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Are Democrats Done Fighting Big Money in Politics?

New York City has one of the most generous campaign finance programs in the country. So why are all the leading Democrats in the mayoral race relying on super PACs?

Democratic mayoral candidate Eric Adams holds a microphone as his supporters wave American flags.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams at a campaign stop in Queens: Conservative activists have donated roughly $1 million to Adams’s super PAC.

With early voting beginning in New York City this weekend, the mayoral candidates have taken to the airwaves to make their closing arguments. Local TV is flush with predictable campaign ads: testimonials from spouses; conversations with small children on city buses; passionate rally speeches about crime; and the inevitable shots of candidates walking gritty streets and scenic blocks of brownstones.

But there are also commercials that might seem a little odd if TV viewers squint to read the fine print on the screen or strain to hear the fast-talking disclaimer at the end. An ad for former presidential candidate Andrew Yang ends with the tagline, “When New York gets knocked down, we get back up. We will come back stronger than ever.” This Yang spot was not paid for by his campaign but by a murky entity called “Comeback PAC.” On the Monday afternoon local news, the Yang ad followed a commercial boosting former Citibank executive Ray McGuire that was paid for by a group called “New York for Ray.”

These are both super PAC ads—the kind of unlimited, nominally independent, political expenditures that Citizens United paved the way for, allowing the wealthy to pour unlimited funds into American politics. All of the seven top Democratic candidates for mayor now have a super PAC working on their behalf. (For the record, Diane Morales, whose left-wing campaign is badly sputtering, does not have a super PAC.) Through mid-May, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, super PACs were responsible for roughly a third of all the money spent on the mayoral race. This trend has not received the public attention it deserves, but it serves as a symbol of growing Democratic hypocrisy about big money in politics.

Not too long ago, super PACs were associated with money-bag Republican donors like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers. When the Barack Obama team encouraged wealthy liberals to fund a super PAC to work against Mitt Romney in 2012, the campaign used the pious explanation that to do otherwise would be “unilateral disarmament.” That Cold War trope became a standard Democratic excuse, as they leaned heavily on super PACs in presidential and congressional races against the GOP over the last decade.

But what are super PACs doing in the middle of a Democrats-only primary for New York mayor? New York City has fulfilled the fantasies of every reformer by creating a campaign finance system so pure that it might be emulated in the Garden of Eden. So why are all these liberal candidates turning to the superwealthy (including some Republicans) to aid their campaigns?

The city that gave the world Tammany Hall and helped pioneer machine politics—whose skyline owes as much to the power of real estate developers as it does to architectural visionaries—has embraced laws ostensibly designed to drive the special interests and wealthy donors to the margins of politics. The mayoral primary features a matching-funds program that provides $8 in cash subsidies for every dollar that a candidate raises from small contributions. (That, by the way, is a more generous formula than the six-to-one match proposed in the For the People Act, the Democrats’ ambitious voting rights and campaign reform bill currently bogged down in the Senate.)

Occasionally, super PACs come up in Democratic debates and discussions. Both candidates and pundits have rightly mocked former Obama Cabinet official Shaun Donovan for depending heavily on a super PAC, New Start NYC, fortified by $6.8 million in contributions from his father, Michael Donovan. Kathryn Garcia, the former city sanitation commissioner whose campaign recently earned key endorsements from both The New York Times and Daily News, boasted in an interview with me late last month, “We don’t have a super PAC. Apparently, everyone else almost does.” But that was then. The Times recently reported that Garcia, too, is now getting her very own super PAC.

In theory, super PACs are completely independent of the candidates that they support—and any coordination is illegal. That’s why the Donovan father-and-son act is so inherently comic, although presumably it complies with the law. During last week’s mayoral debate, some of the contenders challenged Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, over the $1 million conservative activists have donated to his super PAC, Strong Leadership NYC. (These right-wing hedge funders have been equally generous with their gifts to Yang’s super PAC.) Adams’s response was a portrait in innocence: “I don’t control them.”

But Adams—like his rivals—could choose to repudiate any super PAC. All seven candidates with super PACs could easily hold daily press conferences begging the organizers to take down their ads. Or each candidate could promise that anyone associated with a super PAC would be persona non grata as long as he or she is mayor. (Yes, such a pledge might cause ripples in the Donovan family.) Instead, the silence from all seven candidates has been deafening.

Remember, New York City has the kind of model public finance program that should inspire daisies to burst through the sidewalks and larks to sing from every tree that grows in Brooklyn. The result: The major candidates are trying to have it both ways. All of them (aside from McGuire, who is depending entirely on private contributions) take public financing as they quietly cheer on the super PACs acting on their behalf.

Good-government reformers have long believed that campaign-finance legislation alone can cleanse politics of special-interest money. But New York City has the right laws—and it still cannot escape the scourge of super PACs, even in a Democrats-only primary. Unless the win-at-any-cost political culture among Democrats changes, all the earnest sermons about Citizens United will be about as sincere as an alcoholic preacher advocating for temperance.