On Oct. 6 at 7 p.m., the New York State Senate candidate for Vassar’s district Terry Gipson came to Rockefeller Hall to address Campaign Finance Reform. The event was organized by Democracy Matters, a nonpartisan student organization that focuses on educating students about current political issues.
“I am passionate about these issues,” is my absolute favorite thing to hear from a source. When I emailed Executive Director and co-founder of Democracy Matters Joe Mandle regarding Terry Gipson’s talk, he responded to my queries with vigor and passion. Mandle has a hand in policymaking, recruits interns to Democracy Matter’s 50 nationwide chapters and sits as the Staff Link for New York chapters. Promoting student involvement in events such as the Gipson event, Mandle said, “I place the highest value on the political involvement of college students. A democracy can only work if people are actively involved. I am confident that this generation realizes the importance of fighting for their issues–climate change, fossil fuel dependence, mass incarceration, outrageous student debt and the cost of college, economic inequality and more … In New York, fracking was banned by the politicians ONLY because an anti-fracking movement–including students– pushed them to ban it!” Mandle explicitly stated of the talk, “I thought bringing Terry Gipson to campus to talk about a critical issue–the outsized role of money in our democracy and elections was very important. Terry is a strong advocate for getting big money out of politics and people back in. And the Senate race in the New York legislature is a critical one this year. If his visit impressed upon students the importance of voting this year, it was well worthwhile.”
The event was made possible due to the cooperation of Christopher Clark ’18 and the other members of Democracy Matters with Terry Gipson’s campaign manager Josh Mumm this year. Having hosted a Grassroots training seminar with Mumm last month, Clark said, “We just mentioned one day that we’d love to have Terry come talk. He said he could work something out, and the rest is history.”
I’ll admit that my expectations were low as I shuffled into Rocky that night. In the chaos of this year’s presidential race, it did not occur to me that the politician I would be seeing that night might be a genuine and sincere man. I was pleasantly surprised. I learned a lot that night; some of it was sideline information, like Gipson’s fact that “the New York State Senate has been under majority Republican control for 78 years. It’s kept New York from being as progressive as many people think we should be.”
The majority of the information that night, however, was regarding campaign finances. The maximum individual donation to a U.S. Senate campaign is $2,700 per election cycle. A New York State Assembly candidate representing 150,000 people can receive a maximum individual donation of $4,400. A New York State Senator representing 350,000 people can receive a maximum donation of $11,000 from one person. For corporations, the maximum amount of money they can donate to any campaign is $5,000 per year. That in and of itself doesn’t sound too bad. However, through the LLC loophole, corporations can open up endless LLCs, each with its own individual donation limit, allowing corporations to donate a virtually endless supply of money in order to get the candidate who supports their stances of hot issues elected. This is especially seen in pharmaceutical, oil and real estate companies. The LLC loophole was put in place by the ruling of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in January 2010. Gipson claimed, “The amount of money we have in the political system is overwhelming. It’s drowning out the voices of the voters.” According to Gipson, the bill to close the LLC loophole has been passed by the State Assembly several times, but it makes it to the State Senate floor. Gipson says, “There’s a roadblock in the road of progress and right now it’s in the shape of dollar signs.”
This is why Terry Gipson, Democracy Matters and many others are pushing to reform campaign finance and switch to the Public Finance System. The Public Finance System maintains its operations by raising small contributions from individuals–these funds are then matched by the state. This system would require candidates to reach out and talk to their voters more and there would be a cap on how much money each candidate would raise, placing those running for an office on equal financial footing. Gipson said, “Right now connection to personal wealth and the political leanings lining up with people with personal wealth has a lot to do with if you get elected … The campaign finance system in place suppresses the common individual from running for office; they just can’t afford to. Lots of good people are in office doing good things but struggle because they find this brick wall in front of them.”
In regards to the current New York State Senate election, the issue of campaign finance is definitely having an effect. Gipson said, “Of the 63 seats, only six of them are competitive because no one can raise enough money to make it worth it to run against the others.” Gipson served for the 2012-2014 term, but was edged out when he ran for reelection in 2014. He was influenced to run after gaining experience on the local level when he found the state senator he dealt with to be, “extremely unhelpful and extremely uninterested … He had been in office over 30 years.” Gipson also believes that term limits should be in place for senators to bring in new leadership and new ideas and prevent the current stagnation.
Terry Gipson has many personal connections to Vassar. His campaign office is right across from campus, and he has many friends on the faculty.
“I’m here all the time. Vassar is one of the largest employers in the district. I’m very connected to this college; it’s a great school. We’re very lucky to have it here.” Gipson said, “Duchess County is under Republican control … It’s refreshing to have this campus in the middle of it … It’s an island of liberalism, and it’s nice to come visit this island often.”