Tainted love: Some public advocate candidates won’t give up real estate cash

Michael Blake, Melissa Mark-Viverito tap industry to help fill their war chests

TRD New York /
Feb.February 25, 2019 07:03 PM

From left: Nomiki Konst, Michael Blake, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Jumaane Williams (Credit: Getty Images and Unsplash)

In a political climate where candidates and elected officials are disavowing real estate money, some of the most deep-pocketed campaigns for Tuesday’s special election for public advocate have turned to the industry to help fill their coffers.

A crowded field of candidates has lined up for the office — that helped advance the careers of state Attorney General Letitia James and Mayor Bill de Blasio — which is infamous in the real estate industry for publishing its Worst Landlords List.

“I went to about 20 forums around the city, and time and again the question’s come up about who’s taking real estate money,” Jared Rich, a Brooklyn attorney who’s one of 17 candidates on the ballot, told The Real Deal.

Even among the candidates, though, there’s been some discussion as to what counts as a “real estate” contribution. Should donations from rank-and-file employees at real estate firms, for example, be counted in the same bucket as big-time developers?

TRD combed through the public filings for each candidate and tallied up donations from those with the most potential to influence candidates: principals or high-ranking executives at development companies, brokerages, real estate law firms and other related companies.

The candidate with the most real estate donations is Michael Blake, a three-term state Assemblyman from the Bronx who pulled in at least $16,350 in industry donations from 41 donors identified by TRD.

A spokesperson for Blake, one of the most proficient fundraisers in the race, did not respond to several requests for comment. (Blake has pulled in well over 100 four-figure checks from donors across industries.)

Blake raised a net total of $359,748, about $36,000 behind former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

The candidate’s biggest source of real estate funding came from four people at Ogdencap Properties, who donated a total of $1,450.

Another large source of funding came from residential landlord R.A. Cohen Associates, whose three principals donated a total of $1,400. Robert Cohen had cut a check for $5,100 — one of the largest single donation in the public advocate race — though Blake’s campaign returned $4,900 worth of the check.

Other big real estate donors include Alan Abramson of Abramson Brothers, William Blodgett of Fairstead Capital and Jane Goldman of Solil Management, each of whom donated $1,000.

Former Speaker Mark-Viverito followed with $12,500 from 15 real estate donors. Her largest contributors were Brian Steinwurtzel, co-CEO and principal of GFP Real Estate, and Robert Quinlan, founder of the Quinlan Development Group, both of whom each gave $2,550. They were closely followed by Amir Khan of A Khan Realty and Daniel Brodsky who provided $2,500 and $1,550, respectively.

“Melissa has spent her career fighting for tenants and standing up to landlords — from funding lawyers for all tenants in housing court, to expanding protections against tenant harassment,” Monica Klein, a spokesperson for Mark-Viverito said in a statement. “Her record speaks for itself: thanks to Melissa’s ‘Right to Counsel’ legislation, evictions in our city are now down 37 percent.”

In total, the former speaker raised $395,776 in new private contributions and from her previous fundraising efforts, meaning that real estate represented roughly 6 percent of the total she raised leading up to Tuesday’s election.

Eric Ulrich — the lone Republican in the race — got about $6,775 from real estate, including a combined $2,000 from Barry and Jackie Kamali of the Kamali Organization.

Menashe Shapiro, a spokesperson for the Ulrich campaign, only said that, “The numbers speak for themselves.”

Brooklyn City Councilman Rafael Espinal pulled in about $4,150 from real estate donations, including a $1,000 check from Ladder Capital Finance chairman Alan Fishman, as well as a combined $1,200 from Abraham Leser and Benzion Beniaker of the Leser Group and $175 from Toby Moskovitz. And Dawn Smalls, an attorney who worked in the Obama administration, took in $1,075 from developers and brokerage executives, including $400 from Christie Houlihan, senior director and counsel at Houlihan-Parnes Realtors, and $175 from Lendlease’s head of New York development, Melissa Burch. Ronald Kim, a Queens state Assembly member, took in $900 from real estate executives, most of which — $500 — came from Century Development’s George Xu.

Some candidates for public advocate have sworn off real estate money altogether, as the greater political climate has turned more hostile toward the industry’s influence in government.

“In this particular moment in time, there’s been a leftward tilt with Democrats overall,” said David Birdsell, dean of the school of public affairs at Baruch College, who added there’s a concurrent backlash against money in politics. “When you have such a strong tug against money overall, there’s going to be far less reliance on what’s been the historical stock and trade for the industry.”

“As an industry, it’s going to have to think about ways to help constructively shape the agenda for the next four, five or eight years in a way that didn’t seem imperative” when Republicans controlled the Senate, Birdsell added.

On the public advocate stage, candidates Nomiki Konst and Jumaane Williams raised no money from major real estate developers or executives. Both did raise several hundred dollars each from rank-and-file employees at real estate firms, and Renee Cafaro, who Politico describes as a “progressive heir” to a real estate fortune, hosted a fundraiser for Konkst. (Cafaro and her sister donated $3,110, of which $2,550 was returned.)

David Eisenbach, who is running on the Stop REBNY party line, didn’t appear to take any contributions from developers. The only real estate-related donations he received were $50 and $25 from Compass and Douglas Elliman brokers, respectively.

Williams earlier in the campaign signed the New York Communities for Change Real Estate Pledge, vowing not to accept donations from principals at for-profit development companies and their spouses, from corporate and real estate PACs or from landlords with buildings of six or more units.

“The real estate industry has controlled New York elected officials for generations,” the pledge reads. “Their enormous contributions to candidates in Albany have consistently convinced decision makers and power brokers to side with the interests of wealthy corporate landowners over tenants – causing homelessness to skyrocket and mass displacement from low-income neighborhoods.”

Some developers did make contributions to Williams, but the campaign returned them. Jorge Madruga of Maddd Equities gave $1,000; Jeffrey Dunston of the Northeast Brooklyn Housing Development Corp. gave $800 and Winston Fisher of Fisher Brothers gave $500. The campaign returned all of those contributions.

Benjamin Yee, Manny Alicandro, Anthony Herbert, Helal Sheikh, Daniel O’Donnell, Ydanis Rodriguez and Jared Rich — all of whom raised relatively small sums to begin with — either did not accept real estate money, or accepted such small amounts as to be nominal.


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