Landlords Have a Party
Eliot Brown Dec. 8, 2009, 7:25 p.m.
To anyone closely watching the recent City Council elections, a small set of races took an interesting turn in the summer. The Independence Party of New York, typically something of a passive player in city politics, suddenly became actively involved in outer-borough contests, pushing hard for four or five candidates in the Democratic primary that had opponents supported by the labor-backed Working Families Party. An expensive operation developed: mailings, many of them negative, went out in bundles from the party; boots hit the streets to rally voters.
Behind the curtain of the new initiative, in which most of the hardest-fought races ended in Independence Party losses: the city’s real estate industry. All told, more than $500,000 was poured into the effort from real estate, according to an executive involved. (About $145,000 of that has been publicly reported thus far; new campaign filings are due in January.)
The Independence Party offensive came as the industry, long a dominant player in the halls of Albany and City Hall, is grasping to maintain a powerful presence politically. The State Senate Republicans, on whom the industry had relied for years, have lost control of the chamber; new campaign finance rules substantially limit donations in city races; and the liberal Working Families Party (WFP) has established itself as a major political driver at the city and state levels, alarming those in real estate and business.
After the fall’s trial run, the industry—led by its main advocacy group, the Real Estate Board of New York—is expecting to expand its efforts in 2010, according to numerous executives involved with and informed of the effort. A greater partnership is being formed with the Independence Party, using it as a vehicle to create a ground organization to rival the WFP and elect candidates who support the real estate industry’s key issues: containing spending, fighting off new taxes and blocking a significant expansion of rent regulations.
“Like any family or any business, we have to spend within our means, and I think that is a message that will be accepted by a hell of a lot of voters out there,” said Steven Spinola, REBNY’s president since the 1980s. Mr. Spinola has led the effort with his deputy, John Doyle, coordinating intensely with Independence Party leaders in recent months.
Leaders of the WFP laugh off the effort, suggesting that a party built on contributions from landlords—who, as a group, are widely unpopular with voters—will fall flat in its attempts to become a viable adversary.
The efforts in the fall’s elections focused intensely on supporting four City Council campaigns in the Democratic primary (candidates can run with support from multiple parties): Incumbent Councilmen Ken Mitchell on Staten Island and Kendall Stewart in Brooklyn, and Deirdre Feerick and Karen Koslowitz in Queens. The party also supported an ultimately victorious Republican in the general election: Eric Ulrich, in Queens. With checks from many big names in the real estate industry—including landlord Richard LeFrak; Mary Ann Tighe, tristate CEO of brokerage CB Richard Ellis and incoming chair of REBNY; Leonard Litwin, head of luxury apartment giant Glenwood Management—the apparent goal was to limit the growing power of the WFP, which supported and put resources toward opponents of each of those candidates.
Much of the work and real estate money went toward mass mailings to voters—fliers that were derided by REBNY’s critics as ineffective and amateurish.
Those involved say there were also workers and volunteers on the ground supporting candidates. (Though by law, they are not allowed to directly campaign for candidates. Rather, they can engage in what is termed “issue advocacy,” showing general support for a candidate’s policies, or more explicitly attacking an opponent.)
The results gave the WFP much to cheer about. Of the main candidates in the primaries, only Ms. Koslowitz was victorious, though members of real estate interests and the Independence Party say they supported a few other incumbents, in an apparently less intensive manner, including Councilman Al Vann, who won.
THE INDUSTRY’S INTENSE ELECTORAL involvement comes as it faces a number of factors and trends that limits its influence in Albany and City Hall.
Indeed, landlords are used to getting their way politically. The Republicans in the State Senate for years acted as a brick wall for pro-tenant (anti-landlord) legislation, among other issues important to landlords, but now the Democratic majority in the chamber is far less predictable. And in the city, a new campaign finance law restricts those who do business with city government, including developers needing zoning changes, from donating to City Council candidates, typically a tactic sought to help soothe relationships with council members.
Looking forward to 2010, it’s not entirely clear to the industry whether it should focus its efforts on trying to return the Senate to Republican control—in the long term, the state is trending Democratic—or whether it should mimic this fall’s efforts and support favorable Democratic candidates in the primaries.
Either way, anti-WFP candidates are sure to be a target in the State Senate, in an attempt at keeping the body from growing more liberal should it stay Democratic. “The real fight is not the Working Families Party,” said a real estate executive familiar with the effort. “The real fight is at the Senate Democratic candidates who are running on the Working Families line.”
And for REBNY, it seems the Independence Party is the appropriate vessel—a rental car, if you will—after its trial run.
“There’s no question that we’re going to continue to work with the Independence Party on particular races in which we have a mutual interest,” Mr. Spinola said. “We raised, and they spent, well over a half million dollars,” he added, saying he would advise REBNY’s members to contribute again once the right races are identified.
The leadership of the Independence Party views the partnership favorably, allowing it the ability to grow a greater presence and to create an infrastructure—such as a field operation—it hasn’t yet had.
“As far as we’re concerned, it’s a perfect match,” said Frank MacKay, chairman of the Independence Party of New York. “We would like someone like Steve Spinola, who’s now in the party—I would like him to take more of a role in our leadership.”
The partnership between the Independence Party and real estate is one piece of a larger effort by business groups to regain a voice in a state they feel has trended away from their interests. In a related effort, reported in New York magazine, business groups around the state are forming an advocacy coalition tentatively named “It’s Your New York,” which would likely kick off with a Web site espousing pro-business ideals.
“We’ve reached out to our downstate colleagues to say how can we work more cooperatively together,” said Brian Sampson, executive director of Unshackle Upstate, the pro–economic development group that is involved with the business effort. “Now it’s one unified business voice coming in to Albany, saying, ‘Stop with the tax and spend.’”
Of course, there’s good reason for skepticism that any of the business efforts will attract any sort of competitive following. Aside from the poor showing in the primaries—real estate executives counter that it takes years to build a successful party, as it did for the Working Families Party—it would be easy to paint the Independence Party as a microphone for landlords and corporations.
And if it and the WFP are simply competing over who can have a more populist message, public benefits and a safety net have historically played better than a government-wary, anti-tax platform in New York, particularly in the city.
This is the view and hope of the WFP, which, for candidates it opposed, repeatedly highlighted campaign contributions from landlords, often a liability in Council races.
“This is an entertaining but somewhat odd strategic move,” said Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party, which helped put two candidates in citywide office this fall, along with numerous new council members.
“It’s obvious—voters just don’t buy what they’re selling. People are against tax cuts for the very wealthy,” Mr. Cantor added. “This crowd is against the [stronger] rent laws; they’re in favor of deep service cuts—that’s not a popular program.”