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Activists Push Public Financing Of N.Y. Political Campaigns


The U.S. Supreme Court could deliver a new ruling as early as next week that could undo existing limits on regulating political money. But on the other hand, a coalition of liberal groups has started pushing for the public finance of elections. They essentially want to give money to candidates so they don't have to chase big donors. And the current fight is going on in New York's state capitol, Albany. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Corruption isn't exactly unheard of in the capitol building, a titanic structure that went up during the Gilded Age. It took 32 years and the equivalent of half a billion dollars in costs and cost overruns. But over the past year, four New York State legislators have faced corruption or ethics charges. FBI agents raided the legislative office of one assemblyman just this week. It all stokes the agenda of liberal good-government groups and Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo. They say that to clean up state politics, the legislature needs to enact campaign finance reform, especially public financing. As Cuomo said a year ago...

GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO: Nothing will restore the trust more than campaign finance. And until we have campaign finance, nothing else will.

OVERBY: But that actual clip came from an ad this month by the Public Campaign Action Fund. Liberals are afraid Cuomo is moving to the center and he'll bargain away public financing to close out budget negotiations. Karen Scharff is executive director of Citizen Action of New York. The way she describes the effort so far?

KAREN SCHARFF: The biggest campaign I've ever seen on an issue like this where we've just gone all-out from the grassroots through paid media, through mail, through phone calls to districts. It's just like every tool has been used.

OVERBY: Some examples: Back in 2012 a national SuperPAC headed by Jonathan Soros helped elect a state senator who supports public financing. After the election, Cuomo appointed a commission to investigate political corruption. It called for public financing. And as recently as last week, pro-environment canvassers from Minnesota were in New York knocking on doors in support of public financing. But all that effort only went so far. Now, public financing is caught up in the state budget being hashed out by Cuomo, the leaders of Senate and the Assembly speaker. Karen Scharff has been patrolling the capitol this week because those four men are supposed to send that budget to the legislature by Monday.

SCHARFF: They call it the big ugly because everything gets piled into the budget negotiations and every issue is bargained against every other issue.

OVERBY: And she's not the only lobbyist at work on the big ugly.

KEN POKALSKY: Our focus has been talking to legislators.

OVERBY: Ken Pokalsky heads up the government affairs operation of the Business Council of New York State. It's helping to lead opposition to public financing.

POKALSKY: I've got a favorite saying of mine is that when people stake out moral high ground, it's usually because they think there's gold buried underneath.

OVERBY: He says the state campaign laws already favor the labor unions and public financing would tilt the field even more.

POKALSKY: More people understand that who are inside, you know, playing the inside baseball here, looking at and talking to legislators.

OVERBY: So, the four men meet...


OVERBY: ...behind closed doors in the governor's office. About twice a day they emerge and face a scrum of reporters. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, does most of the talking.

STATE ASSEMBLYMAN SHELDON SILVER: Nothing's closed till everything's closed. Thanks, guys. Thank you, thank you.

OVERBY: Rumors fly. And fade. Both sides say they're hopeful. Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group has been working Albany for 30 years often to promote public financing.

BLAIR HORNER: This is the first time where there's a real opportunity, was an actual theory it'll pass, that passes the laugh test.

OVERBY: And a win in New York would energize the movement. It's been back on its heels since the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in 2010 to let corporate money flow more freely in politics.

HORNER: But we do want to move away from a system in which candidates have to be either wealthy or be buddies with wealthy people in order to run for office.

OVERBY: Unless it does what opponent charge - that is drive more money to the swelling ranks of nonprofit groups and SuperPACs. Peter Overby, NPR News, Albany, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
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