The Real Deal Los Angeles

Who’s jumping ship?

As the battle heats up between Clinton and Trump, some of the Republican’s industry supporters turn their backs

September 02, 2016 05:00PM
By Will Parker

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(Illustration by Fred Harper)

(Illustration by Fred Harper)

From the New York website: When the billionaire Republican activist and Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman endorsed Hillary Clinton for president last month, it had almost nothing to do with Clinton or her politics.

In an interview with the New York Times, Whitman lashed out against the GOP nominee Donald Trump, calling him “a dishonest demagogue” who has “undermined the character of the nation.”

A month before, Whitman had spoken with Clinton by phone. While the former secretary of state didn’t offer “assurances on how she would govern,” Whitman chose to give Clinton her vote. “I don’t agree with her on very many issues,” Whitman told the newspaper, “but she’d be a much better president than Trump.”

Whitman, who lost a well-publicized campaign for governor of California in 2008, is just one on a growing list of Republicans who’ve abandoned Trump — or opted to stay silent.

While Trump still has a number of high-profile backers in the industry, including Douglas Elliman owner Howard Lorber, developer Richard LeFrak, Vornado Realty Trust CEO Steven Roth and others, more than 100 current and former Republican lawmakers and officials have refused to vote for him, according to recent reports.

Former Massachusetts Governor and 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush are prominent members of the anti-Donald GOP brood. And one Republican congressman, Richard Hanna from upstate New York, endorsed Clinton last month.

“I think Trump is a national embarrassment,” Hanna told the Syracuse Post-Standard. “Is he really the guy you want to have the nuclear codes?”

Now, even in the money-driven, Republican-leaning New York real estate world, where Donald Trump was born, raised and made, some of those who were thrilled with his decision to run when he first declared his candidacy are having second thoughts about pulling the lever for him on Nov. 8.

Many of those interviewed by The Real Deal cited Trump’s unpredictability, which they once found appealing, as a reason for rethinking their choice.

“His failure to switch his tack to become more presidential is concerning to me,” said Town Residential founder Andrew Heiberger, who told TRD in March that he planned to vote for Trump. “It’s kind of an insurmountable blemish on his character.”

edward-minskoff-quoteHeiberger, who was excited by the prospect of a fellow Big Apple real estate mogul jumping into the election last summer, will now support Clinton, he said. He said that Trump’s treatment of a slain U.S. soldier’s parents, Khizr and Ghazala Khan, who appeared  at the Democratic National Convention, was the last straw.

“I didn’t like that he lacked compassion for the grieving family,” Heiberger said. “That really bothered me.”

In the last month alone, Trump has incited controversies over his repeated attacks on a Muslim Gold Star family, seemed to suggest that Second Amendment hardliners could shoot Clinton if she gets elected (a statement he later said was sarcastic) and called President Obama and Clinton the “founder” and “co-founder” of ISIS.

In early July, he was accused of anti-Semitism when he tweeted a six-pointed star resembling a Star of David and declared his opponent the “Most Crooked Candidate Ever!”  on a background overflowing with$100 bills.

Back in March, when TRD did an in-depth cover story on the real estate mogul, David Schechtman, a top investment sales broker at Meridian Capital Group, said he was supporting Trump — though he qualified it by noting that it  was “tough to say.” In a follow-up interview last month, he said it’s gotten even tougher.

“My reservations have been fortified by his campaign, especially of late,” he said. “I am absolutely aghast at some of the comments candidate Trump has made.”

Asked which comments were most troubling, Schechtman said ,“it’s the totality and the aggregate.” Asked who he would support now, he gave the vague response: “Perplexed. Confused. Frustrated.”

“Intelligence will prevail at some point,” Schechtman added, saying that supporting Clinton would also be “a tough pill to swallow.”

Schechtman’s boss, Meridian CEO Ralph Herzka, was one of the industry’s earliest Trump donors, giving the maximum allowable contribution of $2,700 to the campaign the month Trump threw his hat into the primaries. This January, however, Herzka gave the same amount to Clinton. A representative for Herzka declined to comment for this story.

Attorney Ed Mermelstein said in March that if Trump, a long-time acquaintance, became the Republican nominee, he would have his vote. “What we are seeing on television today is not who I know him to be,” he said at the time.

