The Big Money

No longer an unknown, the mayor still holds a billion-dollar advantage

But Bloomberg's 2001 juggernaut rocked the system. While the public derives a palpable benefit by electing a candidate who takes money from no one but himself, spare-no-expense contestants also have the effect of tipping rivals toward a new nuclear arms race of campaign cash. As campaign finance board chairman Schwarz said later, wild spending by one candidate will eventually drive desperate opponents out of the city's voluntary, regulated system and back to the state's loosely enforced electoral rules, which allow huge contributions. Such a move presents "a return to the appearance of corruption," said Schwarz, "and the level playing field is undermined."

Thus it was with Bloomberg in mind that the board devised a new category in 2003, tailored to those who finance their own campaigns and choose not to take public matching funds. Such "limited participating candidates" would be required to abide by the same expenditure limits as regular participants. But the self-financing candidate's inclusion would serve as a kind of arms control treaty, so that the higher reimbursement levels for opponents, which reach $6 in matching funds for every eligible dollar, never kick in.

Bloomberg wasn't interested. The new rules were an effort "to limit his free-speech rights," said Cunningham. The mayor even objected to other provisions mandating that non-participating candidates must file their campaign expense statements with the finance board for auditing and posting on its popular website. Bloomberg vetoed the legislation, but the council overrode him.

"We are complying," said Cunningham. "We are doing what the law requires." The new rules could be illegal, he warned. "The whole campaign finance system could be challenged."

The mayor's posture has puzzled good-government advocates who find themselves otherwise sympathetic with some Bloomberg initiatives, such as his strict no-smoking law, which had all the earmarks of a politician who owes few favors.

"I naively thought when the board created the [non-participating] category that it was offering an olive branch to the mayor, and that he'd take it," said Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "I don't think he has a good reason not to engage in it." What's happening this year, he added, "just has a bad smell to it."

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