If you’re wondering why your mailbox has been bursting with political flyers, look no further than independent expenditure committees, especially those financed by Wall Street investors, real estate companies and other well-resourced interests.
Under the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, groups can spend an unlimited amount to elect a candidate, so long as they do not coordinate with campaigns.
State records show that committees with inscrutable names such as the Coalition to Restore New York and New Yorkers for a Better Community have poured more than $1.7 million into New York’s state Senate primary contests over the last month, almost entirely in New York City.
A majority of those expenditures attack progressive incumbent Democrats or prop up centrist candidates in Democratic primaries. This year’s crop of ads has also been marked by misleading information in some mailers and digital advertisements.
“When you have independent expenditure committees, you have interest groups involved who don’t always identify themselves clearly,” said Rachael Fauss, senior research analyst with Reinvent Albany, a good government group. “So voters don’t have all the information they need to be able to assess whether what they’re saying is true, and that’s dangerous.”
So who’s behind the attacks?
Charter School Financiers
In the Bronx, three generically named committees have poured more than $377,000 to attack Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a progressive, and support his opponent Miguelina Camilo, who has benefited from an avalanche of ads, text messages, phone calls, and canvassers in the newly drawn district.
Rivera has taken stances in support of expanding tenants’ legal rights and against charter school expansion — causes that run counter to many of those funders’ interests.
New Yorkers For a Balanced Albany, a group whose treasurer works for the pro-charter school organization StudentsFirst New York, has given more than $234,000 to support Rivera’s opponent. The committee is funded largely by a cohort of pro-charter school business leaders, including Jim Walton, an heir to Sam Walton’s Walmart fortune, and Paul Singer, a hedge fund founder notorious across South America for his firm’s cut-throat debt collection tactics in court.
This is not the Walton family’s first foray into Bronx politics: Last year, Alice Walton steered $75,000 to an independent group that unsuccessfully attempted to sway a special election for City Council.
“New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany has a proud history of supporting candidates who advocate for education reform and parent choice,” said Crystal McQueen-Taylor, Executive Director of StudentsFirstNY, which is affiliated with New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, in a written statement. “This year’s elections are critical for Bronx parents, and we’re proud to stand with Miguelina. We can’t wait to see what she’ll bring to Albany.”
‘Common Sense’ New Yorkers
Real estate developers are also going after Rivera too.
The group Common Sense New Yorkers Inc. has funded $53,000 in attack mailers and opposition canvassers against the progressive. State records show it raised most of its money this year from a handful of real estate companies.
Common Sense has leaned heavily on irony and distortions in some of its ads in an attempt to paint candidates as dangerously left wing.
In Queens, Common Sense and another committee, Voters of NY, that also shares the same treasurer, Jeffrey Leb, spent more than $81,000 over the past week in an apparent effort to assist Elizabeth Crowley, a centrist Democrat, running for an open state Senate that runs from Astoria to Williamsburg.
That contest, pitting Crowley, a former Council member, against Democratic Socialists of America-endorsed Kristen Gonzalez, is of particular interest to the real estate industry given Gonzalez’ opposition to a tax break developers hope to restore, known as 421-a, and her support for strengthening eviction protections.
Voters of NY paid for traditional political mailers supporting Crowley and attacking Gonzalez.
Meanwhile, Common Sense sent out $18,000 in mail taking an unusual stand for a real estate-backed group: it urged votes for Nomiki Konst, a socialist candidate who has since dropped out, calling her the “only socialist” in the race — despite Gonzalez’s DSA backing.
Crowley has also benefited from more than $200,000 in promotional expenses and social media ads from NYC Forward, a labor and real estate-backed group that ran racially charged ads painting New York City as under siege from menacing Black and Latino criminals.
Crowley’s own campaign has received $150,000 from real estate interests after pledging not to take any money from big real estate developers.
Madison Square Garden
Nearly 40% of the $1.7 million funneled into state Senate races in the last month came from yet another committee, the Coalition to Restore New York. The group is entirely funded by the Madison Square Garden Entertainment Corp, an entity chaired by James Dolan, the Knicks’ longstanding, if unpopular, owner.
Formed last year ahead of the city’s mayoral race, the Dolan-linked committee publicly opposes New York’s controversial bail reform laws and has sought to amplify concerns about rising crime.
In the run up to the August primary, The Coalition to Restore New York has sent out mailers with images of cop cars burning and hooded men breaking into stores, and directed voters to its website which supports a slate of 10 centrist Democratic candidates, including Camilo in the Bronx and Kevin Parker, an incumbent whose new district stretches southeast from Flatbush to Mill Basin.
The Coalition to Restore New York did not respond to requests for comment.
While the group’s ads are focused on crime, as Gothamist previously reported, the Dolan family has a deeply personal interest in the state legislature, which could repeal a controversial tax break which has exempted Madison Square Garden from city taxes since 1982. Since the tax exemption was granted, the arena has avoided well over $800 million in taxes, according to an estimate last year by the city’s Independent Budget Office.