For government to truly work for the people, the voices of ordinary people must be included and represented. This was the rationale behind Suffolk County’s public campaign finance program, which is said to have amplified the voices of ordinary Americans drowning out the big bucks in politics. We should be encouraging democracy and fighting corruption, but too many Suffolk lawmakers seem more concerned with preserving their edge.
Legis. Nick Caracappa (C-Selden) recently canceled a fundraiser after Newsday uncovered links between his re-election PAC and the ‘anti-domestic violence’ nonprofit founded by conservative political operatives. What appears to be insider palm oiling is having a chilling effect on voter engagement, especially when better alternatives to lure people to the polls are lacking.
This is exactly why we needed the now repealed public campaign finance program. It takes money to run for public office. Ordinary Americans often do not have the financial means to make this type of public service feasible. Lack of wealth or access to wealth should not be disqualifying. It is profoundly undemocratic for the public service to be the prerogative of the rich alone.
Under the public campaign finance scheme that Caracappa helped repeal, county revenue from OTB profits would be used to bring accountability and transparency to Suffolk County politics. We now know why he voted against it.
Suffolk’s public campaign finance scheme would have made it easier for “we the people” to represent our communities. Participating candidates would have been required to solicit contributions of no more than $250 from residents in their district, with eligible donations equaling 4 to 1. With strict reporting requirements, that money could have been spent on campaign activities. pro-democracy such as direct mail, political literature, canvassing and polls.
Similar public campaign finance programs have existed for years in New York and Los Angeles, as well as states like Connecticut, Arizona and Maine. These programs have a proven track record of prioritizing small donations from constituents over large donations from special interests, resulting in better representation and greater responsiveness to constituent needs.
Suffolk County lawmakers who voted to repeal the program have once again demonstrated that they care more about maintaining power and the advantage that big-money networks are buying. They basically held the public emergency response services hostage in order to kill the program before it could go into effect.
The real numbers don’t lie: the public campaign finance program was a tiny fraction of the county’s budget. A mere $1 million was allocated for the public campaign finance program in fiscal year 2022, followed each year thereafter by 15% of the county’s annual share of OTB revenue, not to exceed $2.6 million. of dollars. Suffolk County’s overall budget is $3.88 billion. The county could easily afford to both fund the public campaign finance program and protect public safety by purchasing gun-tracking technology, one of the reasons lawmakers cited for repealing the program.
However, lawmakers cut public campaign finance money that threatened the power of big donors — corporations, property developers and police unions — who want to preserve the benefits that money buys. It was repealed precisely because it was going to work, as it has elsewhere.
Perhaps with public campaign funding, more ordinary Suffolk residents would sit in the county legislature, and we wouldn’t have to choose between public safety and the protection of our freedom and liberty by the through the ballot. But, for now, Suffolk County must wait for a more inclusive democracy.
This guest essay reflects the perspective of Karen Wharton, Democratic Coalition Coordinator of Citizen Action of New York.