[SCROLL DOWN FOR UPDATE]
They’re an obscure panel to everyone but gung-ho followers of New York politics. And on their last meeting today, they could potentially reinvent the electoral landscape for this state’s Democrats and Republicans alike.
When the nine members of the Public Financing Commission sit down in Valhalla, they’ll hold the fate of the Working Families Party and other small parties in their hands. The commission could vote to end “fusion voting,” which lets small third parties like the WFP and the Conservative Party stay politically relevant by running Democratic and Republican nominees on their ballot lines.
In addition to campaign finance, members are authorized to look at statewide election issues, a fact that irks many New York power brokers on both the left and right.
“The Public Financing Commission should focus on the worthy goal of reducing BIG money in politics, not ending fusion voting and the @NYWFP,” tweeted Charles Schumer (D-NY), the Senate Majority Leader.
“Personally I would prefer that it be a separate conversation, if there was going to be a conversation at all,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins told WXXI’s Karen DeWitt. “I’m not trying to destroy parties or make it impossible.”
Gerald Kassar, head of the Conservative Party of New York, a GOP ally, has called the commission’s preliminary maneuvers to eliminate fusion voting “a brazen and unlawful ploy to snuff out dissenting speech and political competition in New York elections is in motion right before our averted eyes.”
As its name suggests, the Commission was set up primarily to devise a statewide public campaign finance system, after Governor Andrew Cuomo, Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie failed to do so during budget negotiations. The overall idea is to use taxpayer money to match small donations and reduce the influence of large donors and special interest groups, similar to New York City’s campaign finance system.
The commission majority, led by Cuomo’s and Heastie’s appointees, is also considering increasing the number of votes from the previous election cycle necessary to guarantee a place on an upcoming ballot.
Cuomo appointee Jay Jacobs, head of the state Democratic Party, after initially indicating a desire to slay fusion voting and cross-endorsements, has focused more recently on changing the threshold for ballot entry.
“Right now, it’s 50,000 – a number that’s been there since the Great Depression,” Jacobs told WNYC last month. “That’s just absurd; at that level half of these parties are just total shams.”
At the time, he hinted 250,000 would be a more realistic number, but seems to have settled on 150,000 votes. Either would likely remove the WFP from the ballot. The WFP received 114,000 votes in November 2018.
The WFP also ran a candidate in the Democrat primary, Cynthia Nixon. She garnered around 500,000 votes to 1 million for Cuomo. That signals a certain amount of strength, but the WFP would get no credit for that in qualifying for its own line on a general election ballot.
Schumer said in another Tweet that the WFP "helps Democrats in tight seats win races, especially in the House.” He cited their influence in getting the state legislature to pass bills increasing the minimum wage, creating a family leave right and drafting a state level ‘Green New Deal.’
"I want people to focus on the Trumpian behavior that's happening right now by our governor," Public Advocate Jumaane Williams told NY1. "The governor laid out a plan of getting rid of the Working Families Party. He's executed it by putting some kind of fake public finance system in place."
The commission’s final vote is expected Monday, with formal language to be released by Wednesday, in time to meet their December 1st deadline. The recommendations approved would become law unless the legislature convened a special session within 20 days, right before the holidays.
UPDATE 4:25 p.m.: After a heated weekend of behind-the-scenes negotiations, the Commission settled on a threshold of 130,000, or 2 percent of votes cast, whichever is higher.
The crowd in the auditorium howled in protest when the decision was made -- one outraged protester could be heard shouting "Shame on you! this is what Trump does! -- and law enforcement officers asked many of them to go.
Jacobs insisted the level is fair.
“What people have to realize is we’re not looking to target any particular party,” he said. “We can all agree on which parties are the credible ones that are going to make these thresholds, and they’ve demonstrated that in the past and will demonstrate it in the future.”
The New York Working Families Party’s political director, Bill Lipton, blasted the vote as “a power grab by the governor and his allies to consolidate power and weaken independent progressive political organizing.”
Lipton vowed to challenge “those who block progressive change” in 2020, and to mobilize large numbers to vote against Donald Trump using the WFP line, not the Democratic one.