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In power, Senate Democrats push to bring in end-of-year donations

ALBANY – In this season of giving, Senate Democrats are sending clear messages to lobbyists and stakeholders in the affairs of Albany about what’s on their wish lists: cash.

Closing out the first year controlling the 63-member Senate chamber, Democrats are engaged in an end-of-year fundraising blitz as they prepare to hold, or potentially grow, their current stronghold of 40 senators. In power, Senate Democrats also find that they can boost entrance fees to their political gatherings.

Their biggest show of the season comes Dec. 9 when Senate Democrats are scheduled to start a two-day, private retreat in Albany at which the lawmakers will come up with policy and fiscal priorities for the 2020 session that starts next month.

As it happens, Senate Democrats’ central fundraising group – the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee – will squeeze in time for a Monday evening happy hour fundraiser at a downtown bar a few blocks from the Capitol.

Like the steady lineup of Albany fundraisers held during the regular legislative session, the committee's Monday affair will attract a who’s who of politically wired lobbyists, including those who specialized for years in lobbying Republicans when they ran the Senate.

To be considered a “friend," the Monday event will cost attendees the minimum entrance fee: $1,000. A “host” designation is $10,000, while $25,000 gets donors the title of “chair.’’ At the bottom of an invitation for the event is a notation reminding attendees that $117,300 is the maximum amount that can be contributed to the Senate committee by individuals, partnerships, political action committees and limited liability companies.

Fundraising, at blistering paces, is a well-worn trend in Albany. But this round – engaged in also by Assembly Democrats and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo – comes as a panel on Sunday released its final plan to create a program in which taxpayers will contribute $100 million annually to help finance the campaigns of statewide and legislative candidates. In turn, dollar donations to those candidates will be lowered.

The panel, led by appointees of Cuomo and Democratic legislative leaders, put a far-off effective date for the full program: the 2024 elections for lawmakers and 2026 for statewide races.

What that means is that no one is engaging in unilateral disarmament when it comes to fundraising.

For a number of politically marginal members, it’s also an important time to raise as much cash as possible to try to dissuade potential challengers next year from within their own party or, in the case of several Senate Democrats, to out-raise intra-party rivals who have already declared their intentions to try to oust the incumbents from office in 2020.

For politicians looking to fatten up campaign accounts, Jan. 11 is the next big day on the calendar. That’s the cut-off for donations to lawmakers to be included in the mid-January filing to the state elections board, a publicly available report that will show fundraising activities for the past six months.

When they controlled the Senate, Republicans were prodigious fundraising machines. Now, they point out an irony about Senate Democratic fundraising efforts.

“Senate Democrats used to talk about reducing the influence of big money in politics, but now that they are in power, they’re raising money as quickly and as often as possible from the same Capitol insiders and Albany lobbyists they once derided," said Scott Reif, a Senate GOP spokesman.

“Some of them are so eager to cash in they can’t even wait for the legislative session to hold their first Albany fundraiser of 2020. It’s hypocritical and it’s wrong," he added.

The Senate Democratic committee, officials note, refuses to take funding from a key source of campaign cash that filled up Senate GOP coffers over the year: the real estate industry.

“We are proud to have unprecedented support from a wide variety of sources," said Mike Murphy, a Senate Democratic spokesman.

“After the historic 2019 session, the people of New York have made it clear that they want a Democratic Senate and understand we need the resources to fight back against (President) Trump and his extremist allies," he added of the busy six-month session that ended in June.

As a major snowstorm all but shut down Albany on Monday, Senate Democrats were scheduled to hold two fundraisers in Manhattan, where rain was more the order of the weather.

Sen. Julie Salazar from Brooklyn, a newcomer who describes herself as a Democratic socialist and is already facing a primary challenge, turned to the Manhattan offices of the Communications Workers of America union to raise cash early in the morning, according to a Senate Democratic Campaign Committee memo.

Later in the day, Sen. Jen Metzger, a Hudson Valley Democrat, had a midday fundraiser scheduled in a private room at a Manhattan restaurant.

On Tuesday, Long Island’s Sen. Anna Kaplan is set to host a gathering at a Persian restaurant in Nassau County; Kaplan is the first Iranian-American elected to the State Legislature.

Next week, it’s Sen. Tim Kennedy’s turn. The Buffalo Democrat has a fundraiser Dec. 10 at the Fort Orange Club, once the near-exclusive place for Senate Republicans to host their money get-togethers with lobbyists and their clients. Kennedy is charging a minimum $1,000 fee, with “gold” status given to donors emptying $7,500 from their wallets.

Cramming in fundraisers before Christmas and Hanukkah later this month, according to a Senate Democratic invitation, are four other Senate Democrats: James Skoufis from Orange County, James Sanders from Queens, Monica Martinez from Suffolk County and Robert Jackson, who is asking donors to simultaneously give to his re-election campaign and celebrate his birthday at a Latin restaurant in northern Manhattan.

The session in January begins with at least four Senate Democrats already set to host fundraisers in the very beginning of the new year: Todd Kaminsky of Nassau County on Jan. 6 at a Manhattan steak house ; Peter Harkham of Westchester on Jan. 7; followed by Albany fundraisers by James Gaughran of Suffolk County and Brian Benjamin of Manhattan.

The 2020 session starts Jan. 8.

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