Pulse of the Peninsula: Martins holds key for election reform

Pulse of the Peninsula: Martins holds key for election reform
Photos Provided by Rivkin Radler

Long Island – and specifically, our own state Sen. Jack M. Martins – holds the key to whether New York State gets Fair Election reform, including a public-finance mechanism, stricter disclosure, tighter funding limits and greater enforcement, after  a decade of failed attempts.

With less than three weeks until the end of the state Legislature’s session on June 20, the Long Island Progressive Coalition is making an all-out, do-or-die effort to rally pressure on two key Long Island Republican state senators – Martins (7th District) and Phil Boyle in the 4th (Suffolk/Nassau) – to pressure their leader, Dean Skelos, also of Long Island, to allow a vote on the Fair Elections bill that already passed the state Assembly, May 7.

“Don’t Come Home Without It,” was the rallying cry at the May 29 Fair Elections New York Lobby Day, when 500 activists from throughout the state, including 35 from Long Island, flooded the Capitol and Legislative buildings. Now the Fair Elections activists are planning events to “bird-dog” the senators in their home districts at their offices and Long Island railroad stations.

To be clear, the activists are only asking that state Sen. Dean Skelos – who is no longer the sole majority leader but has to share the role with Jeff Klein of the Independent Democrats Caucus – allow an up-or-down vote in the Senate, rather than let the bill languish. 

This is much like President Obama asking for Congress to merely allow a vote on gun safety legislation, but the Senate’s filibuster rules being abused to prevent any vote at all, where senators would actually have to stand up and show who they are.

And like gun safety legislation, which is supported by 90 percent of the American people, the vast majority of New Yorkers – 72 percent – favor fair elections reform.

The fact that legislators don’t act in face of such support is why the electorate are so fed up with their legislators and question who they really represent. Fair Elections Reform aims at making the state legislators, at least, more responsive to their constituents.

Martins and Boyle are singled out because they are both in moderate-leaning districts that could swing the other way in 2014.

Indeed, Martins, whose district includes progressive-leaning Great Neck known for political activism and strong turnout, beat out the first Democrat to hold the Senate seat in nearly 100 years, Craig Johnson, but running as an incumbent, had a surprising challenge from an unknown progressive Democrat, Daniel S. Ross, in the 2012 election, winning after a recount, 51.8 percent to 48.2 percent.

The good-government groups regard this as the best time in generations to finally enact election reform – something that incumbents notoriously block (looking for politically correct language to justify their desire to protect their own perpetuation in office) because they are, well, incumbents and election reform is intended to level the playing field for a challenger.

But, now there has been widespread disgust over a spate of unusually tawdry and problematic corruption scandals – state legislators wearing wires, making cash payments, sexual harassment; the public is more mindful of the flood of Big Money into campaigns as a result of the disastrous Supreme Court Citizens United decision, which established that corporations have the rights of personhood (an irony that is pointed out when during slavery, people were regarded as property, now property is regarded as people). People are more cynical and distrustful than ever that their elected representatives do not serve their interests.

As Moveon.org, one of several groups joining Citizens Action NY, put it, “New York is in the grip of a political crime wave. In the last seven years, 32 New York State elected officials have been arrested, indicted, convicted, jailed, censured or resigned in disgrace. New York’s legislators are more likely to lose their seat through arrest than at the polls. Regardless of party or ideology, these wrongdoers share one thing: they abused their positions of public trust and perverted our democracy to pursue personal gain. We must change this culture of corruption by changing the system. This requires public financed Fair Elections to attract candidates who will not be beholden to special interests, but will work for the public good.”

Finally, conditions are ripe for fair elections reform to finally succeed because just about all the key power figures are in sync, notably Gov. Andrew Cuomo who has spoken out in favor, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and one of the two co-leaders of the state Senate. 

But therein lies the rub: the Democrats actually have a majority in the state Senate but because of the revolt by an Independent Democratic Caucus, the Democrats share the majority leader role with Republican Dean Skelos, and while the IDC leader Jeff Klein favors holding a vote, Skelos has so far refused.

And if Skelos wins using this political maneuver and fair elections reform fails in this session, it will be generations more before such favorable conditions are aligned for reform to succeed.

There are many benefits to fair elections reform: It would create a public financing mechanism (which a candidate can opt into or not), much as New York City already has, where small-donor contributions are matched six to one. This gives the candidate more incentive to be out among constituents raising money rather than dialing for dollars among millionaires who likely made their money because of favorable legislation and contracts. And when people donate even a few dollars to a candidate, they are more engaged in the political process and more likely to participate in the election. 

Public financing helps diversify the pool of candidates, who can come forward because of their talent, their ideas, their interest in public service, rather than being chosen by their party based on how much money they can raise.

Those who talk up “democracy” should want to engender more participation – but as we know from the battles with voter suppression in states and localities throughout the nation, there are those who talk the talk about “democracy” but really want to pick and choose who gets to vote. And there are those who claim they want “cleaner” elections, but really want to preserve the status quo, because it favors incumbents.

