The fact that Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown has $1 million dollars in his campaign war chest is good news for the mayor but bad news for the citizens of Buffalo. It means there will not be a real election for mayor of Buffalo next year. No challenger will be able to compete in a significant way against $1 million and the power of incumbency. Sadly, there will not be a real debate about the future of Buffalo.
The fact that the mayor of the third poorest city in the nation can build a war chest of $1 million dollars shows you how much campaign dollars are about the legalized bribery of “pay to play.” Incumbents, no matter what office they hold, hold many advantages, including:
• the ability to get free and taxpayer-paid-for media attention;
• campaign funds and volunteers from government employees;
• campaign funds from people and companies that do business with government.
Mayor Brown’s campaign war chest, like those of most incumbents, is built on contributions from people who personally benefit from government in the way of jobs and contracts.
As a former city employee, I played the game and contributed campaign funds as well. But “pay to play” needs to end.
In the 2011 election for City of Buffalo offices, only four out of nine councilmembers had a primary challenge, and not a single councilmember had a contest in the November general election. The four incumbents who had challengers raised an average of $24,264, while their opponents raised an average of $1,117.
When former City Comptroller Andy SanFilippo left his position for a job with the New York State Comptroller’s Office, Assemblyman Mark Schroeder was appointed to the vacant comptroller position. Schroeder raised $100,000 for his campaign and was elected to a four-year term without facing a challenger.
In the 2011 elections for Erie County Legislature, challengers fared better in raising funds: Incumbents raised an average of $17,833 and challengers raised an average of $9,944. In several instances challengers outraised their incumbent opponents. Eight out of 11 incumbent legislators had a challenger.
What is needed in the City of Buffalo and the County of Erie is a system of public campaign financing. The public benefits from competitive elections that provide them more choices and greater discussion of issues and ideas. Since 1988, New York City has had a system of public financing for campaigns that Buffalo and Erie County can use as a model.
In New York City a Campaign Finance Board administers the public finance program, publishes a voting guide, and oversees candidate debates. The board is nonpartisan and composed of five members, two of whom are appointed by the mayor of New York and two of whom are appointed by the speaker of the New York City Council; each of their appointees must come from different parties. The fifth slot, the chair, is appointed by agreement between the mayor and speaker. Board members serve five-year staggered terms. The board’s budget is guarded in the New York City Charter to forestall political interference.
New York’s public financing program is voluntary but 90 percent of city candidates agreed to participate in the most recent city elections. In an effort to encourage smaller donations, New York City matches each dollar a resident gives, up to $175 per contributor, with $6 in public funds, for a maximum of $1,050 in public funds per contributor. Under New York’s system a $20 contribution to a participating candidate is worth $140—the initial contribution plus $120 in matching funds. A $100 contribution turns into $700 for the candidate. As such, matching funds can turn small house parties into big-dollar fundraisers. That means candidates can build competitive campaigns with grassroots support even without access to wealthy donors or the support of special interest groups.
A study by the Brennan Center for Justice and the Campaign Finance Institute confirms the success of the city’s program in bringing small donors into the mix. While just 30 percent of New York City Census block groups were home to someone giving $175 or less to State Assembly candidates in 2010, nearly 90 percent were home to small donors who gave to a 2009 City Council candidate. Almost everyone in the city lived within a city block or so of someone who contributed to a City Council candidate in 2009. This was not even close to being true in the 2010 state elections. Donors who gave $175 or less to State Assembly races accounted for less than six percent of those candidates’ total funds. By contrast, 2009 City Council candidates raised about 30 percent of their private money from such donors.
The city’s public matching funds program also makes political participation more diverse. For instance, in the poor and predominantly black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and surrounding communities, 24 times more small donors gave money to City Council candidates than to Assembly candidates. In Chinatown, the advantage was 23-to-1. In Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, it was 12-to-1. These neighborhoods were financially important to City Council candidates, even though they were home to very few ultra-wealthy donors.
According to New York’s Campaign Finance Board, more than half of all candidates in 2009 were seeking office for the first time. As candidates seek small donations, they encourage more New Yorkers to get involved in city elections. More than half of all contributors in the 2009 elections were donating for the first time. These first-time donors overwhelmingly made small contributions: More than 80 percent gave $175 or less.
For candidates who participated in the Campaign Finance Program during the citywide election in 2009, nearly half of their campaign funds came from contributions made by New York City residents, while only seven percent came from organizations, including political committees, business entities, or unions.
In addition to public financing of elections, New York City in 2007 passed a local law which limits the amount that individuals doing business with the city can contribute to political campaigns. Individuals who are doing business with the city are limited to contributing $400 to mayoral candidates and $250 for council candidates. Contributions from individuals who are doing business with the city do not receive public matching funds.
Others are doing it
About a dozen cities and counties around the nation have adopted public financing programs including Albuquerque, New Mexico; Portland, Oregon; Tucson, Arizona; Austin, Texas; Boulder, Colorado; Dade County, Florida; and Long Beach, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Francisco, California.
San Francisco, with three times the population of Buffalo, typically spends $2 million per year on public financing of elections. Albuquerque, with a population twice the size of Buffalo’s, spent $1 million in 2009. Based on those numbers, the cost to the City of Buffalo would be about $500,000 to $700,000 per year. As city elections are not held every year, the cost would probably be less per year.
The City of Buffalo and County of Erie need new ideas and new leaders willing to run for public office. One of the biggest hurdles all candidates face is raising the money necessary for a campaign. Implementing a system of public financing has been done in many other communities. Why can’t we do the same in Buffalo and Erie County?