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After spending mightily on Senate contests, donors now look for a return

ALBANY – In mid-September, Fighting for Our Future, a Super PAC, got a major donation to help it fund Democratic efforts to take over the State Senate: $1 million.

On Oct. 9, another $1 million was wired in. Two weeks later, another $1 million.

The funding flow illustrated to anyone watching that the New York State United Teachers union – the creator and benefactor of Fighting for Our Future – was more than serious about using its political might to oust the GOP from Senate domination.

The final counting is not complete, but the teachers’ Super PAC spent more than $3.2 million, all of it on aiding Senate Democratic candidates, a review of state records show.

It’s the highest amount tossed into the Senate battles by a Super PAC, a list that includes a who’s who of powerful special interests from the worlds of labor unions and corporate interests.

Now, as the dust settles and the Democrats get ready to take control of the Senate in January, a question hangs over the Capitol: What do all these interests that picked the winning side want as a return on their investments?

The short answer: much.

“We supported a lot of the folks that won. It means a lot to us to have a State Senate that will actually listen to teachers and parents," said Andrew Pallotta, president of NYSUT.

Democrats declare victory in historic fight for State Senate

Donations with a hook

Political donors can give for all sorts of reasons, but the biggest donors in the fight for command of the Senate were more than likely to have their own specific pet cause, or causes, that they wanted to protect.

There are many campaign accounts to look at when trying to determine the total costs of this year’s Senate races. There are traditional political action committee accounts, individual candidate campaign accounts and party accounts. And then there are the Super PACs, which, by law, are not supposed to coordinate with candidates’ campaigns. Final Senate spending numbers won’t be revealed until early December with disclosure of final records with the state elections board.

The Buffalo News looked at a couple of the biggest Super PAC spenders – NYSUT’s Fighting for Our Future and Airbnb’s Stronger Neighborhoods PAC – for insight on two things: how outside groups were instrumental in the Democrats' takeover of the Senate, and what those groups now hope to get fulfilled at the Capitol.

“Success has many, many parents and the reality is that many people, groups and organizations … for one reason or another wanted to see the Democrats prevail. I am happy for that support, obviously," Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County Democrat set to become the Senate majority leader in January, said in an interview.

“It was very hard to beat the odds with all that money coming in on the Democratic side," said Edward Cox, the state Republican Party chairman. He said the Senate Republicans faced not a blue wave of Democrats, but a “green wave” of money to oust the GOP from Senate control.

Airbnb jumps in

Airbnb, the San Francisco-based home sharing rental company, made itself heard in the fall of 2016 when it dropped $10 million into Stronger Neighborhoods PAC, a committee it created to influence New York political campaigns.

This year, it was focused on Senate contests only. It started spending for real on Sept. 5, when it paid $9,300 for a poll. In October, the Super PAC opened its wallet to help Assemblyman James Skoufis, a Democrat running for a Senate seat based in the Hudson Valley’s Orange County.

In mid-October, it spent $282,424 on a TV ad to promote Skoufis. “James Skoufis for State Senate. One of us for all of us," ended one of its ads. He won his race.

At that time, the Airbnb Super PAC was expanding its sights, jumping into two contests on Long Island being heavily contested by both parties, including Monica Martinez, a Suffolk County Democrat running in a traditionally Republican district. She won. The PAC then also assisted Democrat John Mannion, a Syracuse-area teacher who also happened to be an Airbnb home host. He lost.

The sole Republican the PAC backed: Sen. Chris Jacobs, a Buffalo lawmaker whom the firm said has been supportive of its efforts at the Capitol as well as in the Buffalo area. They spent $54,000 to help him.

In all, Stronger Neighborhoods unleashed $803,000 in the last two months of the campaign season, much of it on Skoufis, who has co-sponsored an Airbnb-backed bill.

“Ultimately, our point was made. We supported candidates we feel are supportive of our host community. Of the five races we got involved in, four won. Yes, I’m satisfied with that," said Josh Meltzer, Airbnb’s head of Northeast Policy.

Airbnb faces heavy opposition from some neighborhood groups, hotels and hotel workers’ unions over what they believe is an Airbnb-fueled erosion of housing in New York City. One bill also sought to impose statewide restrictions on home sharing.

Meanwhile, Airbnb is playing offense, and will try again in 2019 to get a bill passed at the Capitol to collect taxes on consumers just like hotels.

Upstate loses sole Albany power base after Democratic Senate takeover

The Airbnb money was dispatched this fall to help Senate candidates “who decided to stick out their necks a bit” and support the home-sharing industry. Four of the five campaigns it backed were Democrats and the fifth – Jacobs – was heavily favored to win re-election.

“It’s not insignificant that we were one of the top three spenders in this cycle in terms of outside money," Meltzer said.

“I’m certainly optimistic that we go into this legislative session with even more support than the last one," he added.

Airbnb has something else for the future: Its Super PAC had, as of a couple of weeks ago, more than $9 million still in its campaign bank account.

Teachers look for a return

Pallotta, the NYSUT president, suggested the union might not have so aggressively gone after Republicans had two things not happened. The first came last session when the Senate GOP blocked a bill to undo a bill that links student test scores with teacher evaluations. Then, in mid-October, the Senate GOP leader, John Flanagan, called NYSUT one of the “forces of evil."

“They definitely won," Pallotta said of teachers.

That PAC’s spending does not include what the union’s main campaign account – that focuses on outreach to NYSUT members – spent on Senate races. The union said it sent out more than 1 million mailers and social media contacts, and made 250,000 calls to teachers pushing its slate of candidates.

The NYSUT committee’s spending began in earnest in September with phone surveys focusing on several races on Long Island and upstate, including Mannion, the Syracuse-area schoolteacher and longtime NYSUT activist. A week later, it unloaded $262,000 on key contests in five Senate districts, three on Long Island, including against Carl Marcellino, the Senate GOP’s education committee chairman.

In early October over a couple of days, it spent $719,000 on TV ads on its targeted Senate races. Two days later, it dropped $288,000 on its targeted races. A couple of weeks later came another $542,000, including adding a new Senate contest in Suffolk County. All the money went to assist Democratic candidates.

“Carl Marcellino picked his party over us. Our families deserve better. This November, we will be heard," said one of the PAC’s anti-Marcellino ads. Marcellino lost, and the GOP went from having 31 members in the Senate to 23 in January.

A week before Election Day, a massive mailing, phone calling and ad campaign cost the teachers’ PAC $796,000. An infusion of $480,000 closed out its efforts.

Of the preliminary spending estimate of $3.2 million that The Buffalo News could determine of Fighting for Our Future’s campaign activities, about $1.1 million poured into the Mannion contest.

It was the one race NYSUT came up on the losing side. “We put a lot into it. We’re disappointed," Pallotta said of that campaign. But he said the heavy focus on that contest – a longtime GOP seat – forced Republicans to pay attention to that race, thereby having its resources spread out across the state.

In the coming session, Pallotta said NYSUT will be looking for healthy public school funding increases and more transparency of charter school spending.

But first up, NYSUT wants the Senate to move on the GOP-stalled bill to decouple teacher evaluations from student test scores. So soon after Election Day, though, are there any commitments from Senate Democrats to resolve that in the 2019 session? Pallotta's smile was almost audible during a phone interview.

“I would say there’s a lot of conversations going on right now about getting that done as soon as possible," the union leader said.

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