ALBANY, N.Y. -- The biggest underdog of last fall’s New York state Senate elections was a farmer and school board member, who beat a wealthy, veteran politician in a district drawn by his party specifically to get him re-elected. Now, she is driving a movement designed to give candidates a shot at winning no matter how much money they have, through the public financing of campaigns.
Cecilia Tkaczyk, now a Democratic senator, is the darling of an effort nationwide to enact voluntary public financing of state-level campaigns, which was a big part of her platform to get elected.
"We have to change how we elect people to office," Tkaczyk said. "... When you change how you elect people, you will have people representing the voters more, who care what the voter thinks, rather than chasing dollars to fill their campaign coffers."
Supporters of the idea want to use public funds to match even small campaign contributions, limit big donations and restrict how funds are spent. For example, a donation up to $175 could be matched 6 to 1, giving a candidate $1,225. A $40 donation from a private citizen, a rare small donation in most elections these days, turns into $280 for the candidate.
Advocates see it as a critical alternative to campaigns dominated by wealthy special interests. The 2012 presidential campaign attracted more than $2 billion. In New York, the fall legislative elections cost $105 million to fill 212 seats, and incumbents usually won easily if they were opposed at all.
Tkaczyk herself got a critical boost of $250,000 from activist Jonathan Soros’ super PAC, which seeks public financing of campaigns that would limit the influence of such groups. Her dramatic win by 18 votes after a court-ordered count that took 73 days is helping put attention on New York, along with Gov. Andrew Cuomo apparently pushing what would be the state’s next big policy issue.
"We’re looking for New York to be a model, to encourage other states to jump into the game," said Anna Galland, executive director of liberal activist group MoveOn.org. "This is a moment where the states will make the difference, and New York is the lead."
But where backers see public financing as a knife into influence-peddling and corruption, opponents see a tax.
"It would cost taxpayers more than $200 million," said Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos, who could block the bill from a Senate vote. "That’s money that would be much better spent on property tax relief or investing more money in rural upstate school districts and underperforming school districts around the state."
There’s also the question of whether public financing of campaigns will deliver on its promises.
No conclusive study shows that giving money to people to run for office attracts strong candidates, increases voter turnout, makes races more competitive or reduces the influence of big donors, said political science professor David Primo of the University of Rochester.
He said the aim to increase the number of small donors will probably be accomplished, but, he asked, "does that goal justify the use of scarce public funds?"
The wild card is Cuomo. He resurrected the issue during his State of the State speech in January as part of an agenda that could position him well for a 2016 run for the Democratic nomination for president.
"It’s probably one of the most important issues to complete," Cuomo told 1,000 advocates last week in a teleconference to rouse support. Still, Cuomo would only say he was "cautiously optimistic" of passage.
Nationwide, 14 states offer public funds to at least some candidates to state office, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Just Arizona, Connecticut and Minnesota, however, offer funds to candidates for all statewide offices and for the legislature, as New York proposes.
"National progressive groups would like to see New York as a national model," said Michael Kink of the Strong Economy for All coalition. "I think it fits neatly into the governor’s goals of cleaning up Albany and also showing New York can take a leadership role."