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As the power has flipped to Democrats in State Senate, so follows the money

ALBANY – It's an old Albany story: The greater one’s influence over the affairs of the New York State government, the greater one's ability to raise campaign cash from people and groups looking for access.

But, seldom is the story so breathtakingly told in one fell swoop as witnessed during the first six months of 2019 with the flipping of State Senate control from Republicans to Democrats.

New campaign disclosure filings have been trickling in the past couple of days and a simple headline is emerging: It’s really, really good being in the Senate majority.

From rank-and-file members like Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat who has seen his campaign account soar since January, to the main Senate Democratic campaign account, 2019 is shaping up as the year the Democrats in the Senate firmly grabbed the reins of Albany’s political fundraising industry.

Consider the most basic comparison.

The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee serves as an umbrella political apparatus to get Democrats elected to the 63-member chamber. It raised $1.7 million from mid-January through mid-July, its filing with the state election board shows. In the first six months of 2017 – the fairest comparison because it was the previous filing period in a year without any Senate elections – the committee raised $535,000.

It now has $1.8 million in the bank as a down payment for what it will need for the 2020 elections.

Harmony is far from assured as Democrats take charge in Albany

The Senate Republican Campaign Committee, raising money for senators ousted from Senate domination after a large number of Democratic wins in last November’s elections, found out what being out of power truly means. In the first six months of this year, it raised only $176,425. The same period in 2017: $1.2 million. It now has only $269,000 on hand.

Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat, is the chairman of the Senate Democratic committee. He raised money for years for the group when the Democrats were out of power and, since January, with Democrats in Senate control. Which does he prefer and why?

Gianaris laughed at the question. “I prefer to be in power because we’re getting important things done for New York, but that’s also reflected in donors' satisfaction with the direction in the Senate.

Asked if he’s getting fundraising calls returned faster with his fellow Democrats in power, Gianaris said, “We always had our calls returned. We’re just getting better responses now when they are returned.’’

Gianaris, who serves as the Senate’s deputy majority leader, noted the Senate Democrats, when a separate account used for housekeeping expenses are included, actually raised $2.3 million so far this year. And they did so without taking a key source of donations: the big real estate industry that, until this spring, successfully beat back tenants’ rights measures when the Senate was in GOP hands.

Gianaris' personal campaign account took in $271,000 this year, compared with $27,000 in the same period in 2017.

Republicans stay optimistic

Sen. Fred Akshar, a Binghamton-area Republican who heads the Senate GOP campaign group, was not made available for a comment Tuesday; he said in a written statement that the GOP will benefit in the future from an "out of touch, far-left agenda" being pushed by Senate Democrats in Albany. Akshar took over the committee in late February from Cathy Young of Olean after she resigned.

A Senate GOP spokesman also predicted a bright future. “Now that we’ve completed a legislative session where Democrats gave free college tuition and driver’s licenses to illegals, granted new rights to some of the state’s worst criminals and raised taxes by billions of dollars while ignoring struggling middle class families, fundraising is only going to grow," Scott Reif said of future GOP fundraising.

Stakeholders in the business of state government have changed their political spending ways to reflect the new Senate power structure. Take the political action committee funded by dentists across New York. In 2017 and 2018, the dental PAC gave $257,500 to the main Senate GOP account. The Senate Democratic account got $90,000.

Since the Democrats took over in January, the dentists have gone with the flow. Their PAC has given the Senate GOP just $5,000. To the Democratic campaign account: $105,000. That included an $80,000 donation on March 5, the single largest contribution the Senate Democrats received for the first half of 2019.

“Money follows power. Albany’s political elite likes to bet on a sure thing and Democratic control of the Senate is, at least for now, where they are placing their bets," said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

His group each year surveys political fundraisers – just one route lawmakers take to bring in campaign cash – held during the six-month legislative session in Albany. This year’s survey showed many lawmakers – in both parties – haven’t adjusted the admission price charged to lobbyists and their clients. So, since Republicans are taking in far less money than last year, the crowds are thinner.

Sen. Joseph Robach, a Monroe County Republican, cut the minimum entry price for his 2019 fundraiser to $350 per head from $500 in 2017 and 2018.

Sen. Monica Martinez, a Suffolk County Democrat serving in just her first year in Albany, had two fundraisers at a beer hall steps from the Capitol. At the February one, she charged $250 per head; in June, right before session’s end, she upped it to $1,000 per person.

Special interests chase after power

The fundraising flip-flop this session has been swift and severe.

Consider some Senate Republicans from the Buffalo area:

  • Patrick Gallivan from Elma raised $55,000 this year, down from $117,000 in 2017. He said Tuesday two of his bigger fundraiser events usually held before the July filing were changed to later in the year and so an apples-to-apples comparison is difficult in his case. So far in the minority, he said he’s been “pleasantly surprised” with his donation levels, though the bigger Senate GOP campaign committee falloff was to be expected “given the nature of Albany.
  • Robert Ortt from North Tonawanda took in $25,000 so far this year, only about half his pace in the first six months of 2017. Michael Ranzenhofer of Amherst took in $63,000 so far this year compared with $99,000 in 2017.
  • And Chris Jacobs of Buffalo saw his Senate donations go from $160,000 in 2017 to $27,000 this year. However, he decided in May to run for the U.S. Congress. “At that point, I stopped all fundraising efforts for the state Senate, as I will not be running for re-election," he wrote in an email.

At the top, more warning signs for the GOP. Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan, a Suffolk County Republican, raised $45,000 so far this year and has $385,000 in the bank. In the same period in 2017, he raised $363,000 and had $972,000 on hand.

In the Democratic conference, the top leader and chairs of Senate committees that oversee industries that are reliable campaign donors did well in their new majority power posts. Consider:

  • Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Westchester raised $508,000 since January. In the same period in 2017, when she was minority leader, she got $280,000.
  • Neil Breslin, an Albany County Democrat who is chairman of the insurance committee, got $123,000 in donations this year, compared with $52,000 two years ago when he was in the minority.
  • Joseph Addabbo, a Queens Democrat who oversees the Senate racing, wagering and gaming committee – which was involved in a range of gambling expansion measures – received $130,000 so far this year. In the same period in 2017, as the out-of-power top Democrat on that panel, he got $27,000.
  • Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, is chairwoman of the influential Finance Committee. In the first six months of 2017, she had one donation totaling $100. This year so far, she’s raised $38,000.

And then there’s Kennedy, the Buffalo Democrat who in January became head of the Senate Transportation Committee and is one of just three Democrats from a huge area of upstate who sit in the Democratic majority conference. From mid-January to mid-July, he raised $324,000. Same period in 2017 in the minority: he raised $186,000. That’s an 80% increase.

Tim Kennedy: From South Buffalo roots to Albany power broker

Kennedy has $763,576.38 now on hand.

Kennedy explained a combination of factors are at play: being in the majority, having a senior position in the conference – he took office in 2011 – and what he called “the leverage” he has in conference to move various issues.

“We’ve been able to deliver on our promises and people have taken note of that. The attention I have received, along with my colleagues in the majority conference, and our message has been embraced my the people of the state of New York … shows in our filings," he said Tuesday of the disclosure reports.

Kennedy believes people have “embraced the politics and the campaigns behind those messages in hopes of continuing a Democratic majority for future success."

In the State Assembly, Democrats have been firmly in power for decades and so there was no sea change in donations as seen in the Senate.

But there was one power shift example: Crystal Peoples-Stokes. In January, she became the Assembly majority leader. Since then, she’s raised $110,000. In the same period in 2017, her campaign didn’t raise even a cent.

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