New York City has a dandy opinion of itself, as well it ought in many respects, but no one should fool himself that the exuberance and flair we see in so many facets of life here extend to the political culture. Sometimes New York still innovates and leads—the Giuliani administration and crime reduction, say—but mostly, it’s a culture that sets low expectations and meets them with astonishing consistency. If the word Albany started rolling around in your brain-pan during the preceding paragraph, well, there’s a reason for that (and if it didn’t, it’s only because, like a lot of people, you quit caring). In Albany, the expectations are lower still. In Albany, even more than in our city, a politics of gesture stands in for a politics of real accomplishment. This is so for a lot of reasons, but the chief one is surely this: Since most people pay no attention, Albany can do whatever it does, or doesn’t, want. So, when George Pataki stood with John McCain at Sagamore Hill recently, the gesture, or the idea, from the Pataki operation’s end was to lead tuned-out voters to think the following: McCain—likable, moderate, maverick. Pataki—likable, moderate, maverick. No doubt this worked on a lot of people. The truth, of course, is that the two men are as completely opposite as opposites can be. The dailies, in their coverage of the event, properly lampooned the governor, bringing up the fact that Pataki had maneuvered in 2000 to keep McCain off the presidential-primary ballot in the state, a thrust that prompted McCain’s parry of calling him “Comrade Pataki.” But the contrast is even more stark than that, as we can see by comparing the two men’s records on McCain’s signature issue. When Pataki beat Mario Cuomo in 1994, campaign-finance reform was one of the furthest things from his mind. With Al D’Amato’s help, he raked in bazillions. He established a secret, $2.6 million campaign fund to pay for his inaugural gala—names of corporate donors and amounts of donations not revealed. Later, a local Hungarian-American chamber of commerce paid for a Pataki overseas trip and, no doubt by sheer coincidence, ended up getting rent-free office space in the World Trade Center. Finally, to make life harder for busybody reporters, Pataki even went so far as to list his contributors in alphabetical order by first name. But over time he sidled toward the center, seeking the approval of Democrats, and of their secular bible, the Times. The approval came, but not without a price, so when the Times endorsed Pataki’s reelection in 1998, it also complained that the governor had done nada about campaign-finance issues, and it warned: “This endorsement comes with a major reservation about his financial record and a promise to pester him relentlessly to become a force for legislative and campaign reform.”
Herewith, a summary of the existing system. In a word, it’s hopeless. Much worse than Washington. Under new federal law, for example, the maximum individual contribution to a candidate is $4,000 ($2,000 for both the primary and the general). Under city law, the top dollar a person can give to a citywide candidate is $4,500. State law? It’s ten times that—$30,700 for a general election, and up to $14,700 for a primary—but even those limits don’t mean much, because there’s this loophole by which a person can donate another $76,500 to the party, which the party can then direct to the candidate. It’s not hard to see how a few dozen major donors, at those tariffs, can basically run the state. And abuses—although why would one even need to abuse such a system?—are “monitored” by the State Board of Elections, which has little staff and resources, and even less initiative, to play cop. “Dodge City without Wyatt Earp,” says Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. The governor heard the Times loud and clear, and in 1999, he moved. He announced a campaign-finance package that would have reduced the cap on individual contributions to $7,500 and eliminated soft-money donations. But he didn’t do this in January, which would have given the Legislature time to turn the proposal into law. He held his press conference on the last scheduled day of the legislative session, ensuring that nothing would happen. “We thought at the time he might be serious,” says Rachel Leon of Common Cause-NY. “But he never lifted a finger to move it.” In fact, he did the opposite, making certain that it stood no chance of actually becoming law. Usually, when the governor’s office originates a piece of legislation, the bill is handed off to a friendly legislator who wants to put his or her name on it; it is formally introduced under that person’s name, and if the solon has special seniority or influence, this is taken as an indication that the governor’s office wants the bill to move. Usually, this takes a few days. But somehow or other, Pataki’s campaign-finance proposal didn’t become a piece of legislation in the State Senate for two years. And, again, it was finally tossed in the hopper not in January or February 2001, but in June, as the session was again winding down, once more ensuring that nothing would happen. Finally—the kick while the body lay dying on the ground—the governor’s office nudged not a single state senator to attach his name to it, sending an unmissable signal about how low a priority the bill was. The first State Senate hearing on campaign-finance reform has yet to be held.
Meanwhile, the democrat-controlled State Assembly has passed a piece of campaign-finance-reform legislation virtually every year for the past quarter-century. The Assembly bill calls for public financing of campaigns. This is something Pataki will never go for. But compromise, of course, is what legislatures do. So when Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said in January 2000—and note that January—that he’d agree to a conference committee to work out the differences if the State Senate passed Pataki’s plan, reformers had reason to hope that something might happen. It didn’t. Time marched on. Now and again, the Times did elbow Pataki—“his own reputation depends on using his formidable clout in Albany to follow through,” it wrote in late 1999—but the governor did nothing. Except, of course, say in speeches that he had a campaign-finance-reform plan. Finally, this year, the glow of optimism once again flushed reformers’ cheeks as they pushed a scheme whereby the governor might tie redistricting to campaign reform—that is, a governor who genuinely wanted reform could tell the Legislature, “I’ll work with you on districts you’ll like, provided you pass my campaign-finance bill.” Again, the Times welcomed this “golden opportunity” to seize the day. Again, the day was not seized. “This year,” Horner says, Â“he really did have the Perfect Storm. McCain-Feingold happening in Washington. The leverage of redistricting. Editorial pages. Public would have bought it. Nothing. Not even a word.” thus the self-serving and mediocre track record of the man now trying to bask in the refracted glory of John McCain. Now you may see what I mean about their being opposites. McCain, as you probably know, took tremendous risks with his fellow Senate Republicans to push McCain-Feingold through the Senate. As you may not know, he also came up against it in his home state of Arizona. In 1998, Arizona’s voters passed a clean-elections law that introduced public financing to the state. In the past year, Arizona conservatives have mounted a furious campaign to repeal the law, and the Republican candidate for governor has vowed that he will lead the charge if elected. But just as they were getting their campaign up and running, McCain—who had been silent in 1998 when it passed—made TV and radio ads defending the law, again bucking his party. The momentum for repeal was stopped. Incidentally, of the major candidates for governor in New York, only Carl McCall has advanced a proposal that is modeled on Arizona’s. In other words: John McCain supports Carl McCall’s position! Yes, McCall, as comptroller, has taken advantage of the current rules. But only a governor can reform this mess. This one has not, and has in fact insulted the idea of reform by putting out a press release and pretending it means something. But that’s the low-expectations game on which Albany, and this governor, have thrived. Other states—Maine, Connecticut, Vermont, Colorado, along with Arizona—that are supposedly less sophisticated than New York have somehow managed to overcome their backwardness and pass such laws. Not here, though. It’ll be interesting to see if the Times, which cautioned Pataki in 1998 that further endorsements were in some measure contingent on whether he pursued the paper’s pet issue seriously, accepts such standards. Voters should not.