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Council Legislation Looks to Curb Outside Money in Local Races

By Colby Hamilton | August 26, 2013 10:38pm
 A mailing sent by Jobs for NY in support of reelecting Brooklyn Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez.
A mailing sent by Jobs for NY in support of reelecting Brooklyn Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez.
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Courtesy of the Campaign Finance Board

NEW YORK CITY — New legislation proposed by a Brooklyn City Councilman is looking to crack down on the virtually unrestricted corporate and union money that’s flooding local council races across the city this year.

“New York City has got a very strong camp finance system that has reduced pay-to-play and has protected our elections from the undo influence of money,” said Councilman Brad Lander, who represents the 39th district in Brooklyn which covers Park Slope, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, “The campaign finance system is under, I believe, very real threat from the flood of corporate cash.”

The proposed legislation — which Lander is set to unveil on Tuesday alongside other proponents — would require groups to list their top donors and include language in their advertisements clearly identifying who sponsored the ad, something supporters of the legislation say voters desperately need.

The legislative package also includes a proposal directed specifically at curbing the influence of Jobs for NY, a real estate-backed group that's spending millions in local council races.

Under current state law, individuals can give up to $150,000 annually to registered political committees. While corporations are restricted to a fraction of that, certain companies — limited liability corporations or LLCs — are able to give as much as individuals.

Since real estate companies often set up LLCs for each of their properties, they’re able to funnel huge sums of money into groups like Jobs for NY, according to Lander.

An analysis of spending done by the Campaign Finance Board underscores Lander’s point.

While council campaigns are limited to a $168,000 spending cap, groups like Jobs for NY and the NYC Central Labor Council PAC have no such restrictions. In some races, like the Democratic primary race in Brooklyn’s 38th council district between Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez and Carlos Menchaca, outside spending has already soared past the limit imposed on the campaigns.

For Gonzalez alone, more than $169,000 has been spent by outside organizations in support of her campaign, while the candidate herself spent less than half that amount. All told, nearly $300,000 has been spent by outside groups in that race.

Matt Sollars, a spokesman for the city’s Campaign Finance Board, said in a statement about the proposed legislation, “We are supportive of efforts like these to provide even more information to voters about the sources of the funds that pay for them.”

Brooklyn City Council candidate Laurie Cumbo has been an unwelcome recipient of Jobs for NY’s support, which she said is “undermining the democratic process.” The group has spent tens of thousands of dollars sending out mailers attacking her opponents, without her blessing, she said.

She supports Lander’s efforts to make outside spending more transparent.

“Our campaign was moving full-speed ahead,” Cumbo said. “Now I have to answer questions every time I walk out my house. 'Did I receive $80,000 from the Real Estate Board [of New York, one of Jobs for NY’s primary backers]?' And the answer is no. I have no control over what they do.”

A spokesman for Jobs for NY, Phil Singer, said in a statement that there were serious questions about whether Lander's legislation was legal based on the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United. Singer called it “a political document that has no chance of withstanding legal scrutiny.”

“Jobs for NY, one of numerous independent expenditure efforts currently spending money in city elections, is fully complying with city and state campaign finance rules,” Singer wrote.

Lander dismissed the concerns raised by Jobs for NY, saying that campaign finance law in the city already prohibits LLCs from directly donating to campaigns.

“We can, under the city's [campaign finance] law, regulate LLCs, even if the state fails to close the LLC loophole,” Lander said.