The second-day story from New York City’s primaries last week could have been the exceptional performance of the city’s unique system of small-donor public financing. By providing a six-dollar public match for every dollar raised in contributions of $175 or less, the system enabled the little-known Scott Stringer to compete with and defeat Eliot Spitzer’s family fortune in the race for Comptroller. On the Republican side, it helped mayoral nominee Joe Lhota, who received almost half his total spending in public money, to overcome another self-financed millionaire. The top three Democratic candidates for mayor finished in reverse order of the amount of private money they had raised, and as Alec MacGillis noted here, public financing allowed the eventual nominee, Bill de Blasio, to resist the policy preferences of big donors, such as opposition to paid sick leave. Dozens of city council and other races featured three or more candidates with enough money to compete. But instead of celebrating a system that finally emerged from the shadows of Michael Bloomberg’s personal spending to show its value, we’ve had handwringing about the rise of “outside money,” or spending by groups other than the candidates and parties, in New York City politics. Jim Dwyer in The New York Times argued that outside spending was “reshaping” city politics, focusing on three independent committees: one that promoted “Anybody But [Christine] Quinn,” based on the City Council speaker’s refusal to block horse carriages from Central Park; a tiny committee formed to support Lhota, with contributions solely from David and Julia Koch; and Jobs for New York, the biggest outside spender, a front for the real estate industry.
Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s surprise entrance into the New York City comptroller race highlights one issue that will be ignored — how New York laws continue to serve incumbents and the existing political system at the expense of the voters. Spitzer’s entry was a last-minute decision. He had four days to gather 3,750 signatures on nominating petitions. This may not seem to be a high bar, but obviously Spitzer didn’t agree — he reportedly paid signature gatherers as much as $800 a day to get their John Hancocks. He said he ended up with 27,000. Why did Spitzer need to gather so many? It wasn’t because he wanted to show that he had a popular following. Nor was it an example of a gross overpayment. Instead, it was simply because New York’s ballot-access laws remain convoluted enough to require candidates to get a very large cushion of signatures to prevent them from being tossed off the ballot by party regulars who know — and make — the rules.
In the past 48 hours, Eliot Spitzer has appeared on just about every local television and radio show to promote his eleventh-hour bid for New York City comptroller, but the comeback candidate may have a problem that publicity alone can’t fix: getting on the ballot. After Spitzer appeared Monday afternoon at his petition drive with no staffers in tow — and few volunteers canvassing the area — questions remain about whether his hurried campaign will be able to collect the 3,750 signatures from registered Democrats required to qualify for the ballot by the midnight deadline this Thursday. Although Spitzer’s first public appearance Monday was billed as a signature drive, that was not at all the focus of the hour-long event: Only two volunteers appeared to be collecting signatures near the candidate’s press gaggle, though a campaign spokesperson later called BuzzFeed to say that eight had in fact been at the event. Spitzer himself spent the afternoon talking to reporters, speaking individually to only seven or so voters — and leaving in a taxi with about that many signatures on his own petition sheet.