The Real Deal New York

This is why the real estate industry is throwing financial weight behind Scott Stringer

NYC comptroller has raised more 2017 campaign donations than Bill de Blasio

May 02, 2016 09:30AM
By Konrad Putzier

From left: Janno Lieber, Scott Stringer, Aby Rosen, and Arthur Zeckendorf

From left: Janno Lieber, Scott Stringer, Aby Rosen, and Arthur Zeckendorf

Bill de Blasio’s fundraising may be all over the news, but another New York City politician has quietly raised more cash than the mayor in the 2017 campaign cycle: Scott Stringer.

As of the most recent filing period ending on Jan. 11, the New York City comptroller has collected $1.37 million in campaign contributions for his 2017 re-election bid – more than de Blasio’s haul of $1.13 million – public records show. Much of that cash comes from the real estate industry.

Stringer’s fundraising success among developers highlights his emergence as one of New York’s most influential political figures – a role likely to expand as de Blasio struggles with a five separate investigations into his campaign finance practices.

“He is an island of stability in a government that seems to be embattled,” said one political consultant, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “He is viewed as a viable alternative to the current mayor.”

Four of the 10 biggest donation bundlers for Stringer’s 2017 campaign are real estate executives. A fifth (packaging mogul Dennis Mehiel) collected donations primarily from developers.

RFR Realty’s Aby Rosen, who did not respond to a request for comment, bundled $43,800 in donations to Stringer between October 2014 and March 2015, records show. William Zeckendorf bundled $23,400 and Silverstein Properties’ President Janno Lieber bundled $15,500 – both in 2015. More recently, the Durst Organization’s head of external affairs Jordan Barowitz bundled $14,850 from Durst family members between February 2015 and January 2016.

The list of real estate executives who donated the legal maximum of $4,950 to Stringer’s campaign includes John Catsimatidis, Steven Roth, Arthur Zeckendorf, Daniel Brodsky, Donald Zucker, Jonathan Tisch, Stephen Siegel, Keith Rubenstein, Helena Durst, Ziel Feldman as well as relatives of developers David Walentas, Gary Barnett, Bill Rudin, Richard LeFrak and Larry Silverstein.

Stringer did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Part of Stringer’s edge over de Blasio can be explained by the latter’s focus on the Campaign for One New York, a controversial nonprofit fund to promote the mayor’s policy agenda. Real estate developers donated more than $1 million to the now-defunct fund between its launch in 2014 and mid-2015. Perhaps some of those donations would otherwise have gone to de Blasio’s campaign. But even in the 2013 campaign, Scott Stringer – not de Blasio – received the biggest bundled donations from the real estate industry.

Stringer donations

At first blush, this is surprising. Real estate executives tend to donate to candidates for offices that affect their business interests. The comptroller’s office doesn’t rank particularly high in this regard, insiders say, despite its ability to audit city agreements with developers and manage municipal pension funds.

So what explains the real estate industry’s infatuation with Stringer?

One reason, insiders say, is that many in the industry have built up a good relationship with him during his three decades in public office (which includes stints as State assembly member and Manhattan’s borough president). “Many of the people that are giving him money know him from borough president’s office,” the political consultant told The Real Deal.

“He is the adult in the room,” said a real estate executive, who describes himself as a friend of Stringer’s and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They like his clarity. A lot of times with politicians they’ll tell you one thing to your face and then do something else. Scott will tell you straight up what he honestly thinks and people appreciate that.”

Ed Wallace, co-chair of law firm Greenberg Traurig’s New York practice, said Stringer’s time as Manhattan’s borough president left a lasting impression on many in the industry. Wallace recalled that Stringer in 2007 held a public hearing on Columbia University’s controversial expansion plans in Manhattanville and helped orchestrate a compromise that allowed the expansion to go ahead, but added zoning protections for the surrounding neighborhoods. “He stepped in as borough president. A lot of politicians would have run and hid,” Wallace said. “I thought that was a perfect example of how the real estate community looks at him. He is regarded as a skilled mediator who can balance the economic interest in growth and neighborhood concerns for stability.”

Another explanation for Stringer’s real estate donation haul is that developers see him as a politician on the rise, insiders say. None of the sources interviewed by TRD expect Stringer to challenge de Blasio in the 2017 election, and at age 56 he isn’t exactly young anymore. Still, one political insider told TRD the real estate industry “still thinks there’s a long future a head of him.” The insider argued that de Blasio will spend at most another five years at the helm of City Hall (if he gets re-elected), while Stringer could be in influential city government positions for much longer. Donating to him, in this sense, is a better long-term bet.

And finally, Stringer’s popularity may be partly a function of de Blasio’s struggles. The mayor still has many supporters in the industry. But amid flagging popularity and growing uncertainty over his political future, developers are looking to hedge their bets and find alternative politicians to support, insiders say. Stringer, despite lacking charisma, also offers a rallying point for those who are unhappy with de Blasio’s administration. “The comptroller’s office was always viewed as the like the antithesis of the mayors office, someone you can go to if you’re not getting the ear of the mayoral administration,” said the political consultant.

Stringer’s office has been a thorn in the side of de Blasio: He’s issued reports and investigations that are often highly critical of administration policies and is also chummy with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, considered a potential contender for mayor in 2017.

The federal investigation into de Blasio’s campaign finance practices also means Stringer could hold onto his fundraising lead over the mayor for a while longer. “I think raising money for de Blasio will be a challenge,” said the real estate executive, arguing that developers may be loth to donate if it means their name could pop up in a criminal probe.

Meanwhile, Scott Stringer’s recent decision to investigate the conversion of a Lower East Side nursing home at 45 Rivington Street into condos offered a reminder of his political clout. “He’s using the bully pulpit very effectively,” said the executive. “People are paying attention to the things that he’s doing.”

MENU