Gotham Gazette Sun, 27 Sep 2020 17:52:21 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Super PAC’s Big Primary Spending Mostly Comes Up Short rivera crowd campaign site

Sen. Rivera (photo: Rivera's campaign website)

A Super PAC that spent more than a million dollars on state legislative primaries mostly came up short on Tuesday. New Yorkers for Independent Action supported candidates who back its main issue: a proposed education investment tax credit that would largely help charter and private schools, and used its deep resources to attack those candidates’ opponents. The tax credit legislation has stalled in Albany and NYIA is looking for more state legislators who favor it.

The only candidates officially backed by NYIA to claim victory on Tuesday were incumbents that NYIA spent significantly less on than other candidates. NYIA also appears to have decided to support those three incumbents later in the election season than the several challengers it backed.

The PAC was involved in seven primary contests: five Assembly and two Senate. It supported four challengers and three incumbents, all Democrats. All four of the challengers it backed lost. According to the group’s September 2 filing with the state Board of Elections, it had spent a total of $1,682,000. Future filings will likely reveal more spending in the final days of the primaries. New Yorkers for Independent Action is also expected to be heavily involved in the general election, which is November 8.

In a statement it put out after the primaries, NYIA touted the victories of the incumbents it supported while also claiming NYIA supporters played a major role in the victory of Marisol Alcantara, who won a tight four-way race to replace Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who is leaving the Senate to replace retiring Rep. Charles Rangel.

Alcantara was endorsed by Espaillat and many of his political allies and backed financially by the Independent Democratic Conference. Filings show that NYIA did not spend in Alcantara’s race, but at least one of its major donors did give to the IDC.

"[O]ur supporters played big in the biggest and most consequential race of the night and won, while the teachers union candidate finished 3rd out of four candidates,” a NYIA spokesperson, Bob Bellafiore, said in a statement referring to Alcantara’s victory and the performance of her opponent Robert Jackson.

Where NYIA did spend big, however, it did not win. It does claim to have influenced the public debate on its issue and to have made those who oppose the tax credit work for their seats.

According to the most recent filing, NYIA had spent $480,197 - the most it spent in any race - backing City Council Member Fernando Cabrera in his second primary challenge to Democratic Sen. Gustavo Rivera, in the Bronx. Rivera performed five points better this year than he did in his last contest with Cabrera, in 2014, winning 60 percent of the vote to Cabrera's 35 percent. NYIA paid for widely-targeted mailers in the district, some of which bashed Rivera for failing to deal with Albany corruption, while others praised Cabrera’s leadership.

Rivera would have likely been working to help other Democrats this summer had he not faced another challenge from Cabrera. Cabrera had limited institutional or financial support, leading Rivera to see his candidacy made possible exclusively by NYIA. Cabrera reported raising $72,000 from January to July; by his 11-day pre-primary filing he had $282 on hand.

NYIA backed Assemblymember Victor Pichardo, who significantly increased his margin of victory over his repeat opponent Hector Ramirez. Two years ago Pichardo won by two votes; this year by nearly 1,400. Ramirez still faces multiple charges of election fraud from their 2014 encounter.

NYIA reported spending $50,222 on the contest through its most recent filing. Meanwhile, Ramirez’s July filing with the BOE shows he only had $9,000 on hand. Ramirez’s 11-day pre-primary filing is not posted on the BOE website. Pichardo had balance of $51,000 in July and reported having $48,000 on hand in his 11-day filing.

NYIA spent just $15,000 supporting Assemblymember Vivian Cook, but $115,000 supporting Sen. Roxanne Persaud, both of whom won.

Asked about the impact NYIA had on her victory, Cook, a Democrat from Queens, was cautious. “It was a nice piece of literature about me and I had no idea where it came from. I think it helped,” Cook told Gotham Gazette. It is illegal for candidates to coordinate with Super PACs.

Bellafiore, of NYIA, told Gotham Gazette that the Super PAC’s efforts were not just about winning. “It is very hard to beat incumbents. No legislator ever wakes up and thinks ‘I want a primary this year.’ It’s about making them work and telling them there is no free ride, that people are paying attention.”

Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action NY and member of The Hedge Clippers, a group that monitors billionaire spending in politics, said she thinks Bellafiore and NYIA are trying to find the silver lining in a terrible performance, “He is trying to find way to say it wasn't a total loss, but they totally lost and if all they wanted was a fight, it just wasn’t much of a fight.”

Bellafiore says NYIA is a single-issue PAC focused on passing a bill that would give tax credits to those who donate to private and charter schools. Labor groups see the PAC as another wing of the charter school lobby and have pointed out the group has close ties to many wealthy out-of-state charter school advocates, including Alice Walton, the Wal-Mart heiress.

Advocates involved with teachers unions do not agree with Bellafiore’s assessment of NYIA’s election night impact.

In a post-primary press release, the labor-backed Working Families Party touted what its leaders see as NYIA failure. ”In races in NYC and on Long Island, WFP candidates fended off primary challengers backed by the billionaire-funded "New Yorkers for Independent Action" SuperPAC seeking to privatize public schools. That included Senator Gustavo Rivera and Assemblymembers Latrice Walker and Pamela Harris in NYC and Assemblymember Phil Ramos on Long Island, all of whom won despite a massive, million-dollar independent expenditure from NYIA,” the release said.

Scharff said that voters “saw through” large spending of “NYC billionaires” who were pushing “an agenda that benefits them.” Critics of the education tax credit have often said that the wealthy would be able to take most advantage of the program while also supporting their favored schools outside the traditional public school system.

NYIA plans to support Republicans and Democrats in the general election, but Bellafiore declined to comment on which races NYIA will target.

Asked what he hopes the Legislature takes away from the Super PAC’s efforts, Bellafiore said, “The message I hope they hear is that there are communities across the state where parents want to opt their children out of public schools and don’t have the money. These are families that would benefit from the scholarship bill. If half of the people on the other side of this were as obsessed with helping parents as they are with our funders we could get something done to to fix education.”

Filings thus far show the group spent: $480,197 on Cabrera’s failed bid to replace Rivera; $378,481 on City Council Member Darlene Mealy’s failed challenge to Assemblymember Latrice Walker; $321,309 supporting Kate Cucco’s failed challenge to Assemblymember Pamela Harris; and $321,261 on Giovanni Mata’s failed challenge to Assemblymember Phil Ramos.

NYIA also reported having spent $115,252 on Persaud’s victory over Mercedes Narcisse; $50,222 on Pichardo’s victory over Ramirez; and $15,000 on Cook’s victory over Rodney Reid. The next filings will show final primary election expenditures.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Super PAC’s Big Primary Spending Mostly Comes Up Short Thu, 15 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Board of Elections to Consider Emergency Regulations for Independent Expenditures cuomo podium state of the state

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Governor's Office on Flickr)

The State Board of Elections is set to consider a set of emergency regulations governing independent expenditure campaigns at its board meeting on Thursday morning in Albany. The regulations will come just two days after state legislative primary elections and two months before the general election. Political action committees (PACs) and Super Pacs, or independent expenditure committees, have already had a significant presence in this year’s primary contests.

The BOE is responding to new legislation championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who signed his controversial reform bill on August 24 after passing it through the Legislature by message of necessity in late June. The bill goes into effect 30 days after Cuomo signs it, thus putting pressure on the BOE to respond.

The law enacts restrictions on how independent expenditure campaigns operate; expands what constitutes illegal coordination with a candidate and limits who can work for Super PACs. The legislation also sets new disclosure requirements for nonprofit lobbying groups and issue advocacy groups - for this piece, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics moved on emergency regulations earlier this year.

On Thursday, the BOE will consider emergency regulations in the middle of an election season that has already seen major spending by Super PACs, especially in New York City where New Yorkers For Independent Action, a pro-charter school group, pumped millions of dollars into Democratic primary contests.

Board members have expressed concern at previous meetings that the law could be disruptive and counterintuitive given that election season is already well underway.

Democratic BOE Chair Douglas Kellner told Gotham Gazette that he isn’t convinced the board needs to act on emergency regulations. “From my point of view I’m not exactly sure why we need emergency regulations that just track the bill, but we will discuss that on Thursday,” Kellner said.

