(HORSEHEADS, N.Y.) – Trailblazers PAC, the organization that endorses candidates from any political party running for local-level office who 100% disclose their campaign funds and follow a higher standard than law requires, has found examples of campaign donations at the hyper-local level that far exceed the scale of donations at federal and state levels.
Campaign finance laws generally allow higher-dollar contributions in contests with larger populations. New York election law allows a person or organization to contribute up to $65,100 (for a primary plus a general election) toward the campaign of a candidate running for a statewide office like Governor, Attorney General, or Comptroller, and up to $19,300 to a State Senate candidate. In contrast, New York law generally caps a single person or organization at donating $2,000 (for a primary plus a general election) to candidates in most of New York’s villages, cities, and towns (with more allowed in municipal districts with larger populations).
It seems reasonable to allow larger contributions in a race for Governor — where the candidate is seeking votes from a population of about 12.7 million voters — than, for example, in a race for Village Trustee in Fairport, a Monroe County suburb of Rochester with just under four thousand (4000) voters, or a race for Town Councilperson in Brookhaven, a town in Suffolk County (Long Island) with around 18,000 voters per council district.
Yet calculated another way, the money into a Village Trustee race swamps the maximum contribution to a statewide campaign. A donor who “maxes out” by giving $2000 in a village of 4000 voters is giving 50 cents ($0.50) to sway each voter in the district, while the law prevents donors to a statewide candidate to giving more than one-third-of-one-cent ($0.003) per voter.
In other words, a maximum donation to a candidate in the Village of Fairport has 72 times the impact on voters as maximum donation in a New York statewide race. If New York were to allow donations to higher-level candidates with the same impact that local-level donations have, then a single person or organization would be allowed to donate over $6.5 million to a candidate for Governor, almost 100 times more than the current statewide limit.
In local-level races, a donor can spend much less, with exponentially greater impact. When an expensive zoning decision is on a municipality’s table, it may be cheaper for a corporation to make multiple small-dollar campaign donations.
In review of campaign finance data available through the New York State Board of Elections,Trailblazers PAC has found examples of local-level donations by companies with business before the municipality (data available in the attached spreadsheet):
- Verizon: In 2017, Verizon (based in NYC and incorporated in Delaware) contributed $3,500 to the Perinton (the town containing Fairport) Republican Housekeeping Committee. Since 2015, Verizon’s donations in Monroe County have been exclusively to Republican campaigns. Before 2015, the bulk of Monroe County donations went to Democratic campaigns and committees. (See this article about business before the Perinton Town Board: http://perinton.org/news/verizon-cell-phone-tower-update and see this Rochester Democrat & Chronicle article about Verizon’s earlier business in Pittsford: https://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/local/communities/2018/04/09/pittsford-planning-board-votes-yes-verizon-cell-tower/501360002/.) More generally, from 2000 through 2018, Verizon donated over $4.1 million to elections across New York State. About one-in-ten dollars ($397,998) has gone to campaigns or political committees that target races at the county level and below.
- Caithness: Since 2006, the Manhattan-based company, Caithness Energy, has donated $81,070 to local-level contests in Suffolk County (Long Island), of which $49,545 went to campaigns and committees in the town of Brookhaven. The Suffolk County donations are about three-fourths of the total $118,588.80 that Caithness has donated to elections in New York, with the remaining one-fourth going mostly to higher-level candidates that intersect with Suffolk County. (See this Newsday article about Caithness’s business before the Brookhaven Town Board: https://www.newsday.com/long-island/suffolk/caithness-power-plant-1.19807866)
- Waste Management: Over the last 15 years, more than one million dollars has been reported donated from Waste Management (based in Houston, TX) and its subsidiaries to campaigns and committees across New York State. A full one-third of that ($329,746) went to local-level campaigns and committees in Monroe County. The other two-thirds of Waste Management’s donations went to state-level campaigns and committees, or to local-level campaigns or committees in various of New York’s other 61 counties. (See this Rochester Democrat & Chronicle article for background on Waste Management’s business in Monroe County: https://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/local/communities/2018/08/15/high-acres-landfill-sued-over-foul-odors-and-noise-perinton-and-macedon/997257002/ and see this Rochester Democrat & Chronicle article for background on negotiations with the Monroe County Town of Perinton: https://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/local/communities/2018/09/19/high-acres-and-perinton-reach-new-agreement-changes-testing-waste-management/1356704002/
In local elections, what may seem like small dollars in the cacophony of donor influence can go a long way. Local-level campaigns often work with total budgets of only a few thousand dollars, and when half of that comes from a single donor, that’s big money in politics.