Hugh Reynolds: Any hope for term limits and campaign finance reform?

Campaign finance and term limits, two issues near and dear to elected officials in county government, are currently working their way through the Ulster County legislative sausage factory. As with most births, much labor and some pain can be expected. 

The Ulster County Legislature seemed poised last month to send term limits and term extensions to referendum in November. And then it wasn’t. The stated reason for postponing the vote until next year was “outside interference” (as some legislators saw it) from a right-wing lobbying entity called Reclaim New York. A Reclaim representative addressed legislators in regular session and denied the allegations. Legislators cited full-page ads in local papers sponsored by the group as evidence. 

Almost nobody believed the Reclaim guy.

The following apocryphal aside may or not be relevant: A busload of politicians was traveling to convention when the bus went off the road, breaking in half and spewing passengers around an empty field. A state trooper came upon the scene to find the bus driver burying people. “Are all these people dead?” he asked in amazement. “Well, some say they aren’t,” said the gravedigger. “But you know politicians. They’re all such liars.”

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No issue is quite as simple as it may seem. To Democrats, the name Mercer, linked to Reclaim New York, is a call to arms. The name Soros raises Republican hackles. (Soros refrained from this fray.)

My first thought after the fifth or sixth speaker took the podium during the public comment session to damn the Mercers was why would a billionaire-backed outfit committed to reforming New York in its own image have the slightest interest in something as parochial as term limits in Ulster County.

Where the votes are

On the agenda was a proposal to extend the two-year terms of county legislators to four years, with a maximum of 12 years in the office. The legislation would also limit the county executive and comptroller to 12 years. Current office-holders would be grandfathered, meaning senior member Rich Gerentine of Marlboro, now in his 23rd year, could serve three four-year terms if the referendum were to pass. Fans of Executive Mike Hein and Comptroller Elliott Auerbach need not despair. Hein and Auerbach could be at each other’s throats for another dozen years. 

Polishing my crystal ball a few months ago when a November referendum seemed likely, I predicted limits would pass but extensions would fail. Voters like to keep their representatives in easy reach, but generally look askance at lifetime professional pols.

One theory for the Mercers trolling the grassroots is to arouse their dwindling base. Turnout in off-year (non-presidential) elections is a national embarrassment, with federal officials reported something less than 30 percent of registered voters cast ballots in 2014. The heavy advertising attendant to gubernatorial elections in the Empire State usually bumps up turnout, which jumped to just past 30 percent four years ago, according to the state board of elections.  

The focus this year will be on the down-ballot races for Congress and for the state Senate, where Republicans are desperately clinging to a one-vote majority (provided by Democrat Simcha Felder, of Brooklyn, who caucuses with the Republicans.) Two open seats in the Hudson Valley could be key to which party controls the state Senate next year. For the Republicans to hold those seats, they may have to prowl a few cemeteries. All Republicans will have to come to the aid of their party. Enter the Mercers.

The race for Congress between incumbent Republican John Faso of Kinderhook and Democratic challenger Antonio Delgado of Rhinebeck is all about shaking the base. Democrats hold a 5,000-person edge in major-party district enrollment (almost 15,000 in Ulster) but haven’t shown up in the last three congressional elections. Republicans take care of business.

On that level, the Mercer incursion, to call it that, makes political sense. How the legislature handled this much-chewed-over controversy doesn’t.

In response to Mercer, the legislators should have stood on their hind legs, stuck fingers in the air (preferably thumbs) and placed their trust in their own electorate. Damn the torpedoes (and Mercer)! Full speed ahead! 

Instead, they went all weak in the knees. Why? I suspect that deep in the bowels of government where these strategies are hatched the feeling was the votes just weren’t there.

Postponing the vote to next year (if it happens next year) takes the legislature right into its own election cycle. Legislators run pretty much under the radar in their single-member districts. Placing a controversial issue like term limits on the ballot would only draw attention to the kinds of representatives the voters already have. And legislators are all too aware of voter unrest. A record eight seats turned over last year, more than a third of the legislature. The current 12-to-11 Democratic majority could go in any direction, even unto a majority of independent (non-major party) legislators.  

