When it comes to political fat cats rolling in dough, both hard and soft, few are as larded as the city’s real estate lobby. Stuffed to the rafters with cash from the city’s wealthiest landlords and developers, groups like the Real Estate Board of New York, the Rent Stabilization Association (the city’s largest landlord group), and the Associated Building Owners each have their own political action committee to serve as conduits for cash to amenable pols. The amounts they give are staggering, and they bear out an axiom of New York politics: Tenants have the votes, but landlords have the money.
Now, a fairly young and little-known group is aiming to alter that equation, if modestly, by putting cash behind tenants’ numbers. The Tenants Political Action Committee (Tenants PAC), born in 1997 after the Albany brawl over rent laws, has been raising money for two years to help elect tenant-friendly politicians. With a looming November election that is rife with hope of overthrowing the landlord-loving, 11-person Republican majority in the state senate, Tenants PAC has taken on more of a public role than ever, publishing a voters’ guide and focusing on two state senate races where Democratic challengers have a chance to unseat Republican incumbents.
In the Bronx, Tenants PAC is working to dethrone Guy Velella, a GOP powerhouse whose cozy relationship with the local Democrats has given him a virtually unchallenged 14-year tenure. Velella faces a race with Democrat Lorraine Coyle Koppell, an attorney whose candidacy provoked not only the incumbent but also Bronx Democratic leader Roberto Ramirez, making her road even tougher. In Westchester, Tenants PAC is hoping to replace Nick Spano of Yonkers with Tom Abinanti, a former county legislator. Albany races are especially important to tenants because the state sets rent laws. The senate in particular has been the focus of pro-landlord efforts.
While Tenants PAC is taking the political activism of renters beyond protesting, letter writing, and lobbying, it differs from its landlord counterparts in a significant way: Candidates get no cash. “This is not a PAC that’s about moving large amounts to candidates directly,” says Chuck DeLaney, who represents tenants on the city’s loft board and who is a member of Tenants PAC’s board of directors. “We use the money for things like the voters’ guide or to lend an organizer to a campaign where there is a significant block of tenant voters whom we can mobilize. And for tenant groups that can’t endorse because they have a nonprofit status, this gives an avenue.”
Tenants PAC treasurer Michael McKee says the group has raised and spent about $30,000 since it formed, including $9000 it will have spent spent in the Spano and Velella races. Most of that has paid for phone banks and mailings that aim to turn out the rent-regulated voters in each district, 25,000 in Velella’s and 21,000 in Spano’s. “There’s a general antipathy on the part of the public to doing election work, an idea that it’s dirty,” says McKee. “But there’s also a growing awareness that unless tenants get involved directly in elections, we can’t make the impact we want. If you can’t hold politicians accountable at the ballot box, they can do whatever they want.”
Norm Adler, a political consultant who is working for both Velella and Spano, calls Tenants PAC “an irrelevancy to these two races. They’re raising very little money, and I wish them well, but they are no threat to my candidates,” in part because Tenants PAC does not fund challengers directly. Adler says the PAC is doing the “least effective and hardest thing to do”—trying to lure voters so disenchanted that even a hotly contested presidential and U.S. Senate contest can’t draw them to the polls.
McKee agrees that increasing turnout is difficult, but believes it can be done. “If we were giving a candidate $50,000, that would have more impact, but we’re not doing that.” Adler also questions Tenants PAC endorsements of Republicans Roy Goodman of Manhattan and Frank Padavan of Queens. “If they want to dump the Republican power base, it makes no sense,” says Adler; in fact, that decision caused a rift among tenantactivists (see “Silk Stocking Strategy,” September 5). McKee reasons that both Republicans have been loyal tenant supporters.
DeLaney explains the dilemma as “growing pains. If Tenants PAC is successful in helping tenants become more sophisticated in influencing the electoral process at a time when the real estate forces are becoming ever more so, situations like this will crop up. Obviously, there will be times when the interests of the group don’t coincide 100 percent with one political party. The purpose here is to try to defeat incumbents who are bad for tenants.”