The progressive wave that has washed over parts of New York in recent years has brought with it an increased focus on the donations that fund political campaigns at every level of government. Increasingly, Democratic candidates for city and state offices are refusing to accept money from sources they consider problematic, particularly the real estate industry.
The party that backs them is a different story.
In July, the Brooklyn Democratic Party released information about the money it received and spent in the first half of 2020. An analysis of those financial statements conducted by the political club New Kings Democrats last month found that the party has received significant funding from real estate developers and charter school advocates, has spent large sums of money on multiple consulting firms, and still retains over $200,000 in debt.
“It’s important for people to know that if this party body is taking donations from a certain entity, then that entity might influence the decisions that are made,” said Emily Hoffman, Chief of Operations for New Kings Democrats. “That principle is what campaign finance laws are based on.”
The Brooklyn Democratic Party discloses information on its spending and contributions twice per year, as required by New York State law. Those disclosures include information on two separate bank accounts: a “Campaign” account used to promote candidates for elected office, and a “Housekeeping” account used for expenses related to staffing, offices, and everything else.
“A party can spend money on behalf of its endorsed candidates, either in the primary or in the general,” said Jerry Goldfeder, a campaign finance attorney with the firm Stroock. “[The regulations governing parties] are not looser, they’re just different. And the contribution limits to a party are much higher than to a particular candidate.”
While there are limits to the amount an individual or corporation may donate to the Party’s Campaign account, no such limits exist for contributions to Housekeeping expenses. And the Brooklyn Democratic Party has received large donations from a variety of groups with political and economic interest in the borough’s politics.
Charter School Group is the top donor
By far the largest donation in this most recent cycle came from New Yorkers for Putting Students First, the political action committee (PAC) of Students First NY, a group that advocates for the expansion of charter schools. New Yorkers for Putting Students First gave $85,000 to the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s Housekeeping account, and another $20,000 to the Party’s Campaign account. Together, these donations represent nearly 30% of the $356,241 the party raised in 2020.
The Brooklyn Democratic Party wasn’t the only recipient of New Yorkers for Putting Students First’s money; according to disclosures filed with the New York State Board of Elections, the group also donated thousands of dollars to the Queens County Democratic Party, Bronx State Senator Luis Sepúlveda, and Nassau County State Senator Kevin Thomas in the first half of 2020.
A query of the New York State Board of Elections contributions database reveals that, over the last two years, the group has also donated $19,300 to Central Brooklyn State Senator Kevin Parker, $3,000 to North Brooklyn Assemblymember Maritza Davila, $25,000 to Governor Andrew Cuomo, $55,000 to the New York State Senate Campaign Committee, and $25,000 to the New York State Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, along with significant contributions to elected officials and parties representing other parts of the city and state.
New Yorkers for Putting Students First’s goals in donating to the Party are unclear. Though with a mayoral election coming up in 2021 and renegotiation of mayoral control over NYC schools scheduled for 2022, it’s perhaps unsurprising that charter school advocates are looking to build relationships with Democrats, who now control every legislative body and executive office in both city and state government.
The PAC has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from Alice Walton, a member of the family that owns Walmart, raising the possibility that the group may also be part of a push to open a Walmart store in the city. Activists and elected officials have fought for years to prevent such a move, arguing the company’s presence would hurt local businesses.
Students First NY did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article, nor did the Brooklyn Democratic Party itself.
“Whatever Students First’s motivations are, it is troubling that the Party is relying so heavily on a single funder,” wrote Caitlin Kawaguchi, NKD’s Communications Director, in the group’s analysis. “Any contributor that makes up such a large portion of the Party’s contributions is bound to have undue influence on the Party’s actions.”
Real Estate, Unions, Car Dealers, Law Firms and Charter round out the list
Beyond Students First, the Party received several other notable donations in the first half of 2020.
- The cable and internet provider Charter Communications Inc., which was nearly kicked out of the state in 2018 after failing to deliver expanded broadband access required in its merger with Time Warner Cable, donated $10,000.
- Plaza Motors of Brooklyn, Inc., which runs the Plaza Auto Mall on Nostrand Avenue, donated $10,000.
- The political consultancies Yoswein New York (which has represented Amazon, AT&T and Industry City as well as several nonprofits and unions) and Cozen O’Connor (which is also a law firm) each donated $5,000. Howard Fensterman, Managing Partner at the Abrams Fensterman law firm, donated $7,500. Subin Associates, a personal injury law firm, donated $10,000.
- A wide variety of public and private sector unions, ranging from the New York State Court Officers Association and the Hotel Trades Council to the NYC District Council of Carpenters and the New York State Society of Anesthesiologists, donated sums ranging from $5,000 to $12,500.
But the contributions most likely to raise the eyebrows of voters across the borough may be those that came from the real estate industry. Several real estate entities with significant portfolios in Brooklyn made donations to the Party this year, including Two Trees ($10,000), Yehoshua Fruchthandler of FBE Limited ($5,000), and Cornell Realty ($5,000).
A $5,000 contribution came from Peter Rebenwurzel, the owner of Coney Realty Group, an entity that tenant activists have called one of the worst landlords in the city. The Party also received $5,000 from Cammeby’s International executive Avi Schron, whose advocacy group Alliance for Rental Excellence NY sought to punish Democratic State Senators for supporting new rent regulations passed in 2019. Yet another $5,000 donation came from the construction industry group New York Building Congress, whose President and CEO Carlo Scissura, was named interim County Committee Chair of the Party in January.
These donations have continued to come in even as former Party Chair Frank Seddio has blamed the Party’s financial challenges on pressure from progressives to turn down donations from developers.
“It’s frustrating that sometimes elected officials or candidates tout this line of ‘political gentrification,’ and use that phrase against progressives by saying, ‘you’re not from here, you’re trying to gentrify the party, your opinion doesn’t count,’” said Hoffman. “Sometimes the people who say that are the same party leaders who are happily taking real estate donations from companies that are directly causing the real gentrification that has an impact on people. So I think it’s important to highlight that hypocrisy.”