When New York City Councilmember Eva Moskowitz beat her Democratic primary opponent with 90 percent of the vote and her general election rival with just under 75 percent, nobody was too surprised. Like most of the city’s incumbents, Moskowitz was a shoo-in.
Why then, critics ask, did she need $120,000 in public funds in addition to the $160,000 she had raised privately?
In fact, the city Campaign Finance Board (CFB) paid just under $5 million in matching funds on a city council election where all incumbents won their races. “This is an issue that clearly needs to be addressed,” said Molly Watkins, spokesperson for the CFB.
Some suspect that candidates used public money to increase their political clout. Moskowitz ran pricey TV ads, for instance, a move some observers link to her likely bid for Manhattan Borough President.
But Moskowitz, who declined to comment, seems to have played by the rules. And she certainly wasn’t the only incumbent pulling in the dough. Other council members, like Alan Gerson and Larry Seabrook, also received over $100,000 in matching funds and won their elections by sizable margins.
The board already has checks in place to judge whether incumbents’ opponents pose a threat that is “nominal” or significant, based on how much challengers spend for primary or general elections. In each race, a candidate can claim up to $110,000 in matching funds. Many of this year’s incumbents faced opponents who had substantial war chests, enough to pose credible threats.
But that doesn’t take name recognition into account, political observers say. A high profile candidate can go farther with less money.
To remedy that problem, the City Council passed a new CFB rule that took effect earlier this year: Candidates can claim additional funds if they feel seriously challenged by their opponents, regardless of who has more money, as long as their rivals are not registered in the matching funds program.
Yet critics say this rule, designed to help the little guy, was co-opted by some big-name incumbents running this year.
Bronx Councilmember Larry Seabrook, for instance, used it to beef up his campaign in late October. “Experience shows one must never take anything for granted in elections,” he wrote in a letter to the CFB, which then gave him nearly $20,000 in extra funds. Come election day, less than 100 people voted for Seabrook’s opponent, Conservative candidate Curtis Brooks, while Seabrook brought in over 9,000 votes. Seabrook could not be reached for comment.
“This was designed to create a more competitive and open process, and unfortunately it’s not working,” says Councilmember Dennis Gallagher. He has a bill currently in the Council that would cut public matching funds for city council races in half.
Not everyone agrees. “I’m not going to say it’s a failed system,” said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at NYPIRG, a good government group. “For a lot of candidates, public funds make the difference between being able to run or not.”