The system for financing presidential campaigns may be in disarray, but New York City’s campaign finance board, on the 20th anniversary of its founding, was held up as a shining example to what municipalities should aspire.
At “Citizen-Owned Elections: Public Financing Past, Present and Future,” a Feb. 21 conference presented by Fordham’s Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy and the New York City Campaign Finance Board, experts debated the issues surrounding campaign financing from the McNally Amphitheatre at the Fordham School of Law.
In his opening remarks, Costas Panagopoulos, Ph.D., director of the center, noted that a system like the one in New York City would have been particularly helpful when he ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Massachusetts state legislature in 1992. The city’s system, with its real-time public disclosure of campaign finances, public matching funds and non-partisan voter guides, is widely admired for keeping the playing field level for all qualified citywide candidates.
“In an era of pervasive pessimism and widespread lack of confidence about our government and our electoral system, efforts to boost citizens’ faith in the system take on a whole new meaning,” Panagopoulos said.
The conference, which was the newly minted center’s inaugural event, featured a mix of longtime advocates and critics of public financing for local and national elections. Former New York City mayor Ed Koch and former Fordham president Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., who served for 15 years as the finance board’s first chairman, opened the day with a retrospective on how the city’s landmark campaign finance program got off the ground. The Fordham connection also included finance board executive director Amy Loprest, who is an instructor in university’s elections and campaign management program.
Dennis Burke, who managed the brief U.S. Senate campaign of Doris “Granny D” Haddock, who at 89 years old walked across the United States in 1999 to raise awareness about campaign finance, took the stage as the day’s keynote presentation. Marlo Poras, a filmmaker who chronicled Haddock’s experiences in the documentary Run Granny Run, played clips from the film as Burke noted how a robust public finance system could have helped their campaign.
“Reformist politics always run on the rails of scandals,” Burke said. “The trick is to be ready for them when they come. And sometimes we are and sometimes we aren’t. But I think having the next thing on the shelf for when the next moment comes is all we can do as reformers.” “It’s a lot of work in between, but that’s what pushes it forward.”
U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, who co-sponsored the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act in March 2002, underscored the scale of the problem facing the federal election financing system. Appearing on an afternoon panel with former senator Bob Kerry and former Federal Election Commission chairman Robert Lenhard, he said that many members of the FEC struck him as uninterested in enforcing the law he helped write.
“If people think of what the law did, you have no real sense of what would have happened had we not done the law, because you could conceivably have seen contributions of $5 or $10 or $15 million in hard money from corporations, raised by members of Congress, just before a bill is coming due. So I lose my patience with people wondering why we passed this bill,” Shays said. “We can make the law work, but there is an ideological problem; it’s not being allowed. They don’t want the government to fund campaigns, and my own party is the biggest offender; they appoint people who don’t believe in the law.”
Kerry drew upon his own unsuccessful run for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination in refuting claims by fellow panelist John Samples of the Cato Institute that public financing of campaigns squelches free speech. In fact, the biggest problem with current campaign finance funding is it’s too little help, and needs to be increased to reflect the times, Kerry said.
“I don’t believe that in this case, at the margin, it’s a free speech issue, because when it comes to campaigning, speech isn’t free,” he said. “You have to pay for it. It costs you money when you’re out trying to being competitive.”