Does Mercer really want to stick its nose in this spicy stew? I think not, nor should they.  Leave the driving to us.

Campaign finance

Believe it or not, this one has been simmering since January 2014. That’s when Mike Hein’s state-of-the-county message called for campaign finance reform. “Money in politics is one of the biggest problems undermining public trust in government,” he declared. 

Before that and since, Hein raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, much of it, according to campaign reports on file with the state, from people or firms doing business with the county and from county employees. Hein’s coffers, counting his annual birthday fund-raiser last month, now stand at $150,168.68, according to the state board of elections. 

Hein was reelected to a third term in 2015 against weak opposition. He goes into Campaign 2019 with a huge financial advantage over any opponent, other than a very rich one.

The county legislature didn’t do much with campaign-finance reform. Hein didn’t push it until last winter, when some new faces decided to revisit the executive’s original proposals. 

Take away the whereases and therefores of 38 pages of legalese in the enabling legislation, and what’s proposed comes down to public financing of county-level elections, including those of county legislators. At the top of the food chain, the candidates for countywide offices would be limited to $23,000 in donations per election if they accept matching grants. Down the pipeline, legislators could draw as much as $2,300. Those individuals or firms doing business with the county would be limited to contributions of $4,500 for countywide offices, $500 for legislators. As with other such laws — this one is modeled after New York City’s — candidates who refuse matching funds can spend as much as they choose.  

The legislation proposes appropriating $200,000 for an Ulster County Campaign Finance Fund to dispense matching grants as of next Jan. 1. A five-member election commission appointed by county leaders would supervise. Violators of the rules of the commission could be subject to fines of up to $1,000 and/or a year in jail. In my long memory, no local politician has ever been fined, much less sent to jail, for a campaign spending violation. We are very honest folk.

Judging from the howling of his opponents — Kingston’s Dave Donaldson calls soliciting county employees for donations “a shakedown” — I’m assuming the executive has the votes to enact this long-delayed reform.

As for the pros and cons of public financing of elections, pick your poison. We can go with the current system of pay-to-play, staunchly denied by both sides of those transactions, or with a system that aims at strict control of campaign finance. Either way, the public pays.

There is this, however. Hein will be up for a fourth term next year. With perhaps $200,000 in the bank (after next July’s birthday fundraiser), the outcome is virtually inevitable against any opponent other than a wealthy one. Such a scenario could in fact induce Republicans to once again abandon the field. 

The irony is that Hein, who originated this legislation, pushed for it, and will sign it into law if approved, may never take a dime in matching funds. What a guy.

The public hearing on the latest version of this proposal will take place at 6 p.m. Tuesday Aug. 7 at the county office building in Kingston.

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Campaign trails

With a name like Nixon, you gotta be good, to mangle the old Smucker’s slogan. Cynthia Nixon was a pretty good TV actor back in the day, but she isn’t getting traction in her primary race against incumbent Andrew Cuomo. The latest Siena College poll shows Nixon almost dead in the water with 29 percent of the vote against 60 for Cuomo. Despite crisscrossing the state and getting tremendous media coverage, Nixon’s needle hasn’t moved much since the last Siena poll in June. And Cuomo has barely begun his “leadership” TV blitz. 

Elsewhere, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul leads challenger New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams by only nine points, with most respondents having no idea who either one is. 

Orange County Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, running both for re-election and for attorney general, trails New York City Public Advocate Letitia James (and convention nominee) by 11 points. A third competitor, our Dutchess County neighbor Zephyr Teachout, is within “shouting distance,” according to pollsters, five points behind Maloney.

Meanwhile, Abe Uchitelle has not filed nominating petitions to contest Assemblymna Kevin Cahill in the Sept. 13 primary. Recall that the Uptown businessman, running on an anti-corruption platform, “suspended” his campaign the day after being crushed by Cahill at the Democratic convention in June.

