Over the past year, New York and Albuquerque, NM have in their own way served as frontline battles in the fight for money in politics reform. In each location, wealthy donors wield power over elected officials as underrepresented communities—and their interests—are marginalized.
However, in each example we’ve also seen the emergence of strong, community-based coalitions that pursue democracy reform as a means to build long-term power for underrepresented communities to address a variety of pressing issues, such as affordable housing, paid sick leave, and climate justice. This year, coalitions in each community were successful in at least one notable way: their intersectional approach shifted public perception of what was possible despite historic opposition from elected leaders and set the groundwork for future, broader reform efforts. In each instance, 2019 has brought imperfect but meaningful victories for democracy reform and has reaffirmed the importance of supporting long-term organizing efforts that center the voices of communities most impacted by the influence of money in politics.
New York has long been a target for reformers who seek to stem the flow of money in politics. The state’s exceedingly high contribution limits combined with the vast wealth of real estate interests have for years prevented substantive campaign finance reform policies from making it through the legislature—most notably in 2014 when the state senate fell one vote short of enacting a statewide public financing program despite the public’s clear support for such legislation.
With support from the Piper Fund and Piper Action Fund, the Fair Elections for New York coalition has spent the past five years building a stronger grassroots movement by training organizers, highlighting the flow of money in New York politics, and recruiting more community-based organizations to join the coalition effort. Following a 2018 shift in the makeup of the New York State Senate, a renewed legislative path opened up earlier this year. After months of advocacy, last spring, reformers celebrated the passage of a state budget that appropriated $100 million to fund a statewide public financing program. Their optimism was dampened by lawmakers’ failure to legislate the terms for such a program, instead opting to create a commission tasked with deciding how the program would work. The Public Finance Reform Commission released its report on December 1st, and the legislature will have 20 days to make any amendments before it becomes law.
At its core, the commission’s proposal is promising, with an impressively high 12 to 1 match for small donations—higher than any other matching program in the country. However, the proposal is far from perfect. The most glaring problems are that individual donor limits for statewide races are still exceedingly high at $18,000 (although it is far less than the previous $70,000 limit), the program leaves several loopholes open to individuals who wish to skirt contribution limits, and the program won’t be fully implemented for another five years. In addition, the commission more than doubled the qualifying threshold for third parties to appear on the ballot, which will effectively eliminate several minority parties altogether.
Despite its flaws, the commission’s proposal and the legislature’s financial commitment of $100 million per year are significant progress toward reform and a strong foundation to build upon. Unless the legislature rejects this proposal altogether, or it is struck down by the courts, New York will have a usable public financing system in the coming years, which advocates can work to improve via legislative amendment. This is certainly worth celebrating, and it’s critical that we continue to fund the Fair Elections for New York coalition’s efforts to maintain this progress moving forward.
This is why we fund community-led, multi-year organizing: even when we lose, we still win. Our grantees in each of these communities have changed public discourse about the need for money in politics reform.
In Albuquerque, advocates have spent several years working to strengthen the city’s existing municipal public financing program as a means to increase representation and accountability in city government. While the current public financing system provides participating candidates with small grants to run their campaigns, it has struggled to keep up with the increasingly high cost of running for office. The public grants simply aren’t enough for most candidates to be competitive, and as a result, participation in the program has dwindled in recent years.
In 2016, advocates lobbied the Albuquerque City Council to increase the size of the grant for publicly-financed candidates, to increase the effectiveness of the program. The city council reluctantly referred a measure to the ballot that would increase funding solely for mayoral candidates. Unfortunately, the measure died when the Bernalillo County Commission removed it from the ballot, citing a lack of space.
As a result of this initial defeat, organizers coalesced around a larger effort to pursue a more aspirational reform via ballot initiative. Piper Action Fund grantees OLÉ and Common Cause New Mexico launched the Albuquerque Democracy Dollars Coalition in early 2017, which sought to create the nation’s second democracy voucher-style public financing system, in which city residents would receive $25 vouchers to contribute to qualified municipal candidates of their choice. Organizers spent months collecting signatures and positioning the fight for municipal public financing as a vehicle for communities to make progress on issues like paid sick leave and funding for early childhood education.
Early this summer, the Albuquerque Democracy Dollars initiative was finally confirmed for the November ballot. Threatened by the momentum advocates had built for reform, the Albuquerque City Council quickly decided to place a competing measure on the same ballot, which proposed a significant increase to the public grant for all participating municipal candidates. This move was perceived as a direct effort to undermine momentum for the Democracy Dollars program.
Ultimately, voters narrowly rejected the Albuquerque Democracy Dollars initiative in favor of the city’s competing measure. Observers agree that had there been only one measure on the ballot, Democracy Dollars likely would have passed. Regardless, advocates can celebrate the partial victory in Albuquerque, knowing that their organizing over the past three years shifted the baseline of what was possible. Whereas in 2016 the city council reluctantly agreed to support a small increase solely for mayoral candidates, the coalition effort to advance Democracy Dollars compelled city leaders to pursue a more robust fix as an alternative to the coalition’s proposal.
This is why we fund community-led, multi-year organizing: even when we lose, we still win. Our grantees in each of these communities have changed public discourse about the need for money in politics reform. These coalitions are positioning efforts to advance structural democracy reform as a means to build power for underrepresented communities and advance progress on other issues they care about. As a result, any investments in their capacity have longer-lasting impact due to the infrastructure that is left behind in the wake of specific policy fights. These wins are the foundations upon which future victories will be built. And that is something to celebrate.