The issue of limits on outside income stands between state legislators and a raise. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News file photo)

ALBANY – In the run-up to the Nov. 8 election that will determine party control of the New York State Senate, some influential and deep-pocketed companies, unions and trade groups are hedging their bets like gamblers nervous about the odds.

In a "you never know" style of giving, some large donors, uncertain who will lead the Senate, are spreading their political money across GOP and Democratic lines. With partisan dominance of the 63-member chamber hanging in the balance in an election with a least a half-dozen battleground contests up in the air, the mixed-message giving is standing out.

For instance, the state AFL-CIO gave $15,000 to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee on Oct. 26. The next day, it gave $15,000 to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, according to state election board records of donations to the two central fund-raising groups.

A political action committee of the trade group for dentists gave $25,000 to the Senate GOP in mid-September; four weeks later, it gave $10,000 to the Senate Democrats.

And the New York State United Teachers political action committee a couple months ago gave $56,100 to the Senate Republicans. On the same day, it gave $59,600 to the Senate Democrats.

The review of these election records focused on donations to the two central campaign accounts for the Democrats and Republicans, which are headed by Sen. Cathy Young, an Olean Republican, and Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat. But when one burrows down a bit deeper, different pictures of some donors emerge.

For instance, the teachers union PAC gave plenty of money to individual Senate Democrats and Republicans beyond the two central campaign accounts. At the same time, the union is also funneling money into an independent expenditure committee – known as a Super PAC – called the Fund for Great Public Schools. Its spending reveals a clearer intent even as the union PAC gave to both party campaign accounts: NYSUT wants Democrats to re-take control of the Senate.

In a 17-day period ending Oct. 20, the Super PAC spent $1.7 million exclusively on Senate races and exclusively on helping elect Democrats, especially in four contests where the PAC is focusing much of its resources. One of those is the Senate 60th District in the Buffalo area where the PAC is helping Democrat Amber Small in her race against Republican Chris Jacobs. In the past couple of months or so, it has spent $550,000 to try to elect Small.

Conversely, a Super PAC called New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, whose donors include billionaire hedge fund and equity industry executives, has been especially busy helping Republicans keep control of the Senate. In just a two day period last Thursday and Friday, the group, which supports charter school expansions and benefits, spent $1.9 million on radio and TV ads opposing Democratic candidates in five races, four of them on Long Island.

Paying for ‘support’

Some groups’ recent donations are identical, dollar for dollar, to the two sides. A building construction trades council union, for instance, gave $2,500 apiece to the Democrats and Republicans on Oct. 19.

Others give a large donation to one of the central party campaign accounts and a smaller one to the other. The Partnership for New York City PAC, which represents business interests, went all in with a $108,000 donation to the Senate Republicans on Oct. 13. But a week later, it tossed $25,000 to the Senate Democrats.

A PAC representing a funeral directors trade group donated $50,000 to Senate Republicans in June when the legislative session was still underway. More recently, it gave $10,000 to Senate Democrats.

Meanwhile, the PAC for the Public Employees Federation, which represents 54,000 mostly white-collar state workers, gave $20,000 to Senate Republicans on Oct. 20 and $10,000 the same day to Senate Democrats. The union last Thursday gave $11,000 to veteran Sen. Kemp Hannon, a Nassau County Republican whose seat is being fiercely fought over.

PEF spokeswoman Jane Briggs said the union runs a rigorous, regional endorsement process for candidates interested in its support. "PEF supports those candidates that support our union’s goals, regardless of their political party affiliation," she said.

A trade group representing beer wholesalers, which has spent mightily on Senate Republicans over the past couple decades, gave the Senate Republican Campaign Committee $40,000 on Oct. 5. Seven days later, it gave the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee $10,000.

"We support incumbents who have been supportive of our industry," said Steve Harris, president of the New York State Beer Wholesalers Association. "A regulated industry, such as beer wholesaler and the alcohol beverage community in general, it is not a partisan issue. It crosses party lines and we are happy to support members from either party who support and understand our industry."

Picking the sure thing

The mixed-signal donations, and their timing, might seem perplexing outside Albany. Why, for instance, would the AFL-CIO, which represents 3,000 local unions with more than 2.5 million members, give the same amount to Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans on the same day?

"At our convention, delegates from every part of the state and from all sectors of the labor movement voted to endorse candidates based on their positions and record on issues important to working men and women. Supporting those who fight for working people, regardless of party affiliation, has always been and will continue to be our objective," said AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento, who represents the largest AFL-CIO federation in the nation.

While there are differences in the level of donations between Republicans and Democrats from many of these most influential groups in Albany, one thing emerges in nearly all the filings: These Capitol players seldom neglect to give money to members of the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference, the group that split from mainline Democrats and formed an alliance with Senate Republicans. With six likely IDC members in office after election day, it is poised to be the power broker to determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the Senate.

Of course, there are a large number of donors – especially individual contributors, as opposed to corporations, unions or trade groups – that give exclusively to members of one political party.

A representative of one watchdog group says the way various interests spread money around the Senate is not the case as much in the Assembly, where one party – the Democrats – so overwhelmingly control the chamber. That donors are willing to match, or come close in many cases, donation levels to both Senate Democrats and Republicans shows just how uncertain times are in Albany about who will run the Senate come January.

"By forking over the big bucks, they’re betting on a sure thing, which is the more money they give the more access they get," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "If they’re unsure how it’s going to turn out, they hedge their bet."

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