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NYC Mayor and Campaign Finance Board Agree That "Pay To Play" Politics Should End
A good start, but who is holding whom accountable?
December 26, 2004
Ending 'Pay to Play', NY TIMES, December 26, 2004
Until last week, it seemed that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his appointed chairman of the city's Campaign Finance Board might share little more than obligatory pleasantries for the holidays. The board, after all, was a driving force behind recent legislation that increased public funding for candidates who face wealthy, self-financed opponents, a necessary reform that nonetheless seemed to take a swipe at Mr. Bloomberg and his re-election bid next year.
So we are especially happy to see the administration and the board come together to work for another worthy project: ending "pay to play" politics, the practice that allows those doing business with the city to make large campaign contributions.
The partnership of the mayor and the board is just a first step down a long road, but a significant one. New Yorkers voted in 1998 to end influence peddling, but in trying to devise a monitoring system, the Campaign Finance Board hit a major obstacle: it had no list of contractors. Now, the city will devise one that eventually is to be posted and made available to the public on the Internet. The list will be gleaned from the Vendex system, the city's database of companies that do work for municipal agencies. It will be far from exhaustive, but such a list is a good start.
Frederick Schwarz Jr., the Campaign Finance Board chairman, has informed the City Council that he will hold hearings next month to investigate the scope of the pay-to-play problem. That could cause some squirming among council members who have been beneficiaries of campaign largess from city contractors and vendors.
The Council has opposed the mayor's proposed legislation on influence peddling, saying that it casts such a wide net that even teachers and homeowners could be barred from contributing fully to campaigns. The mayor's critics say his way would dissuade people from participating in the city's progressive campaign finance system, which imposes wider disclosure and tighter controls in return for matching raised funds with public money. They are right to worry about anything that might hurt a system that has served New York well, making it possible for people outside the party machinery to run viable campaigns for public office.
But at bottom, what really galls the Council about Mr. Bloomberg's bill may be that it comes from Mr. Bloomberg - the man who spent more than $70 million to win the mayor's office in 2001 and is now telling council members they cannot take more than $250 from a city contractor.
This page has always disapproved of the mayor's intention to use his private fortune as a campaign war chest - particularly now that Mr. Bloomberg can no longer argue that he needs a lot of television ad time to introduce himself to the public. But using funds from people who hope to get, or continue to get, lucrative contracts from the city is a bigger issue, and far more dangerous to the public good.
The mayor's bill does need improvement, so the Council should quickly prepare an alternative. Although it is unlikely that any controls over campaign money from city contractors will take effect before the next mayoral election, it is time to act in the name of public interest.