In the run-up to Tuesday’s primary, East Hampton Town Democratic Committee-backed candidates benefited from a sizable campaign finance loophole. This needs to change. New York State limits how much a political contributor can give directly. However, contributions to political committees are allowed to be more than 10 times the limit on gifts to individual candidates.
In East Hampton, donations went almost entirely to Campaign 2021, the town Democratic Committee’s fund-raising arm. Instead of having to follow a $1,000 cap, several contributors gave up to $10,000. But even that much was a fraction of the total allowed. In this year’s election cycle, donors to the party committees, as opposed to individual candidates, may give up to $117,000. This is way too much money and invites abuse.
As an example, in the most recent disclosures, Campaign 2021 reported $10,000 from the principal owner of Gurney’s Inn resort in Montauk. One can be almost assured that the town board candidates and the incumbent supervisor seeking re-election knew this. Regardless of the donor’s intentions, this has the appearance of one of the town’s largest businesses trying to gain the favor of officials. East Hampton Democrats are not alone in accepting big sums; it was through the same loophole that helicopter companies were able to give more than $275,000 to the town Republican campaign committee in 2015.
The evidence is in the numbers. In advance of this week’s primary, there were few to no contributions to the individual Democratic Committee’s endorsed candidates. Instead, supporters were directed to Campaign 2021 and gave with gusto. In the most recent disclosure, Campaign 2021 reported receiving more than $71,000, with the top five donors accounting for almost half of the total.
In small-government political races, this back-door system is the equivalent of unlimited dark money donations at the national level and skews influence toward those able to write the largest checks. Because the practice is legal doesn’t mean it is right or fair. Changing the rules would require support in Albany, an unlikely prospect. However, in local races, candidates for town board could — and should — pledge to follow a higher standard and stick to the $1,000 cap on individual contributions.