City political campaigns could become members-only affairs

The city’s Campaign Finance Board found itself outnumbered Wednesday when its executive director testified at a City Council hearing about legislation that would revise the board’s rules on campaign spending expenditures. The board opposes a bill that would allow organizations like companies and unions to advocate for or against a political candidate without disclosing their spending, as long as their communications were targeted at their members. Currently they must share details on spending as well as copies of the campaign materials, such as mailers.

Campaign literature for City Councilmember Andy King — sent to union members and disclosed under Campaign Finance Board rules. Under a new City Council bill the advertising and spending would not have to be made public.

“We feel that there’s two reasons for disclosure,” said the Campaign Finance Board’s Amy Loprest. “The first is for the person who receives a communication to know where it came from. The second is for the public to know how much money is spent in support of a candidate.” According to the board, money spent on member-to-member communications should be disclosed to the public.

Councilmember Rosie Mendez, who sponsored the proposed legislation, disagrees. “The intent of the independent expenditure provision in the charter is to ensure that organizations cannot remain anonymous when they make public attempts to influence an election,” she said. “When the public sees an advertisement against a candidate, for example, they should be able to identify exactly who is behind it. Of course, when a membership organization such as a union communicates with its own members, the issue fades away, as there is no anonymity.”

Five good-government groups testified at the hearing in favor of the bill, including Common Cause/NY, New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), The Brennan Center for Justice, Citizens Union and Citizen Action of New York. Some expressed concern that the board’s current rules could produce a “chilling effect,” discouraging membership organizations from participating in elections.

“It makes us, quite frankly, nervous for a government to be deciding how an organization, whether it’s the National Rifle Association, Planned Parenthood or a union or corporation, would be permitted to communicate with its own members,” said Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause/NY.

“Ditto,” testified NYPIRG Senior Attorney Gene Russianoff. He later added, “There’s a tension here between not having an undue burden and stifling communications among members of an organization, and the public’s right to know. I think the bill balances that, but I don’t think there’s any absolute answer.”

Russianoff and others pointed out that organizations should not have to disclose expenditures related to membership communications, as long as those communications are not coordinated with political campaigns. An earlier version of the bill had a provision that would allow membership organizations to coordinate with campaigns when sending communications to their members without related expenses counting toward a candidate’s spending limit. That measure has since been removed from the proposed legislation.

The latest version of the bill also exempts organizations that were created primarily for the purpose of influencing elections, meaning that groups like political clubs would have to disclose their spending on communications targeted at their members.

Loprest noted that the bill would block from disclosure mass mailings sent by a group to its membership, like the ones sent by the union 1199SEIU to its members during last year’s special election to replace Councilmember Larry Seabrook in the Bronx. That election was the only race subject to the board’s current disclosure rules. The mailers from 1199SEIU constituted about 7 percent of all political spending in that race, and about 10 percent of spending on behalf of the eventual winner, Andy King.

Loprest also pointed out that mass mailings play a key part in city elections, especially races for City Council. According to the board’s analysis of previous campaigns, city council candidates devote about two-thirds of their budget to mass mailings.

Nonetheless, good-government groups said that the proposed legislation was an appropriate amendment to board’s disclosure rules.

“I’d be very, very surprised if any member of the public thought that hearing from an organization of which they were actually a member would fall in the general category of independent expenditure as it is commonly used in the press, in political discussions, and in discussions around dinner tables,” said Lerner.

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