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In governor's race, some small dollar donors come with an asterisk

ALBANY – It’s all the craze in some New York political circles: the small-time donor.

Usually considered chump change, these people willing to make low dollar donations are generally looked upon by top New York politicians like moldy bread. They don’t get invited to Broadway galas. They don’t get to go golfing with their favorite politician. And they certainly don’t get access to a state agency handling some aspect of their life or business.

Yet, in the New York governor’s race, and others, the small-time donor is the rage.

In truth, for some, it’s more like a rhetorical rage.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn’t focus on small contribution donors until after two things happened: The New York Times last year reported more than 99 percent of his donors gave him more than $1,000 apiece and activist Cynthia Nixon began a Democratic primary campaign against Cuomo in March with a vow not to take corporate money and to focus her fundraising on smaller, individual donations.

Nixon on Tuesday filed her new campaign finance report with the state elections board showing 640 pages of donations from individuals – with most of the individual contributions coming in well under $100 apiece. Combined with an earlier filing, it means she has submitted nearly 1,800 pages of individual contributions since announcing her campaign this spring.

Cuomo, in a period stretching back to January, has filed 88 pages showing donations from individuals.

But Cuomo has made an effort to reach out to more small donors.

In his July 2014 filing, when he last ran for governor, Cuomo listed 797 separate donations from individuals totaling $4.7 million – or $5,897 on average apiece. In his new filing made public Tuesday, Cuomo listed 1,493 transactions that raised $2.7 million from individual donors – or $1,808 on average apiece. (The amounts are apart from corporate and political action giving, which sharply boosted Cuomo’s overall take.)

“The governor’s decision to focus on small donors is clearly a result of scrutiny he’s gotten from Cynthia, good government advocates and the media. When less than 0.2 percent of your donations are small dollar, it’s pretty clear who you’re working for – and it’s not every day New Yorkers," said Lauren Hitt, a Nixon campaign spokeswoman.

Under pressure, Cuomo will donate money from Buffalo Billion figures

There are some asterisks in Cuomo’s small donation effort. There was to have been a big bump from a recent all-the-booze-you-can-consume fundraiser with only a $5 admission fee New York; the booze giveaway got amended after it was reported such all-you-can-drink events are prohibited by state law.

Also, a number of small donations in the new Cuomo report came from friends or relatives of Cuomo insiders, including lobbyists and people who used to work for Cuomo. Whether the effort was coordinated or not, they had the effect of creating the image of a burgeoning grass roots efforts.

Others were simply curious. Someone on Saturday made a $3 credit card donation to Cuomo’s campaign. The address for the donor listed an apartment in a Park Avenue co-op in Manhattan – in a building where a two-bedroom apartment was listed for sale Tuesday for $3.5 million.

Then there is the Christopher Kim effect, the giver of very, very small donations to Cuomo.

Consider Jan. 17. It was the first day Cuomo reported raising money from individual donors for the fundraising cycle he just reported to the elections board. On that day, Cuomo raised $204,500 from just 19 people. That’s an average of $10,763 apiece. Kim was not one of the donors that day.

On the final day Cuomo reported raising money for this cycle on July 16 – even though the legal cutoff period was July 12 – Cuomo reported receiving only $257 in individual donations. But they came via 38 separate transactions. As it turns out, Kim, who gives a Long Island City address, made 21 of those donations to Cuomo – all at $1 apiece. Kim was prolific: he gave Cuomo 69 separate donations – all via credit card – of $1 apiece, with a couple of $3 and $5 donations given at his most generous moments.

A call to someone believed to be Kim was not returned. But The New York Times reported Tuesday afternoon that Kim appears to reside at the same address as someone working for the Cuomo campaign.

“We appreciate his enthusiasm. Going forward, we’ll put measures in place to count contributions like this differently," said Cuomo campaign spokeswoman Abbey Collins.

The Nixon campaign, in a statement Tuesday evening, termed the Cuomo small dollar effort “a sham” and a “pathetic” attempt at grass roots’ image-making.

Overall, Collins said there was a shift in reliance on small donations this year. “The campaign held a wide number of fundraising events during the first half of the year, and prioritized low dollar contributions as part of that effort," she said. Among the small donors: Collins' father, who gave $1 to Cuomo.

Cuomo money machine

For Cuomo, it was another frantic race for campaign cash over the past six months. He raised $5.9 million in donations from individuals, corporations and groups like unions. At $154,000, even the interest his campaign made on interest and dividends from bank accounts during the period made more money than most candidates in New York raised during the past six months.

Cuomo’s single largest donor was $65,100 from James Nederlander, who owns a live entertainment company. Cuomo’s friend, entertainer Billy Joel and his wife, reported a total in-kind donation of $54,000 for the costs of a Cuomo fundraising party last week at their Long Island home.

With a challenge from Nixon in the primary and one from the Republican candidate, Marc Molinaro, Cuomo also spent mightily on advertising and other efforts to prop up his campaign. Since January, he spent an average of $1 million a month.

With Nixon refusing to take corporate cash, Cuomo’s corporate contributions have also dropped from the last time he ran for governor. His new filing shows he raised $501,000 from corporations since January; in July 2014, he raised $770,000 from corporations.

“As we saw with last week’s trial, big money in our elections is at the root of so much corruption in government. And even when it’s not technically illegal, these donations means that policy is often passed for the benefit of the wealthy, while working people are left behind," said Hitt, the Nixon spokeswoman.

Cuomo is still flush with cash: He has $31.1 million in the bank.

His opponents are not flush with cash.

Since her campaign started this spring, Nixon, a veteran actress, has raised $1.6 million, and spent $954,000. She has $657,000 on hand. Most of her donations came from people spending far less than $100 on her, though she did get some large donations from some entertainment industry supporters, including Chris Noth, Chelsea Handler, Susan Sarandon and Jane Lynch.

Molinaro, the Dutchess County Executive and GOP candidate, raised $914,000, spent $251,000 and reported $887,000 in the bank. Among his biggest donors, at $25,000, was Robert Trump, the brother of President Trump.

Stephanie Miner, the former Syracuse mayor, who is running for governor as an independent, raised $185,000 for her recently announced campaign. A number of large donations came from individuals associated with Serve America Movement, a new political group; two leaders with that organization gave her $44,000 apiece and Miner also transferred $225,000 from her former mayoral campaign account. She spent $247,000 and has $163,000 on hand.

Howie Hawkins, making his third run for governor on the Green Party line, raised $24,000 and has $16,900 on hand.

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