Cityview: Race Against Money

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I got involved in politics to stand up for regular New Yorkers. To pass living-wage legislation so they can make enough to get by. To make sure we have housing that working people can actually afford, and police walking neighborhood beats again. Last year, I launched my second campaign to run for mayor of New York City, to be a leader for hard-working New Yorkers whom city government has mostly forgotten.

In November, however, I had to put those plans on hold. Though I had held countless fundraising events and collected close to $300,000 in contributions from more than 2,000 city residents, it became impossible to keep the campaign going. I dropped out of the race.

The reason I’m not running for mayor comes down to one detail–money. In New York City, it takes at least a million dollars to compete in a mayoral race. Without raising that much, you can’t hire staff: a press secretary, a campaign manager, political consultants, people you need to get your message out and let voters know who you are. And forget about buying ads on TV.

It’s not at all impossible to get that kind of money; there’s plenty of it out there. In New York, a group of insiders funds campaigns. These are people who want something from the city: real-estate developers, big contractors, industry groups. They have a cadre of lobbyists and p.r. people that they hire, and they set the parameters for whom they consider acceptable as a mayor. And when they give you campaign contributions–large ones–they expect something in return.

I’m not anti-business. But I do have a record of 15 years in the City Council, advocating for the interests of city residents–and to do that, I’ve had to stay independent. One lobbyist described me as “unreliable.” What does that mean? It means that the big contributors know that their money won’t affect my decisions in public office–and that there’s no reason for them to back my campaign. If your base is rank-and-file New Yorkers–contributions to my campaign averaged $60 to $70 each–it’s simply impossible to raise the millions you need. The other four candidates have already raised between $2.5 and $4.8 million.

Two years ago, I helped pass a law that was supposed to level the playing field. New York City’s new campaign finance program provides candidates with $4 in matching funds for every dollar they raise. The only conditions are that only $250 of any contribution is matchable, and that a campaign must raise enough money to qualify. Though it’s never been put to the test before, I believe the law will allow candidates for City Council to amass enough money to get their message out. But my experience shows that the law just doesn’t work in a mayoral race.

For one thing, the eligibility threshold is too high: Before they can get matching money, mayoral candidates have to raise at least $250,000 in qualified funds. (The maximum individual contribution–$4,500–is also too high.) And those matching dollars don’t arrive until a candidate is officially on the ballot–that’s not until August, a month before the primary. Waiting for that money wastes precious time, while opponents are able to air TV ads, buy computers and hire staff. And waiting also makes it difficult for a campaign to do its own fundraising, because until you have a significant amount of money, contributors are cautious.

It doesn’t help that the media also judge candidates by their coffers. It’s a vicious circle: If you can’t raise enough money, reporters will not write about you, and you don’t get invited to events; if you’re not in the articles or on TV talk shows, contributors aren’t going to take you seriously. I have actually called reporters to ask why they left me out of stories about the mayoral race, and they’ll tell me, sympathetically, “Sal, you just don’t have enough to win.”

The whole experience is a debilitating process. Instead of thinking about improving schools, or creating living-wage jobs, you’re spending all your energy raising money. Thinking about how to raise more. Asking your friends for money. And finally, asking yourself: Why am I doing this?

The campaign finance reform law I originally proposed in the City Council would have allowed candidates with strong public support to be viable contenders, by lowering the amount of money they would need to raise to be eligible for public funding. Based on “clean elections” laws already in effect in Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont, it would have provided grants to candidates who collected a small sum of money from a large number of contributors. In Vermont, for example, candidates for governor get a clean-elections grant if they raise $10 from each of 5,000 residents.

I wanted to come into City Hall the way I came into the City Council in 1982: with a mandate to make government work for the people of the city. Instead, I’ve left the race because we are so caught up in the mindset that money equals political power that we can’t see our way outside of it.

I come from a working-class background. I have friends who are doing very well now, but they can’t bundle $50,000 contributions for me. My constituents don’t have those resources. It would be great if they did.

A 15-year member of the New York City Council representing Bay Ridge, Sal Abanese is now in private law practice.