Asked last month if his enthusiasm for Trump had waned, Mermelstein said, “that’s a fair characterization.”

Top-selling Sotheby’s International Realty broker Nikki Field, who gave $10,000 to a Trump PAC  last year, told TRD that she was still “struggling to make a decision” about who to back.

Other Trump supporters have seemingly disappeared.

Louise Sunshine — an early Trump Organization executive and founder of Corcoran Sunshine — left a new gig at the start-up brokerage Compass in June to campaign for Trump in Florida and launch a group called Women for Trump, according to the New York Post.

During an interview on CNN in May, Sunshine said Trump gave her career opportunities that she otherwise might never have had, adding that she’s still in close contact with him.

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

“He was a leader. He taught me. He mentored me. He showed me the way. That’s it. I was, like, smitten,” she said.

It has now been more than three months since the seasoned broker left Compass, and TRD could not find an organization called Women for Trump in Miami Beach or Palm Beach, where Sunshine has homes, or anywhere else in Florida. Several social media accounts and websites with similar names exist (the New York-based Women for Trump Coalition, for example), but Sunshine does not appear to be connected to them.

Cindy Tindell, a Florida Republican State Committee member for Palm Beach County, was not familiar with any such group when reached by phone, and suggested contacting Sue Snowden, the Palm Beach County chair of the Trump campaign. An email sent to Snowden’s personal account went unreturned.

Marili Cancio Johnson, president of the Women’s Republican Club of Miami, Federated, said in an email that she knew of no such group.

Bonnie Re, founder of the Boca Raton chapter of the Contemporary Federated Republican Women’s Club, also said she had never heard of Sunshine or Women for Trump.

Reached by phone, Sunshine said that she did not care to comment on the presidential election. Asked if she ever started Women for Trump, she hung up. A subsequent email sent to Sunshine asking for clarification was never answered. And a review of campaign finance records shows that Sunshine donated $2,000 to the Clinton campaign in April of this year. She does not appear to have contributed any money to the Trump campaign.

Picking sides

Clinton — who has been embroiled in her own set of scandals — held a significant lead in almost every major poll conducted in August. In New York, she’s counted on support from some of New York’s oldest real estate dynasties, including the Rudins, Resnicks and Dursts, members of which have donated to either her or one of her affiliated funds.

Clinton’s real estate supporters see her as a much-needed unifying force in a country racked by division on everything from immigration to policing, several of them told TRD.

“We are in a period of social and political instability,” said Time Equities CEO Francis Greenburger. “You can’t have businesses succeed if there’s an enormous amount of social unrest and problems out there.”

Greenburger added, “Hillary has a very real program to bring more and more people into the economy [with] more and more jobs.”

Trump’s explosive remarks aside, many Clinton supporters in the real estate and finance industries see the Republican candidate as a wild card who might bring volatility to a commercial and residential rebound that has soared under President Obama.

“To be honest with you, if you own real estate in New York City, this is the best it’s ever been,” said Newmark Grubb Knight Frank’s chairman, Jeff Gural, a major Clinton donor and fundraiser. “I just borrowed money at 3 percent, and I never thought it could get that low.”

Trump’s supporters, however, consider Clinton untrustworthy and argue that her policies won’t offer the spark needed to jump-start the economy. Those in the top-earning 1 percent of households, the class Republicans often refer to reverently as “the job creators,” are expected to see their annual tax burdens rise an average of $78,000 under a Clinton administration, according to the Brookings Institution’s Tax Policy Center.

Many also believe she was purposefully deceitful in using a private email server as secretary of state and negligent in her decisions leading up to the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack in which four American officials were killed.

Others, including Tom Barrack, the CEO of Los Angeles-based private equity firm Colony Capital, had less harsh assessments of her but think Trump would just be better.

“I think it really comes down to who’s going to do a better job at stimulating growth and incentives for entrepreneurs to build businesses so that there’s more demand and supply and real estate developers can build things, otherwise it’s a pretty boring business,” Barrack said.

Clinton-Trump-chart-2Douglas Elliman retail broker Faith Hope Consolo said Trump is a strong leader who can bring stability to the market. “I think it’s even more important now because there’s not calm and continuity in the city.”

