A $150-a-ticket cocktail hour at the Bacchus Wine Bar and Restaurant on Chippewa toward the end of April drew dozens of Buffalo’s wealthiest and most powerful people to support Larry Quinn’s bid for a seat on the School Board.
In a few hours, that single event raised more than $8,000 and pushed Quinn’s campaign fund over $70,000 – more than any Buffalo School Board candidate has ever raised.
“People give you the money based on your message,” Quinn said. “It’s not like I’m calling a bunch of people and saying, ‘Give me money.’ I’m getting checks just flying in the mail.”
But that record-breaking stockpile of campaign cash pales in comparison to a two-pronged effort by the teachers union, which includes a $500,000 media campaign that launched six days before the election, as well as several mailers from the AFL-CIO likely costing more than $30,000.
The half-million-dollar media campaign by the New York State United Teachers includes front-page ads in The Buffalo News, radio spots on WBEN, and billboards on the Niagara Thruway and Kensington Expressway.
The ads do not promote any candidates or refer to Tuesday’s election – but they do include the same points included in glossy mailers the AFL-CIO sent out promoting three candidates backed by the Buffalo Teachers Federation.
It’s not clear how much the state union has spent on those mailers – which included five different mailers as of Friday, each sent to 20,000 union households in the city. The AFL-CIO says it is exempt from the state law requiring disclosure of school board campaign spending because those mailings are “member communications.”
“It’s part of our duty to our members to communicate our positions to them,” said Ryan Delgado, public policy director for the state AFL-CIO. “The labor movement has always supported candidates that support strong public schools.”
Based on how much other candidates spent on similar mailers, it appears likely that as of Friday, the AFL-CIO spent more than $30,000 on mailers supporting School Board President Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, board member John B. Licata and former board member Ralph R. Hernandez.
That appears to be about equivalent to the amount StudentsFirstNY, an education reform group based in New York City, spent on the Buffalo election. That group, whose national parent organization was founded by former Washington, D.C., chancellor Michelle Rhee, poured $33,285 into the School Board race in Buffalo this year.
StudentsFirstNY gave $10,000 to former mayoral candidate Bernard A. Tolbert. The group also spent more than $20,000 on Quinn’s candidacy, including $18,000 in donations to him and a few thousand spent on polling and data.
“We are proud to support school board candidates who will do what it takes to fix Buffalo’s schools rather than maintain the status quo,” said Jenny Sedlis, executive director of StudentsFirstNY. “There is a movement among civic-minded people in the city to change the direction of the school district and give kids the education that they deserve. We’re committed to helping that effort.”
The Buffalo Niagara Partnership, a business group, spent $15,450 on the race – $5,000 to Quinn; $5,000 to Patricia A. Pierce, an investigator with the district attorney’s office; and $5,450 on a mailing to 16,000 prime voters on behalf of the two candidates.
The single biggest individual donor this year was School Board member Carl P. Paladino, who gave Pierce $23,240. Two-thirds of it was given by his political action committee, Turning Albany Upside Down.
“I want to win this. If it means financially supporting a good candidate, I’m going to do it,” said Paladino, one of the biggest property owners in Buffalo. He is supporting Pierce and Quinn, but said he did not give Quinn any money because that candidate was able to raise a lot of money without Paladino’s help.
Quinn’s giant warchest
The 13 candidates raised a combined total of more than $179,000 in cash and in-kind contributions for their campaigns, as of Thursday, based on campaign finance disclosure reports they filed, as required by state law.
Quinn raised almost half of that sum – about $74,000 in direct donations and $8,000 through in-kind services such as polling and data.
He said he has paid for any efforts outside his campaign to promote his candidacy. That includes paying Paladino for his share of the billboard put up on a building Paladino owns downtown that is visible from the I-190.
“Anything I’m aware of that’s pushing my name, I’m paying for it,” Quinn said. “I’m trying to do this straight.”
Among his largest donations from individuals were $5,000 apiece from Frank McGuire, Robert E. Rich Jr., Melinda Rich and B. Thomas Golisano.
Each of those single checks accounted for more than several candidates raised in total.
Four of the candidates reported that they raised less than $1,000: Stephen Buccilli, Adrian F. Harris, John B. Licata and Stephon Wright.
Ralph R. Hernandez, who served nine years on the board until he was voted off last year, reported raising $1,200. He failed to itemize $1,100 of that, in violation of state law, which requires that the name of every donor be reported, along with the amount they gave.
Wendy Mistretta, a leader in the District Parent Coordinating Council who ran last year for the North District seat on the board, raised $1,585. Her contributions ranged from $10 from some parents in the district to $100 donations from various sources, including Mike Madigan, the Grand Island Republican who ran for Congress, and the North District Republican Committee.