Which is where Sen. Martins comes in.

I traveled with 35 others on the Long Island Progressive Coalition bus to Albany on Lobby Day, and joined the “team” of eight Long Islanders who visited Sen. Jack Martins.

Martins, ever polite and gracious, let his displeasure at the bill be known: it is not “holistic” enough, he claimed.

“There is more influence in elections than money  – any cause or special interest to move people, motivate people to volunteer and promote a candidate,” he said.

Like Sierra Club?

No. Unions is what he meant.

“We need to address the impact of special-interest influence,” he said. “Labor unions mobilize.”

Martins equates a union which asks its members to support a certain candidate and pound the pavement, knock on doors and distribute flyers with a multi-millionaire’s ability to  shower a single state candidate with more campaign cash than a union worker earns in a year.

And somehow, a union’s spending on a leaflet is foul compared to an industry association’s contribution to a campaign.

He made it clear he wasn’t too happy with leaflets being circulated by Long Island Progressive Coalition, paid for with money collected from foundations and individuals like Jonathan Soros, and unions, attacking him for sponsoring legislation to grant immunity to caterers being sued by restaurant workers who claim they were cheated out of millions in tips. 

The New York Daily News cited campaign records that showed Martins received nearly $38,000 in contributions from catering companies, their owners and a restaurant association in 2011 and 2012; the same groups didn’t donate any money when he first ran in 2010.

But holding to the idea that the bill being considered isn’t “holistic” enough, Martins insisted, “I am loathe to taking half steps in face of changing for sake of changing, then changing again. This bill is not going to completely address the issue.”

And then he offered the classic dodge Republicans use: Let’s study it more. Let’s discuss.

“If I truly believed this bill addressed all the issues, I would be for it,” he said. “I wish I had the answer as to how to legislatively address.

“I don’t believe this bill will pass. I believe it was put out to spur discussion.”

Here’s how he put it, like a pat on the head to an eager child: “I’ve got a request. Take it as good faith. Strive for fair elections, taking out undue influence, more holistic – greater transparency, lower contributions, more reporting, remove corporate donations altogether as with federal elections.”

Martins claimed to be generally favorable to other provisions in the law that would increase accountability, require disclosure and greater transparency.

But until a bill addresses the problem of undue influence “holistically” he would not support it.

One of the group pleaded with Martins that in a democracy, hardly any law is perfect; if that were the criteria, nothing would get done.

So Martins brought up the other classic dodge: the public financing option is too expensive for a state budget that had to cut $90 million in funding for disabilities, which he said was “obscene” as if that money would somehow be restored if the Legislature does not pass a public-finance option.

The proponents of public finance estimate the state’s share would amount to $40 million – or $2 per New Yorker per year; even if the amount doubled, that would still be less than $5 per person.

Skelos has claimed that public financing would cost $250 million – a figure that is taken out of the air, without any substance.

But proponents of public finance mechanism believe that the reason that the Legislators choose to make “obscene” cuts that go against the most vulnerable among us is because they divert so much of the state’s overly taxed resources to those interests and causes who have the most money to spend on campaigns and professional lobbyists; they say that the $40 million would pay dividends in less waste, fraud and abuse. 

They will cite the sweetheart deals of Nassau County contractors who received lucrative Sandy restoration deals who also donated to the Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano’s campaign. They may also look to the private education contractors who manage charter schools, online programs and tutoring firms using public money who are pushing for more public resources to be channeled away from public schools, or the casino operators who are chomping at the bit to have the state adopt legislation allowing the development of new gambling destinations, and gas companies chomping at the chance to frack.

What is more, the public financing option would be simply that: an option. A politician who wants to self-finance or raise money from big donors could still opt to finance campaigns that way, though Martins said “the public optics” would be damaging. And he suggested that limiting spending on campaigns would actually hurt the challenger against the incumbent because the incumbent is already better known to voters.

I equate public financing to the “Bike Share” of campaign finance – an alternative method that doesn’t take away a politician’s ability to choose to travel by private jet, limousine, private car, taxi or rail or bus. It levels the playing field by giving an alternative way to finance a campaign without having to amass big donors.

The proponents also insist that fair elections reform increases participation – that by encouraging people to give even a few dollars engages them in the process and increases the likelihood they will come out and vote. (Martins politely said he would like to see the data on that, when he actually attended the same presentation I did by the Citizens Action NY group in Manhasset, which presented the findings of New York City’s public-financing mechanism, since he was on the panel with state Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel.)

By providing a public financing mechanism, more candidates might come forward – increasing the diversity and expanding the talent pool – for the right reasons, like their talent, ideas, and desire for public service, rather than being selected by the party because of their ability to raise campaign cash, and then sailing through reelections because of the ability to raise campaign cash.

