Barely a fortnight before the September 13th primary, things are looking pretty good for City Councilmember David Weprin of Queens. The son of a late New York State Assembly speaker and chair of the powerful Council Finance Committee has the Working Families Party endorsement, has raised more than $400,000, and has more cash on hand than all but three of the other 160 or so candidates registered with the Campaign Finance Board. Best of all, he appears to be running unopposed this year.
Weprin is one of at least seven sitting councilmembers who have no opponent identified in either Board of Elections of CFB lists of candidates. Several others face no primary opponent. And most of the rest are getting only token challenges. But that hasn’t stopped these candidates from hauling in the cash.
Brooklyn’s Simcha Felder, for one, has the Republican, Democrat and Conservative lines all to himself, but has collected $292,000. Voters in Hollis can choose which of four ballot lines (Dem., Rep., Independent and Working Families) to use to vote for Leroy Comrie; if Comrie wants, he can spend some of the $175,000 he’s gathered telling people to pick a particular line. The phenomenon is not limited to Democrats, either: Queens Republican Dennis Gallagher, one of only three GOPers on the 51-member Council, has collected six figures in cash despite facing no apparent challenge.
Some of these well-funded, no-contest incumbents share their wealth with other candidates who, if they win, will vote on the next speaker. Christine Quinn of Manhattan has doled out $50,000, and Weprin has cut checks for $56,000—including a grand to Alan Gerson, who is unopposed in his Lower Manhattan district but has $110,000 in the bank, just in case.
Even some of the races where there is, technically, a “race” are characterized by steep differences in funding. David Yassky—for whom this race is a warm-up to a run for Congress—has raised $569,000 to Erik Hooks’ zero. John Liu ($227,419), Miguel Martinez ($164,871), Michael McMahon ($138,223), and Domenic Recchia ($137,030) also face opponents who’ve reported mere goose eggs in contributions.
These numbers add up to something potentially troubling because they lack even the unsatisfying rationale behind the usual private funding of public campaigns. When someone complains about the corruption of our campaign finance system, the system’s defenders harrumph that pols need the money to “get their message out” in a contest of ideas with an opponent. But the donors to these un-challenged campaigns aren’t giving the candidates money to get their message out; they are just giving them money, period.
What’s more, it seems it’s possible to run an unopposed campaign for less than $100,000—Joseph Addabbo of Queens faces no challenge with a mere $32,000 in his pocket. It’s even possible to run in a “contested” race for less than the price of a good used car. Brooklyn’s Al Vann has raised less than $10,000 to fend off his challenger, Richard Taylor, who so far reports no contributions. And Gale Brewer of Manhattan has reported only $12,000 in contributions, even though she faces an opponent (Joshua Yablon) with $5,000 raised.