The Big Money


Now that Michael Bloomberg is 13 points up in the polls—and now that Democratic front-runner Freddy Ferrer is slipping—isn’t it at long last time for the Republican mayor to give up his billionaire edge and live by the same campaign spending limits as everyone else?

In 2001, Bloomberg spent some $74 million—the most expensive local candidacy in history. His rationale for spending a fortune in that first race was this: He was an unknown businessman up against career politicians who had long used their public positions to get their faces and names before the voters. To get his own name and story out there, Bloomberg unleashed a blizzard of TV, radio, and direct-mail ads. He bought so much airtime during the World Series to play his own home run—Rudy Giuliani’s powerful endorsement—that his opponent, Mark Green, had trouble even finding available time slots to buy.

But for this election Bloomberg has no such excuse. Since taking office in January 2002, he has used those same levers of power from his mayoral perch to put and keep his own mug and message before the public. He gives a speech, cuts a ribbon, or kisses Drea de Matteo at City Hall and it’s on the evening news. He pounds a table in Albany and it leads the evening news.

Ask a major search engine to tell you how many news articles published since 2001 contain at least 10 mentions of his name, and the mighty computer groans and gives up. “Your search has been interrupted because it probably will retrieve more than 1,000 documents,” it wheezes.

Polls show that 40 percent of those asked are still unfamiliar with at least some of the four Democratic candidates. But everyone assures pollsters that they know who Michael Bloomberg is.

And yet here comes the “Mike for NYC” blitz all over again, headed full-bore straight at your TV and mailbox.

The mayor’s most recent expense records, filed in mid March, show that he has already spent more than $5 million before putting up a single ad. As in ’01, it’s an operation geared to the platinum standard: He set up an office ($55,000 per month rent), hired key aides ($5,200 a week for his campaign manager), and bought voter lists ($2.6 million). Since then, he’s added more staff, so it’s a dead cinch that Bloomberg has spent more in the first four months of the election year than the $5.7 million total that his Democratic opponents will be allowed to spend for the entire primary race under public campaign finance rules.

If there’s a runoff, candidates in the voluntary program can spend another $2.9 million, and $5.7 million more for the general election. That’s a respectable total of more than $14 million for the entire election. But it’s still chump change in Bloomberg World. Estimates are that the mayor could spend as much as $100 million this time around. His rationale for shelling out this kind of dough? That’s easy. It’s because he can do it.

“The mayor has the resources to run and spend his own money, and that’s what he is going to do,” said spokesman Bill Cunningham. “He has certain rights, as do you and I.”

That such runaway spending might have a corrosive effect on the goal of free and fair elections doesn’t seem to be a factor. Last time, the Big Money represented a bare-knuckled effort to defeat the wily Democratic machine. This time, it is the triumphant roar of the king of the hill.

To avoid appearing as the billionaire spendthrift he is, Bloomberg has found it periodically necessary to ridicule the city’s level-the-playing-field public campaign finance system as just another liberal plaything. In a TV commercial aired in June 2001, Bloomberg looked into the camera and complained that “career politicians” raise money from special interests. “Our city even gives them tax dollars to get a new job—that’s just the way the system works,” Bloomberg said, adding: “I’m not a professional politician, and I intend to finance my own campaign. I won’t ask special interests for a dime.”

It was a cheap shot for a billionaire, and he later shelved the ad, if not the attitude. Far from the brainchild of budget-busting radicals, the city’s campaign finance laws were devised and approved during the days when a pair of conservative Democrats, Mayor Ed Koch and Council Majority Leader Peter Vallone, presided over City Hall.

Since then, the program has been hailed as a national model. It has curbed the same special interests Bloomberg complains about by limiting the size of contributions, effectively putting a stop to the grotesque five- and six-figure donations exposed by the 1987 Feerick Commission on Government Integrity. It has also opened the door to candidates who could never otherwise afford to seek office by providing public matching funds for those who qualify.

Under the five-member board’s original chairman, former Fordham president Father Joseph O’Hare, and his successor, former Koch corporation counsel Frederick A.O. Schwarz, the campaign laws and regs have been steadily fine-tuned. The brakes have been adjusted by encouraging smaller individual donations of $250 or less. The throttle was opened slightly by increasing the public matching funds for those candidates who do so; it’s now set at a 4-1 match, going higher for races against non-participating candidates.

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.”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 26, 2005

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