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Small Donors Shine in Record-Breaking NYC Mayoral Election Year

Maya Wiley announces the start of her mayoral campaign outside the Brooklyn Museum, Oct. 8, 2020.
Maya Wiley announces the start of her mayoral campaign outside the Brooklyn Museum, Oct. 8, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Whichever candidate prevails once every last vote for mayor gets counted, small campaign donors and the champions of a ramped-up public matching funds program can claim a win.

The number of people donating less than $100 to a campaign has tripled since the last time the top job in New York City was open in 2013, outpacing an overall major increase in the number of donors, THE CITY’s analysis of contributor records found.

This year, 15 candidates will appear on the ballot, versus 12 in 2013.

The small-donor surge proved especially sharp for progressive campaigns. For Dianne Morales and Maya Wiley, eight out of 10 donors from the five boroughs gave modest sums — in contrast to Eric Adams and Ray McGuire, who each got fewer than 40% of local contributions from small donors.

Small donations from New York City residents are at the heart of the city’s public matching funds program, where the first $250 a local contributor gives to a candidate is matched 8-to-1 — a match higher now than in 2013.

In a statement to THE CITY, Morales said that the public money helped level a heavily tilted playing field.

“Those $10 donations and matching fund program made it possible for me to represent that NYC essential worker on the debate stage,” she said, pointing to the super PACs that are spending millions of dollars — including large sums from billionaires — to promote some rival candidates.

Supercharged Matching Funds

The small-donor boom is fueling a record-setting year for the number of campaign contributions in a New York City primary election. As of mid-May, 54,000 local donors had given to mayoral candidates — a 69% increase from 32,000 contributors in the 2013 full primary and general election cycles.

Also driving the shift to small donors was a lowering of the maximum contribution to $2,000, down from $4,950. Both the donation cap and the 8-to-1 match were approved overwhelmingly by voters via referendum in 2018, as recommended by a City Charter revision commission convened by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The rise of online fundraising has made it quicker and easier to give.

Half of this year’s local donors made contributions of $50 or less, compared to $175, the 2013 primary’s median. The average donation also decreased to $188, from $747.

Nick Sooy, a philosophy PhD candidate at Fordham University, had few expectations for his $25 contribution to Kathryn Garcia when he gave back in February.

“She wasn’t very well known,” said Sooy. “I assumed it’s going to be a lost cause so I thought I would throw a couple of dollars in to help.”

Sooy said he is thrilled that Garcia’s campaign has gained momentum since then. He was not aware that the city matched his $25 donation with $200, bringing $225 to Garcia’s campaign.

“It makes me want to donate again,” Sooy said.

Boost for Women

Supporters of the city’s public matching funds say the system empowers both small donors and under-represented candidates who may lack the resources and network to wage a campaign.

“We have three serious women contenders for mayor,” said John Siegal, a former appointee to the 2018 Charter Review Commission and a partner at the law firm BakerHostetler, as he cited Garcia, Wiley and Morales. “None of those three would be able to run plausible races without the enhanced small donor provisions.”

Public funds make up an average 77% of Wiley, Garcia and Morales campaign revenue, May campaign finance filings show. That share is 48% for the four male Democratic candidates receiving matching funds: Yang, Adams, Shaun Donovan and Scott Stringer.

Mayoral candidate Kathryn Garcia speaks with voters in Corona, Queens, May 4, 2021.
Mayoral candidate Kathryn Garcia speaks with voters in Corona, Queens, May 4, 2021.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

McGuire is not participating in the public financing program, while Donovan is campaigning under the older 6-to-1 matching system, with the higher maximum donation.

Siegal said that without the matching funds, money from industries like real estate and banking with “an inordinate and disproportionate amount of influence” would have dominated the election.

The city Campaign Finance Board has paid $32.3 million to mayoral candidates so far. Participating candidates can each receive up to $6.5 million, according to the board.

“It’s now clearly possible to wage a plausible campaign for mayor based on a volume of contributions from a cross section of citizens whose interests are in the city they live in, and not necessarily in the specific business interests that they work in,” Siegal said.

Tale of Two Cities

The city’s public matching funds system has been around for almost three decades, but such a program is rare elsewhere. Experts say voters tend to oppose subsidizing electoral campaigns, even as they disapprove the outsized influence of mega donors and political action committees.

“New York is probably the most bold public financing program in the country,” said Raymond La Raja, a political scientist and associate dean at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

La Raja said limiting the match to local residents and relatively small sums boosts engagement from both candidates and voters.

“Politicians have an incentive to go speak to people who can’t give a lot of money,” he said, “It encourages people to participate more in politics.”

Still, certain inequities persist.

The three-fold increase in small donors was concentrated in neighborhoods that are already politically active, such as the Upper East Side and Upper West Side in Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn. By contrast, working-class neighborhoods outside of Manhattan and those with a high share of immigrants saw more modest changes.

Non-citizens are also disadvantaged. “Permanent residents can donate to candidates, but they still can’t vote,” said Sandra Choi, a civic participation manager with MinKwon Center for Community Action.

Last year, the City Council introduced a bill that would allow permanent residents to cast ballots in municipal elections. All Democratic mayoral candidates support the measure, except for Kathryn Garcia, Aaron Foldenauer and Ray McGuire. Choi’s group is a part of a coalition calling for enfranchisement of permanent residents.

Choi said even with the city’s matching system, working-class New Yorkers are not typically sought after by candidates.

“Class has a lot to do with how much you can participate and how much your voice matters in the process,” said Choi.

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