ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The latest in a long string of New York political scandals shows the ongoing need to remove money from Albany politics, advocates for campaign finance reform said.
A day after Democratic state Sen. Malcolm Smith, City Councilman Daniel Halloran, two high-ranking city Republican Party officials and the mayor and deputy mayor of suburban Spring Valley were arrested as part of a federal investigation, watchdog groups insisted that Albany's "pay-to-play" culture must go.
The groups acknowledged Wednesday that the federal bribery and fraud charges filed against Smith involve his effort to run as a Republican for mayor of New York City, which already has public campaign financing. But they noted that the case reportedly included a promise of state money.
They urged adoption this year of a reform package with campaign contribution limits, strong enforcement and a publicly financed system to match small donations.
Karen Scharff of Citizen Action of New York says many legislators first get elected intending to work for their communities then learn they are in a system where money determines outcomes. "If we can change that basic culture, and public financing goes a long way to change that, it has a lot of repercussions on the way that people operate," she said.
Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters said New York has no investigators at the state Board of Elections, while strict enforcement of campaign finance rules is needed. She said New York needs a pool of public financing, "so we can not only clean up this, unfortunately, this cesspool we have in our culture in Albany, but we can bring better ideas and more diversity into our government."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has committed to campaign finance reform, part of his promise of "fixing Albany." Now he just has to "pull the Legislature along" and get it done, she said.
"In the past six years, there have been nine state senators who have lost in the general election but 11 have been arrested," said Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "This is not the sign of a healthy democracy."
Mahoney said more than half of New York's legislators have used leftover campaign funds to buy themselves cars.
Scharff noted that Smith's guilt or innocence hasn't been determined yet and said they need to look at the barrel — the structure and the system — not at individual rotten apples. "There's always going to be people who break the law. But what we can do is create a different environment when people run for office," she said.
Smith himself introduced campaign finance legislation in 2008 like the measure the groups are advocating now.
Cuomo, whose re-election campaign fund recently reported $22.5 million on hand, this year proposed mandatory reporting within 48 hours of any political or lobbying contributions above $500, lowering and closing loopholes in donation limits and matching public funds for small donations like the city's system.
"You think about how our system works right now. Any everyday New Yorker, any person who decides to run for office, the first thing they're asked to be taken seriously is: 'How much money can you raise?' The only way you can have a chance to be taken seriously is to raise tons of money," Scharff said.
"If we can change the underlying culture, it changes how people operate once they're in office," she said. "What New York is seeing over and over again, year after year, is that money determines what happens in Albany, whether it's campaign finance or other means."