Real estate donors: Election? What election?

Little industry money for public advocate or Republican challenger

TRD New York /
Nov.November 01, 2019 07:00 AM
Jumaane Williams and Joseph Borelli (Credit: Getty Images, Joseph Borelli)

Jumaane Williams and Joseph Borelli (Credit: Getty Images, Joseph Borelli)

There’s a citywide election next week, but don’t look now. The real estate industry hasn’t.

The sector sank money into the February special election for public advocate, but has almost completely ignored winner Jumaane Williams’ bid to remain in office.

Two reasons: The Democrat is forsaking real estate donations and is heavily favored to defeat Republican City Council member Joseph Borelli and Libertarian candidate Devin Balkind Nov. 5. The relative insignificance of the post is also a factor, but that hasn’t stopped real estate folks from donating in the past.

The race in February attracted 17 candidates and real estate donations poured in for contenders including Assembly member Michael Blake and Melissa Mark-Viverito, a former City Council speaker.

Williams did not raise any money from major real estate executives or developers during that campaign. He signed a pledge promising not to take donations from principals at for-profit development companies and their spouses, corporate and real estate PACs, and landlords of buildings with six or more units.

Not surprisingly, the industry has stayed away from his November campaign as well, apart from a handful of rank-and-file employees at brokerages and construction companies. The Real Deal identified just $2,450 in donations from real estate employees out Williams’ total of almost $170,000 raised as of Oct. 31, the largest of which was $500 from Empire Glen Construction employee Tauqeer Haq.

The industry has not been flooding the coffers of Williams’ main opponent either. Borelli has raised just $44,000, and a paltry $1,625 from the real estate industry — mostly from a $1,000 donation from Daniel Tomai, president of Signature Construction Group.

Borelli, who represents Staten Island’s 51st District on the City Council, has called for abolishing the position of public advocate. His campaign manager Bill Cortese said real estate’s lack of interest in the race endorses this stance by revealing the position’s lack of importance.

“I think the real estate industry understands that there’s really not a lot in terms of roles and responsibilities for the public advocate,” he said, “and so they’ve largely just stayed out.”

Balkind has raised just $4,920 for his campaign, and nothing from real estate — which he attributed to his lack of viability.

“Real estate is a practical constituency. Very few things are actually more practical than building a house,” he said. “Obviously, I’m not going to win this election.”

Williams has served in the city’s nominal No. 2 office since succeeding Letitia James, who won the race for New York attorney general last November.

Borelli’s point about the public advocate lacking power is a common one but does not entirely explain why real estate interests have largely ignored the race. Donations can represent a bet on a politician’s future: Consider that James ascended to statewide office and her predecessor as public advocate, Bill de Blasio, became mayor.

Donations could also prove to be political currency for landlords at risk of ending up on the public advocate’s infamous “100 worst landlords” list, which has been renamed the NYC Landlord Watchlist.

Representatives for Williams did not respond to a request for comment. In a previous interview with TRD, Williams said he rejected real estate contributions in his first public advocate campaign because “there is a problem with big money in politics, just in general.”

“Of the industries that donate, real estate isn’t the only one, but I do think they have an outsize impact,” he said in June. “You see them directly harming people: zoning decisions, rent laws. And so I felt it made sense to take that pledge.” (Zoning decisions are made by the City Council and rent laws by the state legislature.)

Public advocates have had a fairly contentious relationship with the real estate industry since at least 2010, when de Blasio started publishing the “worst landlords” list, largely based on violations. Some landlords have been included on the list for violations incurred by previous owners, and have occasionally been able to persuade the office to remove them.

The winner of Tuesday’s election will serve out the rest of James’ term, which runs through 2021.

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