(l-r) Comptroller candidates Lander, Benjamin, Weprin, Parker
This article is published in partnership with City Limits. Also read: The Money Race in the Mayoral Primary: January Filing Sets the Stage for 2021
If money plays a decisive role in the Democratic race for city comptroller, it looks to be a two-candidate affair. But, even in the race to be the city's accountant, money isn't everything.
According to filings with the New York City Campaign Finance Board for the January 15 deadline, just over five months until the all-important primary day in June, Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander now has $2.7 million on hand, fueled by $800,000 of his own fundraising and a $2.3 million dose of matching funds in December.
Manhattan State Senator Brian Benjamin, whose fundraising has been the source of controversy, trails Lander by $100,000 in private donations but did on Friday receive a $950,000 injection of matching funds and had $1.5 million on hand as of the filing.
Queens Assemblymember David Weprin had $295,000 in the bank and Brooklyn State Senator Kevin Parker just over $81,000.
However, Weprin was the most successful fundraiser during the July to January period covered by this recent reporting deadline. He hauled in $292,000 to Benjamin's $244,000, Lander's $173,000 and Parker's $119,000. Both Lander and Benjamin started fundraising well before Weprin and Parker.
As of the filing, Parker had raised $122,711 from 663 contributions for an $183 average. Weprin reported having raised a total of $465,212 from 1,431 contributors, for an average of $318.
Benjamin reported raising a total thus far of $706,046 from 2,146 contributors, for an $327 average. And Lander has reported raising a total of $858,844 from 4,621 contributions for an $169 average.
Down Ballot But Big Money
In 2021 as in earlier years, the race for mayor usually gets the spotlight. But down-ballot races contribute mightily to the cost of New York City's municipal campaigns and the spending that helps reach voters across the city.
In 2013, the last time a large share of offices were thrown open by term limits, mayoral campaigns comprised just under half of the $122 million spent by city candidates. Races for comptroller, public advocate, borough president and City Council made up the rest.
As in any contests, money is just one factor—always important, but not always decisive—in these races. John Liu outspent the field when he won a crowded 2009 primary race to win the nomination and go on to become comptroller. But Eliot Spitzer's heavy spending advantage in 2013 did not help him prevail over Scott Stringer in that comptroller primary.
Last week's fundraising numbers do indicate something about how the down-ballot races are shaping up. In a year featuring an abundance of open seats, pandemic-related restrictions on campaigning, the first use of ranked-choice voting, and a generous eight-to-one matching ratio for public campaign financing of certain eligible contributions, having the most money might not be crucial, but having enough money to compete will be. It's a long five months between now and the June Democratic primary.
The Hunt for Matching Funds
The threshold for receiving public matching funds in the comptroller's race is raising $125,000 in matchable donations from at least 500 New York City residents. Lander qualified in December and received money based on his fundraising through July. Benjamin received public funds on Friday based on the July numbers.
The CFB will now look at the July through January fundraising reported last week to determine whether Parker and Weprin qualify, and to figure out the amounts any qualified candidates are owed. Benjamin and Lander could receive additional money based on their more recent fundraising. The next payout is in February.
Parker, with just over $53,000 in matchable donations, appears to have fallen short of the threshold. Weprin posted what the campaign assesses as matchable donations of more than $209,000, which is enough to qualify, and his campaign said he's expecting nearly $2 million in public matching funds at the disbursement next month.
As for Lander and Benjamin, they appear to be in line for additional public funds payments of as much as $940,000 and $480,000, respectively, in February, based on matchable donations they received from July on. The Campaign Finance Board will vet the numbers submitted by campaigns, which have made their own assessments that are published upon filing.
While Lander had the smallest average donation thus far in the race, he's raised far more ($38,000) through intermediaries than anyone else in the field, though no single go-between brought in more than $2,500 to Lander.
In the very quiet race for public advocate, there's been modest fundraising. Having raised $106,000 since July, incumbent Jumaane Williams -- the only citywide official eligible to run for reelection this year -- now has $44,300 on hand—a tiny amount for a citywide campaign, but much more than any of the three other candidates registered for that race. Closest to him is Anthony Herbert with nearly $1,500 on hand. The threshold for public funds in the advocate race is identical to the one for comptroller, and with just over $50,000 in matchable donations against the $125,000 threshold, Williams is short of qualifying.
Races at the Borough and District Levels
City Council Member Fernando Cabrera has the biggest bankroll of anyone running for Bronx borough president, with $120,000 on hand. State Senator Luis Sepulveda has the second-most cash ($48,000) but his campaign has been imperiled by the allegation that he tried to strangle his wife. City Council Member Vanessa Gibson has $29,000 to spend and Samuel Ravelo some $16,000. Assemblymember Nathalia Fernandez's campaign is in the red by $28.
“Council Member Cabrera has built unprecedented support on the grassroots level throughout the Bronx," Cabrera's campaign manager, Timothy Tapia, said in a statement. "Fernando has demonstrated that his vision for repairing the Bronx has been embraced by residents from every corner of the borough."
In the contest for Brooklyn borough president, Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon ($187,599) and City Council Member Antonio Reynoso ($139,089) lead the money race. City Council Member Robert Cornegy, Jr. has raised ($249,640) more than both of them, but spent nearly every dollar he’s raised.
“Raised in just three months, the filing demonstrated strong local support for Simon, with Brooklynites making up over 80 percent of her more than 800 unique contributors,” Simon's campaign said in a statement. But cash position includes a $125,000 loan she made to her campaign.
City Council Member Ben Kallos has a healthy stockpile of cash ($574,139) in the race for Manhattan borough president, but State Senator Brad Hoylman ($278,421) and City Council Member Mark Levine ($235,920) also have competitive cash on hand. They are among six candidates in that Democratic primary, and the only three current elected officials in the race. Former community board chair Elizabeth Caputo has more than $55,000 on hand as of the filing.
City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer's bid to unseat newly-elected Queens Borough President Donovan Richards received a boost with the CFB's award of $395,000 in matching funds on Friday, giving him a balance of $384,000—more than three times what’s in the account of Richards, who just won a November special election to serve out the rest of now-District Attorney Melinda Katz's 2018-2021 term. Both are Democrats.
Staten Island borough president candidate Steven Matteo, a City Council member, now has $545,000 to spend. The only other Richmond County candidate registered with the CFB, Leticia Remauro, reported $34,000 in the bank. Both Matteo and Remauro are running in the Republican primary.
Given the low threshold for qualifying for public funds as a borough president candidate (100 donors and matchable donations totaling $10,000 on Staten Island and up to $50,094 in Brooklyn), it appears that multiple candidates will qualify for funds in the borough president races once the CFB goes through the most recent filings and awards new funds in February.
Across the five boroughs, City Council candidates have dropped a combined $4.8 million on the race so far, and have a collective $10.9 million to spend. Ten Council candidates received matching funds payments on Friday based on pre-July fundraising. A few dozen had received public funds in the previous round of awards, in December. Many are on track to receive matching funds in February and others will hope for March.
The best-funded candidate citywide is Erik Bottcher, running in Manhattan's 3rd District, who has raised $133,000, received $160,000 in matching funds, and has $244,000 on hand. However, no one has raised or spent more than incumbent City Council Member Mark Gjonaj of the Bronx, who has already expended $446,000 of the $577,000 he has raised. Four years ago, Gjonaj outspent nearly every candidate in the city by dropping $1.3 million to win his Council seat. He’s again facing tough competition.
Ben Max contributed to this article.