Cuomo to W.F.P.: Trust me

Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

Blake Zeff

Follow: feed

In an op-ed posted on the Huffington Post late Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo strenuously demands that the State Senate pass public financing of elections, or risk him actively campaigning against them this fall. He also makes clear that such an achievement should occur by the end of session in late June.

The June time-frame Cuomo mentions in the HuffPo column—like his sudden hurry to get public financing done—is highly relevant.

It sets the goal for passage after the W.F.P. state committee meets on May 31 to determine the party’s gubernatorial nomination, and effectively to decide whether to go to war with Cuomo by backing a margin-damaging challenge from the left.

As has been well documented, relations between the governor and W.F.P. activists have been chilly for some time, amid big disagreements on everything from tax policy to charter schools and, of course, campaign finance reform.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

Party insiders indicate that the best chance for the governor to sway the holdouts—or at least to undercut the anti-Cuomo case—would be to deliver a real system of public financing.

If he holds to the late June timeline and delivers nothing by May 31, he’s essentially asking the party to trust him that he’ll get the measure passed a month later, and endorse him based on that pledge. That’s asking a lot, given the deep anger many party activists have toward him (based in part on the fact that he’s pledged his support for public finance previously before backing away from it)—and several sources close to the party insist that this would be a nonstarter, resulting in W.F.P. launching a challenge to the governor. We may soon find out how serious Cuomo considers that threat.

Even if a law is passed before the May 31 convention, a real possibility, there are several key questions affecting how W.F.P. activists and other validators, including good-government groups and the established (and deep-pocketed) public-finance advocate Jonathan Soros, would respond.

Unlike a pilot program announced last month (which applied to just one race in one year), would it really be a true model of reform, rather than something designed to look like one? And if it were real, how would Cuomo possibly get Republican Senate leader Dean Skelos to back it?

As pro-Cuomo sources point out, it's a legitimately tricky puzzle, even for someone with the governor's skills.

According to multiple sources with direct knowledge of discussions, representatives of the governor and State Senate co-leader Jeff Klein—the Independent Democratic Conference leader who now faces a primary against Democratic former councilman Oliver Koppell—have been floating various packages behind the scenes.

One concept that’s been discussed is what might be called a “regional match disparity” (my term, not theirs). Under this clause, the program would grant more public funds to candidates in parts of the state deemed more expensive to run for office—for example, downstate’s media market is more costly to run ads than in the stations upstate—and less money would be given to candidates in smaller, upstate districts.

On its face, this may seem like a value-neutral, insignificant quirk. But game it out, and you realize its practical effect: Challengers to New York City incumbents would be given significantly more money to wage their campaigns than challengers to upstate incumbents. In other words, far more public funds could be distributed to candidates challenging Democrats, generally speaking, than to candidates challenging Republicans.

That’s certainly one way to make the deal more appealing to Skelos, but could activists and liberals stomach it?

“It’s an obvious poison pill,” one (cynical) pro-reform liberal told Capital. “It’s the kind of thing designed to look like public financing but is a finger in the eye to Democrats.”

Whatever you call it, the concept is a reflection of the puzzle facing Cuomo and Klein: how to get a package done on a short timeline that will be suitable to reformers but can also get through the Republican senate majority.

Other contentious questions in the package include the level of the match—the rate at which small donor contributions would be matched by public funds.

A “person familiar with the matter” suggested to The Wall Street Journal Monday that the match might be “either $2 or $3 dollars in public funds for every $1 [raised] in donations.”

That could be another difficult component to get reformers and W.F.P. activists to swallow. Advocates remember that a small match was tried in New York City and ultimately proved insufficient before the program climbed to a 4:1 match—and later its current 6:1 match. They also point to New Jersey governor races where a 2:1 match was rendered nearly useless.

Another sticking point would be timing. When would the new regime go into effect? No one expects a real program to be implemented in time for this year’s elections, but 2016 would be far more palatable to the reform crowd than, say, 2020.

One proposal invoked a scenario in which the public match program would only apply to open seats. While that idea was promptly laughed off the table, according to the sources, it gives a sense of the kinds of challenges facing the governor as that May 31 deadline rapidly approaches.

Skelos, in some ways, is the key to the process. (Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver is not a huge fan of the reform, as it could put some of his members in jeopardy, but is not seen as a major obstacle to a deal.)

It’s a concern for the Republican leader that he’s holding onto his majority by a baby’s hair, and he knows that a program that funds political candidates and makes it easier to challenge his incumbents poses an existential threat to his power. On the other hand, if Klein’s I.D.C. flees and caucuses with the Democrats (or Klein somehow loses to Koppell, a long-shot scenario), the G.O.P. majority also falls apart. The politics are mess for him, either way.

But for Cuomo, things could yet fall into place. He doesn't need real reform, necessarily. He could just fight loudly for some version of it, and hope that the would-be troublemakers on the left were bluffing all along.