Here’s Who’s Giving What to Trump and Biden in Commercial Real Estate
The industry is spending millions on both, but what does it really want from either?
By Aaron Short September 27, 2020 9:08 pmreprints
When Donald Trump announced he was running for president in 2015, Elie Hirschfeld switched parties.
The Manhattan developer known for building the Crowne Plaza Hotel and residential towers Grand Sutton and Park Avenue Court had given sporadically to candidates in both parties in the past, including New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and members of the Bush clan, and considered himself a Democrat.
But Hirschfeld has known Trump personally for decades. When Hirschfeld had an opportunity to develop the site that would become Riverside South on Manhattan’s Far West Side, he brought Trump into the deal. And he once rented office space in one of Trump Tower’s lower floors in the early 1980s.
“We became one of his first tenants in his office portion,” Hirschfeld told CO. “He built offices because he didn’t want to be alone. The apartments sold well, but the offices were slow.”
Trump behaved more like a real estate mogul than a political power broker back then, writing checks for politicians in both parties who could loosen regulations and advance zoning applications. He has sprinkled approximately $1.5 million in contributions to national candidates and party committees since 1979, according to federal election records. Many were Democratic officeholders in New York and New Jersey.
“I’ve given to everybody because that was my job,” Trump explained while campaigning in Iowa in 2016. “I’ve got to give to them because when I want something, I get it. When I call, they kiss my ass.”
But Trump’s own thirst for the White House grew after Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, and an array of political consultants he met with, including David Bossie, head of the conservative advocacy group Citizens United, suggested Trump shower Republican officeholders with his cash to boost his profile.
Trump began tilting the majority of his spending toward Republicans in 2010, before he cut off Democrats entirely in 2011. By the following year, he had become a reliable Republican contributor, giving $325,000 to national candidates and party committees.
Trump always expected something in return. He had targeted his spending to lay the groundwork for a future presidential run. Yet when Republican leaders solicited him in late 2012, after Mitt Romney’s loss, Trump chastised them over Romney’s campaign strategies and refusal to deploy him as a surrogate in the final weeks of the race.
Trump’s experiences demanding favors and dispensing advice led him to eschew sizable contributions when he launched his bid in June 2015, claiming other candidates were “puppets” of their benefactors. Yet his allies quickly registered a super PAC named “Make America Great Again.” And Trump publicly revised his views, telling CBS’ John Dickerson in August 2015, “I would even take big contributors, as long as they don’t expect anything.”
One of his first significant donations was from the family of a New York-area developer. Seryl Kushner, executive administrator and spouse of the founder of Kushner Companies, who also happened to be the mother of Trump’s son-in-law, gave $100,000 to Trump’s Make America Great Again PAC in July 2015. (Disclosure: Seryl Kushner is also the mother-in-law of Observer Media chairman, Joseph Meyer.)
Elie Hirschfeld wrote a $2,700 check in February 2016, but the campaign’s fundraising arm was so disorganized he had to call Trump’s secretary Rhona Graff for instructions about how to send Trump the money.
“I did it because he was a friend,” said Hirschfeld, who is not currently working with the Trump Organization. “I didn’t think he had a chance to win at the time. The sense I had was it was a promotional effort, but it took awhile for me to realize it was his intent to win. When Donald puts his mind toward something, he usually gets it done.”
The Latest Round
Trump has hauled in a massive sum for his re-election this cycle, including from New York’s real estate community, after Hillary Clinton outraised him nearly 2 to 1 in 2016.
Eager to avoid being an underdog as a sitting president, Trump filed for re-election hours after his inauguration. And, after campaigning as a political outsider against the Republican Party establishment in 2016, his campaign merged with the Republican National Committee to form a joint fundraising committee. The move allows Trump to share office space and staff with the party, coordinate events, and control which candidates receive money from the party.
That early planning was critical, and the Trump campaign collected $572 million through the first half of 2020, 32 percent higher than the $433 million it brought in four years ago, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis of federal campaign records.
Commercial real estate poured $15.9 million into Trump’s campaign coffers so far this cycle, the second-most of any business sector. That mark so far is 42 percent higher than the $11.2 million Trump coaxed from developers in 2016. Only finance has given more, though neither has had anything on what the Center for Responsive Politics describes as “retirees,” who have raised $89 million, and Republican officials, who have brought in $65 million.
But Trump once again trails a formidable Democrat despite having an early fundraising advantage. After prevailing in a 29-candidate field, former Vice President Joe Biden has led Trump in polls with a boost of support from suburban whites, the elderly and college-educated voters. Biden’s fundraising exploded once the primary finished, with the candidate raking in $702 million so far.
It hasn’t been difficult for Biden to raise money from developers either this year. In fact, he’s brought in $17 million from the real estate industry nationally — roughly $1 million more than Trump.
This Biden motherlode includes treasure from some of the biggest names in or connected to New York real estate. Four M Investments’ Dennis Mehiel forked over $202,815 to pro-Biden groups (with his firm kicking in $5,000 more), followed by executives at BCG Partners, who distributed $100,000 to pro-Biden groups and $85,310 directly to the candidate, and at the Blackstone Group, who gave $100,000 to pro-Biden committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Other top real estate-related donors this election cycle include executives and principals at Fisher Brothers ($50,000 to outside groups and $6,705 to Biden), Cushman & Wakefield ($20,763 to Biden), Royal Realty, which is part of the Durst Organization ($20,000 to outside pro-Biden groups), and GFP Real Estate ($16,800 to Biden), whose chairman, Jeff Gural, co-hosted a $2,800-ticket party for Biden with Newmark Knight Frank CEO Barry Gosin in January.
