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June 17, 2019

NYC Comptroller Stringer accuses Council Speaker Johnson of ‘brazen power grab’ by making self-serving tweak to campaign finance rules

June 12, 2019
City Comptroller Scott Stringer has accused Council Speaker Corey Johnson of making last minute tweaks to campaign finance legislation to bolster his future bid for mayor. Both Democrats are eyeing campaigns for mayor in 2021, but Stringer has a head start fundraising and a bigger war chest than the Council speaker.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer has accused Council Speaker Corey Johnson of making a “brazen power grab” in an attempt “circumvent the will of the voters” by making last minute tweaks to campaign finance legislation to bolster the councilman’s future bid for mayor.

Both Democrats are eyeing campaigns for mayor in 2021, but Stringer has a head start fundraising and a bigger war chest than the Council speaker.

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Stringer’s campaign maintains Council legislation in the works was amended so budding mayoral candidates like the comptroller have to return thousands in donations if they want to take advantage of increased taxpayer support as part of the city’s public matching funds program in 2021.

“Ten years ago the Council voted to overturn the will of the voters and change the system to benefit themselves. Now Speaker Johnson is dusting off the same old playbook to play the same old politics,” Stringer campaign spokeswoman Emily Bernstein said. “The voters passed a groundbreaking campaign finance system to clean up government, not corrupt it. Speaker Johnson is trying to circumvent the will of the voters and change the rules to benefit himself. The Council should reject his brazen power grab.”

Both Stringer and Johnson plan on participating in the public matching funds program, which provides candidates with a match of taxpayer money for certain qualifying private donations.

As part of a ballot referendum last November, New York City voters increased the match to $8 in public funds for every $1 in qualifying donations, up to the first $250 of a contribution for citywide candidates like those running for mayor.

But candidates who decide to take advantage of the extra taxpayer cash must also adhere to a top contribution limit of $2,000. Any 2021 candidates who want to keep the preexisting donation limit of $5,100 can only get a 6-to-1 taxpayer match.

Under the rules the voters approved, any candidates like Stringer who wanted the 8-to-1 match starting in 2019 could still use the old $5,100 limit — and 6-to-1 match — for any contributions received in 2018.

But legislation from Councilman Ben Kallos (D-Manhattan) threw a wrench into those plans. The bill, which supersedes the new rules, was changed within the last week to now require candidates “refund” any 2018 contributions that go over the $2,000 limit if campaigns want to be a part of the 8-to-1 match going forward.

“I’m assuming it will have a significant cost for my client and for other candidates who are similarly situated,” Stringer campaign attorney Laurence Laufer told the News.

Johnson has already pledged to cap any campaign contributions at $250 instead $2,000. Between January 2018 and this past Jan. 11, Johnson only raised $210, while Stringer has taken in more than $1 million during that time, according to financial disclosures.

The Committee on Governmental Operations will hold a hearing on the legislation on Tuesday. Stringer’s campaign said the bill may even be put to a vote then.

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“It was recommended by the Campaign Finance Board and it was what we did for the public advocate’s race,” Kallos said of the bill. “I already myself gave back anything over the limit. Folks need to take a deep breath and take a step back and what it means for the larger city as a whole.”

Council speaker spokeswoman Jennifer Fermino said candidates don’t have to return any money from past election cycles — just 2018.

“The changes were made at the strong urging of the CFB. Both because of fairness and administrative efficiency,” Fermino said. “That said, no contributions made in a prior election cycle will have to be returned. Any candidate who wants to keep their big money donations is free to do so and maintain their edge over the completion.”

The Council speaker’s 2021 committee had $88,481 in the bank as of January, while Stringer’s has $2.3 million.

Stringer isn’t the only mayoral hopeful who could lose out.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. raised $738,707 between January 2018 and this past Jan. 11, disclosures show. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams raised nearly $1.7 million during that time.

“A lot of people who have been war-chesting should not have been war-chesting,” Kallos said. “It’s hard for me to be sympathetic for billionaires giving big checks or the politicians getting those big checks.”

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