Vince Morgan, who is planning to challenge Councilwoman Inez Dickens for her Central Harlem seat, has raised about $38,000 of the half million he says he hopes to raise and spend in his bid to unseat the two-term incumbent. He says the city’s matching funds program “unfairly” handicaps challengers, but good government groups reject that argument.
BY DOUGLAS FEIDEN / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
WEDNESDAY, MAY 3, 2013, 10:06 PM
Former community banker Vince Morgan is turning his back on the public campaign finance system as he mounts an underdog Democratic primary challenge to oust City Councilwoman Inez Dickens, he told the Daily News.
The 44-year-old political insurgent hopes to raise a hefty $500,000 to fund his battle with the Harlem establishment — and because he is forgoing taxpayer dollars, there will be no caps on how much he can spend.
“I owe it to my supporters, volunteers and donors not to run a campaign with one of my hands tied behind my back,” he said.
Told that Morgan was bowing out of the city’s voluntary campaign funding system, a Dickens campaign spokesman said the two-term incumbent, a past participant in the public matching funds program, was “currently reviewing her participation.”
The 63-year-old longtime Harlem power broker has until June 10 to accept or nix public dollars to campaign to keep her seat in the 9th City Council district, which runs from Central Park North to 155th St. and from Fifth Ave. on the east to Morningside Ave. and St. Nicholas Ave. on the west.
Candidates in Council races who accept public funds for the Sept. 10 primary must agree to a maximum spending limit of $168,000. The nest egg comes from private donors, who contribute $75,600, or 45%, and city taxpayers, who kick in $92,400, or 55%.
They can also spend another $168,000 in the Nov. 5 general election, even when they face only token GOP opposition, which is virtually certain in the Democratic-dominated uptown district.
But a candidate who “opts out” of public funding faces no caps on spending, although all disclosure requirements still apply and the maximum contribution from a single donor in a Council race is $2,750.
As of March 15, the most recent filing deadline, Dickens had raked in $57,520 from 264 contributions and Morgan had pulled down $38,428 from 55 contributions, according to the city’s Campaign Finance Board.
Morgan, the former chairman of the 125th St. Business Improvement District, says he’s opting out because the system “unfairly” handicaps challengers whose opponents boast greater name recognition, union backing and machine support — as well as the resources of their office.
Dickens has two built-in advantages, he argues: She can use taxpayer-paid mailings to tell constituents of her “good deeds,” and she can dole out “discretionary funding to her political advantage,” he charges.
“The present system assumes that by awarding the incumbent and the challenger the same amount, it levels the playing field,” Morgan said.
“In fact, the challenger who opts into the public finance system, is locked into a battle with limited resources against an incumbent backed by the power of incumbency and New York’s machine politics,” he added.
Good government groups reject that argument:
“He has it exactly backwards,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause. “It’s the public financing system that the incumbent fears the most because it gives the challenger a mechanism to keep pace with the incumbent.”
Dickens wasn’t available for comment. A campaign spokesman said she helped pass legislation expanding public financing by making certain contributions eligible for a match of $6 in city funds for each $1 raised privately, up from a previous $4-to-$1 match.
Thanks to the expanded program, more black women and small donors have been empowered to participate in city elections, the spokesman said.
Dickens’ “review” of whether or not to opt into the system will be wrapped up before the Campaign Finance Board’s June 10 certification deadline.
Lerner offered a word of advice for Dickens. “As a long-term public servant, she should be running on her record and maximizing her small-dollar, small-donor base,” she said.
That’s what most office-seekers do: “About 90% of active candidates for elective office in 2009 participated in the city’s voluntary public matching funds program,” said Matt Sollars, the CFB press secretary.