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In NY-27 race, candidate wealth is once again an issue

WASHINGTON – The latest millionaire named Chris to run for Congress from New York's 27th District isn't nearly as rich as the last Chris, but he's a bit wealthier than the first.

State Sen. Christopher L. Jacobs has a minimum net worth of about $11.2 million, according to the personal financial disclosure statement he filed last year. The last such document filed by Rep. Chris Collins, who resigned last October in an insider trading scandal, showed him to be about four times richer than Jacobs.

However, Jacobs is worth a couple million more than Rep. Chris Lee was when Lee resigned in 2011 after he posted a shirtless selfie to Craigslist.

Not surprisingly, Jacobs is trying to distance himself from the district's troubled history with wealthy guys named Chris.

"In any of my time serving in office, nobody could say I did anything but operate with ethics and transparency, and I would continue to do that," said Jacobs, the Republican candidate for the April 28 special election for the congressional seat.

But Jacobs' Democratic opponent, former Grand Island town supervisor Nate McMurray, said Jacobs' money ought to matter to voters.

"He will be one of the most wealthy people in Congress," said McMurray, whose personal financial disclosure form shows his net worth to be less than 2% of Jacobs'. Noting the scandals surrounding Collins and Lee, McMurray added: "I would hope people pause and say, 'Well, maybe we should try something different.' "

The Capitol Building is pictured on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Getty Images)

Jacobs' wealth

The details of Jacobs' wealth are not widely known, but they come a bit clearer in the disclosure form that's required of congressional candidates.

Much of Jacobs' wealth stems from the family company his late father stepped away from long before he died: Delaware North Cos., the giant concessions and gaming conglomerate based in Buffalo.

Jacobs' father, renowned neurologist Dr. Lawrence D. Jacobs, left him a trust fund filled with family wealth derived from Delaware North. That trust fund is now worth somewhere between $5 million and $25 million. Because the law only calls on candidates to report their assets in broad ranges, it's hard to know precisely where in that range the real value of that trust fund lies.

The disclosure form does show how that trust fund is invested – and it's basically a play-it-safe portfolio. The Jacobs trust owns chunks of a wide range of investment funds, some private equity and hedge fund investments, municipal bonds of more than 30 different flavors and some treasury notes. There is also a who's who collection of more than 150 blue-chip stocks, from Amazon to Apple to McDonald's to Walmart.

But there's also an element of mystery to the trust fund: items such as "LDJ Management Company Dreyfus Cash" and "LDJ Trust Alternative Investments Partnership."

Asked to explain them, Jacobs had to consult with his brother, Luke, who manages his finances.

None of those items include any investment in Delaware North, Jacobs said. In fact, when asked if he had any ownership interest at all in Delaware North – as McMurray has alleged – Jacobs replied: "I can answer that definitively: no."

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Investing in downtown

Jacobs does have an equity interest in downtown Buffalo. His disclosure form shows that he owns real estate, most of it clustered along the 700 block of Main Street, worth anywhere between $9 million and $39 million.

He started buying up buildings about 18 years ago and now essentially serves as landlord to a host of small businesses – the kind, he said, that he'd like to help as a member of Congress.

"It's been something I've enjoyed very much doing, and I started to help contribute to the revitalization of downtown Buffalo," Jacobs said of his real estate investments.

Adding it all up, Jacobs reported assets of between $15.6 million and $67.6 million. His net worth is lower than that, though, because he also reported debts of between $4.4 million and $14.9 million. Most of those debts stemmed from mortgages on his commercial properties.

Jacobs' investments, combined with his state Senate salary, earned him an income of between $471,422 and $1.8 million in 2018.

With money like that, Jacobs ought to release his tax returns during the campaign, McMurray said. To which Jacobs replied: "I would certainly consider that. I have to look into that."

McMurray also said Jacobs, if elected, should put his investments in a blind trust to avoid conflicts of interest. That prompted Jacobs to say: "I would look at that. I certainly want to adhere to the law and any advice I get."

McMurray on money

McMurray – who grew up in a poor family in North Tonawanda and who filed a two-page financial disclosure form – is trying to make Jacobs' 25-page filing something of an issue in the race.

"You would need a forensic auditing team and a search warrant to make sense of this," McMurray said.

In contrast, it would take about two minutes to glean every bit of information from McMurray's filing. It showed that he had assets of between $365,003 and $800,000, split between the value of his family's Grand Island home, some certificates of deposits and a retirement account.

McMurray reported debts of between $160,003 and $365,000 thanks to a mortgage and student loans. That means his minimum net worth is $205,000.

The most telling line of McMurray's statement detailed his $249,190 in income for 2018. While that included his salary as Grand Island town supervisor, the largest chunk of McMurray's earnings – $176,939 – came from the very company that resulted in his opponent's hefty trust fund: Delaware North.

That points to a key irony in this race to replace Collins: that it pits a scion of the family that created Delaware North against a corporate lawyer on leave from the company.

McMurray has taken to tweeting attacks on Delaware North, which operates racetrack casinos in Hamburg and Batavia as well as concessions operations at airports, stadiums and national parks across the country.

"In our part of the world only people named Jacobs and Native Peoples (under law) got casino licenses. And now they want a Congr(e)ssman. To get more? Haven’t they got enough?" he tweeted earlier this month.

'Very poor judgment'

In an interview, McMurray stressed that he doesn't exactly see the wealthy Jacobs as a man of the people.

"Does anybody out there really think Chris Jacobs is going to represent working-class people and care about the values and interests of working-class people more than Nate McMurray from North Tonawanda?" he asked. "I don't think so."

Jacobs begs to differ.

"I've been in public service for a good while both in terms of government and in my charitable work," said Jacobs, a former Erie County clerk and Buffalo Board of Education member. "And I think I've demonstrated a genuine commitment to try to help people in this community and help this community broadly move forward."

Jacobs seems to realize, though, that in this race, he's running not only against McMurray, but also his scandal-soaked predecessors.

"In my private role, in my charitable role, and a public role I think I conducted myself with very high ethics and integrity," Jacobs said. "So I have a track record of that and I would hope people would would take that into consideration."

Unlike Collins, Jacobs doesn't sit on any corporate boards. What's more, Jacobs said the thing that Collins did that gave him inside information to trade on – sitting on the board of a public  company – should be illegal for members of Congress.

Jacobs also reflected not only on the Chris who got caught launching an insider trading scheme, but also the Chris who got caught without his shirt on.

"The problems the previous people had had nothing to do with wealth," Jacobs said. "They had to do with very, very poor judgment."

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