Refreshingly candid, Uchitelle advised that, as it does these days, “suspended” really meant “quit.” “It was a nuance, I suppose,” he said. The marketing maven will devote his energies to electing Democrats in November, as will Cahill.

It will take a few days for the state Board of Elections to count signatures on nominating petitions for independent congressional candidates Diane Neal of Hurley, Luisa Parker of Callicoon and Dal LaMagna of Rhinebeck. Amid slim pickings — the seven Democratic candidates for Congress left little meat on that bone — getting 3,500 valid signatures will be a challenge for them.

There is one comment

  1. Bruce E. Woych

    “Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.” An Otto von Bismarck quote cited in the
    preface to a book (2010) largely a product of Daniel L. Feldman’s experiences as a New York politician. The Preface also admits that the “…manipulation of perceptions is at the core of politics, intentionally causing outsiders to see the legislative world through fog and mist.” Having worked in professional kitchens myself, I can tell you that you really DO want to see what is going into your sausages, and only a dishonest cook would tell you different.

    Feldman himself did not believe that quote was a valid rule when it comes to the people who rule us in government. In a later expose Daniel L. Feldman (2013) concludes his work quoting another source concisely stating that “greater public access to financial disclosure correlated to lower levels of corruption (p. 227).” Adding that; “Historically, Americans have owed a great debt to investigative journalism (Ibid).”

    Since History is supposed to be prologue, we might consider that both deception and investigative reporting are the components to current events, and the question and quest is as to which one is in the lead.
    According to The Observer; “Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media.”
    (By Carole Cadwalladr 02/26/2017 https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/26/robert-mercer-breibart-war-on-media-steve-bannon-donald-trump-nigel-faragepolitics). Public Interest group Indivisible, meanwhile, has called out “Reclaim” as a false front “… for an ultra-right wing political agenda.” www.indivisibleny19.com/2018/call-ulster-county-legislator-maloney.. Meanwhile at the Federal level, the “Congressional Leadership Fund”, specifically uses the phrase “return on investment” http://congressionalleadershipfund.org/about/” on their home page when referring to their $60 Million dollar Super Pac super PAC “…exclusively dedicated to protecting and strengthening the Republican Majority in the House of Representatives.”

    $60 Million Dollars “investment” money for capturing Congress is capitalizing government and politics
    clearly sounds substantial. But Robert Mercer has spent more than $49 Million Dollars personally since 2015,
    and according to the Washington Post (04/05/2018; by Philip Bump April 5 ) “The amount Robert Mercer spent on politics in 2016 probably topped $30 million.” Part of these contributions are for Reclaim and some of it has gone locally to re-elect John Faso.

    The major point is that Campaign Finance is out of control and largely behind the curtains of manipulation and stage production; out of sight from the citizen audience. Democrats do not seek reduction here, it should be pointed out that they seek parity. The magnitude of how far this is from citizen oversight is matched only by the audacity and arrogance of Reclaim stating that they represent government ” …run by citizen-legislators, not career politicians.”

    If we think of managerial government as attempting to establish efficient and effective rules of governing we are caught in the blind side of trusting the professional judgement of public officials. the Sausage Factory says different ly since it is now part of the open “free” market and all its manipulations. If you spent $49 million dollars to put your guy or gal into positions of power (capture = control fraud), would you want to do it all over again in 2 years? On the other hand, if a great politician like longtime state Sen. William Larkin (40 years of Government Service with 28 years in the NY Senate: loved and respected by Republicans and Democrats alike); would you stand a chance with all the money in the world to capture his seat when his service and popularity kept him in office election year after election year without serious challenges? I think that speaks wisely to 12 year limits as well as the cost of doing business buying positions of power instead of earning them year after year and being reaffirmed at every turn and every term by the people, and for the people under a purely
    democratic rule.

    Text cited:
    Daniel L. Feldman & G. Benjamin. (2010) Tales from the Sausage Factory: making Laws in New York State.
    Daniel L. Feldman and David R. Eichenthal (2013) The Art of the Watchdog: Fighting Fraud, Waste, Abuse, and Corruption in Government

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