Months ago, when it became clear that no Democratic mayoral candidate would emerge as a sure pick in the upcoming primary, the city’s real estate posse did what smart businesses do: hedged its bets. Rather than throw in with a single candidate, lobbies like the Rent Stabilization Association and the Real Estate Board of New York raised about the same amount of money for each candidate. Someone’s got to win, but when you can’t tell who it will be, best to support everyone equally.
But such base-covering has not directed the massive campaign coffers of the industry’s top donors when it comes to lesser races. A Voice analysis of the contributions of more than two dozen major real estate engines, including industrywide lobbies, residential landlords, commercial-property owners, and developers shows that in the races beyond Gracie, landlords have favorites.
Take the comptroller’s race, which pits longtime Brooklyn City Council member Herb Berman against former Board of Education head William Thompson. If real estate bucks were ballots, Berman would win this race 8 to 1. Campaign Finance Board records show Berman has taken in $80,200 in industry cash, compared to Thompson’s $10,500. The candidates share some donors, including members of the Rudin and Durst real estate empires. But Berman has amassed money from sources that have shunned Thompson, most notably the Rent Stabilization Association (RSA), which is the city’s biggest lobby for residential landlords; mogul Len Litwin and his firms; and the late Bernie Mendik.
What can a comptroller do for real estate that makes the race draw cash? Not much directly. But the comptroller certainly helps set a business climate by the way he directs the office’s audit and oversight powers, how he uses his role as a fiscal watchdog, and where he steers pension fund investments. But the bankroll to Berman is based less on the job and more on the candidate. In his 26-year tenure in the council, including his chairmanship of the Finance Committee, Berman has been a central member of Council Speaker Peter Vallone’s pro-landlord “leadership” team. Compared to Berman, Thompson is an unknown quantity to landlords and developers.
The 11-way race for Public Advocate has attracted fewer industry dollars, but almost all of them have gone to former parks commissioner Betsy Gotbaum, who has netted $22,825 from the purses of Lew Rudin, the Litwin family, Tishman-Speyer, and Mendik. Scott Stringer, a pro-tenant state legislator, got a measly $4650 from Litwin and Tishman-Speyer combined, but even that amount was quadruple the pittance given to Kathryn Freed, an outgoing City Council member who got $1000 from Rudin. Former ACLU executive director Norm Siegel and outgoing Brooklyn City Council member Steve DiBrienza have the honor of receiving zero dollars from real estate’s heavy hitters.
It’s not surprising that the Public Advocate race has not drawn much cash from this sector. Why would the industry devote resources to an office that investigates complaints about businesses, including brokers, realty services, and landlords?
What is surprising is how much has been raised for borough president races. The biggest haul has gone to Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, whose $28,500 from real estate interests includes contributions from Donald Trump, HRH Construction, and the usual stable of real estate dynasties. While Fields is generally pro-tenant, she has shored up her relationship with the industry with a pro-development posture, particularly her backing of a deal that allows developers to trade air rights along Eighth Avenue in midtown.
Brooklyn beep candidate Kenny Fisher is the apparent favorite of real estate interests. His $20,500 in industry dollars includes donations from the RSA PAC and its ancillary Neighborhood Preservation PAC, Steven Ross of the Related Companies, and Tishman-Speyer. In Queens, Democrats Carol Gresser and Shelly Leffler are vying to take over the post long held by Claire Shulman. More surprising than the fact that Gresser has raised $16,950 from sources like the RSA, the Real Estate Board, and Lew Rudin is that Leffler, who has a reputation as a gadfly, got any money at all ($2000), including $500 from Trump and $1500 from Litwin firms.
In the race to replace Fernando Ferrer in the Bronx, term-limited council members Adolfo Carrion Jr. leads June Eisland in real estate money with $8500 from a variety of donors. Eisland has $4500.
Even council races are drawing industry dollars. The RSA gave the maximum possible donation of $2500 to Brooklyn’s Lewis Fidler, who wants to fill Berman’s old council seat. Ditto for two Bronx contenders, Maria Baez, who is running for Carrion’s seat, and Michael Benjamin, running in Morrisania and Melrose.
And while the dead can’t vote, they can donate. Mario Torres, a vice president at the Battery Park City Authority who is running in Upper Manhattan, says his 13 years “at the table when real estate deals are brokered” explain the backing he’s won from the RSA, the Bronx Realty Advisory Board PAC, Len Litwin, and host of others. Torres not only netted $400 from former RSA chair Sheldon Katz, now retired in Arizona, he also earned $200 from the estate of Katz’s brother Leon.
For a tenants’ voter guide, visit www.tenantspac.org.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 28, 2001