BY NATHANIEL HERZ
HOST INTRO: New York’s next elections for mayor and city council are still a year and a half away. But last week, the city Campaign Finance Board passed a new set of rules that could have a big impact on how those races are run. Nat Herz has the story.
NAT: You know that Supreme Court decision, Citizens United? The one that has turned the presidential election upside down by loosening federal campaign finance laws? Well, up until last week, some of New York City’s laws were even looser.
Here’s city Campaign Finance Board Spokesman Eric Friedman.
IC: “There was no requirement at all at the city level…”
OC: “…for outside parties to disclose what they’re spending in city elections.”
NAT: At the federal level, groups supporting a candidate generally have to say where they’re getting their cash, and how much they’re spending on ads and mailings. That’s never been the case in New York. To put it another way, says Laurence Laufer, former counsel for the city’s Campaign Finance Board, New York had a loophole that doesn’t exist at the federal level.
IC: “New York City has had a campaign finance law for 25 years…”
OC: “…those were simply outside of the disclosure regime.”
NAT: The disclosure gap applied to any so-called independent efforts, which could be backed by labor unions, corporations, even wealthy individuals. Groups didn’t have to say who they got their money from, or where it was going. For example, several 2009 city council races were influenced by a $500,000 independent campaign backed by real estate companies. Only after the race did citizens get the details—too late to inform decisions at the polls. Voters passed new disclosure rules in a citywide ballot measure in 2010. After revisions and public comments, they were approved by the Campaign Finance Board last week. Friedman says the rules are an improvement.
IC: “We have the disclosure so that voters…”
OC: “…going to help them determine who they vote for.”
NAT: In recent mayoral races, independent money has played only a small role. Laufer, the campaign lawyer, says that’s because of the unique situation of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has bankrolled his own campaigns.
IC: “The story of the last decade has been spending…”
OC: “…who’s going to do something similar.”
NAT: Bloomberg’s absence will likely increase the clout of the independent groups in November, 2013. In both city and federal races, there are rules forbidding coordination with a candidate’s campaign. In national elections, though, groups like Super PACs have a lot of leeway. It’s a point driven home by satirist Steven Colbert, who has been running for presidential.
IC: “Nation, so much to get to tonight…”
OC: “…if in any way those ads can be traced back to me.”
NAT: The Federal Election Commission hasn’t gone after Colbert for those shenanigans. But it’s unlikely he could get away with it in New York—the city’s definition of coordination is more expansive. That means that independent groups will have to tread carefully if they opt to spend in the 2013 elections. Something for Colbert to keep in mind if his presidential bid flops and he decides to run for mayor.
Nat Herz, Columbia Radio News.