Lorber — who along with Vornado’s Roth and others was appointed to Trump’s economic advisory team in August — told TRD that the Republican candidate has already proven the good work that he can do.

“He’s created thousands of jobs,” the Elliman chairman said. “When they couldn’t get the Wollman Rink [in Central Park] done and it was over budget, he came in and opened it quick. He basically restored the Grand Central area to be a vibrant area with the old Commodore Hotel.”

Edward J. Minskoff, who developed the speculative office tower 51 Astor Place, said Clinton is in no position to set a sound economic agenda.

“She has no strong business background, she’s basically been a politician all of her life,” he said. “We need someone that has a business background that can surround themselves with businesspeople.”

Still, Minskoff, who plans to write Michael Bloomberg’s name on his ballot, will not endorse Trump, either, though he said that the candidate would likely pick “bright, capable people” to help him make decisions in the White House.

Clinton is not an option for him. “I think she failed as secretary of state; I don’t really trust her,” he said.

Ackman Ziff broker Jason Meister — who is working on Trump’s New York campaign alongside former GOP New York gubernatorial candidate and Tea Party favorite Carl Paladino, a Buffalo real estate developer— dismissed what he sees as overreactions to single comments Trump has made at rallies and on social media. Meister said those individual remarks are not sufficient grounds for abandoning Trump.

“I don’t think that’s what this election is about,” Meister said, adding that what’s most important is a “referendum” on eight years of Obama. “It’s not so much about Trump, he’s lucky to be where he is at a time that people want an outsider.”

Clinton, Meister said, “is running a global pay-to-play criminal enterprise” with the Clinton Foundation and is “a symbol of Washington, D.C.” and its corruption.

Meister and his father, the real estate attorney Stephen Meister, who has represented Trump in the past, published an editorial in the Washington Examiner in August criticizing Clinton’s record for everything from flunking the bar exam to allegedly pushing to invade Libya out of personal oil interests to collecting charitable donations from members of crooked foreign governments.

“Hillary doesn’t care if women can choose to drive, let alone have an abortion; nor whether gays have the right to live, let alone marry: She took millions more from Sharia-run regimes that punish or kill women and gays,” the Meisters wrote.

Money talks

All in all, Clinton has greatly outraised Trump.

Trump’s campaign committee raised more than $62 million in June and July, beating many expectations. That, however, was still not enough to match Clinton, who raked in more than $86 million during the same time.

Clinton also maintains a substantial fundraising lead by outside groups and PACs. Her total raised through July — including PAC cash, but excluding money raised by the party and joint funds — comes to $446.4 million, according to a Bloomberg analysis. Trump’s total, by comparison, comes to $137.3 million.

And while the Republican Party has brought in more dollars than the Democratic Party so far this cycle ($202.4 million versus $150.5 million, according to Bloomberg), only a portion of those funds can be spent on the presidential campaigns. The rest is earmarked for other party obligations.

High-profile billionaires including George Soros, Haim Saban and J.B. Pritzker have together poured tens of millions of dollars into Clinton-affiliated PACs and committees. Meanwhile, top executives, including Larry Fink, CEO of the world’s largest money manager, BlackRock, are rumored to be in the running for Treasury secretary if Clinton is elected.

Both Trump and Clinton have unsettled some Wall Streeters with some of their comments.

clinton-pull-quoteTrump, for one, has floated a refinancing of U.S. foreign debt and said hedge-funders are “getting away with murder.”

Clinton’s campaign, however, has also actively attacked the hedge-fund world.

“There’s something wrong when hedge-fund managers pay lower tax rates than nurses or the truckers that I saw on I-80 as I was driving here,” Clinton told a group of supporters in Iowa in April.

Despite that, she is still largely favored by Wall Street. Billionaire hedge-funder James Simons — who tucked $7 million into the pro-Clinton PAC Priorities USA Action in the first quarter of this year — told CNBC that Trump is “not a good investment” and called him “a wild man.”

Paul Singer, the hedge-fund billionaire behind Elliott Management who has donated more than $14 million to conservative spending groups during the current election cycle, recently told the same network that a Trump presidency would cause a “global depression.”

