ALBANY – On Long Island, candidates for the State Senate are greeting people at train stations. In Western New York, they’re stopping by senior citizen centers and candidate forums.
Behind the scenes, however, the battle for partisan control of the Senate is being played out by the likes of hedge fund billionaires, public school teachers, real estate developers, hospitals, equity investors, municipal workers and New York City landlords.
These, among others, are the deep-pocketed interests that are the financial backbone of increasingly influential political action committees known as super PACs that are lined up to affect the Nov. 8 elections and determine whether Republicans or Democrats will run the Senate.
Fueled by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010, these super PACs are not accountable to the public, as a candidate might be. They also are not governed by the same contribution limits that affect the rest of the state’s political system.
And their spending illustrates that.
In just a 21-day period this month, seven of the top super PACs – legally known as independent expenditure committees – spent an average of $341,000 a day on 11 separate Senate races, according to a review of filings that now flow daily into the state Board of Elections. The top spender was New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, which is tied to a pro-charter school organization.
In all, the seven super PACs spent $7.2 million since Oct. 1 on the Senate races to decide the control of the 63-member chamber.
It includes money being heavily driven into the Senate’s 60th District campaign in the Buffalo area that is among the key battleground races being fought over by Republicans and Democrats – and by the super PACs.
These groups come with that offer few clues about their intentions, motives or financial backers.
There is, for instance, Balance New York, which is tied to New York City residential landlords.
Or Jobs for New York, which is tied to New York City real estate developers.
There’s also the Fund for Great Public Schools, a super PAC connected to the New York State United Teachers union, or NYSUT, which has spent $2.3 million since Oct. 1.
It was topped only by New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany. It is linked to a charter school advocacy group, StudentsFirstNY, which is the nemesis of NYSUT’s super PAC each year over battles for state funding and legislation. Thanks to a flurry of spending Friday, New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany’s total spending on Senate races in the last three weeks has reached $3.1 million.
New Yorkers Together also is spending big. Voters can be forgiven if they can’t figure out from its name that the chief benefactor of that super PAC is the Communications Workers of America.
Then there’s Stronger Neighborhoods. That’s the super PAC of Airbnb, the San Francisco-based home-sharing online company that just pumped $10 million of its own corporate funds into the PAC’s account. So far, it is working to affect the outcome of just one Senate race in the Mid-Hudson Valley. Had Airbnb wanted to donate directly to the candidate it is trying to help in that race – Democrat Terry W. Gipson of Rhinebeck, Dutchess County – it would have been limited to $5,000 in a calendar year.
New Yorkers for Quality Health Care? It is tied to the Manhattan-based hospital trade group called Greater New York Health Care Association, whose members stretch as far away as Buffalo’s Kaleida Health.
In all, those seven groups spent nearly $6 million between Oct. 1 and 20. The money does not include what regular PACs are spending, or spending by the individual candidates or the umbrella fundraising organizations for Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans.
The prize: Senate control
Motivating these groups is the opportunity to be on the winning side in contests that will determine whether Democrats or Republicans control issues from state school funding levels to taxation matters to an assortment of major social and economic policies. NYSUT, from its spending disclosures, is pushing for the Democrats, while the New York City real estate PAC is, as traditionally is the case, backing Republicans. The charter school group is helping Republicans, while the CWA is spending to help Democrats.
It’s a system that doesn’t sit well with watchdog groups.
"I fear they’re having an outsized influence on control of the Senate," Susan Lerner, executive director of New York Common Cause, said of the super PACs. She believes that the messages pushed by the groups – often sharply negative attacks – end up discouraging New Yorkers from voting.
Because the groups are considered "independent" and aren’t supposed to coordinate with candidates, Lerner said, it leaves these super PACs able to send whatever message they want about a particular campaign – whether the candidate they support likes it or not.
"There’s an intermediary trying to paint a candidate one way or another, as opposed to voters directly hearing from the candidate and forming their own opinion who they want to vote for or not," she said. "Instead, there are very wealthy, heavily financed outside forces trying to influence voters."
The spending by these super PACs runs the gamut: Television ads, web ads, mailings, polls, opposition research of candidates, palm cards handed out in door-to-door canvassing of voters’ homes, consultants and salaries of campaign workers.
The Fund for Great Public Schools is spending mightily in the local race in the Senate’s 60th District between Republican Christopher L. Jacobs and Democrat Amber A. Small. Since Oct. 1, the super PAC has unleashed $543,000 worth of TV ads, mailings, palm cards and telephone bank operations to help Small.
The NYSUT-tied super PAC has spread money in a number of contests, including two Hudson Valley races in which Sen. William J. Larkin Jr., an 88-year-old Orange County Republican, and Sen. Susan J. Serino, a Dutchess County Republican, are fighting to hold on to their jobs.
