Albany Times-Union  |  October 24, 2017  |  Jess Wisneski

What should a politician do when a major campaign donor turns out to be a racist, misogynist, or sexual predator?

It’s not enough to simply give back the money. Political leaders need to enact public financing of elections.

Harvey Weinstein is the latest example of a donor-turned-embarrassment, but there are so many others. Thanks to public pressure, politicians like Gov. Andrew Cuomo are giving all past contributions away, rejecting political support from the now-publicly shamed and exposed sexual predator.

Just this past summer, billionaire hedge fund manager and campaign donor Dan Loeb lashed out with racist comments toward African-American state Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. A number of elected officials in New York pledged to reject the money of this controversial hedge funder. Cuomo did not.

It shouldn’t be the responsibility of constituents to shame their representatives into returning bad campaign cash. We could have passed into law years ago a system that would have prevented this problem in the first place — a system of small donor public campaign financing.

For years, grass-roots organizations, labor unions, and pro-democracy fighters have been beating the drum to pass legislation that would get big money out of our political system. We propose a public financing system that enables candidates to rely on the support of ordinary citizens by matching small donations with public dollars.

We need it for every office, from Assembly on up to governor. We need it for every town council seat and every seat in the House and Senate. A small dollar donor matching system ensures campaigns are insulated from monied interests, from the reprehensible people mentioned above, and — most critically — from super-rich oligarchs responsible for rampant inequality and the institutional suffering of low- and moderate-income people in the United States.

Today it’s real estate landlords, hedge funders, predatory lenders, insurance and big pharma, gun manufacturers and lobbyists who make up the donor class in New York and the nation as a whole. When some of them are exposed as racists and sexual predators, we get upset — and rightfully so.

But we should be equally disgusted at the way in which they all perpetuate a system that preys on tenants, bankrupts communities and enriches a handful of elites at the expense of working families.

We must demand more. We must demand a solution as big as the problem. One that will shift the balance of power from wealthy elites to everyday people; one that will begin to build the foundation of a thriving democracy in America, where big money is out and people are in.

Publicly financed elections, in which regular people can run and win, and voting rights reforms that allow people to vote easily are essential to building a true representative democracy, one that can build thriving communities where we can all earn a decent wage, own a nice home, raise our kids in good schools, and receive the health care we need.

It’s time for real solutions, not lip-service and vague gestures from elected leaders. If politicians are ashamed of taking one donor’s money, they should be ashamed of taking any of it. The answer should be a simple one: Donors out, people in.