Republican BOE Chair Peter Kosinski said that the emergency regulations are necessary to keep interested parties informed of the changes to the laws relating to independent expenditures and to put the information in one place.

Once the emergency regulations are adopted the public will have 45 days to comment on them.

”The reality is that the emergency regulation idea is related to the fact that we are headed into the November election and people need information about the changes,” said Kosinski. “This does not preclude the normal regulation process or any future changes. We will go through the normal process in a couple of months.” In other words, any emergency regulations will be temporary and then re-evaluated after the election cycle.

Kellner said he also shares concerns about the timing of the bill’s enactment given that election season is already in full swing.

“The board is really between a rock and a hard place,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “If the Governor wanted the law to be in effect for the election he should have signed it in June.” It is unclear why Cuomo waited until August to sign the bill. After unveiling the plan for the legislation during a speech in New York City toward the end of the legislative session, the governor held no public ceremony to sign and promote the bill.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, said the BOE is being “responsible in providing necessary guidance on the law even if it is poorly written and flawed.” Dadey added that “we shouldn’t be changing the rules in the fourth quarter of the game.”

Speaking with reporters in August, Cuomo touted the new regulations. Of not getting everything he wants done on government ethics reform, he also said, “Ethics in many ways is like other activities in life. It's an ongoing pursuit.”

Kosinski, the Republican BOE chair, said that the time for fretting over the implementation timeline is over. “People have to deal with that best they can. These emergency regulations are our effort to inform people of the law so that when people look for guidance on the new laws we give them accurate information,” he said.

Advocates had decried the process by which the bill was passed. Cuomo introduced the measure late in session claiming that it was designed to beat back the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates for outside money in candidate campaigns. But the bill also included a section forcing non-profit advocacy groups to disclose more of their donors, and to report to the state, through JCOPE, their various communications about legislation, government officials, regulations, and government-related matters.

Like other times he has used them, Cuomo was criticized for his issuance of a message of necessity that preempts the required three-day aging process designed to encourage public review. Legislators received the bill after midnight and voted on it only a few hours later.

Cuomo, who generally controls when passed bills come to his desk for signature or veto, didn’t call the bill up from the Legislature until mid-August after facing public pressure.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which is headed by former Cuomo staffer Seth Agata and is controlled by appointees of Cuomo and legislative leaders, moved on emergency regulations in early August. The part of the bill that deals with sources of funding for nonprofits goes into effect 30 days after the bill is signed.

The new law sets a definition of what is coordination between independent expenditure campaigns and candidates, and according to Kosinski the law could catch some off guard. “There were significant changes going where the state hasn’t gone before in detailing coordination, it was really fleshed out and I think people need to be aware of that going forward.”

Dadey said that he hopes there will be time for the kind of careful and nuanced discussion of the implementation of the law that was denied to the public before the bill was passed.

“I hope whatever is adopted on Thursday does not lead to greater confusion or conflict with existing law,” said Dadey. “We had no time to talk about this piece of legislation as a public, I hope more time is taken to discuss it now that it is law.”

Brandon Muir, executive director of Reclaim New York, an organization focused on government transparency, said that Albany lawmakers waited until the last minute to formulate the bill and then wasted more time signing it. “Because they dodged having a timely, open process, we’re in for another last-second “emergency” push that serves political interests and an agenda that New Yorkers didn’t ask for,” Muir said.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

Board of Elections to Consider Emergency Regulations for Independent Expenditures Wed, 14 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Education-Focused Super PAC Spends on Additional Legislative Races Cabrera Rivera NY1 screenshot 2

screenshot of CM Cabrera, left, & Sen. Rivera from NY1

A Super PAC backed by the education reform lobby and a number of wealthy out-of-state donors has earned the enmity of establishment Democrats by pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into races in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Long Island in an effort to unseat Democrat incumbents. The group, New Yorkers for Independent Action, now appears to be adjusting its strategy by supporting some incumbents.