Biden might not enjoy the same ties with real estate developers and investors as Hillary Clinton, a former senator from New York and currently a Westchester County resident. But Gural is a longtime Biden friend who held fundraisers for his Delaware Senate campaigns. The people in Gural’s social circle are mostly Biden supporters too.
“It’s hard to be friendly with Trump supporters to tell you the truth,” Gural told CO. “Biden’s a decent guy, and maybe that’s what the country needs right now.”
Property owners, investors and brokers are exactly the kind of professionals with whom Trump should be succeeding, though. The industry remains predominantly white and male and the president’s base in 2016 largely consisted of white males over the age of 50, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. Trump also received more support than Clinton from whites who earned more than $50,000, a Data for Progress analysis showed.
There is enthusiasm for Trump in the industry — stemming in large part from his tax policy, his approach to Israel and the stock markets’ performance during his presidency — and that energy has translated into larger donations from it than in 2016. Trump’s top real estate donors so far this year have been Greystone & Co. managing director Abraham Spria, who donated $100,000 to a pro-Trump group and $5,600 to the Trump campaign, and Landmark Abstract Agency president Jacob Rekant, who gave $37,000 to a pro-Trump group. Other top donors include individuals at Compass and Walker & Dunlop, who each gave about $25,000 to pro-Trump groups, while executives at Meridian Properties ($19,966), the Witkoff Group ($17,200), Hirschfeld Properties ($16,800), and the Lefrak Organization ($16,200) all gave directly to the Trump campaign. Four years ago, H.J. Kalikow & Co. president Peter Kalikow was the only developer who gave Trump more than $10,000.
“Trump brings out both extremes, but he has a lot who support him in the middle,” Hirschfeld, who serves as finance chair of the state Republican Party, said. “On financial issues, people in the real estate world believe Donald Trump is doing better than would be the case if we had a progressive-leaning president.”
But the president’s immigration policies, refusal to fund New York infrastructure projects, the cap he supported on state and local tax deductions, and abject mismanagement of the pandemic galvanized others to thwart him.
“I’ve never seen a level of disgust and anger on Donald Trump’s weakness on so many issues,” Jennifer Bayer Michaels, a longtime fundraiser for Sen. Charles Schumer and Gov. Andrew Cuomo who leads the New York office of the pro-Biden super PAC Unite the Country, told CO. “People are frankly disgusted. I’ve had a lot to work with. New Yorkers in particular are distrustful of Donald Trump. They don’t like what they see.”
Why They Give
Real estate leaders from both parties see a connection between Trump’s surprise win in 2016 and the leftward reaction in New York politics that followed. Dozens of progressives won seats in the City Council and state Legislature beginning in 2017. Democrats, in fact, took complete control of the state government for the first time since 2010. Lawmakers then passed tenant-friendly rent regulations, while developers seethed, and are pushing for higher taxes on the wealthy to close city and state budget deficits.
“The best thing that could happen to the real estate industry in New York is for Trump to lose,” one real estate executive who is backing Biden but preferred to stay anonymous told CO. “Other than a tax cut that has benefited some real estate owners personally, the last three and a half years have been a disaster politically for real estate and in a lot of people’s minds the first step to recovery is Trump getting out.”
Trump’s policies and personality have cleaved the real estate industry in unexpected ways too. One Trump fundraiser has found a bevy of support from individual property owners who own a handful of buildings and from smaller family-owned real estate firms in the New York area. Those at larger real estate investment trusts, however, favor Biden but have been open to a Trump-friendly pitch, the fundraiser said.
“I am more willing to cold call somebody in real estate who has given money to both sides but to less progressive-type Democrats like Gov. Cuomo,” the Trump fundraiser said. “I’d be more willing to call them than an attorney. The real estate industry’s been demonized a bit in New York, and I think is open to at least listening, especially over the last few years.”
But a Biden supporter noted that it may all come down to a donor’s ideology, culture, and whether they live in New York City or the suburbs.
“The higher-level guys who in a good year make $1.5 million and live in Greenwich, that’s the Trump folks,” the Biden supporter said. “It’s not really cool to be a Republican in the city. How do you be a Trump Republican and not like gay people and be bigoted in New York City? That’s not the way we operate here. Do you think they’re going to let you on the board of the Museum of Natural History if you don’t believe in science or the board of MoMA if you want to deport people?”
Some real estate firms have deep divisions within their own ranks, with senior executives raising gobs of cash for both parties while managing to keep politics out of their Slack channels. Executives at Blackstone, for instance, a major player in real estate financing and investing, have raised $100,000 for Biden, while its CEO, Steve Schwarzman, has doled out $27.3 million to Republican candidates and PACs over the past two years, records show.
And Stephen Ross, chairman and CEO of the Related Cos., one of New York’s busiest developers and owners, hosted a swanky Hamptons fete for Trump last summer while its employees largely gave to Democratic congressional candidates. Ross in a later New York Times interview expressed regret for hosting the Trump event, but he wouldn’t tell the paper for whom he planned to vote.
With fewer than six weeks to go before the end of the race, the money will continue to flow and donors will vie for the ear of their candidate much like Trump did in 2012. Elie Hirschfeld hopes Trump provides aid for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and other public facilities in New York and tax relief by reinstating the SALT deduction. Jeff Gural wants Biden to continue condemning violence and outside agitators causing confrontations at protests.
“I think deep down people would like to see the country united,” Gural said. “I don’t think they’re happy the country is so divided. I can’t wait for the election to see what people really think behind closed doors.”