Maybe it’s time, even long past time, to rethink an important regulation governing political campaigns in New York City. To capture the spirit, we could call it the Anatole France Revision.
Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.
As things now stand when it comes to posters or fliers on public property, people running for office are treated no differently from those offering computer lessons or looking for lost cats. They are all governed by Section 10-119 of the city’s Administrative Code, which in eye-glazing detail and at numbing length makes it unlawful for anyone to:
“Paste, post, paint, print, nail or attach or affix by any means whatsoever any handbill, poster, notice, sign, advertisement, sticker or other printed material upon any curb, gutter, flagstone, tree, lamppost, awning post, telegraph pole, telephone pole, public utility pole, public garbage bin, bus shelter, bridge, elevated train structure, highway fence, barrel, box, parking meter, mailbox …”
Enough. It goes on and on. But you get the idea. You may also get a kick out of the suggestion that we still have telegraph poles.
Around election time, political candidates routinely run afoul of this regulation. Just as routinely, the Sanitation Department issues summonses, each typically carrying a $75 fine. The penalties can add up fast.
The public advocate, Bill de Blasio, amassed poster-related fines of about $300,000 in his 2009 campaign. The bill that year for the present city comptroller, John C . Liu, was about $525,000. The previous comptroller, William C. Thompson Jr., owes nearly $600,000 from his unsuccessful 2009 race against Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
All three fought the penalties, saying they were improperly imposed. Mr. de Blasio finally gave in a year ago. But Mr. Liu still refuses to pay, as does Mr. Thompson, who was told by an administrative board just last week that the fines stand.
Their resistance has invited scorn from tabloid editorialists — “weasel” being a favored word in The Daily News — and from the mayor. Not that Mr. Bloomberg is free of sin himself. His 2005 campaign, for example, outdid all others that year for flouting the rules, and received 4,218 summonses and $307,725 in fines.
Of course, when you have the wherewithal to spend $85 million, as Mr. Bloomberg did in 2005, or $108 million, which he splurged on his 2009 campaign, a $300,000 tab amounts to chump change. Not so for the less well-heeled, a description that applies to everyone else in New York politics.
Should people pay their debts? Sure. A much larger question, though, is whether the post-no-bills rule should apply at all to political campaigns, especially in their final stages. While the mayor’s vast wealth graphically illustrates the issue, it goes beyond him.
The existing regulations work, as if by design, against candidates with scant name recognition or without the ability of a Michael Bloomberg to flood the airwaves with commercials. Nobody likes having campaign posters turn into street litter. But isn’t democratic expression a higher value?
“There is a real question as it affects political speech,” said Martin E. Connor, a former state senator from Brooklyn, who is Mr. Liu’s lawyer.
A poster is to a television commercial what a pea shooter is to a grenade launcher. Nonetheless, it is a time-tested way for candidates to make themselves known. “There’s always a belief that visibility adds something to a campaign,” said Jerry H. Goldfeder, who has been a lawyer for Mr. Thompson.
Mr. Connor noted that the reality for most candidates was that “you can’t shake enough hands, and you can’t afford radio or TV, particularly local candidates — no way.” Posters, he said, can thus loom large, “given the budgets that a lot of people running for local office have, or even someone running for mayor who’s not Michael Bloomberg.”
Then how about amending the rules to give a dispensation to political speech, perhaps with a time limit attached? Mr. Goldfeder put it this way: “You change the statute to say, ‘O.K., you have two weeks before the election for posters, and three days after, you need to take them down. And if you don’t, then we’ll send out our people to fine you.’”
As we said, it could be named the Anatole France Revision, for the French writer who in 1894 observed, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.”
Right now, New York’s poster rules have that same majesty.