Now May Be the Time for Campaign Finance Reform

“The Caravan of Corruption,” a traveling sideshow of corrupt officials depicted in cardboard cutouts, came to Long Island this week.

Among the cartoon characters making appearances are major figures who rose and fell in the state Legislature, including Pedro Espada, Joe Bruno and Hiram Monserrate.

The caravan is an effort by reform groups to arouse citizens to prevail upon Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature to enact new laws against corruption.

The reformers believe that corruption grows from a dysfunctional legislature, and is a direct result of the lack of restrictions on campaign financing. They see a connection between dishonest campaign contributors and lawmakers they influence to commit corrupt acts.

Now may be their time.

Dick Dadey, of Citizens Union, told me the end of the presidential campaign should spur efforts to reform the campaign finance system. The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that spending on the 2012 presidential and congressional campaigns could reach $5.8 billion, up 7 percent from the $5.4 billion spent in 2008.

“The stars are beginning to align for us to accomplish major reforms here in New York state,” Dadey said. “It’s a unique moment because voters throughout America have become aware of the power of money in politics. The triumph of the super-PACs has been disturbing to many people who feel that those with immense sources of money are buying elections.”

Among other things, reformers want stricter limits on contributions and better enforcements on those restrictions, with severe penalties for violations.

A basic question seems to be: will accomplishing electoral reform require a special session of the Legislature or can we do it in the upcoming 2013 legislative session?

Susan Lerner of Common Cause, a ceaseless advocate for campaign finance reform, is extremely hopeful.

She told me: “We’re at the tipping point. New York is one of the places where reform is possible. I firmly believe we’re going to get it within the next two or three or nine months. The voters are tired of dysfunctional government. When the people who are most successful in business and politics realize that reform will benefit us all, when that happens, change will finally come.”

Adam Skaggs of the Brennan Center for Justice is equally optimistic.

“We’re hopeful,” he told me, “that journalists and the public will be asking candidates for all offices to speak out on the reform issue. We need a push from the governor and the legislature to change the rules of the game.”

Can Cuomo, who has a fat campaign war chest, be expected to work to limit his own fundraising?

Dadey thinks so.

“He’s raised a lot of money. It would not hurt his re-election campaign at all and it would be a signal to the country that Cuomo is genuinely interested in changing the system. It could help him in a future campaign for national office.”

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