By Larisa Karr
With hundreds of candidates flooding the field during this election year, New York City voters have multiple options to support contenders through on-the-ground volunteering and financial contributions. In central Brooklyn, home to several active races filled with Haitian-American candidates, the engagement level has drawn a financial boon for many of the campaigns.
Multiple first-time candidates for City Council Districts 36, 40 and 46 have reached the maximum amount of funding available for their campaigns — $160,444.
“This program fundamentally changes how candidates run for office in New York City,” said Matthew Sollars, a spokesperson for the New York City Campaign Finance Board (NYCCFB). “They can completely run their campaigns based on low-dollar contributions from their neighbors and other people in their community that support their candidacy.”
Sollars said that although the maximum amount is technically $168,888, the NYCCFB withholds five percent of funding to ensure compliance with the board’s guidelines. Toward the end of the election cycle, the candidates will receive the balance as a final payment.
The number of candidates this year has raised the question of whether funds will be concentrated in a smaller number of contenders, experts said. It’s also a sign that voters are engaged and aware of the candidates.
Experts said more candidates are being able to run competitive campaigns as a result of the program and this is setting the stage for a particularly monumental election.
“The city has been a national leader with the Matching Funds program and the program is really designed to match a candidate’s competitiveness in the public,” said Chisun Lee, Deputy Director of Election Reform at the Brennan Center for Justice, a law and public policy institute.
Candidates said the program has been instrumental in helping them build stronger campaigns. It has enabled them to pay for staff, advertising and public outreach. Such engagement is instrumental in a year when ranked-choice voting is also a factor as voters have not used that method to complete their ballots.
“Because of Matching Funds, I’ve been able to focus less on raising money and more on speaking with the people who matter the most, the voters,” said Rita Joseph, a candidate for City Council District 40. “We’re a small-dollar, grassroots-powered campaign and our donors reflect that.”
Joseph, as well as fellow Haitian-American candidates Josue Pierre, Edwin Raymond, Gardy Brazela and Chi Ossé, reached the limit of $160,444 to support their campaigns in central Brooklyn.
Ossé and Henry Butler are the only two of 12 Council candidates in District 36 to have reached the maximum limit. In District 40, Joseph, Pierre, Raymond, and Kenya Handy-Hilliard are the four of 14 candidates who maxed out as well, while Brazela and Shirley Paul in District 46 are two out of 10 candidates in their race to have achieved the highest amount of funding.
In comparison, equally crowded council races like Council District 17 in the Bronx and Council District 26 in Queens only have two candidates from each district who have received the maximum amount of funds.
Started in 1988 by the NYCCFB, an independent agency focused on city elections, the program matches campaign contributions by an 8-to-1 ratio, meaning that this year’s candidates had to raise about $20,055.50 each to receive the maximum $160,044.
The program, which aims to curb the outsized influence of big donors, has been praised by election experts and candidates alike for allowing working-class community members to have a voice.
“Working-class, immigrant communities are the types of communities that get left out when you have a system where it’s just candidates who are able to raise big checks from mega donors,” said Pierre, also a candidate for District 40. “You have to be very thoughtful of how you allocate your resources and understand what your priorities are in terms of getting in touch with voters and organizing your team.”
Lee said this is an exceptional election year also because of the amount of term-limited positions up for grabs. In the City Council alone, 31 out of 51 seats will see the inauguration of new members, many of whom are political newcomers.
“Whether there are two candidates or 12 candidates, we would still be covering the same ground on this campaign,” said Raymond, a candidate for Council District 40 as well. “It’d be really difficult to be viable without matching funds in the middle of a pandemic.”
Sollars, of the NYCCFB, said seeing the first-time central Brooklyn candidates max out with funding is “significant” as it is an indicator of their successful attempts to engage community members.
When the NYCCFB started the program in the late 1980s, the city’s political system was reeling from multiple corruption scandals. Initially the board matched each dollar at a 1-1 ratio for up to $1,000 per contributor, but the match has changed over the years.
Now, City Council and Borough President candidates benefit from a match of 8-1 for each individual contribution of up to $175. Mayoral, Public Advocate, and Comptroller candidates are matched for a maximum of $250 in individual contributions.
Sollars said that the program guards against corruption because candidates have to receive an audit by the NYCCFB after the election, where they produce documents showing how they spent the money.
Candidates said their campaigns have benefited greatly from the program and they have been able to reach more voters as a result.
The primary ways candidates spend the funding are through mail, advertisements, hiring full-time staff, and in-person outreach, according to Sollars.
Several candidates have said hiring a full-time staff is especially costly, but as a result of the Matching Funds program, they are able to do so and bolster their community outreach.
“Running a campaign is very expensive because you have to hire a consultant, campaign manager, and field manager,” said Brazela, a candidate for City Council District 46. “The matching funds have been a plus for all of us.”
For candidates not deeply entrenched in the local political establishment, the Matching Funds program has given them optimism about their campaigns moving forward.
“This program allows for newcomer candidates, a young, queer person like me, to run with the big dogs,” said Ossé, a candidate for District 36. “It showed the amount of support behind us and how much you can really, truly fight.”