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Comptroller's race hampered by failure of public campaign finance experiment

Posted by Karen DeWitt on

An experimental public campaign finance system for the state Comptroller’s race has fizzled, after the lone candidate who applied for the program failed to meet the minimum threshold to obtain the public monies.

The pilot public campaign financing program, limited to just the state Comptroller’s race as part of a state budget deal.

It was widely condemned at the time by reform groups as fatally flawed. Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group called it “cynical.”

“The governor and the legislative leaders have concocted a public financing system which is designed to fail,” Horner said at the time. “There’s no two ways about it.”  

Cuomo, who said Republicans in the State Senate resisted a wider program, urged critics to take a more positive view.

“You can celebrate that this is the greatest advancement that has been made,” Cuomo said on April 1st. “Or you can say that we’re disappointed that we haven’t had a total victory.”

Some, including the current Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, speculated that the plan might even have been created as a dig against DiNapoli. Cuomo has not gotten along well with the Comptroller, who is also a Democrat. The money for the public financing of the campaign would come from the Comptroller’s own unclaimed funds account.

DiNapoli, who is a long time proponent of public campaign financing, said he would not be participating.  He said he was “excluded” from the discussions that created the plan, and that it came too late in the election cycle and seemed unworkable.

“They changed the rules on me and on this race three and a half years into the election cycle,” DiNapoli said. “It really wasn’t done in a fair way.”

But DiNapoli’s Republican opponent, Syracuse based Onondaga County Comptroller Bob Antonacci, decided to apply for the program. Under the rules, a candidate must first collect small donations from at least 2000 donors, for a total of $200,000 in order to qualify for public funds that would total  six times the amount of money that he raised.

Antonacci at first was confident he would reach that bar.

“If we don’t meet the mark, you’ve heard it here first, it it’s a colossal failure of my campaign,” Antonacci told reporters in July.

But Antonacci, in the end ,was not able to meet the threshold. He spoke just a few days before the election.

“I’m very disappointed that we didn’t get there,” Antonacci told public radio station WRVO. “Unfortunately, without raising the necessary funds, we were unable to get out on a large scale the differences between our two candidacies.”  

He also denied a published report that said he was “bitter” over the lack of financial support.

Antonacci, unlike most members of the Republican party,  says he still supports the concept of publicly financed campaigns, but would like to see it combined with term limits.

The campaign has been waged largely under the radar screen. There was one debate, and incumbent Comptroller DiNapoli has aired just one ad in the campaign, touting his measures to fight corruption. Antonacci says DiNapoli is not working hard enough to combat government wrong doing. Antonacci also wants to offer state workers the option of defined contribution plans, like 401k’s.  DiNapoli wants to keep the state pension system as it is, saying it protects retirees.

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