In the lead up to November’s election, several New York Democrats vowed to reject any campaign donations from the real estate industry. Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon called it “dirty money” and incoming State Senator Zellnor Myrie accused opponent Jesse Hamilton of taking “illegal campaign contributions from the real estate lobby.” State Senator Michael Gianaris, the newly minted deputy majority leader, is now one of these Democrats.
On Thursday, Gianaris, whose district covers most of western Queens, told The Real Deal his campaign would no longer accept money from the real estate industry and suggested the decision was inspired by moves made by incoming freshman senators, like Brooklyn’s Julia Salazar, who made eradicating the influence of real estate money key components of their campaigns.
Reached by phone, Senator-elect Salazar praised Gianaris’s choice. “I really urge fellow elected officials at the state level and otherwise to make the same commitment,” she said.
Since he was first elected to the Senate in 2010, Gianaris has been the beneficiary of well in excess of $100,000 in real estate industry contributions, a review of state campaign finance records by TRD shows, including at least $27,800 from the Real Estate Board of New York, $52,000 from the the New York State Realtors PAC and $36,000 from developer Glenwood Management. Other developers donating to Gianaris include Two Trees Management, the late George Kaufman, John Catsimatidis and members of the Elghanayan real estate family. Records also show Gianaris took $1,000 from developer Triangle Equities about three weeks before this month’s election.
“Politics is perception. By saying ‘no I’m not taking money from the real estate industry,’ you’re saying ‘no I’m not taking money from the biggest political donor,’” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany. “Whether that translates into other elected officials doing the same thing, it’s hard to know.”
REBNY President Johns Banks, whose organization donated to Gianaris’ campaign as recently as April, dismissed the significance of the gesture, telling TRD “whether or not an elected official accepts real estate contributions is unimportant.”
Banks expressed a similar sentiment following the September primary, when he said REBNY would work on affordable housing issues with whoever was in office, even though the group piled money on Republican candidates. Representatives for REBNY declined to comment further. Salazar, who campaigned on a policy of universal rent control, noted that neither REBNY nor RSA had reached out to her to discuss real estate legislation since the Democrats won the majority of seats in the Senate.
One real estate lobbyist noted that Gianaris’ district has changed in the last few years, pointing to the fact that it partially intersects with the congressional district that Rep. Joseph Crowley lost to Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. There’s a larger population of progressive millennials in the area, the lobbyist said, adding “NIMBY fervor is running high in parts of this town.”
Gianaris, who ran unopposed in both the Democratic primary and the general election, has for several years supported reforms that would severely limit the size of the checks developers could write him and other elected officials. Closing the “LLC loophole” in the state’s campaign finance laws, which allows for virtually limitless contributions from businesses, is expected to be a priority for the new Democratic majority in Albany. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is the largest beneficiary of LLC contributions in New York history, has also proposed closing the loophole, despite continuing to accept money from LLC donors.
Zephyr Teachout, who refused donations from the industry in her campaign for state Attorney General, said Gianaris’ decision is an acknowledgment that “real estate money is dirty money.”
“It’s like dirty tobacco money but worse,” she said.
Teachout said rejecting real estate donations is the first step to lessening the industry’s influence in Albany. Campaign finance reform is the second step. She expects the fight over the latter will be fierce, but the legislature has a prime opportunity.
“If not much happens this session, it’s a major major failure,” she said. “The clay is wet only so often.”