The 2022 midterm election is poised to set a record — even for those with deep pockets.

Candidates and independent expenditure groups are expected to spend more than $9.3 billion on the 2022 election, according to an analysis by OpenSecrets, a website from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Government. If they reach that figure, it will make it the costliest midterm election ever.

All that money gives a strong boost to people with more to give — and more to spend. That was part of the story in the primary for New York’s 10th Congressional District, where Dan Goldman, heir to the Levi Strauss fortune, narrowly bested a crowded field of competitors. Goldman sunk millions of his own dollars to produce a win.

When Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, the next runner-up, conceded and announced she would not challenge Goldman on the Working Families Party line, she criticized the way wealth separates so many congressional representatives from communities they represent. Niou had raised just over $400,000, while Goldman amassed more than $5 million, according to campaign filings.

“We have a Congress that has more millionaires than there are people of color or working-class people,” Niou said in a video she posted on Twitter. “Oligarchy is a system where people with economic power use that power to grab political power which they in turn use to consolidate more political power.”

Despite the outsized influence of big money, last Sunday’s episode of “The People’s Guide to Power” on WNYC focused on how to empower voters to make their dollars go farther through small-dollar public campaign finance systems.

New York City’s three-decade-old public campaign finance system matches small contributions for candidates running for local offices at a ratio of $8-to-$1. There are specific rules for how much a candidate must raise to qualify for matching funds, and limits on how much can be spent.

But the program is intended to help open up the campaign system to more candidates and their supporters. For the first time this year, the New York City Council is made up of more women and people of color than ever before.

Tiffany Cabán, who ran unsuccessfully to be the Democratic nominee for Queens district attorney in 2019 and then won a seat in the City Council in 2021, joined “The People’s Guide to Power” to explain the challenges of fundraising -- with and without a public campaign finance program.

Then Chisun Lee from nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice, a law and public policy organization, gave a preview of a new state public campaign finance program that is launching later this year for candidates seeking office in 2023.

Excerpts of those conversations are below. They have been edited for clarity.

Brigid Bergin: You were a public defender making a go as a first-time candidate, did you have any idea what it would take to fundraise?

Councilmember Tiffany Cabán: None. None at all. I didn't know what it entailed. Certainly, I do now after my DA run. I worked for a couple of years as a campaign operative and know the ins and outs, and then obviously ran again to get to where I am now. But I had no clue what it would take.

It is a beast of an endeavor, especially when you are up against an establishment candidate that comes in with a million dollars in their campaign coffers and you don't have those relationships. You don't have what we call the “rolodexes” to quickly raise big dollars fast.

You mentioned the word “Rolodex.” We talked a little bit before this show, and you were telling me about the vernacular of fundraising: “Rolodexing” and “call time.” Could you pull the curtain for us a little bit and tell us what some of this fundraising language is all about?

Absolutely. I think what you want to feel when you are running a campaign is just this organic nature of it. Like, there's a candidate, they give you a vision, and if that vision is good enough, they win.

But there's actually a lot of science and math to how you get to hit what we call a “win number.” That’s how you calculate how many votes you need to be able to win an election. To calculate that, you have to calculate how many people you have to talk to, and how many times you have to touch them.

It all costs money, whether you are touching them via a social media ad, via piece of mail, via a phone call, or a text message, or knock at the door, right? When you're knocking at the door, you have a piece of literature. All those things cost money. So you have to raise money to do it. There's a science to that, too, I learned very early on.

Asking for money is incredibly awkward. It's hard. I think also when you're a working-class candidate, it's even harder because you might have complicated relationships to money. Whereas when you have these well-funded wealthy candidates, money is easy come, easy go.

You don't feel anything internally when you're asking somebody for those big-dollar donations.

Whereas somebody like me, or another working-class candidate might have a really hard time saying, “I'm gonna ask somebody to let go of their hard-earned dollars for this.” It's difficult and again, you start with where you know, and so you Rolodex first.

State Sen. Gustavo Rivera was on the show last week and I understand he was sort of a fundraising mentor for you, right?

Yes.

It all costs money, whether you are touching them via a social media ad, via piece of mail, via a phone call, or a text message, or knock at the door, right? When you're knocking at the door, you have a piece of literature.
Councilmember Tiffany Cabán

What did he teach you?

First of all, I just want to say that that is my guy. He was one of the first folks that really gave me some material support very early on in the district attorney's race. He was like: “Tiffany, call time — you gotta do it. You gotta do it. It sucks, it doesn't feel good. But this is how you win races. You're not raising money for you. You're raising money for your vision, you're raising money for your people. This is not going into your pocket. So you gotta put that aside and you got to make the hard ask,” because again, there's a formula to call time.

When you call, you have to make a quick elevator pitch. It's really fast. And then the harder part is making the hard ask. It's not just, “will you donate to my campaign?’” It's “will you donate X dollars to my campaign?”

If you have the support, you do a little bit of research on the person and say, “Well, they've donated this much in the past to other candidates, so I should ask them for at least that much.”

What Sen. Gustavo Rivera told me was, “Tiffany, you make the ask. And then you shut up. You be quiet and you wait. You put a glass of water in front of you, and you drink — you're not gonna be the first one to speak. You let them talk first. It might seem like an eternity, but they're either going to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”

If they say no, you do what's called the “waterfall ask.” You have to have three asks, right? And so you say, “OK, can't donate that amount, can you donate half of that amount,” whatever that number is, right? And then be prepared to make a third ask.

How different was it to fundraise and campaign in the Council race compared to your district attorney race?

Wildly, wildly different. I can tell you that during the district attorney's race, I probably spent 30-40, sometimes more, hours a week doing call time, trying to raise money. Those were hours that I then couldn't spend knocking doors, or doing other things. It was totally inverted in my Council race.