Sergio R. Rodriguez, the former mayoral candidate, raised $2,044. His biggest check – $500 – came from Edwin Martinez. Rodriguez reported $650 in donations that he did not itemize.
The largest donor to Gizelle Stokes, a social worker at King Center Charter School, was the Bella Vista Group, a developer based in Lancaster. Bella Vista gave her $250, which accounted for about one-tenth of all the money she raised.
Attorney Samuel P. Davis raised $4,653 – with more than half of it coming from Hormoz Mansouri, a local businessman who regularly contributes heavily to Buffalo School Board candidates, as well as to candidates for other local and state elected offices. He owns a development company and two engineering firms.
Nevergold, the School Board president, raised four times more than the $3,000 she originally said she planned to raise. Her largest donors were the Women’s TAP Fund, a political action committee whose goal is to encourage women to run for office, and Ina Chapman, the wife of the Rev. Michael Chapman, pastor of St. John Baptist Church. The BTF provided nearly $1,700 worth of lawn signs.
Among Nevergold’s other donors was Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, who gave her $100.
Tolbert raised more than $22,000, with $10,000 coming from StudentsFirstNY and another $5,000 from Tolbert. His more than 40 other donors included Howard Zemsky, managing partner of Larkin Development Group, and Catherine Schweitzer, executive director of the Baird Foundation, each of whom gave $250.
Pierce raised more than $42,000, which included $8,000 in in-kind donations from Quinn’s campaign, such as ads for both candidates and phone calls to voters.
Aside from Paladino, Pierce’s largest individual donations came from Howard and Leslie Zemsky, who gave her a total of $1,000, and Brent Baird, who also gave her $1,000. Pierce also got more than 130 smaller donations, most of which ranged from $25 to $50.
Unions pushing hard
Although Quinn raised more than any School Board candidate in the city ever has, the money for his campaign pales in comparison to the amount the unions are spending to support Hernandez, Licata and Nevergold.
The unions won’t tell how much they’ve spent – and they say they are exempt from the law that requires disclosure.
School Board elections are governed by state education law, which does not limit the amount of money a candidate can raise, nor does it limit how much any individual donor can give to a candidate.
But anyone who spends money on behalf of a candidate – rather than giving money directly to the candidate – can legally spend only $25 per candidate, and is required to report that spending, both to the local Board of Education and to the state education commissioner.
While school board campaigns are not governed by state election law, a change in the election law this year classifies such communications from a union to its members as independent expenditures that do not need to be disclosed, according to a spokesman for the state Board of Elections.
As of Friday, the AFL-CIO sent four glossy mailers to 20,000 union households in the city. One of the mailers endorsed Hernandez; one endorsed Licata; one endorsed Nevergold; and one promoted all three candidates, endorsed by the Buffalo Teachers Federation. The union plans to do more in the next few days to promote those candidates, including making phone calls.
It appears to be the first time the statewide AFL-CIO has gotten involved in Buffalo School Board campaigns.
“This year, we’re contacting all our members in the district and educating them on the importance of the race,” Delgado said. He declined to say how much the union has spent.
“This is a communication to our members, so it’s not disclosable,” he said.
The Buffalo Teachers Federation is a member of New York State United Teachers, which, in turn, is part of the AFL-CIO. BTF President Philip Rumore said the AFL-CIO contacted him to ask who the BTF was endorsing. He added that he thinks mailing the ads to union households makes sense.
“Did anyone every stop to think we don’t have the money that Quinn and Pierce have to send all of this out to the whole world?” Rumore said. “If you don’t have unlimited resources like some of the other candidates do, you have to target who you’re sending to.”
Last year, NYSUT officials would not deny allegations that they were behind a series of negative mailers attacking candidates who were not aligned with the union.
The strategy apparently backfired. Only one of four candidates the union backed was elected.
This year, the union launched a $500,000 ad campaign – “Buffalo Schools: Believe!” – six days before the election, according to a press release NYSUT sent out Wednesday. The union launched the ad campaign in collaboration with the recently formed Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization.
The ads do not address the election on Tuesday, nor do they endorse candidates. Some of the ads, however, make the same points made in some of the AFL-CIO mailers endorsing Hernandez, Licata and Nevergold.
In addition to the print, broadcast and other advertising, 10,000 lawn signs will soon be posted across the city.
Union officials said the timing of the campaign had nothing to do with the School Board election. The campaign was supposed to launch a month ago, Rumore said, but it ended up delayed.
“We had this planned for months,” he said.