Monday, November 30, 2009

Campaign Finance Farce

In today's NY Times, the paper, in discussing the need for new finance reforms in NY State, sets a new record for disingenuousness-even for those editorialists. Throughout the editorial, the paper makes jaw dropping statements and omissions, apparently seeking to raise hypocrisy to a new kind of art form: "Twenty years ago, the widely respected Feerick Commission on Government Integrity declared that “campaign finance laws in New York are a disgrace.” Politicians in New York City were embarrassed enough to create one of the best and fairest campaign financing systems in the country. Albany’s lawmakers, who know no shame, shrugged and did next to nothing. The system is just as disgraceful today as it was then."

Ok, let's begin there. That the Times can call the current campaign finance farce in NYC, "one of the best and fairest," right after their candidate Mike Bloomberg demonstrated what a joke it really was, underscores the paper's lack of seriousness. Perhaps they should have injected a bit of an aside-you know, a disclaimer-when they used this law to lead into their annual excoriation of the state legislature.

And, while we're at it, shouldn't the Times opine just a bit on the fact that the current city law exempts labor? Given the growing political clout of municipal unions, the exemption of labor from the current finance statute hardly makes it fair-or effective at controlling certain special interests.

But let's exam the paper's annual Albany sojourn. It makes an elaborate excursion through all of the ways in which special interests can participate in the election process and concludes: "As a result, big money rules in Albany. Big business, big unions, and any wealthy individual or interest group can buy access, block reforms, and sometimes even write their own laws. The state Board of Elections, which is supposed to enforce these flimsy rules, has almost no staff and no authority. The maximum fines are a joke: $500 for not filing a campaign disclosure report."

Yet, as per usual with the Times, it's unable to see the forest from the trees. With all of this special interest chicanery it fails to point out that NY State is just about at the bottom of the ladder for all states when it comes to its business climate-with tax payers taking it on the chin like the perennial punching bags that they have become.

If big business and "wealthy individuals" are so adept at gaining access, where are the results? They should-per the Times-be ruling the roost in a low tax low regulatory environment. So, with its penchant for non sequitor, what we get from the Times is an absorption with campaign finance minutia that loses any of the overall perspective that would be needed to suggest real changes that would benefit the average New Yorker.

And throughout this lengthy exegesis there isn't a single mention of the Working Families Party-a key electoral player that has been able to cleverly skirt the statutes-both in the city and at the state level-to elevate itself into one of New York's key political players. And in its list of remedies, it makes no reference to the WFP, or to its Data Field Services arm that has come under fire for its role in city elections.

It does single out Carl Kruger, though: "The current master at vacuuming in campaign contributions is State Senator Carl Kruger. Until recently, the Brooklyn Democrat was an Albany unknown. Early this year, he took the chair of the crucial Senate Finance Committee, where he can call any bill into his committee and, if he wants, bottle it up forever. Mr. Kruger’s “Friends of Carl” fund started January with $1.7 million; by July he had added over $560,000, giving him the largest campaign chest in the Senate. Senator Kruger, who says donors recognized he is “a rising star” in the part, is now a very special friend to Albany’s special interests."

Which interests are those? How has his influence been used? Is there any evidence of untoward behavior? No, none of the above. That would take a little subtlety, not to mention some actual reporting. The fact that Kruger-while in the minority-was able to generate as much money goes unremarked. Just the fact of the money is enough of an indictment for the Times.

But this gaping hole in the paper's analysis when it comes to Kruger, is symptomatic of the larger issue that it continually elides in its obsessive compulsive kneading of campaign dough. The State of New York is going to hell in a hand basket, yet the Times fails to start its analysis with the state's decline, so obsessed is its pursuit of campaign finance reform.

But without the meta analysis of decline and fiscal insolvency, the talk of campaign finance is totally inane. We need to know how and why the ship is sinking-not a rigorous accounting of the deck chairs. Which is why the Times' omission of the WFP and its role in the decline is so glaring.

Campaign finance may need to be reformed, but if it does, it should be done within the context of a larger reform movement that addresses the hijacking of the state's political culture by anti-tax payer and anti-business forces. But to do this, the Times would have to step out of its political comfort zone. By failing to do so, the paper's editorial rambles incoherently and becomes irrelevant to the political challenges ahead.