3:40 pm Oct. 22, 2012
At a panel discussion on the possible role of super PACs in 2013 last week, Michael Bloomberg's former campaign manager cast some doubt about how active the mayor's fortune might be in determining his successor.
"For 2013, I think there's lots of uncertainty about what can be done, what can't be done—we're hearing that tonight—so that may limit what you see next year," said Bradley Tusk, who managed the mayor's $100-million campaign in 2009, at a discussion at New York Law School on Thursday night.
"But I think, broadly speaking, a guy who's independent with $25 billion dollars? Yeah, he can have some impact."
The panel, hosted by the law firm Genova Burns Giantomasi & Webster, took place one day after the mayor announced that he would spend between $10 and $15 million on behalf of moderate candidates before Election Day, and a few hours after the city's Campaign Finance Board found that the mayor hadn't violated the law when he gave a personal donation of more than a million dollars to the Independence Party in 2009. (David Chen, the City Hall bureau chief for the New York Times who moderated the discussion, joked that his recent coverage was not intended to promote the panel discussion.)
The mere existence of Bloomberg's new PAC has already rattled some mayoral contenders, who fear his money could give an edge in a race that will otherwise feature some financial parity among the candidates, all of whom are expected to participate in the city's matching-funds program, which places a cap on the candidates' expenditures.
But the potential for Bloomberg, or anyone else, to influence the race, in the same way super PACs appear to be affecting this year's congressional elections, is far from clear.
The city's unique campaign finance laws could present a challenge to any super PACs that want to influence elections in the city, especially the 501(c)4 organizations that have spent freely—without disclosure—in the presidential and congressional races. The city's campaign finance board could treat that spending as routine political expenditures, which would require any donors to disclose their identities.
There's also the broader question of what the return on investment would be for big donors, or corporations, in supporting a field that is mostly angling for the progressive voters who will turn out in next year's Democratic primary.
"Unless the field changes, there's not a lot at stake here, at risk, on any side," said Kevin Finnegan, the political director for SEIU 1199, who also participated in the panel. "To labor unions, these are all friendly candidates. ... And they're fairly friendly to the business community."
If super PACs were to get involved in the primary, it would likely be in a run-off, the panelists agreed.
"I could see it in a general, potentially, depending on who the Republican candidate is," said Richard Davis, of the city's Campaign Finance Board.
Tusk thought there was little chance of that happening next year, practically speaking: "There's not going to be a Republican candidate serious enough that people will put together $20 million."
The panelists also seemed to agree that super PACs could have a much greater influence, for far less money, in individual City Council races by backing candidates who champion their priorities.
"It's inevitable," said Finnegan. "It's just going to happen. It's not a lot of money. In these Council races … it's just not expensive to send three pieces of mail, and hire some people to hand out fliers."
Tusk gamed out how it could work in a Democratic primary.
"You're looking at a likely turnout of about 20,000 votes," said Tusk. "So in a multi-candidate field, if you were to recruit a candidate and run a real campaign for $150,000 dollars, could you probably get that person 7 or 8 thousand votes? Yeah, you know, if they're have a halfway decent candidate, you probably could.
"And that may be enough to win. So that makes sense. I think when you look at the dynamics of something higher profile, there are a still of lot factors that go into that, including disclosure."
But even then, Tusk said it was probably unlikely the mayor would get involved.
"I don't know that he's going to say, 'My local councilmember needs to be so and so,'" he said. "I think it's really a question of us maybe going to him and saying, whether it's local, state or national, these candidates are really good on the issues you care about and can be effective."
Finnegan suggested unions like his often use their spending to cultivate candidates for the long term.
"As part of our independent expenditure effort in Florida we backed the water district person running in Dade County, because we saw that as someone good to move forward with," he said.
"So maybe in the next district leader race in Brooklyn?" Chen asked.
"There are enough candidates in Brooklyn," Finnegan said.