Most politicians would welcome $56,000 in spending to back their candidacy in the final week before an election. For Brooklyn City Council candidate Laurie Cumbo, the efforts from a real estate industry–backed political action committee, Jobs For New York, in the days before the primary have brought a political dilemma.
“I feel like my campaign is not my own anymore,” Cumbo said. “I have my own campaign. And then there’s the Jobs For New York campaign.”
Disclosures filed with the New York City Campaign Finance Board show Jobs for New York had channeled $207,056 to advance Cumbo’s election bid as of Sept. 6, more than double the contributions she raised on her own.
Her rival candidates have noticed the torrent of real estate money backing Cumbo — and want to make sure voters do too.
“No matter what Laurie Cumbo says, the reality is that she will be their voice,” said Ede Fox, a leading competitor to Cumbo. With the majority of the PAC’s principal officers and donors hailing from the powerful Real Estate Board of New York, Fox contends that her opponent will be indebted to the real estate industry should she be elected.
Fox and another candidate, Olanike Alabi, have been the subject of an aggressive mailer labeling them as people “Brooklyn can’t depend on” and “Brooklyn can’t trust,” sent to voting households around the district.
Asked to explain how the real estate PAC selects whom to support, spokesman Phil Singer sent an emailed statement: “Jobs for NY backs candidates who are committed to creating jobs, strengthening the local housing market and growing the economy.”
Asked whether the financial backing would indebt her to the real estate industry, Cumbo said, “I don’t owe REBNY anything.”
For the 35th District, which includes parts of Crown Heights, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene and Downtown Brooklyn, housing was one of the central issues driving the City Council race even before Jobs For New York initiated its support. In recent years, rents have skyrocketed, as tenants priced out of Prospect Heights, Park Slope and other trendy Brooklyn neighborhoods have headed further into the borough.
At a recent local community board meeting, residents expressed concern that developers may build more luxury condominiums in the area, which they fear will put further upward pressure on rent. Cumbo says she appreciates the paradox.
“Everybody’s talking about affordable housing. We need more affordable housing, and at the same time…everyone is anti-development and anti-developers,” observed Cumbo.
Jobs For New York entered the political world on May 31, 2013, with the stated objective of bringing “the real estate industry and labor together to ensure that the candidates elected to the Council address these issues in a serious and substantive way,” according to a memo from its communications strategist.
Since the announcement, the PAC has raised $6.8 million in contributions from prominent New York real estate corporations such as Tishman Speyer and SL Green, according to filings with the New York City Campaign Finance Board.
As of September 6, Jobs For New York has spent $4.5 million on City Council races in 22 districts. Most of that has have gone toward the production and mass mailing of promotional pamphlets as well as canvassing. However, the PAC has also spent more than $700,000 on negative mailings, attacking the opponents of their chosen candidates.
Five days before the primary election, Jobs for New York spent $27,098 on negative pamphlets attacking Fox and another of Cumbo’s opponents, Olanike Alabi. Cumbo fears that the attack mailings could negatively affect her own campaign.
“I hope that people will get that negative mailer and say, and I don’t think Laurie had anything to do with that or I don’t think Laurie would promote that,” she said.
Cumbo first heard about Jobs For New York when her mother had received one of its mailings in July. At first she was confused by the mysterious support, but within days she sought legal counsel. Heeding regulations barring a candidate from communicating directly with a PAC, her attorney sent a letter to Jobs for New York requesting that the group stop the campaign efforts, she said.
For three weeks, Cumbo saw no further action from the PAC. But starting in mid-August, Jobs for New York redoubled its efforts. “Next thing I know, I was at a restaurant…and these two people walk by with Jobs For New York t-shirts on and they knocked on the window,” she recounted. “I still didn’t associate that they were there for me. You don’t know what their plan is, so you think it’s mail pieces, and now you’ve got canvassers.”
Cumbo isn’t the only candidate to ask Jobs for New York to lay off. In southern Brooklyn, Alan Maisel has repudiated the Jobs for New York attacks on his opponent, Mercedes Narcisse, and said in a statement: “I want to apologize to all those who have been the subject of and who have been subjected to these mailings.”
The PAC’s massive spending on City Council elections has stirred larger backlash. Tenants PAC, which advocates for renters, has refused to endorse candidates who do not publicly repudiate supportive independent expenditures. “‘Jobs for New York’ sounds very neutral-like, right?” said Michael McKee, who sits on Tenants PAC’s board. “Do we want jobs for New York? Of course we do! Jobs for New York PAC has nothing to do with jobs. It has to do with electing City Council members that REBNY hopes will be complacent on development.”
And last month, Councilmember Brad Lander of Brooklyn proposed legislation that would require independent spending committees to identify top donors, and prohibit the use of shell companies — common in the real estate world — as conduits for campaign spending.
Still, most Jobs for New York beneficiaries have chosen not to denounce the support — among them Bronx attorney and local community board member Andrew Cohen, who has seen $161,422 in mailings, phone calls and leaflets supporting his campaign for an open seat, and another $46,176 in mass mailings sliming rival Cliff Stanton as a friend of strip club owners. The PAC is spending far more money than Cohen has raised for his own race.
“I am committed to running a positive campaign,” Cohen wrote in an email. “My campaign has had no contact with [Jobs for New York] and the mail they send out has absolutely nothing to do with my campaign,” adding that the PAC’s anti-Stanton mailing, “while factually correct, does not represent the kind of discussion I want to have with the community.”
Stanton now finds himself attacked and outspent. Of Jobs for New York, Stanton said, “I think what they decided to do was to look for, you know, they were placing bets like they were at OTB.”
Aside from threatening her own campaign, Fox suggests PAC spending is threatening the representative nature of the City Council, because external wealthy individuals and corporations can now have an equal, if not greater, voice in local elections than individual voters.
“If Jobs for New York wins in any of their districts, that means that district is forever purchased and silenced,” Fox explained. “Because the next candidate the next time there is an election, they are going to have to court the developers to get their money if they expect to be able to run a competitive campaign.”
“This is beyond just me and Laurie and the candidates in the race,” added Fox. “This is the future of our community.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, this article erroneously stated that Stanton raised more than Cohen for his race; Stanton spent more but Cohen raised more.