Magazine article The American Prospect

I $ New York: Bloomberg Batters Campaign Finance Reform

Magazine article The American Prospect

I $ New York: Bloomberg Batters Campaign Finance Reform

Article excerpt

WHAT ARE CAMPAIGN finance reformers to make of the fact that Republican billionaire Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor of New York last month? Bloomberg's success has reignited the issue of money in politics and underscored the power of constitutionally protected, wealthy, self-financed candidates. His personal spending of nearly $70 million and Virginia Governor-elect Mark Warner's generous self-subsidy of his own campaign followed on the heels of the more than $60 million in personal money New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine spent in 2000 and the elections of millionaires Maria Cantwell and Mark Dayton to Senate seats in Washington State and Minnesota, respectively. Wealthy candidates are becoming more and more common, thanks to personal political ambition and the active recruitment efforts of party leaders. And, as these examples suggest, money rules.

Many people sneer at the folly of campaign finance reform attempts such as abolishing "soft money" and restricting so-called issue-advocacy ads on behalf of candidates. If multimillionaires have an open field to spend, critics of reform say, limits imposed on their rivals give the wealthy candidates an advantage: It's like immobilizing one hand of a boxer in the ring with Mike Tyson. From this point of view, the best option is the laissez-faire notion of eliminating all restrictions on fundraising and letting the market decide.

The concern about the growing visibility and clout of wealthy candidates is both understandable and real--although the middling success rate of self-financed candidates means that the problem up to now is more like a migraine headache than a virulent cancer on the body politic. But the solution is not to abandon reform or to embrace deregulation of campaign finance laws; it is to adjust reforms so that they offer adequate resources for nonwealthy candidates to get their own messages across.

TO BE SURE, THE RECENT RACE FOR mayor in New York City should make reformers pause. The city s system of partial public financing tied to voluntary spending limits is a model for many reformers. The law's flexibility, after all, provides substantial leeway for a nonwealthy candidate to fight back against a self-financed opponent--flexibility that losing Democratic candidate Mark Green used fully. The spending limit that Green agreed to in return for public funds was suspended because of Bloomberg's high spending, allowing Green to raise and spend whatever he could (around $15 million). At the same time, the public match for the funds that Green raised was increased from four-to-one to five-to-one, giving him a $610,000 addition to his public subsidy. And New York law had in place a contribution limit sufficiently high ($4,500, as opposed to the federal limit of $1,000) that Green could raise the additional millions to spread his message.

That was the theory, at least. Nonetheless, Bloomberg's megaspending allowed him to dominate in the days leading up to the election. No doubt, he needed his money: He was a comparatively unknown candidate who lacked political experience and was working against the overwhelmingly Democratic tilt of the city. …

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