“People on Wall Street saw Romney as a kindred spirit,” said Jack Pitney, a political-science professor at the California-based Claremont McKenna College, adding that they see Trump as a “loose cannon.”  But Trump has supporters in the finance world as well. Among them are hedge-funder John Paulson, now part of the Republican candidate’s economic advisory team, and Anthony Scaramucci of SkyBridge Capital, who hosted a fundraising event for the Republican candidate at the restaurant Le Cirque in June.

In New York real estate, Trump still has some of the biggest names in the business on his side. In addition to LeFrak and Lorber, Peter Kalikow, Ziel Feldman and Michael Stern have all given to PACs or funds supporting the candidate. And, of course, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is backing him and acting as one of his closest advisers (see related story on page 56). Curiously, Vornado’s Roth — who, as noted above, is on his economic advisory team — has still not donated any money to the campaign, a review of campaign finance records shows.

Meanwhile, Trump has yet to win over all of the usual Republican donors in real estate.

Related Companies’ Stephen Ross, who was an active Romney fundraiser in 2012, has not given to Trump this election cycle. Ross declined multiple times to comment on the election through a representative.

Likewise, Sheldon Adelson — the Las Vegas casino mogul who is often regarded as one of the most powerful Republican donors in the country — still has not dropped a dime into Trump’s campaign coffers.

Barry Sternlicht, CEO of Starwood Capital Group, gave to Romney in 2012 and Jeb Bush in the 2016 primaries but has donated nothing to Trump. He did, however, make substantial contributions to Clinton’s 2008 presidential run as well as to her previous Senate campaigns. Sternlicht was not available to comment.

“A lot of the big Republican donors in the 2012 election are certainly somewhat uncomfortable with Donald Trump, so they probably won’t be contributing to his campaign,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan New America policy think tank.

However, he added that “there’s some turnover in who are the top donors from election to election. Different people get excited by different elections for different reasons, or whatever connections they have to a particular candidate.”

Unknown unknowns

For more than a year, critics have complained that they do not know what either candidate would really do in office.

Clinton is seen by many as a political opportunist, picking policy positions based on what’s popular at the time — rather than on her true beliefs. Those critics point to changes in her stance on international trade, the criminal justice system and gay marriage as key examples of that.

At the same time, Trump has given his own mixed messages on a slew of policy issues. Most recently, he seemed to backpedal on his immigration policy, which until last month called for deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants.

In the real estate industry, many see the Republican nominee as a giant question mark hanging over the market.

“I don’t think he’s said anything yet that you can wrap your arms around that would support or not support how he’s going to deal with the economy,” Minskoff said. “I don’t think he’s focused on it.”

The murkiness of the responses from the Trump campaign is translating to uncertainty among his supporters in terms of their expectations, Mermelstein said, explaining the new Trump supporter malaise.

“Uncertainty is the kiss of death when it comes to politics,” he said.

As for Trump’s controversial slights and jabs, they haven’t impressed Mermelstein, either.

“He’s still showing us more of the individual that we were seeing on the television shows than the individual that we expect him to be as the president of the United States,” he said.

Greenburger of Time Equities said he doesn’t understand why real estate executives support the Republican candidate at all, commenting that he has not “heard reasoned responses.”

“I don’t know what Donald would do,” said Gural of Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, referring to the policies the candidate would implement if he took office.

Aby Rosen, RFR Holding’s flamboyant condo developer, made headlines in August when he emblazoned a Noho construction site with the words “Vote Your Conscience,” a nod to Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s Trump-defiant speech at the Republican National Convention in which he never actually endorsed the candidate.

While Rosen has not spoken publicly about it beyond posting a photo of the billboard to his Instagram account, his partner Michael Fuchs told TRD that as a Democrat he, too, stands by the billboard’s message.

Others said Rosen feels very passionately about this election.

“He’s deeply concerned that a Trump presidency is damaging to the world economy,” one source, who asked not to be named, said. “The fear of the unknown is what’s scared him the most.”

Others aren’t too concerned that the industry will be greatly affected either way.

Even Heiberger, who is no longer backing Trump, isn’t concerned that either candidate’s platform will mean a plague upon the property biz.

“As far as New York and New York City real estate goes, everyone is a winner,” he said.