A Real Chance at Reform

Bloomberg plans to limit campaign contributions from people doing business with the city

A year away from his re-election campaign, Mike Bloomberg is suddenly sitting pretty in the polls and taking potshots at anyone who might dare challenge him.

Consider the odds: David Dinkins was the only incumbent mayor in the 20th century to lose a general election. He was also, you might have noticed, the only nonwhite mayor. Ed Koch and two other incumbents lost in primaries, but the once hot prospect of Bloomberg facing a GOP primary from ex-Queens councilman Tom Ognibene has faded, ostensibly due to family health issues. In any event, when Mayor John Lindsay lost the Republican primary in 1969, he won in November anyway, on the Liberal line alone. Bloomberg could do the same—albeit on the Independence Party line.

Couple the extraordinary power of incumbency in a strong mayoral system with a $100 million self-financed campaign and it's a wonder that three prominent Democrats—2001 near-winner Fernando Ferrer, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, and Brooklyn congressman Anthony Weiner—are still preparing to take him on. The pre-campaign jockeying going on now all involves money, with both Bloomberg and Miller moving to redesign the playing field to their own advantage, pushing dramatic changes in the city's much celebrated campaign finance system.

Gifford Miller calls the Bloomberg proposal "a Trojan horse" that could discourage participation in the city's campaign finance system.
photo: Richard B. Levine
Gifford Miller calls the Bloomberg proposal "a Trojan horse" that could discourage participation in the city's campaign finance system.

Bloomberg, of course, won in 2001 by spending $73 million of his own billions outside the system, and he plans to do much the same in 2005, even though his prime 2001 rationale, namely that he was an unknown running against the well-known, is no longer applicable. His rationale for such wanton behavior now is much like Bill Clinton's: because he can. Opting out of the finance system does have its potential costs—no citywide candidate has ever done it and won the Times' endorsement, for example—but Bloomberg hasn't let his own willful nonparticipation slow down his determination to transform it. And, as usual with Merit Mike, he's come up with a promising idea, just as he did with the 2003 proposed charter change to move the city toward nonpartisan elections.

Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo sent a June 8 memo to the five members of the Campaign Finance Board outlining a proposal to set a $250 limit on contributions for all those doing business with the city. Cardozo defined city business to "include non-sealed bid procurements over $50,000, municipal bond transactions, real property transactions, land use approvals, grants, concessions and franchises" over a year-long period, and extended the limits to lobbyists and the family members "of persons actually having such business dealings." Contractors, like any other donor, can currently give $4,950 to a mayoral candidate, inducing a $1,000 match in public funds. Cardozo's letter would also bar the match.

Since Bloomberg has no need to solicit a dime, this sort of long-sought reform would only damage opponents like Miller, whose comparatively paltry $2.5 million campaign committee is a magnet for every inside player in town. Steve Sigmund, Miller's spokesman, told the Voice, "The fact that the guy who is destroying the system says that this is how you should change it is laughable." In a NY1 appearance last week, Miller said the council would "look at" the plan, raising a host of technical problems such as enforcement and launching an ad hominem attack on its origins. "I would like to see everybody opting into the program," Miller said, calling it "the strongest" in America. "It would be appropriate for those who want to change the system to be willing to abide by the rules himself." In fact, Miller created a committee outside the system in 2001, raising contributions in excess of CFB limits and funneling it to the councilmembers who elected him Speaker.

Ferrer, who has always participated in the system and was recently fined $223,000 by it for 2001 mistakes, says Bloomberg's plan "lacks credibility" because the mayor "believes in nuclear disarmament for the other guy." Ferrer adds he would "support the proposal unreservedly" if the effective date were post-election, a suggestion Bloomberg may be willing to adopt, just as he ultimately did on the nonpartisan election issue. Asked about the timing, Bloomberg communications director Bill Cunningham said, "We're only trying to get this issue debated. No one has found a problem with the merits of this plan, other than that it doesn't cover Mike Bloomberg. If we ever get to the point of talking about the effective date, fine. Let's determine if it's good for the city. Then, if we want to talk about how to execute it, that's a different conversation. We're not going to negotiate against ourselves."

Cunningham says they've heard nothing from the CFB about the proposal, pointing out that the voters passed a referendum in 1998 that required the board "to regulate the acceptance of contributions from individuals doing business with the city." Stymied by the absence of a comprehensive database that identified everyone covered by that language, the CFB has yet to take any action on this mandate. CFB chair F.A.O. Schwarz seems quite willing to do that. "We welcome the opportunity to focus on it," said Schwarz, who championed a similar reform in the '80s as corporation counsel in the Koch administration. "We want to look at it on the merits—not who's helped and who's hurt by it." Schwarz agrees with Cardozo that "it's possible" that the CFB could adopt this change on its own without any council legislation, saying that the agency and Cardozo were "starting discussions."

Both Schwarz and Cunningham expressed interest in a requirement that anyone giving more than the $250 limit would have to file an affidavit swearing that they did not do city business, exposing themselves to the possible penalty of losing that business if the assertion were false. Ferrer and Schwarz were unsure the limits should apply to officers of nonprofits, as Cardozo's proposal did. While Schwarz would not comment on a post-election starting date, he said, "It will be hard to do it carefully quickly."

The Bloomberg plan may wind up linked in negotiations with CFB-backed legislation already wending its way through the council with Miller's implicit support. The bill, which Miller endorsed in a Voice interview—and said will go through a second set of hearings in September—increases the bonus matching funds available to the eventual Democratic nominee against Bloomberg from the current five-to-one match to eight-to-one. That could add millions to Miller's, Ferrer's, or Weiner's coffers, which makes it all the more surprising that neither Weiner nor Ferrer supports it. Ferrer said it would be "gross" to raise the match that high when the city is "shutting down firehouses." Weiner says it looks like "the law is being changed to get one guy." Unlike Ferrer and Miller, Weiner is even willing to say he supports the Bloomberg proposal on contractor contributions, adding that he has "no big problem with doing it as soon as you can," rather than delaying it until 2006.

Weiner has already borne the brunt of one politically charged proposed CFB change. The council has been considering a retroactive amendment to bar or limit transfers from a federal campaign committee such as Weiner's—which currently contains nearly $1.8 million—into a city campaign committee. Weiner says that the council's "stalled this change for months"—possibly "as part of a plan." So Weiner has recently begun "reaching out to the bulk of my donors by letter and phone," asking them to take their donations back and refile them as contributions to his city committee.

Bloomberg may attempt to link the timing of the contractor limits to the timing of the eight-to-one bonus, trying to push both to 2006 and beyond. But, despite Weiner and Ferrer's forbearance, the problem the bonus hike is attempting to solve is Bloomberg—and who knows when another billionaire mayor will come along. Narrowing the stratosphere between the airtime Bloomie will buy next year and what the Democrat can buy is perfectly legitimate policy, no matter how self-serving it is for Miller. ("Are Ferrer and Weiner going to turn it down?" asked Miller.) The Bloomberg proposal, on the other hand, tackles a problem of historic and lasting significance that will shape the politics of the post-Bloomberg era.


Research assistance: Abby Aguirre, Daniel Magliocco, Marc Schultz, and Ben Shestakofsky

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