” and actually doesn’t like the process at all. He usually relies on mailers for his campaign messaging and aims for a decent amount in the $180,000 range. In 2022’s reporting year he raised $58,144 and about $61,784 in 2020. “I dread fundraising. I dread it,” said Taylor. “Some people are really gifted but I have to sit down, get on the phone and talk to people, asking and hoping you’ll get something.”
Common Cause Executive Director Susan Lerner shared a similar sentiment. She adamantly believes that money is playing a “corrosive” role in politics and in New York State politics in particular because there’s almost limitless contribution limits, allowing for more wealthy and special interest donors in statewide elections. Lerner said that the public matching financing system is “admirable” but also needs strong ethical rules that help to control corruption since it’s currently voluntary and it helps control the amount of money that is spent on campaigns.
“We live in a capitalist society, no matter what anybody might think, and people who invest in a candidate feel a strong connection to a candidate,” said Lerner.
Lerner blames the current state of politics on the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling on Jan. 21, 2010 by the Supreme Court. The decision basically said that there are limits on direct donations but there are no limits to the amount candidates can spend or the amount contributed from Political Action Committee (PACs) and independent expenditure only political committees (Super PACs). PACs and Super PACs are usually a conglomerate of corporate and wealthy contributors with specific interests or political leanings.
Center for Responsive Politics (Open Secrets) Research Director Pete Quist has a more neutral stance on the role and impact of money in politics. He said it’s crucial for campaigns and candidates to have financial engagement and advertising regardless.
Typically, he sees incumbent candidates considered early for large donations by established corporations or unions because they have long-term apolitical interests. Later in the election season, especially in Senate races, is when PACs, independent expenditures, or even ecological groups start donating to specific toss-up races to try to swing districts. He said incumbents are pretty hard to beat naturally.
“For state and government elections broadly, AT&T is the largest donor in our database. They give almost perfectly evenly between Republicans and Democrats around the country but 95% of their money goes to incumbents because they’re trying to pave the way for lobbying,” said Quist.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: bit.ly/amnews1
This article was written as part of the 2022 NY State Elections Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community Media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.