Over half of states bar cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions while leg­is­la­tors work

The Buffalo News - - CON­TIN­UED FROM THE COVER -

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.

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