State Senate Democrats are opening their special access campaign clubs beyond just labor groups and are promising meetings with Senate leaders in return for donations of as much as $50,000, the Democrats' chief fundraiser said Thursday.
Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, who runs the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, told The Buffalo News that an array of interests with business at the Capitol are being asked to join "advisory councils" to help counsel the party's lawmakers about how to keep control of the Senate this fall.
"I have to raise money very aggressively," Klein said.
Critics derided the move as Albany's latest "pay-to-play" scheme. But Klein said his fundraising effort is expanding and now includes a business-based campaign membership group.
Soon, he said, special advisory councils will be formed to collect campaign cash from environmental interests, lawyers and others, and they will get face-to-face time with Senate leaders in return for the pricey memberships.
Government watchdogs called the timing especially troubling: The state budget is being negotiated at the Capitol, a plan that can turn interest groups into major winners or losers.
"It shows a disregard for the ordinary voter. It's really breathtaking," said Susan Lerner, executive director of New York Common Cause.
"It's as if New Yorkers needed confirmation of their worst suspicion that our state policies and our fiscal policies are up for sale to the highest bidder," she said.
Union bosses were offered seats on a special "advisory council" to the Democrats in return for $50,000 donations, the New York Post first reported this week. Thursday, Klein, in an interview with The News, defended the advisory councils and revealed they were being expanded to include other interests.
Klein, deputy Senate majority leader, said he also had sent invitations to business executives to join their own advisory council. The price tag for admission to the business group is half the offer made to labor leaders.
In return for promising to give or raise at least $25,000, members of the business group can "participate" in "exclusive" meetings with Senate Democratic leaders, a policy briefing and an "industry-specific sub-council meeting" and get free admission to Democratic campaign events in Manhattan and Albany, including an end-of-session reception later this spring, according to a letter from the Democratic campaign committee.
About two dozen donors from the business advisory group met with senators Monday in Albany -- the same day the Senate Democrats approved a nonbinding resolution outlining their position on the state's 2010 budget. The Senate plan included rejection of a number of taxes and some spending cuts that Gov. David A. Paterson insists are needed to balance the budget.
"We're going to have an environmental council. We're going to have a women's advisory council, a lawyers council and one for the gay and lesbian community," Klein said.
For donations of up to $50,000, labor leaders -- in a letter sent over Klein's signature -- were promised invitations to meet with Senate leaders and to "actively participate in the essential policy conversations that help construct our 2010 campaign strategy."
Klein defended the money outreach, saying the talks with donors have not been about affecting the state budget but discussing strategies to help the Democrats keep their majority in the fall elections. Democrats took control of the Senate in 2008 -- after seven decades of GOP dominance -- and have a 32-30 edge over Republicans.
The elections are crucial for both parties. Whoever controls the Senate gets a say in next year's redistricting work, the once-a-decade process that redraws state legislative and congressional boundary lines. If the Democrats remain in control in the Legislature and governor's office, they could cut Republicans out of any voice in how the lines are drawn.
Klein said a long line of political figures -- from former President George W. Bush to Senate Republicans -- have created special titles and advisory groups for big donors. He dismissed the GOP complaints, saying Senate Republicans are just worried the Democrats will have more money than them for the fall campaigns.
Senate Democrats sought to defend the fundraising practice by releasing the Senate Republicans' invitation to the "Senate Republican Roundtable" at a Manhattan restaurant last spring. The invitation came after the Republicans had lost control of the Senate and were making a pitch to supporters to help them retake it. The letter included no specific request for donations.
Senate Democrats also released a 2001 letter from former Senate Republican Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, recently convicted on corruption charges, seeking people to join the GOP Roundtable for a minimum annual contribution of $25,000.
Klein said that he keeps his political and government work separate and that the advisory council donors have an interest in seeing the Senate remain Democratic.
Like other fundraising efforts, he said the donors also are offered access to senators at fundraisers. "You want to speak to John Sampson," he said of donors seeking meetings with the Senate Democratic leader from Brooklyn. "You want to speak to chairs of committees. These are the people who you believe in their issues. You believe in keeping them in leadership roles, and that's the discussion that will take place when they actually meet with them one on one."
Common Cause's Lerner rebuked the campaign effort by Senate Democrats, who rode to power in 2008 promising to change the culture of Albany.
"Just the fact that they claim the other party has done similar fundraising and the argument that Albany is available to all high bidders whatever their interests might be -- whether business or labor or environmental companies -- is no excuse," she said.
"It's an unacceptable practice. It is blatant pay to play. Ordinary New Yorkers aren't paying $50,000 in order to get time with the Senate leaders from either party. These meetings should not be for sale."