Mayoral hopeful George McDonald will be able to accept donations that are over the city’s strict contribution limits until a judge can render a decision in his lawsuit against the New York City Campaign Finance Board and the City of New York.
During a hearing Monday in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, both parties agreed that McDonald could collect these contributions as long as he does not spend them. The contributions over the city limit will be placed in a segregated account pending the outcome of the lawsuit.
“It gives comfort to our donors and allows us to do other things besides pay legal bills,” said McDonald after the hearing. “The important thing is that we get to raise the money.”
Under the city’s campaign finance rules, mayoral candidates are not allowed to accept contributions of more than $4,950 from a single donor. McDonald, who declared months ago that he intended to challenge the Campaign Finance Board over the restrictions, has already received donations in excess of the limit. He contends that the city’s current rules, which emphasize small donations from individuals, favor candidates who already have a strong base of support.
McDonald is suing for the right to adhere instead to New York state contribution limits, under which mayoral candidates are allowed to accept contributions of up to $19,700 from a donor during a primary and $41,100 in a general election.
The lawsuit has irked the city’s Campaign Finance Board, which issued a statement after the hearing defending the current rules: “New York City’s common-sense contribution limits reduce the influence of big-money special interests in city elections, ensuring all New Yorkers have a voice in city elections. In New York City, the law applies these limits to all candidates for city offices. We believe the court will uphold the law.”
McDonald has also earned the ire of good-government groups. Adam Skaggs, senior counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said that striking down the city’s uniform contribution limits “opens the door for assisting legalized bribery,” because it would allow candidates to accept large sums of money from donors.
At the heart of McDonald’s case is the question of whether a candidate who does not accept public funds must adhere to the city’s strict contribution limits. Under the city’s campaign finance system, candidates for city office can opt into a voluntary public financing program, in which the city will match contributions of $175 or less from individual New Yorkers 6-to-1. In exchange, candidates agree to adhere to both strict spending limits and contribution limits. Beginning in 2004, the city also imposed those contribution limits on candidates who did not participate in the matching funds program.
McDonald asserts that candidates who do not take public money should not be bound by the city’s restrictions.
During Monday’s hearing, the defense contended that the laws passed by the state legislature do not preclude the city from creating more stringent contribution caps. “Nothing we found in the law [indicated] that the state legislature intended to do that,” said Jonathan Pines from the city’s Law Department. That position is supported by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who’s office filed an amicus brief stating that “[t]he City’s choice to impose uniform contribution limits as part of its program of public financing is fully compatible with, and not preempted by, the Election Law.”
However, McDonald is not swayed. “Its very difficult to run under any other law than the state law,” he said, adding that running a mayoral campaign “requires a great deal of money.”
According to Skaggs, if McDonald won his case, the city would ultimately have less control over its elections. “There’s some irony in someone wanting to be mayor, going to court to say the city has less power,” he said.