By Kirsch, Richard
The Nation , Vol. 274, No. 8
The success of Michael Bloomberg's $69 million race for Mayor of New York against Mark Green was widely seen as a setback for campaign finance reform. But the Bloomberg campaign demonstrated the limits of campaign finance reform under the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution, not its failure. On the whole, New York City's reformed campaign finance law worked remarkably well in its first real test. Still, Bloomberg's victory showed that the law needs to be improved.
This was the first full election under the 1998 reforms to New York City's public campaign finance law. The revised law provides four dollars of public funding for every dollar of private money for contributions up to $250, to candidates who accept spending limits. Public funds are limited to 55 percent of the spending limits. Anticipating a Michael Bloomberg, the law provides a bigger public match and lifts the spending cap for a candidate whose high-spending opponent doesn't join the public finance system.
Every major candidate for citywide office other than Bloomberg ran under the city's campaign finance system, as did all five of the victorious borough presidents and forty-seven of the fifty-one members of the incoming City Council. All eleven major Democratic candidates for citywide office ran under the system and had nearly the same amount of money available for their campaigns. The elections were decided on the quality of the candidates, their issues and organizations, not on which candidate had the most money.
The law changed the nature of fundraising. While candidates still sought big donations, up to a $4,500 limit for mayor, they also spent lots of time at small donor events. A $50 contribution became $250 under the new law, so relatively small donors now met candidates for mayor at fundraising events.
At the City Council level, grassroots candidates flourished under the campaign finance law. Virtually every credible City Council candidate was able to raise the spending limit. Many of those opponents beat the machine, resulting in the victory of grassroots candidates in at least eleven races. Fundraising for the candidates ended early, allowing them to focus on the voters, not the contributors.
Bloomberg's opponent, Mark Green, benefited from the enhanced funding that was available to him because Bloomberg spent more than the legal limit. Green collected $4.5 million in public funds and legally spent $16.24 million, 51 percent more than the limit. However, Green could have collected millions more in public funds had he raised additional small contributions.
Bloomberg's narrow victory, like all narrow victories, was not just about money or any one issue. …