Special interests have poured money into primaries for Brooklyn elections this year, hoping that their investment will pay off in candidates who will shape city policy over the next decade.
The city’s Campaign Finance Board sets strict contribution limits in city races, whether a candidate participates in its public matching funds program or not. Participating candidates can accept $2,000 individual contributions if running for citywide office, $1,500 in borough president races, and $1,000 in City Council races; for non-participants, the limits are $5,100, $3,950, and $2,850, respectively.
But deep-pocketed special interests also have the option of making “independent expenditures,” which are made independent of a candidate even if the campaign, typically TV ads or mailers, is openly supportive of said candidate. As long as the committee making the IE doesn’t coordinate with a campaign, and discloses its donors, they can spend unlimited amounts of money.
The vast majority of the IEs in this election cycle have been spent on the mayor’s race, but the committees have also spent millions of dollars in borough president and City Council races.
For instance, borough president candidate Robert Cornegy Jr. has been the beneficiary of $171,106 in IEs from New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, a pro-charter school Political Action Committee mostly funded by Alice Walton, heiress to the Walmart fortune. Walton is the 17th richest person in the world, according to Forbes, with a net worth of $66.2 billion; she contributed $800,000 to the PAC.
The money was spent on internet ads and phonebanks on behalf of Cornegy, per the Campaign Finance Board. Cornegy is a supporter of charter schools, having sent his own children to charters, and believes the state’s cap on the number of charter schools that can operate in the city should be lifted.
It’s the largest IE in any borough president race in the city; in Brooklyn, the only other IE in the competitive race for beep is a $1,500 spend by the Working Families Party national PAC on behalf of Antonio Reynoso.
The PAC previously spent big on a special election for City Council in the Bronx, spending $140,454 on behalf of John Sanchez’s campaign for the 15th Council District, a race he ultimately lost to Oswald Feliz, and has spent $40,915 on behalf of Manhattan City Council candidate Shaun Abreu.
The Waltons have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the years funding and promoting charter schools, and have been large donors nationally to both Democrats and Republicans.
The beep race isn’t the only domain for IEs, though.
A pro-business group called Common Sense NYC has poured $178,897 into Brooklyn Council races, supporting some candidates and opposing others. They’ve spent $26,008 on behalf of Henry Butler in District 36, $11,078 for Justin Krebs in District 39, $8,219 for Doug Schneider in District 39, $14,861 for Nikki Lucas in District 42, $14,300 for Farah Louis in District 45, and $31,487 for Ari Kagan in District 47. They’ve also spent $33,605 against Michael Hollingsworth in District 35 and $39,339 against Alexa Avilés in District 38; both Hollingsworth and Avilés are running with the support of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Common Sense NYC’s biggest backers are real estate developer Stephen Ross, who contributed $1 million, and Estee Lauder heir Ronald Lauder, who contributed $500,000.
Darma Diaz in District 37 is the beneficiary of a $26,252 IE by Voters of NYC, whose funders include real estate firms run by bigwigs Silverstein Properties, WLZ (William L. Zeckendorf) Properties, and Rosewood Realty Group.
Big business isn’t the only one in the IE game.
Labor Strong 2021, a joint effort of labor unions 32BJ, AFSCME, CWA, Hotel Trades Council, and NYSNA, has spent $681,751 on behalf of City Council candidates citywide. That includes $11,928 for Avilés, $29,166 for Butler, $14,296 for Kagan, $16,884 for Louis, $50,681 for District 37 candidate Sandy Nurse, and $32,388 for District 33 candidate Lincoln Restler.
Several labor PACs have spent big on behalf of Crystal Hudson, who is running in District 35 to replace term-limited Laurie Cumbo. The District Council of Carpenters’ PAC, Carpenters for Progress, has spent $39,333 on her behalf; 32BJ’s PAC has spent $40,812; and the PAC of hotel unions Hotel Trades Council and UNITE Here, Hotel Workers for Stronger Communities, has spent $70,266.
Nurse has benefitted from $22,923 in IEs from Road to Justice, an effort mostly funded by 1199 SEIU and advocacy group Make the Road Action.
Early voting in the primaries continues until June 20, and Election Day is June 22.