The mayor asked city agencies to find ways to cut corners, a large round of municipal layoffs is still a possibility, and there’s a doomsday budget in the works if the federal government doesn’t come through with a huge stimulus package.
The mayor has even ordered the city’s 59 community boards to find ways to cut their meager $257,000 budgets.
One place the city hasn’t considered cutting costs? Apparently, its generous 8-to-1 matching funds program for candidates for city offices.
We’re all for the matching funds program, it levels the playing field for candidates who don’t have access to or influence with big donors, especially first-time candidates for office.
And this year, there is going to be a lot of them! Every city office is on the ballot this year, including all 51 City Council seats.
Over 30 of those seats are being left vacant by members who are term-limited out of office, which means those seats are going to generate a lot of interest in aspirational political newcomers. Some already have upwards of 10 people who have announced they’re running.
It’s estimated that there will be close to 500 candidates running for office in all of the races combined. A large majority of them will enter the matching funds program...at an 8-to-1 clip!
First, a little bit of background on the program. To qualify, candidates must collect a minimum number of contributions of $10 or more from the area they are seeking to represent. For instance, in a City Council race that number is 75 contributions, while for borough president it is 100.
They must also raise a minimum amount of qualifying contributions from New York City residents.
Once they meet those requirements, that means a $10 donation actually puts $90 in their campaign coffers after the city kicks in its $80 share.
Let’s just take a look at some of the numbers.
(Disclosure: We’re not singling out these candidates because they are examples of abuse of the program, we are only using them as examples because they recently shared their fundraising numbers with us. All of this is in line with the matching funds guidelines, and this is how any candidate in the program is operating their campaign.)
Sandra Ung is running to replace Councilman Peter Koo in Flushing. She has been active in politics and civic life in the area for well over a decade, and is an adept fundraiser for someone who has never held political office. She is easily a frontrunner in the race
In a press release over the weekend, she announced that she has over $229,828 in her campaign war chest, because since July she has raised $87,214, which you might have noticed is not the same as $229,828. That’s because $142,614 is from the city in the form of matching funds.
Then there is David Aronov, who is running to replace Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz in Forest Hills. He announced he has raised $63,186 in private funds, as well as maxed out the amount he can receive from the city in matching funds.
That amount is $168,888.
Combined, the amount in matching funds that Ung and Aronov will get from the city is more than the budgets the mayor is asking community boards to trim.
No offense to Ung and Aronov, but they aren’t actually in office, so the amount of good they will do in their communities with this money is far less than what a community board office would be able to accomplish with a fraction of it.
And keep in mind, these are two first-time candidates running in local races with a small sphere of influence who are also hitting the fundraising trail for the first time.
Let’s take a look at someone with a lot of experience at this.
This year, Assemblyman David Weprin of Queens is running to replace Scott Stringer, who in turn is looking to replace Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Weprin is no stranger to politics. In fact, he comes from a political family with a long history in New York City. Someone named “Weprin” has held political office since his father Saul was elected in 1971. That’s 49 straight years.
Last week, he announced that for the latest filing period he raised $292,000, which means he added $1,493,869 to his campaign coffers. That’s right, he received about $1.2 million in matching funds from the city. Not a bad haul!
We realize it is too late to change the process for 2021, the filings are already taking place. And we can’t say for sure that the matching funds program has any impact on the city’s actual operating budget that pays for things like municipal salaries and garbage pickup.
And we’re fans of the matching funds program, as it helps keep deep-pocketed lobbyists and special interest groups from having too much influence in a local race.
But for all of these City Council races featuring first-time candidates, no special interest group or lobbyist is going to dump a bunch of money into a candidate they don’t really know running in a race that is wide open.
And if you are a seasoned politician with years in office who is now running for citywide office, well, if you the goal is to shield them from special interest groups and lobbyists, we have news for you: that ship already sailed.
However, it seems to us that if the city was looking for a way to cut costs, reducing the matching funds program to even a more moderate 4-to-1 would have been a forward-thinking idea back in April as a way to save money.
We’re sure the political consultants and campaign lawyers who benefit from the majority of this free dough would have been just fine.