The amount of money spent on political campaigns in New York is obscene.
This election saw cosmetics heir Ronald S. Lauder spend more than $11 million to help Lee Zeldin’s gubernatorial bid. That’s the equivalent of someone working at minimum wage for over 350 years.
Governor Kathy Hochul has fought her way to a campaign war chest of more than $50 million, helped by dozens of donors writing high profile checks. Recently, conservationists on Long Island applauded the arrival of a similar amount to help nine local water providers fight “emerging contaminants” in drinking water that can cause cancer.
Long Island congressional candidates alone have raised and spent millions of dollars, supported by millions more from often obscure outside groups. This includes two affiliates of a cryptocurrency company who together tried to influence races on both sides of the aisle. OpenSecrets estimates that at least $17 billion has been spent nationally on state and federal campaigns.
Was it worth it? Think of the miles of the Southern State Parkway that could be improved with some of that money, or the families in need fed.
The system is not working. It doesn’t work for candidates, stuck dialing for dollars instead of talking to everyday voters. It doesn’t work for the public, who are inundated with dark, dodgy direct mail and ads that sully our discourse, deflate serious political debate, and turn candidates into caricatures.
The system can hardly be called a system, so full of loopholes has it become. Super PACs, designed to spend money without the limits imposed on individual donors, are not meant to coordinate with candidates. Yet forms of coordination occur all the time. That includes semi-secret parts of candidate websites — including those of the Long Island Democrats and Republicans — that contain video footage or script ideas for outside advertisers. This year, the state Board of Elections is also belatedly investigating links between Zeldin’s campaign and two of Lauder’s funded groups.
The money needed to win in New York can spell trouble for candidates, like Hochul, who has come under fire for state affairs given to big donors — a centuries-old tradition in New York.
Attempts to reform this system are difficult and too often stalled: Republicans in the Suffolk County Legislature recently killed off an inexpensive public campaign finance program. At the state level, however, we are on the cusp of such a matching fund program to incentivize contributions between $5 and $250. It will be active for the 2024 and 2026 statewide and statewide legislative races and includes much tighter limits on contributions overall.
It’s a tool. Another could be demands for much more clarity, in big letters, on exactly who is paying for these appalling ads. Campaign reporting sites should require a readable archive that keeps those ads attached to the people who paid for them. Stand behind your money.
We cannot afford to continue down this path.
EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBERS are experienced journalists who offer reasoned, fact-based opinions to encourage informed debate on the issues facing our community.