Mayoral hopefuls come to praise Schneiderman, and his 501c4 regulations

De Blasio, Quinn, and Thompson. (Reid Pillifant)
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On Tuesday morning, three of the top contenders to succeed Michael Bloomberg arrived at 250 Broadway to appear before Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, express support for his proposed campaign finance regulations, and laugh at his jokes.

As Schneiderman introduced the hearing, Council Speaker Christine Quinn laughed loudly and clapped in amusement as the attorney general deadpanned that he was "encouraged" in his efforts last fall when he received a letter from Senator Orrin Hatch requesting that the attorney general stand down from his investigation into politically active nonprofits.

In New York's second Era of Cuomo, Schneiderman has become the "liberal gatekeeper" for the kinds of left-leaning voters and labor unions who are likely to decide the city's Democratic primary, and therefore a very relevant would-be supporter for the Democratic mayoral contenders. 

Quinn was flanked at the small witness table by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and former comptroller Bill Thompson.

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Schneiderman has made campaign finance reform one of his key issues in the past year, investigating 501(c)4 organizations (named for their reference in the tax code) that have avoided disclosing donors because they're technically incorporated as "social welfare organizations."

Last month, Schneiderman proposed new rules to require disclosure for those organizations operating in New York State, and this morning's hearing was one of four that will be held across the state to solicit public comment.

The regulations are unlikely to have much effect on this year's city races, where the city's public financing system tightly regulates outside expenditures, and the candidates spoke more generally about what Schneiderman's efforts might mean.

"You have been a strong voice and often one of the few strong voices attacking this problem," said de Blasio, who spoke about the "shadowy" groups with deceptive names, like one called "60 Plus," which purported to be a senior citizens group but spent on a variety of campaigns.

"It would be funny to set up a fake game show: put the name up and then have people guess what the organization actually cares about," said Quinn.

"That's the position donors and candidates are in today," Schneiderman responded.

Thompson, who spoke last of the three, told Schneiderman these regulations were "continuation of your life's work in bringing transparency, openness, and fairnes to every place you have been in government as well as the private sector, so it's a pleasure to be here this morning."

The effusive praise contrasted with the downbeat response Schneiderman got from Cuomo last month, who said the attorney general's efforts were good, but that he would be proposing a comprehensive plan to deal with campaign finance reform.

During a break in the hearing, Schneiderman told reporters he hoped that law would strengthen the Board of Elections and expand the definition of campaign activities, and that the "loophole" was with 501c4s, which are under his jurisdiction.

"We are sending the message here today that to the extent the legislature does not completely seal off this loophole, we're going to make sure it's done through our charities bureau," he said.

I asked if he planned to endorse in the mayor's race.

"Oh, I don't--I think I've so far taken a position that I'm not getting involved in state and local races," he said.

A spokesman for John Liu said the comptroller was "unable to attend, but is looking forward to submitting written testimony in support of the Attorney General's proposed regulations."