A G.O.P. mayoral contender argues that city contribution limits don’t apply

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McDonald and Thompson. (Via blog.doe.org)
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One thing the city Republican establishment looks for in its mayoral candidates is an ability to spends lots of money.

Michael Bloomberg had it, and had aides willing to spend it

George McDonald, the founder of The Doe Fund who has indicated he wants to run on the G.O.P. line, doesn't have that kind of money. But he does have an idea that he thinks would allow him to play on even financial terms with the better-established Democratic candidates: raise the contribution limits.

McDonald aired this notion in Crain's this morning, and his argument is supported by attorney Larry Laufer, a man who helped write the early campaign finance laws in New York City.

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The argument is based on the idea that McDonald would opt out of the city's matching funds program, which gives candidates six times for each of the first $175 they raise from city residents. A candidate who opts to take the matching funds must also accept the donor limits. But, McDonald and Laufer argue, if a candidate doesn't take the funds, no limits apply.

According to the New York State Board of Elections, there's a formula for calculating the amount of money that can be donated to candidates running for "New York City Offices of Mayor, Public Advocate and Comptroller." The formula is "the number of voters in a candidates party [multiplied] by $0.05." That doesn't include voters listed as "inactive."

The state Board of Elections site caps the donations at $19,700 for the primary and $41,100 for the general election, for citywide candidates in New York City.

And, as an unnamed aide to Governor Andrew Cuomo happily noted during a budget fight with City Hall, "the city is a creature of the state."

To that end, here's a 1975 opinion from the NYS BOE about whether "a local legislative body" can pass a law "in relation to the regulation of campaign financing and practices."

"It is our opinion" the state BOE wrote at the time, that "a local legislative body may not adopt a local law inconsistent with the provisions of a general law."

The state BOE said it was their opinion that "the Legislature intended … to preempt the entire subject matter area of campaign financing and practices."

So it's a state issue, not a city issue, they argue.

Why has no one tried this before? Because the city contribution limits weren't a problem until recently.

From 1988 to 2004, candidates running in New York City who decided not to accept matching funds were not required to abide by the contribution limits set by the agency which runs the matching funds program, the New York City Campaign Finance Board.

But after 2004, they were. The city changed the law so that even if you didn't take matching funds, you still had to abide by the lower limits.

But the state hadn't changed its law.

That's basically McDonald and Laufer's argument.

Whether it'll work in court is one thing. (This Hofstra Law Reivew article from 1988, which has Laufer's name on it, says, "The fact that the state legislature has regulated some aspects of the financing of local elections does not necessarily imply that city authority to act in this area is preempted.")

How it'll play with voters is entirely another. 

Republicans arguing to let rich donors pour more money into an election, after the Citizens United decision and flood of Super PAC ads in the 2012 races, plays right into the Democrats' basic argument about the need for campaign finance reform. And, as the city Campaign Finance Board spokesman Eric Freidman noted in this article earlier, Albany is hardly a model for campaign finance reform.

In a tweet, Friedman also noted that the contribution limit for citywide candidates is on par with the contribution limits for presidential candidates.

"Seems reasonable," he wrote.

And the state law may not even be around that much longer. Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo campaigned for office, in part, by promising to change the state's campaign finance laws and lower the contribution limits (he never said how low). Cuomo recently reiterated that call for campaign finance reform.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that the city would match the first $250 of donations. That's the old amount, which has since been lowered. Thanks to Daniel Cho for the catch.