Over half of states bar campaign contributions while legislators work
Democrat, a “happy birthday,” according to a psychedelic-themed flyer for his birthday fundraiser at the Renaissance Hotel. A donation of $750 would make it “a very happy birthday.” For $1,000: the “best birthday ever.”
It was just another night in the state capital of New York, as donors paid for the right to mingle with lawmakers after working hours, bringing up important legislative issues, from legal marijuana to casino gambling.
State officials, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders past and present, have long talked about the need to revamp campaign finance laws and to limit the influence of lobbyists, but little has changed.
A bill has been introduced repeatedly for nearly two decades to ban fundraisers from the capital when the Legislature is in session. It has gone nowhere.
In at least 29 states, including Colorado, Connecticut and Wisconsin, it is against the law for lobbyists or those who hire them to make campaign contributions while the state legislature is in session, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some states, like Texas and Florida, even go further and prohibit contributions from any source during the legislative session.
The goal, in most cases, is to avoid what is commonplace and legal in New York: Elected officials spend their day meeting with lobbyists in the Capitol to discuss pending legislation and the budget, and then spend their night collecting checks from many of the same people.
Yet that two-step is part of the culture in Albany, especially in the weeks before a new state budget is officially ironed out, when opportunities to win influence are abundant.
The scene is on repeat – 10 one night, eight another. Political veterans in Albany call it “the circuit.”
“You’re up there, the potential donors are up there, the room is available and it’s just an easy thing for people to put together,” said Rory I. Lancman, who represented neighborhoods of Queens in the state Assembly and now does so in the New York City Council. “For a lot of people, it’s probably the easiest, quickest way to raise some money.”
Although legislators may not so much as discuss their fundraisers in the Capitol, they can hold fundraising events in the Albany Room, a private venue virtually inside the Capitol. Just pass through the security turnstiles into an underground concourse and it’s a few steps away.
With almost always another fundraiser to get to, the food and drink at these events are mostly ignored; if a lobbyist spends more than 15 minutes at an event, that quite likely means a missed opportunity elsewhere.
“I’m not on the circuit; I’m just at one party,” James E. McMahon, a lobbyist with the nickname Cadillac, insisted at an event for the Senate Republican Campaign Committee at the Fort Orange Club. “It’s like the Grand Hotel: People come and people go, but nothing ever happens.”
He added: “I’m just here for the friendships.”
Lobbying is indeed alive and well in New York, where 7,444 people had registered to lobby as of the latest report from the state last June, nearly four times as many as registered in 1990. Well over $200 million a year has been spent on lobbying in recent years by those trying to influence the state budget, which could reach $175 billion in 2019.
Cuomo, a prodigious fundraiser himself, included a reform proposal in his budget this year. “We’re always willing to consider additional proposals,” said a Cuomo spokesman, Richard Azzopardi, when asked if the governor would support an Albany fundraising ban.
Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, a Democrat from Ossining who has sponsored the bill to ban fundraisers within 15 miles of the Capitol during session, said it made no sense to give lobbyists paid access to lawmakers during session.
“We’re voting on all the things that lobbyists care about,” she said. “Do we have to have a fundraiser up here at the same time?”
So far she’s gotten little support for her efforts from her colleagues or major lobbyists. “Obviously,” Galef said.
If there’s a must-stop venue on the circuit, it is the Fort Orange Club, a wood-paneled 1880s clubhouse still used by many Republican legislators as their home away from home.
On the night where three fundraisers took place there at the same time, the only issue appeared to be parking.
“As the club will be very busy tonight, additional parking will be available across the street,” read an email sent earlier in the day and warning attendees of crowds.
Inside, arriving guests were almost immediately plotting their next move. “I’m doing Parker,” a man said into a cellphone hurrying past a ticking grandfather clock. “I’ve got like three or four of them.”
In the club’s large, green-walled President’s Room, scores of men in suits traded gossip and nibbled on cheese. Newcomers checked in at a table to drop off checks and to be sure their contributions – $1,000 minimum – had been recorded.
All the regulars seemed to be there: lobbyists from the biggest firms representing interests as varied as school funding and labor relations. Some of the more seasoned lobbyists kept their coats on their arm, as if to facilitate a quick getaway to the next fundraiser.
“Typically, these are not open to the press,” said Scott Reif, the spokesman for the Republican Senate minority, after being alerted to the presence of a reporter at the cocktail party.
Down the hall, Pamela Helming, a Republican state senator, greeted a smattering of supporters in the club’s dark wood library for her $300-minimum fundraiser. A fireplace roared. “This room is always a hundred degrees,” a man complained.
Downstairs, those who came to support Parker were treated to subdued lighting, candlelight and a carving station with the choice of roasted turkey or prime rib. Few could be seen eating; many could be seen lining up around Parker, the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Telecommunications.
“We took over the governor’s office and the Legislature; now we’re taking over the venues!” Brian Early, the legislative director for a Staten Island assemblyman, Charles D. Fall, said, remarking on Democratic dominance in Albany and the club’s traditional association with Republicans.
Then he turned his attention to the door. “The teachers just walked in,” he said, indicating a representative of the New York State United Teachers near another from the AFL-CIO.
By contrast, a half-block up Washington Avenue, a fundraiser for Assemblyman Walter Mosley, a Democrat from Brooklyn, did not draw nearly the numbers necessary to make a dent in the hot food offerings. A bartender stood idly with no one to serve.
More of a party atmosphere could be found in two Democratic fundraisers held in downtown bars on the other side of the Capitol.
Supporters of Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, a Democrat who represents Albany, could sample an assortment of craft beers on tap for the price of admission ($350).
On this night, Ramos, who unseated a more centrist incumbent Democrat, listened to pitches. “I kicked someone out,” she said, referring to a person who had made a contribution but was from a firm that helps companies resist union organizing.