Real Estate Contributions Will be Restricted in December
By Conor Greene
During her time as chair of City Council’s influential Land Use Committee, Melinda Katz has raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from members of the real estate industry. Since deciding to run for comptroller two years ago, she has raised more than two million dollars, outpacing her three opponents.
However, starting in December, the amount that members of the real estate industry can contribute to politicians will be severely curtailed due to a change in the city’s campaign finance laws. That means Katz’s ability to pull in money for a runoff election during the Democratic primary – which would take place if none of the candidates received at least 40% of the vote – would be reduced significantly.
To avoid the possibility of having to amass a war chest for a runoff without being able to fully leverage the real estate industry, Katz recently asked the city Campaign Finance Board to allow her to establish an account now that would be set aside in case of a runoff. That means that industry members who have already contributed $4,950, the maximum allowed by law, could give another $2,475 for a runoff effort. Under the new law taking effect in December, those contributions will be limited to just $200.
In a letter to CFB Chairman Joseph Parks, the Katz campaign predicted the battle for the comptroller’s position “will be a highly competitive race.” Currently, three other elected officials – Councilman David Weprin, Councilman David Yassky and Assemblyman Jim Brennan – have formally declared their candidacy, and Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion has publicly stated his intention to seek that position.
In the June 30 letter to CFB, Katz’s treasurer Ronald Kaye, argues that a runoff “can be reasonably anticipated” due to the number of candidates currently running, the amount of money collectively raised so far, the lack of public polling in comptroller’s races until late in the primary process and the fact that incumbent William Thompson, Jr. can’t run again due to term limits.
“Councilwoman Katz believes that one of the most important aspects of the campaign finance program is that it encourages candidates to continue to focus on raising matchable contributions from New Yorkers early in the process, so that they can get that responsibility out of the way and concentrate on meeting with voters and debating the issues as the election draws near,” wrote Kaye.
“If there is a runoff election for Comptroller, which would surprise few political observers, the compressed time period after the primary would best be spent on debating and discussing the issues, not scrambling for last minute dollars."
Last Thursday, the CFB decided that “based on the information now available… a runoff election in the Democratic Party primary is not ‘reasonably anticipated’ at this time.” It notes that candidates “may submit another request” in the future if the race has “sufficiently evolved to enable them to demonstrate with concrete evidence that a runoff is ‘reasonably anticipated.’”
The decision, available on the CFB’s website, calls the prospect of a runoff “highly speculative” and argues that allowing a candidate to collect funds ahead of time would “actually undermine some core purposes of the Campaign Finance Program.”
It notes that the board has never decided that a runoff is reasonably anticipated more than a year before the election. The earliest it has done so was in February 2001 during the mayoral Democratic primary between Mark Green and Fernando Ferrer. The decision also points out that “no documentation of the history of runoff primaries for the Democratic comptroller primary, polling information or press reporting was presented to the board to support the request.”
According to the latest filings with the CFB, it’s clear that the comptroller’s race is attracting a lot of attention from donors. Katz leads the field with $2.1 million raised, followed by Weprin, with $1.8 million, Yassky, who has raised $1.3 million and Brennan, at $492,203. Carrion has raised $1.7 million, according to the CFB.
Katz’s comptroller campaign did not respond to a message seeking comment on the request or the CFB’s decision. However, at least one of her opponents is convinced that the new law limiting real estate contributions was the reason behind the request.
“Obviously, the request was premature, and we applaud the board for recognizing that,” said Yassky’s spokesman Doug Forand. “The context of this request is troubling and appears to be an effort to expand the ability for individuals to give money now who are going to be precluded from making those donations in the near future. There is plenty of time after these rules are put in place for someone to raise money should there be a runoff, so that argument doesn’t hold water as far as we’re concerned.”