How much money defines a serious mayoral candidate?

To get into the city's official mayoral debates a candidate needs to raise $174,255. But how do you raise money if you don't have a platform like the debates to get your message out?
To get into the city’s official mayoral debates a candidate needs to raise $174,255. But how do you raise money if you don’t have a platform like the debates to get your message out? Photo Credit: NBC Universal / Dana Edelson

Does it seem early to talk about debates for the 2017 mayoral and other citywide campaigns? It’s not, because entrance into debates depends on something happening right now: candidate fundraising.

To appear in the city’s official mayoral primary debates, the baseline requirement is that candidates raise and spend $174,225.

That threshold is only 2.5 percent of the spending limit of the city’s matching funds program — far below the amount that competitive candidates throw around and theoretically an amount that more fringe candidates could meet if they catch public excitement. A candidate needs to both raise and spend the money before the September filing deadline to ensure he or she has more skin in the game than simply loaning him or herself a large chunk of money. A candidate could write that check, but then would have to spend it too.

In the room where it happens

But who gets into the debates has been debated and tweaked since the current system began in 1997. It raises the question of how to determine whether someone is serious enough to be publicly elevated for a run, while also increasing attention to competitive local races.

This year is no exception, particularly because of the numbers on the Democratic side: only Mayor Bill de Blasio has raised and spent enough to make the debate, and if nobody else hits the threshold the mayor won’t be required to debate at all.

The debate program began in 1997 after the 1993 contest when David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani could not agree to terms for debates. The dispute? Over whether a third-party candidate should take the stage with them. There were no debates that year despite $3 million in public funds going to the leading candidates.

At first, the debates had less-strict entrance requirements. During the 1997 Democratic primary, city engineer Eric Ruano-Melendez got into the debates despite having raised only $20 and never getting much traction, according to a Campaign Finance Board after-election report in 2001. News accounts record one of his debate performances including the singing of a snippet of the national anthem and other miscues. The New York Times asked to be dropped from hosting contention in 2001 because entrance requirements didn’t limit the debates to “serious contenders as judged by journalistic standards.”

Legislation in 2004 set a $50,000 fundraising threshold for the first primary debate and allowed other criteria like polling to be added.

This year, the rules have changed again, ratcheting up the threshold for the first primary debate (the second “leading contender” debate will have more stringent requirements). CFB spokesman Matt Sollars says the monetary threshold was due to be raised as it had been static since 2005.

Some of the candidates trailing de Blasio on the Democratic side have complained about the increase. As of Monday’s filing deadline, none of them have hit the threshold that they’d need by the fall.

“That’s a heavy lift for us,” police reform advocate Bob Gangi says of the $174,225. He has raised some $6,500 in net contributions, more in loans, and spent almost $4,000. He cites the difficulties candidates outside the political world have in making the connections necessary to get the money.

Former city council member Sal Albanese expressed confidence he’d hit the threshold — he now has net contributions of nearly $83,000 with $6,000 spent, according to Monday’s filings — but said the tripling of the fundraising threshold for this year’s race was “unbelievably unfair.”

A chicken and egg question

The requirement isn’t all that much if you plan to run a citywide campaign leading up to the September primary debate. But it’s not easy to cadge money from donors who have their eye on an incumbent mayor who has already raised $4.4 million in net contributions. You’d have to be pretty serious to be worth the donation, but how to get the money if you aren’t serious enough to be on the debate stage?

On the other hand, looser requirements have resulted in chaotic debates in the past, even in New York. That doesn’t necessarily lead to great voter education.

“I don’t have a problem with demonstrating you’ve got a modicum of support,” Albanese says, but he suggests that support could be measured non-monetarily: perhaps by reaching 1,000 donors, for example, of whatever size.

He also supports a fuller public financing system such as a version of what exists in Seattle, where voters receive “vouchers” totaling $100 to send to their preferred candidates.

Debate sponsors are set to be announced in June, according to the CFB. From then until September, the candidates will have to fundraise and spend to prove their seriousness under the law in order to make the stage.

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