Although nowhere near the levels of the NYSUT super PAC, the contest in the Senate’s 60th District has also attracted money from three other super PACs: the ones tied to the Communications Workers of America, the New York City developers’ group and the pro-charter school organization. The CWA-backed PAC is helping Small, while the other two groups are helping Jacobs.
The groups represent a who’s who of Albany influencers. Jobs for New York is tied to the Real Estate Board of New York, a real estate trade group that Common Cause found in 2013 raised nearly $7 million from just 25 member companies using 122 different limited liability companies to spend on 22 separate New York City Council races. It is a longtime major donor to Senate Republicans.
"Jobs for New York is committed to electing a State Senate that advances an agenda to promote good jobs and housing to meet the needs of New Yorkers," said Jobs for New York spokesman John Gallagher.
New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany is tied to the charter school group StudentsFirstNY. Its donors include billionaire Paul E. Singer and hedge fund executive Daniel S. Loeb – each donated $1 million for the Senate campaign efforts. Despite its name, a number of its major donors are not New York residents, such as Jim Walton and his sister Alice Walton, the Arkansas heirs to the Walmart estate and identified by Forbes as the nation’s wealthiest family. This past week, they upped their past support for the group with another $500,000 contribution apiece.
"We want to see a Senate that acts in the best interest of students and not special interests," said Jenny Sedlis, executive director of StudentsFirstNY. For years, the group has gone head-to-head against the teachers union on school choice issues in Albany.
New Yorkers for Quality Health Care spent $352,000 in the last few weeks promoting Republicans in Senate campaigns. That does not include the $115,000 it spent on one day in mid-September on mail, digital ads, phone calls and campaign management for Sen. J. Kemp Hannon, a Nassau County Republican facing a tough re-election bid; he is the longtime chairman of the Senate Health Committee that has oversight responsibilities for the health care industry, including the Greater New York Health Care Association that funds the super PAC’s political activities.
A new super PAC is Stronger Neighborhoods, formed by Airbnb, the home-sharing web service that is under fire from hotel and other industry interests as it grabs an increasingly larger share of tourism dollars. It pushed against a bill, which was just signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, that will cut its business in New York City and has filed a federal lawsuit against the legislation, contending that it will cause "irreparable harm."
Airbnb’s super PAC has been unleashing money against Serino, the Dutchess County freshman Republican senator who in June voted for the Airbnb-opposed bill. In a TV ad, the PAC says Serino is not on the side of middle-class homeowners who want to rent out a room to travelers. Since Oct. 1, it has spent $264,000 – all aimed at defeating Serino – in one of the Senate battleground contests between Democrats and Republicans.
"We want to make sure that our hosts known we’re in their corner, and that both our critics and our allies hear their voices this November and beyond," said Josh Meltzer, head of New York public policy for Airbnb. "The hotel industry is spending tens of millions of dollars to buy influence in Albany and launch an endless barrage of misleading attacks to vilify the 46,000 New York hosts who rely on home sharing as an economic lifeline."
Super PAC ad wars
Although the super PACs are spending on an array of political efforts, the big dollars go into TV ads. If voters freeze their TV screens at the last moment of these groups’ political ads, they can catch their names in small type.
In the Senate’s 39th District in the Hudson Valley, one that was recently profiled by The Buffalo News, the NYSUT-backed super PAC has an ad depicting Larkin, the Republican, as out of touch after 38 years in the Legislature. It went so far as to say Larkin "supported corrupt politicians," as an image of former Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, who was convicted last year on felony corruption charges, appears on the screen.
The super PAC tied to the hospital trade group tries to counter that ad, showing images of Larkin, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, depicted with other veterans, American flags and a female announcer saying that he helped pass a family leave measure along with a "women’s equality agenda."
In the 60th District, teachers are funding an ad contending that their preferred candidate, Small, the Democrat, will "stand up" to billionaires who send "our money" to New York City charter schools.
In the 40th District, voters are seeing ads like the one paid for by New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany. One seeks to make New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio the scare point for upstate voters; it says Gipson, the Democrat, "will join with big spending, big taxing Democrats led by Mayor Bill de Blasio."
The same de Blasio tie-in is being employed by the group in several other contests, including downstate suburban districts. Although connected to an education issues group, the super PAC ads make no mention of any education matter in the ad.
Critics say super PACs can, and do, take greater liberties with the truth in ads. In the 39th District, the NYSUT-backed PAC ran an ad saying Larkin supported a 47 percent pay increase for lawmakers; he actually supported creation of an outside panel to determine if lawmakers should get a pay raise and how large it should be.
"You cannot hold these outside groups accountable at all," Lerner complains of super PACs that suddenly pop into a campaign, run ads and then disappear after Election Day.
NYSUT said its super PAC is part of a multifaceted political operation that also includes teachers working directly on campaigns or going door-to-door canvassing voters.
"It’s simple," said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. "We want to elect those candidates who stand with our members on funding for public schools and colleges; stopping the overreliance on testing and supporting working families."