Some of Buffalo’s most prominent business leaders are funneling money into one candidate’s campaign for the school board, their donations serving as a symbolic show of discontent with the city’s education system.
The names on candidate Larry Quinn’s first financial disclosure represent a Who’s Who of Buffalo’s elite and influential power brokers, including the McGuires, the Riches and the Gioias.
In all, Quinn raised $34,000 – including $5,000 of his own money – before the first filing deadline, an amount more than seven times that reported by all of his competition combined. To be sure, six of the 15 candidates did not file reports, as they are required to do by law. Three reported that they had not raised the $500 required for them to itemize their donations.
Quinn’s financial backers also include former Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano. National education advocacy group StudentsFirst gave Quinn $3,000; its board of directors includes Bill Cosby and Connie Chung.
The longtime business and community leader’s donations this early in the race underscore a shift in the political landscape of city school board elections and the interest in this year’s race. They also put him well on track to set a record for contributions.
“This is the most important thing that’s going to happen for years to come,” said School Board member Carl Paladino, who asked Quinn to run, although he has not yet contributed to his campaign. “If it’s going to take money, it’s going to take money. We’ll do whatever it takes.”
State education law requires candidates to disclose the name and address of each person or group that gave them money, along with the amount of each donation. There is no limit to how much anyone can give a candidate.
The 15 candidates in this year’s race were supposed to have their first round of financial disclosures postmarked by Monday. They will be required to file two more reports in May.
Filing is a relatively simple matter, given that there is no set format a candidate must follow. One candidate for example, Daniel Rockwitz Reynolds, filed a handwritten statement on a piece of paper declaring he had raised less than $500.
Unaware of requirements
Yet some candidates still struggled to meet the deadline.
Among those were former mayoral candidates Sergio Rodriguez and Bernie Tolbert.
Rodriguez said he was not aware the filing requirements for school board were different than those for other elected posts. He said he would submit his disclosure by the end of the week, but had not sent a copy to The Buffalo News by the end of the day Friday.
Christina Abt, a campaign worker for Tolbert, said they ran into confusion filing the paperwork, and that Tolbert was listed as a mayoral candidate. School board financial disclosures, however, must be submitted to the Board of Education, not the Board of Elections, which handles mayoral and other municipal races.
Abt said they mailed their filings, but refused to provide The News with a copy of the public document, incorrectly stating that the information will be available on a state website.
“We just want to make sure we wait until it’s official,” she said in response to The News’ request to see the document. “Things can get out of whack so quickly. We don’t want there to be any confusion.”
Spending in school board races historically tends to look more like spare change than a major investment. A 2011 survey by the New York State School Boards Association reported that 61 percent of members – including those in suburban districts – spent no money on their campaign. About 36 percent spent less than $1,000.
In larger urban districts like Buffalo raising a few thousand dollars used to be an impressive feat.
But that has changed in recent years – at least in Buffalo – as races have become hotly contested and everyone from business leaders to special interest groups have thrown money behind certain candidates.
Christopher L. Jacobs holds the record with $52,000 he raised for his campaign in 2009, an amount Quinn could surpass.
Paladino says he spent $15,000 of his own money when he ran last year. His campaign was entirely self-financed.
Quinn said some of the donations he received were unsolicited, and that kind of investment by private donors is necessary to level the playing field with candidates who receive money from special interest groups, such as unions.
“I’m getting a lot of support from people who have an interest in seeing Buffalo do well,” he said.
“A lot of these checks that are coming in I’m not asking for.”
Last year’s election attracted groups from Albany to New York City flocking to put money into Buffalo’s school board election, some of them illegally spending tens of thousands of dollars on campaigns and supplying foot soldiers to drum up support.
Quinn said most of the money he raised will be used to create awareness about the race and increase voter turnout using tools such as mailers, phone calls and advertising.
That’s little comfort, however, to some of his opponents, who say a candidate with that much money is difficult to compete with, regardless of how they’re spending it.
“Certainly it puts people who don’t have that kind of money at a disadvantage,” Nevergold said. “It then doesn’t become a matter of the issues and the qualifications and the candidates, but name recognition and ways of influencing the voters.”
Nevergold said her goal going into the race was to raise $10,000, mostly through small events at people’s homes.
“I guess my $3,000 seems paltry at this point,” she said.
Visit buffalonews.com/schoolzone to view the candidates’ financial disclosures email: firstname.lastname@example.org