Borough president candidates are breaking the bank in races in Manhattan and Queens, with help from an infusion of $4 million in taxpayer money — 16 times the amount of public funds devoted to those seats at this point in the last citywide election.
All of this money is for a largely ceremonial position whose main responsibilities include advocating with mayoral agencies for borough residents’ needs and appointing Community Board members.
Competition for the backbench offices has been unusually intense this year, with a crowded field of candidates churning money on a magnitude rarely seen in borough president races. Nowhere has the money race surged as powerfully as in Manhattan and Queens, two of the four boroughs where the current leader is prevented by term limits from running again.
Thanks to a provision in city law, the first $175 a resident contributes to a campaign is matched sixfold with public money, for candidates who agree to abide by limits on their total fundraising. All the Democratic borough president candidates in the two boroughs are participating in the matching-funds program.
Matching funds awarded by the New York City Campaign Finance Board last week for all borough presidents’ races totaled $4.2 million, up from nearly $262,000 at this point in the 2009 race. (Matching funds are available only to candidates in competitive races, which has left Brooklyn’s Eric Adams without access for now.)
The Campaign Finance Board released the first of eight scheduled matching fund payments last week.
The surge in matching funds has greatly outpaced the rise in fundraising overall for the borough president seats. The latest figures show $5.4 million in private dollars raised so far for the Manhattan and Queens races, compared with $1.8 million at this time in the 2009 election. In 2009, incumbent Helen Marshall faced modest primary opposition for the Queens presidency, while Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer ran unopposed for the Democratic nomination.
This time the fights for the open seats have turned fierce — and matching funds have ballooned accordingly. In Manhattan, where four Democrats have been wrestling to win the primary to succeed Stringer, Councilmember Jessica Lappin and former Lower Manhattan Community Board chair Julie Menin have been out front in their fundraising and have reaped the rewards in matching funds from the Campaign Finance Board.
Menin in particular has proven to be a fundraising powerhouse, raising enough by last summer to meet the $1.4 million limit that borough president candidates seeking public funds can legally spend during the primary.
But as intended, the matching funds program has helped level the playing field. Gale Brewer and Robert Jackson, both currently council members, have both reaped more in matching funds so far than they have secured from private donors: $530,000 for Brewer and $680,000 for Jackson. They have privately raised $401,000 and $436,000 respectively.
The funds will be crucial to pay for “the three big staples in campaigns: direct mail, television and manpower,” said political consultant Gerry O’Brien, who is unaffiliated with any of the campaigns.
Across the East River, in Queens, Tony Avella, Melinda Katz and Peter Vallone Jr. are tangled in three-way combat to succeed Borough President Helen Marshall. Councilmember Vallone leads in both private and public funds, with public money accounting for three-fifths of his $1.72 million haul so far.
Nipping at his heels is underdog Avella, a state senator who lost the Democratic nomination for mayor in 2009 to Bill Thompson. Avella has raised nearly four times as much public money as private, reaping $274,000 in matching funds based on just $73,000 in fundraising.
The candidates’ leapfrogging routine casts a light on a strategy to focus on small donations that maximize returns from New York City’s generous public funding program, and it’s typical of smaller campaigns, said Evan Thies, a Democratic consultant working with Eric Adams in Brooklyn.
“It often happens that the campaigns that aren’t leading the pack make a lot of grassroots efforts where they raise only small donations,” Thies said.
In Avella’s campaign, for example, donations of $175 or less make up four out of five contributions. The state senator says the matching funds program has allowed him to maintain his position as a candidate who shuns donations from lobbyists and developers.
“If it wasn’t for matching funds, I wouldn’t be able to run,” he said.
In Manhattan, both Jackson and Brewer have made the most of the matching funds opportunity by each relying on small donations for more than $6 out of every $10 raised. With 1,300 contributions from small donors — more than anyone else in his race — Jackson has been able to cross the $1 million mark.
Jackson’s campaign spokesperson, Richard Fife, said that the campaign’s focus on small donors was intended not only to equip his candidate with as much funding as his rivals, but also to build an army to get out the vote.
“By relying on smaller contributions that bring in matching funds from the city finance program, we are not only raising the money we need to win, but that support also translates directly to what we can do on the ground in terms of volunteers and active supporters,” Fife said.
The matching funds will give the candidates a “fighting chance,” Thies said. “At the very least it means that what would have been a true underdog campaign will be able now to at least get their message out,” he said. “The rest of it is up to them.”
But campaign spending can have unpredictable results when multiple candidates crowd a ballot, O’Brien warns.
“Multi-candidate fields can get complicated because if you do a negative piece of mail or a negative TV spot, it isn’t always clear you benefit from the damage inflicted on the opposition candidate,” he said. “There could be a boomerang effect where the third candidate or the fourth candidate actually benefits more than you do.”