The PAC is at least partially focused on passing an education tax credit proposal through Albany that would provide tax breaks to those who donate to private and charter schools. It is currently spending, largely in mailings - some of which attack candidates and some that are supportive of candidates - six state Assembly and Senate races. Opposed by the majority in the Democrat-controlled Assembly, the education tax credit proposal has been stuck in Albany despite prior lobbying efforts.

“This group and its funders are sadly mistaken if they think this will do anything to further their issue,” said Michael Whyland, spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. A number of Heastie’s allies in the Bronx have been targeted by the PAC’s spending.

New Yorkers for Independent Action has been attacked by liberal activist groups and incumbent Democrats as the work of hedge-fund profiteers looking to advance their agenda by involving themselves in local races they have no real investment in or knowledge of. Teachers unions decry the measure as siphoning tax dollars away from public schools to reward wealthy donors, who it is assumed will monopolize the tax breaks by donating large sums to applicable private institutions. The PAC of the state teachers union has upped its spending in response to that of New Yorkers for Independent Action.

The group initially targeted for defeat Bronx Sen. Gustavo Rivera, Assemblymember Phil Ramos of Long Island, and Assemblymembers Latrice Walker and Pamela Harris of Brooklyn, all Democrats. Now, it is spending in support of Sen. Roxanne Persaud of Brooklyn and Assemblymember Victor Pichardo of the Bronx, both incumbent Democrats.

Recent filings show that in late June the group allocated $2,000 a piece to support Persaud and Pichardo. Those expenditures pale in comparison, though, to what the PAC has spent on mailers and canvassers in other races. It is unclear exactly what the $2,000 went towards as it is unlikely it could have funded the kinds of district-wide mailers that have popped up in the Rivera, Ramos, Harris, and Walker races.

Future disclosures will show how committed the PAC is to those races, but the spending is meant to influence the outcomes of the quickly-approaching September 13 primaries for all state legislative seats. As of mid-July, New Yorkers for Independent Action reported spending $1,295,672 and raising $2,780,000.

NYFIA’s treasurer, Thomas Carroll, is former president of The Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability, did not return requests for comment.

The money spent so far by New Yorkers for Independent Action has mainly gone in large sums to help four candidates, each of whom has seen at least $300,000 spent by the PAC in their race. Council Member Fernando Cabrera is being aided in his rematch with Sen. Gustavo Rivera; Council Member Darlene Mealy is getting support in her challenge to Assemblymember  Latrice Walker; Giovanni Mata is being backed in his second challenge to Assemblymember Phil Ramos and Kate Cucco is being bolstered in her bid to oust Assemblymember Pamela Harris.

While NYFIA spends big money to defeat Rivera, backing his challenger, City Council Member Fernando Cabrera, in a twist, it is now spending to buoy Pichardo, who previously worked as director of community affairs for Rivera and won his Assembly seat with major guidance from Rivera and his allies.

The PAC has already spent over $356,000 to back Cabrera, with flyers attacking Rivera, others boosting Cabrera, and teams of canvassers carrying the literature.

Asked about NYFIA’s support during a debate on NY1’s Inside City Hall on Tuesday night, Cabrera pointed out that Rivera had endorsed Pichardo and Assemblymember Jose Rivera, who both back the EITC, and said that Rivera had a “double standard.”

Cabrera went on to say, “With this PAC we are working to pass the educational tax credit.” He added that he felt it was “fair to provide this tax credit to parents.”

Rivera responded that the PAC is supported by people who are “anti-choice, anti-gay and anti-labor.”

It is illegal for candidates to coordinate with Super PACs.

Pichardo’s office did not return requests for comment; it is unclear if his re-election campaign welcomes the independent spending on his behalf.

Karen Scharff, head of Citizen Action NY, is also part of the anti-hedge-fund group Hedge Clippers, which often criticizes the education reform movement and its wealthy backers. Scharff said that Super PAC spending of this type in primaries is a new development, and she fears it is just a preview of the kind of outside spending that will occur in the general election when control of the State Senate will be contested.

“The problem with this flood of cash from outside billionaires is that it impacts who gets elected in these communities that billionaires have no interest in. It is doubly disempowering the community, because they lose their voice in local matters and then have electeds who are more dedicated and accountable to the billionaires who elected them.”

