As the race for New York City mayoral nominations enters its final stretch, Democratic candidate Christine Quinn doesn't just have to struggle against front-runner Bill De Blasio — she also has a fight on her hands with Democratic activists.
Communications Workers of America Local 1180 President Arthur Cheliotes, along with two business executives, head the political action committee NYC is Not for Sale, which is running a campaign called "Anybody But Quinn." The group consists of a coalition of left-leaning labor unions and Democratic activists. Against Quinn mainly for her stance on such issues as living wage, paid sick leave, term limits, and animal rights, the group certainly does stick up for progressive issues, but its expenditure of huge amounts of money to attack Quinn doesn’t feel particularly progressive to me.
Instead, as usual, the involvement of a PAC just hurts the ability of candidates to run against each other on equal footing.
NYC is Not for Sale has spent more than $770,000 thus far on its “Anybody But Quinn” campaign, which has included television ads, mailings, and robocalls. And because the PAC is unaffiliated with a candidate, it can spend money, as per the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. Meanwhile, Quinn’s participation in the city’s campaign financing system limits how much money her campaign can spend. Outside money promises to play a larger part in this campaign than usual, as candidates run up against spending limits and PACs gain greater power.
The key players behind the PAC are Cheliotes; Wendy Kelman Neu, CEO of the recycling and water transportation corporation Hugo Neu; and NYCLASS, an organization dedicated to ending the existence of horse-drawn carriages in Manhattan. CWA 1180 has endorsed John Liu for mayor, while NYCLASS’s website refers to de Blasio as an “animal hero."
It’s true that Quinn has opposed a bill that would offer electric cars as an alternative to horse-drawn carriages. Last year, she severely cut back a law that raised the wages of workers in city-subsidized developments. And, of course, her record on term limits has haunted her throughout the primary. First declaring her staunch opposition to any change on term limits, she then turned around and supported Bloomberg during his campaign to obtain a third term. This sort of reversal on an important issue and certainly should be interrogated.
What's troubling isn't the PAC's message about some of Quinn's positions, it's the way the PAC laws encourage them to spend their efforts on a take-down, rather than on endorsing a different candidate (which would result in the PAC risking encountering spending limits).
Spending large sums of money running attack ads doesn’t advance the quality of democratic debate in New York City — instead it gives greater power to those who can spend a lot of cash on politics.
Whatever you think about Quinn, it's clear that the abilities of PACs to spend huge amounts of money in races small and large damages the ability of candidates to run against one another equally. In this system, candidates who can spend their own money and drum up PACs with big donors find it easier to run. Big donors also have more opportunity to influence the outcomes of races. Meanwhile, middle- and working-class voters grow more and more disillusioned, and candidates who might have come from a different class background are less and less able to find a way to campaign amidst the clamor of the wealthy.