BY SEAN SWEENEY | Voter beware! In a move that surprised few, a consortium of real-estate developers, landlords, investment firms and bankers have endorsed Margaret Chin for City Council, pledging a share of its $10 million war chest to elect the embattled councilmember.
The Real Estate Board of New York, a.k.a. REBNY, a pro-real estate, pro-development, lobbying association of the city’s biggest real-estate developers, is spearheading a political action committee, or PAC, cynically named “Jobs For New York,” deceptively claiming it is seeking affordable housing and jobs for the middle class. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Although candidates for the City Council can generally spend only $168,000 on their campaigns under strict Campaign Finance Board regulations, recent rulings now permit private-expenditure groups to spend basically an unlimited amount of money to influence an election’s outcome.
The bulk of the $10 million that this new PAC is promising will go toward direct mail, TV and radio advertising. The group plans to spend $2 million on voter identification and field-targeting in 25 City Council races. The PAC also suggested that it would run negative campaign ads against Chin’s opponent, civil-rights attorney Jenifer Rajkumar.
Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause, a government watchdog group, indicated that the multimillion-dollar effort is a significant shift in city politics that might alter the nature of campaigning on the local level.
“The entire point of a City Council race is to reflect the needs of the neighborhoods in a district,” Lerner said. “This undercuts the neighborhood-based nature of a district and replaces neighborhood concerns with industry concerns.”
According to The New York Times, “the [Jobs For New York] PAC represents an aggressive new involvement in New York’s heavily regulated city elections by a major independent-expenditure group…to direct donations to back candidates in both parties who support pro-development policies.”
In a Times interview, REBNY’s president, Steven Spinola, called Mayor Bloomberg’s time in City Hall a “wonderful era” and said his organization’s PAC intends to support candidates who would advance a pro-jobs, pro-development agenda similar to Bloomberg’s.
Crain’s New York Business reported: “The group hopes to elect a bloc of councilmembers that would make it more difficult for the Council to override vetoes by a business-friendly mayor. … The PAC intends to focus on councilmembers, who tend to have great sway over development in their districts. Ironically, however, the group will advocate for members to play a lesser role in supervising development.”
The PAC has hired the powerful P.R. firm the Parkside Group to run its campaign to elect Chin. Parkside describes itself as providing “campaign management…strategic communications and public affairs…for major real estate firms.” Parkside’s president has said, in describing the real-estate industry’s new PAC, “We are…supporting candidates who we think are most likely to support the issues that are important to us.”
REBNY confirms it in Crain’s: “We’re going to run an aggressive field-effort to communicate with voters and promote candidates.”
However, REBNY / Jobs For N.Y. know full well the public’s aversion to pro-real estate candidates running for office.
Crain’s quotes a source close to the PAC: “The perception that some people have, historically when some of these endeavors are attempted, it’s like, ‘Oh, the business group is going to run the Chamber of Commerce guy,’ ” said one source. “Well, the Chamber of Commerce guy is probably not going to win. There are three to four legitimate candidates. Let’s see who’s closest to the issues the organization cares about.”
With REBNY’s endorsement and money, Margaret Chin is clearly the candidate closest to the issues the real-estate industry cares about.
Bill O’Reilly, a Republican strategist who is not involved in the PAC, said he was impressed with Jobs For New York from the outset, and hoped it has learned lessons from past efforts to sway elections.
“It’s smart what they’re doing, because there’s a very good chance we could have a mayor who is to the very, very far left… . I think the industry needs to protect itself. And the one place they could do that would be to have some voices in the City Council.”
In case there is any doubt of the group’s agenda, REBNY’s Web site states the organization’s goals. These include:
Fighting to oppose legislation on paid sick leave, prevailing wage and minimum wage;
Opposing legislation that would limit commercial rent increases, a move that hurts independent retailers and mom-and-pop stores;
Lobbying for government tax subsidies for the real-estate industry (while doing its best to remove rent subsidies for the middle class and the poor);
Repealing President Obama’s healthcare reform;
Seeking the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts;
Opposing landmarking laws, claiming that historic preservation hurts economic growth (Tell that to Tribeca, Soho and Village residents);
And, last but not least, supporting moderate Republicans.
REBNY’s board of governors include, among scores of multimillionaire developers:
Larry Gluck, who purchased Independence Plaza in Tribeca and removed it from Mitchell-Lama rent protection, dispossessing hundreds of people;
Jerry Speyer of Tishman Speyer, who tried Gluck’s scheme at Stuyvesant Town / Cooper Village;
Richard LeFrak, who has expressed his desire to remove all rent protection for his tenants in Gateway Plaza in Battery Park City;
Bill Rudin, who bought St. Vincent’s Hospital and is turning it into luxury apartments;
Mary Ann Tighe, REBNY chairperson, who now works for the Howard Hughes Corporation, the company to whom Margaret Chin handed over the South Street Seaport and the Fulton Fish Market for high-rise luxury development;
Jared Kushner, the East Village’s biggest landlord and Donald Trump’s son-in-law;
Jeff Gural of Newmark Realty, the folks behind the Soho Business Improvement District, Chin’s pet project;
Two of the group’s other governors, Larry Silverstein, the World Trade Center developer, and Dan Tisch, another major construction honcho, as well as Bill Rudin, are all N.Y.U. trustees — who are showing their thanks now to Chin for her obeisance to New York University’s massive expansion
Regarding the university’s 2031 expansion scheme, REBNY has the temerity to proclaim, “REBNY applauds N.Y.U. for creating a plan that allows for growth on its own property while maintaining the neighborhood character of Greenwich Village. The Real Estate Board commends Margaret Chin, who was instrumental in getting the plan approved.” Italics added.
Since July 1, voters in Chin’s district have been bombarded almost daily with campaign mailings that spuriously trumpet her work for affordable housing and the middle class, never revealing the hidden agenda behind the real-estate giants’ largesse or the industry’s concerted effort in making Manhattan unaffordable for the middle class.
Chin disingenuously claims she has nothing to do with Jobs For New York. However, she could easily denounce the PAC, as so many others have done, could stop posing for its campaign photographs, and could insist REBNY stop its deceptive mailing blitz.
The Democratic primary is six weeks away. The voters will then decide whether Abraham Lincoln’s maxim is correct: You cannot fool all the people all the time.
Sweeney is a member of the Downtown Independent Democrats club, which has endorsed Jenifer Rajkumar over incumbent Margaret Chin for election in Council District 1. He is also a member of Community Board 2.