Most of the candidates targeted by New Yorkers for Independent Action are not going unaided. Fund for Great Public Schools, a Super PAC controlled by Andrew Pollotta, the vice president of the New York State United Teachers union (NYSUT), was recently aided by a $4 million transfer from New Yorkers For a Brighter Future. The group has begun spending on mailers and advertisements to support Ramos, Walker, Rivera, and Harris, and attacking their opponents.  As of the last campaign filing report, on August 26, they appear to have spent a little over $80,000 on the four candidates.

In the 46th Assembly District, Kate Cucco, a former Assembly aide, is challenging Harris. Residents of the Southern Brooklyn district have been bombarded with flyers and polls from both independent groups. The race feels to many to be a proxy war for the education reform and union movements.

Asked whether Cucco supports the involvement of New Yorkers for Independent Action in her race, a spokesperson sent Gotham Gazette a statement:  

"Kate Cucco has long been on record urging for the overturn of Citizen's [sic] United and has been a staunch advocate for major reforms to campaign finance laws. Kate is in favor of public financing of campaigns that put hard limits of the amount of money a candidate can raise/spend, she is in favor of closing the LLC loophole, increasing the disclaimer requirements so voters know exactly who paid for campaign ads, as well as easing barriers to voting such as having one primary in June, allowing mail in voting, same day voter registration, and allowing for party enrollment changes right up until 60 days before an election."

Cucco is a supporter of a version of the Education Investment Tax Credit that NYFIA wants to see passed.

The PAC has used a similar theme for some of its mailers; in both the Rivera and Ramos races the mailer focuses on a New York Times editorial that accuses legislative leaders of failing to act on ethics reform in the wake of major scandals. Neither Ramos nor Rivera were at the center of the negotiations surrounding ethics reforms. There appear to have been about seven or eight mailers sent out in both districts, with varying themes.

In a statement, Assemblymember Ramos decried NYFIA, describing its donors as “millionaires and billionaires from Manhattan’s Upper East Side.”

“Why are they investing so heavily in a Brentwood Central Islip and Bay Shore Assembly race?” the statement says. “Because I stood up for my community and said NO to a million dollar tax break that they are pitching as an education opportunity for poor kids. I will stand up and fight anyone who tries to exploit our community. We deserve better.” Ramos also said that the Super PAC has “no grassroots” and that “Anyone that actually lives here knows we can't be bought. That's why I'm confident this multi-million dollar plan will fail, I trust my neighbors and they trust me."

Some candidates insist that NYFIA is interested only in passing the EITC and has no further political agenda. Scharff scoffs at the idea, pointing out that billionaire non-New Yorkers like Alice Walton, the Wal-Mart heir and Arkansas resident, and some donors who have traditionally given to conservative Christian causes have donated heavily to the PAC.

Hedge Clippers has also highlighted that the incumbents targeted by NYFIA were major advocates for a $15 minimum wage and other progressive issues.

“The problem with this kind of money being poured into these districts by billionaires is that it drowns out the voices of voters,” said Scharff. She said she expects a number of progressive issues to be at the center of the next legislative session and that those issues will be in jeopardy if NYFIA gets its candidates in place. “If this spending continues into the general election it really could shift balance of power.”

This is how New Yorkers for Independent Action has allocated its spending on candidates through its July 11 filing:
$302,878.91 to support Giovanni Mata, who is challenging Assemblymember Phil Ramos.
$358,235.33 to support City Council Member Fernando Cabrera in his second attempt to defeat Sen. Gustavo Rivera.
$309,404.25 on Kate Cucco, who is challenging Assemblymember Pamela Harris.
$321,153.54 on City Council Member Darlene Mealy, who is challenging Assemblymember Latrice Walker.
$2,000 on Sen. Roxanne Persaud, who is facing a challenge from Mercedes Narcisse.
$2,000 on Assemblymember Victor Pichardo, who is engaged in a rematch with Hector Ramirez.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to accurately reflect Thomas Carroll's former position as past president of The Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability, not president of The Center for Education Reform as was stated.

Education-Focused Super PAC Spends on Additional Legislative Races Wed, 31 Aug 2016 04:00:00 +0000