Beth Rotman has looked at elections across the country – and she thinks the New York City Campaign Finance Board is managing fundraising the best. So she seized the opportunity to succeed longtime executive director Amy Loprest, who is retiring this month after 16 years in the role. Rotman worked at the NYCCFB years ago, as an attorney, then deputy general counsel, but has more recently worked outside of government, as the national director of money in politics and ethics for Common Cause. Before starting Oct. 24 – eight months before the 2023 City Council primaries – Rotman talked with City & State about what the CFB does right, how to limit the influence of super PACs, and whether she can speed up the disciplinary process. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The New York City Campaign Finance Board takes a lot of flack – you’re dealing with hundreds of hundreds of politicians and their staffers and consultants. Why do you want this job?
There’s no question that this is a really hard role to be in. But I see it as a public service. I had one of my mentors explain – who worked on one of the early mayoral campaigns – he said, ‘This is an impossible role, at the New York City Campaign Finance Board, because you have to be both a good-government program and a regulatory agency. So that’s impossible.”
And that is true, it is very difficult to simultaneously encourage (first-time) candidates into a program while also hand-holding them through maybe their first audit ever to ensure protection of the public fisc. We also add to it that we want to encourage people to vote for the first time ever and get the message out to 8 million New Yorkers.
But if we don’t think big, then we’re not able to make the kinds of changes that our democracy deserves. And democracy is how we solve the kind of problems that are facing our country today. New York City deserves – and I believe already had – the best campaign finance board. But I can’t resist wanting to serve and ensure that the program stays incredibly strong, and I hope it gets even stronger.
You say no one else is doing what New York is doing. What makes the CFB unique?
We're dealing with very broken campaign finance systems, first at the national level and also in many states and cities. But in New York City, we have a matching fund system that has really been a beacon of hope for a long time, since its inception (in 1988). But one of the things that has been so phenomenal about New York City – and this has been true through its long arc of progress – is that it's dynamic, and it changes. This is the reason for failure of the federal system of campaign finance, which is that it's the same system on the books that it was when it was passed. So it died. That's what happens if things are not dynamic, they die.
The program that was just run in the last election was the most dynamic. The agency looked like magic to some of us that were not inside the agency. They ran two different programs at once. It was an extraordinary accomplishment. And at the same time that they're running the former campaign finance system, the new eight-to-one match system, they were also running the extraordinary New York City Votes outreach program. Throw in the debates and the voter guide, which is no small accomplishment. There's no other sweeping reform program of that scope.
If the CFB is dynamic, it’s always changing – what changes would you like to see next?
Even though there are more diverse candidates and more diverse contributors than we've ever had before, there's still room for improvement. And that's important for a couple of reasons. If they're involved in campaigns, if they're donating, then they have skin in the game, and they are more likely to vote. So all of these pieces work together.
I’ll lift up that the recent Youth Ambassador Program has been very successful. I think we'll see more efforts on that front. Because when you change habits of the youth – I think we saw this with seat belts – sometimes they bring along the older generation, they remind the older people to put on their seatbelt. And then they've also adapted to new habits for life. If voting for young people can become like seatbelts, then we've really changed their way of life and engaging in democracy.
New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams recently said she liked the idea of moving city primaries to even-numbered years in order to align them with state and federal elections. Do you agree?
I’d have to study more some of the structural changes. I know that there are a lot of different structural changes that could bring out more voters, one reason or another. I’d have to look at that a little bit more closely. I think that from our standpoint of working on the structural democracy issues, there’s already a lot that we can do without making those really sort of more difficult changes.
Is your focus to get more voters? Or better informed voters?
It's both. My belief, supported by what I've read in the research, is that there are people that are tuning out because they don't feel that politics or democracy will help them. So when more people understand particularly how much of a role their local government actually plays in their day to day life, then I think they're more likely to engage. And I think that we are in a country that's really ready for healthy democracy reform and New York City is doing something that no one else is doing. So when people are hoping for change, which we're really seeing in this country, what better way to do that, other than to vote, and to give a small contribution – where in New York City is matched now eight-to-one if you're a qualifying contribution. So your voice is amplified, and you have tremendous power.
The city has strict donation limits – way lower than the state, lower than the federal limits. But super PACs can spend endlessly, and they do. Is there a way for New York City to dull the impact of super PACs? Or is this up to the U.S. Supreme Court?
The best way to dull the impact of super PACs is by amplifying the voice of small donors, so to do more of what New York City is doing already. Unquestionably, Citizens United was a disastrous decision, and Buckley wasn’t helpful before that, and we have constitutional limitations on taking away some of those huge, huge spenders. (But) when you’re amplifying the voices of everyday New Yorkers, that is the best counterbalance to that. Because we’re already seeing a New York government that is more responsive to everyday New Yorkers. It's more representative, it's more diverse, and people are more likely to have what they care about represented in the policies discussed in government. And that is the best antidote to Super PACs.
Would you ever advocate for a democracy voucher program? Or do you prefer the system that we have?
Well, I think the challenge of the democracy voucher program is, while it's a very interesting model, right now exists in Seattle only. And hopefully will pass in Oakland. But those are much smaller places than the city of New York. So they're giving something like $100 to each person to do that. In the city of New York it would be an extraordinary price tag. The city has given out approximately $130 million in the last election. So I am not here to announce that I think that vouchers is something that necessarily the city could afford.
But what I do think is interesting about vouchers is one of the reasons some of the proponents are so interested in it and working on it is because there is some research that it brings out low propensity voters. So I think there's also research that contributors in the small donor programs are more likely to vote. And that's something I want to focus on in my early time at the New York City Campaign Finance Board, and see how we bring out low propensity voters and more voters, and how that links with new donors. So that's really what attracts me to the voucher work, more so than the mechanics themselves.
The state campaign finance system is a mess compared to the city. Do you plan to work with the state and advise them?
Absolutely. In my role at Common Cause I've been an advisor to many cities and states and also at the national level and would absolutely continue that work. I'm part of the Council on Governmental Ethics Laws, where we are a community of oversight agencies and some nonpartisan nonprofits, including Common Cause, where we are very invested in helping partners succeed. And we know how hard it is to get these programs off the ground, particularly.
I always hear complaints about how the discipline process at the CFB takes years, and leaves people in personal debt after taking like, five years. Is there a way to speed up that review and audit process? And is there a desire to?
I've known both of the past directors. I was there at the agency under the first director, and I know about some of the reforms that were made in the second. And while you can't really talk to the press too much about the inside scoop on auditing protocols too deeply, in short, while some work has certainly been done, I know that will be something that we'll be looking at, because we're always looking at ways to balance the good government piece with the protection of the public fisc. But I'm going to have to really look at that when I start.
I will say that I've had the benefit of also creating an audit and oversight system for another program. I've had the benefit of seeing a lot of different systems. So I bring a perspective and an open mind. And, you know, I'm familiar with those concerns. I also understand, as I've mentioned, the program gave out $126 million. These programs fall apart when an oversight agency misses something critical.