They insist that the “pay-to-play” process now is why legislators are not taking up popular issues, like environment, renewable energy, jobs, education, housing. “It puts the people’s agenda first,” they claim.

On any day, you will see lobbyists in their $1000 suits and $500 shoes, literally waiting in the lobby of the Legislative chamber in order to pigeonhole a legislator. On this day, the “lobbyists” wore jeans and T-shirts.

They first rallied in the “well”, hearing from legislators who told of their own efforts to rally grassroots support to defeat better financed opponents.

“I’ve had many bills pass the Assembly – ban fracking (applause), radon monitoring, requiring labeling genetically modified food, abolishing vacancy decontrol – many bills. They don’t pass the Senate because of giants – Monsanto, landlords, oil and gas – give unlimited funds to the Senate to block good, commonsense legislation,” said Linda Rosenthal (NY 67)

Then, they marched through the corridors of the Capitol building. Tor a brief time, they occupied the “Million Dollar Staircase” (a magnificent structure which took 14 years to construct, from 1883-1897 at a cost of the astronomical sum then of $1 million), loudly shouting slogans and the theme for the day, “Don’t Come Home Without It.”

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, who spent decades as a state Assemblyman and is a leader for the reform, told them, “We went from the well to the Million Dollar Staircase. We shouldn’t have to go to the well for millions of dollars, but that’s what happens too often in New York. Everybody agrees that has to change.

“We want stronger sanctions; to recognize the influence of money and take that influence away, whether wealthy or a corporation, to return government to the hands of everyday people, and change the  emphasis to small donations.

“We need good, talented people to run, not because of the money they can raise,” DiNapoli said, standing in on the staircase as the demonstrators lined the steps and the many tiers. “For comptroller, a single individual can donate $19,000 for the primary and another $41,000 for the general election – the median family income in New York State is $55,000 – so that’s more than a typical family earns.”

With the fair elections reform, DiNapoli said, “Candidates won’t be closed out because they are not wealthy or well connected. New York City and other states already have public finance.”

As for the cost, DiNapoli, who ascComptroller knows a thing or two about the state’s budget and what it can afford, said “in a state with a budget of $135 billion, $40 million is a [cost] it can easily defray, but a government system that’s clean in a way it hasn’t been, where candidates spend time with constituents instead of donors– is a great return on investment.”

New York State has the chance to be historic, to be the progressive leader in the nation it once was. All across the country, other states and localities are looking to do the same – that’s why the progressive coalition has national partners in this effort.

And once the state enacts campaign reform, that opens the way for towns, cities and localities to follow the model to create their own public financing option, increase disclosure and accountability.

Gov. Cuomo needs to play a greater role in these final days. He initially came out in support of fair elections, but now, at this critical juncture, should be speaking out more forcefully. As one of the Long islanders pointed out on the bus ride back from Albany, Cuomo has achieved two major “never-thought possible” achievements – gun control and marriage equality. If he gets a third, election reform, he puts himself in the category of another famous New York State governor, Franklin Roosevelt, which propelled FDR to the presidency. Cuomo wants to be president, too.

Besides talking out, and possibly doing some behind-the-scenes, old-fashioned arm-twisting, as a last-ditch effort Cuomo could threaten to call a special session and force the Legislature back. He can’t force a vote, but he can make it uncomfortable for the legislators to stick around in summer.

 In any case, Cuomo should embarrass the Republicans for using a tactic of denying a vote, when 72 percent of New Yorkers favor the bill and it has passed the Assembly. He should remind the Republicans that failing to allow vote will only add to the cynicism and should produce a backlash in the 2014 elections.

So, this is a do-or-die, last-ditch effort in the next couple of weeks remaining.

Long Island Progressive Coalition will be outside Martins offices at 151 Herricks Road in Garden City Park, waving posters, handing out literature.

They will be “bird-dogging” Sen. Phil Boyle office at 23 Argyle Square in Babylon. 

Some mornings, the group also intends to leaflet at the Long Island railroad stations at Babylon and Great Neck.

In a case that highlights the “pay-to-play” politics and the need for better enforcement they are seeking to address in fair elections reform, the group planned to rally on Tuesday, June 4, at Nassau County Legislature building, to protest big campaign contributions from contractors awarded Sandy clean-up contracts to Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano. 

For example, they cite Looks Great Services which received up to $70 million from the county for clean-up in the months after the storm, a company which gave $27,000 to Mangano in 2012-13.

“These ‘campaign cash for contracts’ quid pro quos shows that Long Island and New York State politics are dominated by big money interests seeking private gain at the public’s expense,” Lisa Tyson of Long Island Progressive Coalition said. “That’s why the protesters will call on Long Island state senators to pass fair elections reforms in Albany to fix New York’s broken campaign finance system and transform our state’s culture of legal bribery.”

For information: Long Island Progressive Coalition, 516-541-1006, ext10, www.LIPC.org.

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