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May 25, 2019

New York, take a stand against big money in politics

April 17, 2019
Go farther. (Hans Pennink/AP)

New York State is poised to become America’s preeminent democracy, if the Legislature is willing to take the leap.

The state Assembly and Senate passed a budget bill that would establish a commission on the issue of big money in politics. Its goal? Propose a system of public campaign financing for statewide and state legislative offices by December 1, to be adopted by the end of the year. This new commission is partly a result of a promise Gov. Cuomo made during his State of the State speech in January, when he called for creating a statewide public financing system that allowed special interest groups to make donations in the range of tens of millions of dollars.

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The plan falls short of stamping money out of politics, but it represents a step in the right direction. As the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan once said, “What the people want is very simple — they want an America as good as its word.” We want our elected officials to fix our broken democracy and get big money out of politics once and for all. If New York’s representatives aren’t willing to confront the problem directly, they need to be prepared to accept the commission’s final plan to achieve much-needed reform. The commission, meanwhile, needs to create a system that works to the benefit of all New Yorkers, not one that will perpetuate the status quo.

Grassroots movements like the Fair Elections for New York coalition and my very own Stamp Stampede have made it clear what we want.

The commission wouldn’t be driving blindly. New York City has employed a system of public campaign financing since 1988. In its current form, contributions to candidates for City Council and borough president are limited to $175 per city resident, and each donation is matched by public funds at a rate of $8 to $1. For higher offices such as mayor and comptroller, the maximum contribution per resident is $250. Candidates and donors for New York City elections have since become much more diverse, better reflecting the city’s population.

City elections see far more small donations from low-income residents and people of color than do state elections. By empowering small donors, New York City has made it easier to run for office and support candidates without being a millionaire or billionaire.

If New York succeeds in passing a statewide system of public campaign financing, it could help ignite a political revolution in America that’s been brewing since Occupy Wall Street took over Zuccotti Park and captivated the world. I spent a lot of time in the park during those protests, and in that time I came to see the issue of big money political corruption as the root cause of all the issues (and there were a lot) that people were protesting.

It was at Occupy Wall Street that I launched a grassroots, guerilla advertising campaign to literally stamp money out of politics by using rubber stamps on paper currency to turn dollar bills into miniature billboards. There are now over 100,000 people protesting big money in politics every day by stamping, and politicians are listening.

Nearly every presidential candidate for 2020 supports fundamental reforms to fix our democracy. Congress has proposed a comprehensive reform package (HR 1), which the House passed in March. And New York is on the brink of strengthening our democratic system to make it as good as its promise.”

We are not there yet, but the progress is undeniable. We just need to keep stamping and keep fighting until we win a better democracy for ourselves and for future generations.

Cohen is co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s.

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