The DA race is also different, because the contribution cap in that race was something like $24,000. An individual could just write a check for that amount in that race.

In the Council race, it was just such a beautiful thing. First of all, you know how much to raise because there are spending caps. You know how many raw dollars you need that will then get matched and then you're done. I raised my money in two months and then I was done. I didn't have to pick up a phone again to ask for a single additional penny.

What that allowed me to do instead is, during that election, I averaged knocking on between 800 and 1,000 doors a week by myself. Our volunteers were also out there knocking on doors.

That's a really powerful touch. Then you have these really, really good conversations.

All councilmembers are up for re-election next year because of redistricting. Are you running for re-election?

Absolutely.

So why should supporters invest in your campaign?

First of all, we are proud of the work that we have done in office thus far. I feel like we very much have been living our values and fighting for the things that the folks in this district wanted us to fight for.

When the governor left out undocumented families from the expansion of childcare in our state, we said no in New York City and secured that $10 million in the budget to make sure that undocumented families here were taken care of.

The first piece of legislation I passed was abortion care legislation to protect people who can become pregnant, whether you are from New York City or beyond, in a time when those rights are under attack. We've been able to expand participatory democracy through participatory budgeting. Then we're doing the bread-and-butter stuff: making sure we're filling the potholes, picking up the trash, all of those kinds of things.

I was one of six councilmembers who raised the alarm very early and said we cannot support this budget because it's cutting funding to our schools. It's not investing in enough housing. There are all these different gaps.

Chisun Lee is director of the elections and government program at the Brennan Center for Justice. She talked about how the upcoming state public financing program was designed to address concerns from voters who wanted the government to operate more transparently and efficiently.

Brigid Bergin: Can you tell us a little bit about how this new state program came together?

Chisun Lee: Sure. Thank you so much for covering this really crucial topic right now. You know, everybody knows that right now the campaign finance side of elections doesn't look anything like what we want to see in a democracy.

It's not just the amount of money, but that a handful of megadonors are dominating this crucial part of the political process. This is a problem in New York, but it's by no means unique to New York.

Now, what is special about New York right now is that we've got the nation's most powerful response to this problem — the problem of post-Citizens United megadonor-dominated politics. That response is in the form of a new small donor match public financing program coming up on the horizon for the next state legislative cycle. It's the result of years of grassroots organizing, research, policy design, and elected leadership, recognizing the problem and the need for a solution.

That last part is no small thing in the current climate. It really is quite profound if you look at the section of the state law that creates this small donor match public financing program. There's the stirring passage in the preamble about the need to restore voter confidence and quote, “ensure a government that is accountable to all voters of the state, regardless of wealth or position.” That's big.

What excites you most about the program coming online in the state?

This program is coming not a moment too soon and it is particularly designed to meet the post-Citizens United super PAC moment.

The way this program is designed, it has the potential to make more New Yorkers more important relative to megadonors. I mean, it sounds simple, but that is huge right now. It is well designed also to meet the needs of candidates who have to compete in the super PAC era and sometimes need to raise very competitive sums of money.

It's not just the amount of money, but that a handful of megadonors are dominating this crucial part of the political process. This is a problem in New York, but it's by no means unique to New York.
Chisun Lee, director, elections and government program, Brennan Center for Justice

Not in all races, but there are always gonna be some contests where that happens. And this public financing program is designed to meet the current moment. I think over time, the program has the potential to deliver some huge civic benefits that the state really needs to see, which is an increase in participation as you've been talking about in your show by new folks in the campaign finance portion of state elections.

Increasing the diversity of folks who participate in the campaign finance side of state elections and really in reducing, lowering the barriers to entry to the political process for people who are financially disadvantaged historically, because of the country's history and structural racism and sexism hurdles.

We're getting a question from a listener about how this state program will be funded. Can you talk a little bit about what supports these public financing programs?

Sure. The new state program is going to be funded through a series of streams. There is a voluntary tax checkoff for New York residents. It can be funded out of the abandoned property fund from contributions from individuals and organizations and the general treasury.

I think it's important to really remember what this investment is for. I don't know if your listeners remember the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption from a few years ago that looked really sweepingly at what could change in state politics to give voters more confidence that Albany is responding to them. It also sought to create more efficiency and accountability in government, which is good for taxpayers.

Small donor match public financing was one of this commission's big recommendations. This was not a commission designed to deal with campaign finance. It was to deal with confidence in government and accountable, efficient functioning in government and the bang for the buck we get with this is really a drop in the bucket in the state's budget. But it’s crucial to stand up the program.

Is this program going to be ready to start when it's supposed to start?

Yeah, I have confidence in the agency. The Public Campaign Finance Board has been hard at work, which folks can see on their website designing the rules and regulations.

We expect they'll keep refining those as they get feedback from donors, voters, and candidates who choose to opt in over time. In the last session, the governor and legislative leaders really put a significant down payment on making sure that this program is going to be successful, providing the agency the budget that they needed to create the administrative and regulatory infrastructure.

They're going to be building out the technology to make it user-friendly and transparent for campaigns and for voters and donors. We hope and expect that in the upcoming budget we're going to see more of that investment going into the first cycle when candidates can consider opting into this voluntary program and constituents can consider becoming involved in this way.

We want everybody to have confidence that the fund is solvent, that the agency has what it needs to run this program smoothly, transparently, and in a really public-friendly way.

Tune in next Sunday at noon on WNYC for the next episode of “The People’s Guide to Power,” where we explore how the abortion fight is animating voters this election season. Call and join us live at 212-433-WNYC, that’s 212-433-9692.