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Thursday's City Council Vote Could Dramatically Alter Public Advocate Race

Former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, seen in 2015, is running for Public Advocate with a lot of cash on hand.
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Former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, seen in 2015, is running for Public Advocate with a lot of cash on hand. William Alatriste / City Council

On November 6th, voters across the country showed up to hand a rebuke to Donald Trump’s presidency, seizing the House of Representatives, governorships, and statehouses. In New York City, they did something else: give a startling mandate to three obscure ballot propositions that will change, in subtle but arguably significant ways, how our local democracy functions.

Eighty percent of voters, or 1.1 million New Yorkers, voted to bolster the city’s system of public finance for local campaigns. Under this proposition, contribution limits to all city offices—city council, borough president, comptroller, public advocate, and mayor—were lowered further and small contributions were matched at a rate of 8:1 to instead of 6:1. The idea behind it was simple: incentivize candidates to further chase small donors and try to limit the influence of big money in politics.

All city candidates participating in the matching funds system would have to accept these rules in 2022, though they are optional for candidates seeking office in 2021. Since many candidates mulling citywide or city council campaigns for the 2021 cycle have already been fundraising under the current rules (6:1 match), the option was inserted into the proposition language to ensure not all candidates would be retroactively penalized for accepting donations that would be over the new limits.

Now, the City Council is seeking to pass a bill on December 20th that would give public advocate candidates running in an unprecedented special election the option of fundraising under the rules passed in the first ballot proposal.

“Voters approved this overwhelmingly in November and it’s a policy that encourages greater participation in our democracy,” Corey Johnson, the current council speaker, said in a statement to Gothamist. “Why shouldn’t it apply to this election?”

If the City Council legislation passes on Thursday, the 20-odd public advocate candidates would be able to choose between a system that allows a maximum contribution of $2,550 and matches the first $175 of contributions from individual New York City residents at a rate of $6-to-$1, or a system that limits individual contributions to $1,000 and matches the first $250 at an $8-to-$1 rate. Under the $8-to-$1 rules, the amount of money a candidate must raise to qualify for public matching funds would be cut in half: from $125,000 to $62,500.

For a vast majority of the public advocate candidates, the $8-to-$1 match is preferable because they haven’t raised a significant amount of money. For candidates who have already accumulated campaign war chests under one set of rules, the calculus is far trickier.

Melissa Mark-Viverito, who was speaker of the City Council from 2014 through 2017, is one of the 23 people running for Public Advocate. According to her most recently available filing, she has over $300,000 in her bank account, much of it raised when she was speaker. No candidate for public advocate, as of the most recent filings, has even $100,000 socked away.

Sources say that Mark-Viverito has been calling her old colleagues to rally opposition to the bill, and that those close to her campaign are fuming that the council is pushing forward a piece of legislation that could render a significant number of her contributions ineligible if she chooses the $8-to-$1 match, or handicaps her if she remains under the $6-to-$1 system. Meanwhile, potent rivals like Councilman Jumaane Williams and Councilman Rafael Espinal are opting for rules that will multiply their campaign cash at greater rates.

Espinal called the legislation a “great move.” “To expect a candidate without political connections to raise $125,000 in donations of $175 or less is unrealistic,” he said. (Williams did not return a request for comment.)

“Look, these men are clearly scared of a woman with fundraising prowess—it’s not the first time the old boys’ club has tried to stop Melissa and it won’t be the last,” said Monica Klein, a spokesperson for Mark-Viverito.

The “old boys’ club” harkens back to Mark-Viverito’s election to the speakership in 2014, when she defied two male-dominated Democratic machines to win a backroom contest that marked a new progressive era for city politics. Mark-Viverito, unlike her predecessors, openly identified as a leftist and became the Council’s first Latina speaker.

The irony, however, is that some of her old allies in that speakership fight are now aligned with Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat. Councilman Ben Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat who was an early supporter of Mark-Viverito’s, endorsed Williams last month and introduced the legislation creating an $8-to-$1 option for the public advocate’s race around the same time. Councilman Brad Lander, a co-sponsor of Kallos’ legislation, also endorsed Williams—Lander was once Mark-Viverito’s top deputy in the Council, imbued with enough influence to be routinely called a “shadow speaker,” a label he publicly rejected.

While Mark-Viverito’s four years brought a series of high profile progressive victories, including the city’s first paid sick days law and a public campaign to successfully convince power brokers to begin the process of closing Rikers Island, she endured criticism for initially working too closely with Mayor Bill de Blasio, who helped elect her speaker. Council members craved more independence and argue they’ve gotten more of it under Johnson.

Kallos was one of them. For all four years of Mark-Viverito’s speakership, he said he tried to pass legislation creating an $8-to-$1 public match and only found progress when he advocated for a citywide referendum. Now, emboldened by the results of the election, he is ready to let the public advocate contenders play by the new rules.

“I saw this as a mandate. The ballot showed me everyone cares about reform,” Kallos said in an interview. Responding to direct criticisms from Mark-Viverito’s camp, he said he doesn’t believe campaign “war chests are good for democracy,” arguing money accumulated over several years for an unspecified purpose shouldn’t be permitted.

“I don’t believe in zombie committees,” he said. “I want to be the elected official known for killing zombies and zombie committees … I think they should be illegal.”

The Campaign Finance Board, which will oversee all campaigns participating in the matching funds program, has expressed reservations about Kallos’ bill, citing the short time frame they would have to prepare for candidates running under two sets of rules.

“Our staff has already begun the extensive work that is needed, and we have been keeping to an aggressive timeline in order to complete it in time for the 2021 elections,” said Amy Loprest, the CFB’s executive director, during a recent hearing. “Providing the choice for candidates in the special election compresses our implementation timeline considerably.”

Lander expressed sympathy for the challenge the CFB would face, but thinks implementation would be possible. Widely expected to run for city comptroller in 2021, Lander said he would be fundraising under the $8-to-$1 rules, refunding contributions that exceeded the new limitations.

“I do respect the CFB and I talked to them a little bit about their concerns. It’s always hard to start something new very quickly,” he said. “To offer people the new rules as a choice, I don’t understand the argument against it.”

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