“That was a business decision”: Why real estate execs are backing Trump — or backing away

President has brought in millions in donations despite industry shift toward Biden

TRD New York /
Sep.September 21, 2020 01:33 PM
President Donald Trump with developer Steve Witkoff, John Catsimatidis and Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman (Getty; iStock)

President Donald Trump with developer Steve Witkoff, John Catsimatidis and Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman (Getty; iStock)

Sotheby’s International Realty broker Nikki Field was leading sales at Kushner Companies’ Puck Penthouses in Manhattan when, in 2016, the Kushners raised the idea of the brokerage getting involved in a fundraiser for Donald Trump’s presidential bid.

Sotheby’s said it couldn’t because it was prohibited from donating to political campaigns, so Field offered to help. She ended up co-chairing the event — held at a Kushner property in New Jersey — and giving $10,000 of her own money to Trump Victory, a political action committee.

“That was a business decision and one that caused me great discord at home with my husband,” she said in an interview, adding that the amount was set by the Kushners and the donation had “nothing to do with my political leanings.”

Kushner Companies declined to comment.

Field no longer works with the family-run developer, and said she won’t be donating to the Trump campaign this year. But plenty of real estate players already have, according to a Real Deal analysis of filings with the Federal Election Commission. That’s despite a groundswell of support for Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who has edged ahead of the president with $17.1 million in industry donations to Trump’s $15.6 million.

Big-name real estate backers of the president include Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman, New York developer Steve Witkoff and supermarket magnate and developer John Catsimatidis. The analysis focused on donations above $5,000 from industry professionals to political action committees that support either Trump or the Republican Party.

For New York–based Catsimatidis, who donated $50,000 to Trump Victory, his support for the president is closely tied to concerns for New York.

The billionaire told TRD he had an “understanding” from conversations with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and undisclosed parties in the White House that they would support giving “money to New York if they can appoint a monitor to make sure the money is not misspent.” McConnell’s representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Other real estate executives have explained their support for Trump in similar terms. Related Companies’ Stephen Ross told the New York Times he hosted a fundraiser for the president last summer because he was “looking for certain things to benefit New York.”

Related's Jeff Blau and Stephen Ross (Getty)

Related’s Jeff Blau and Stephen Ross (Getty)

Ross equivocated when asked whether he would be voting for Trump in November. Records show he hasn’t given to Trump this year, but he gave $35,500 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Related CEO Jeff Blau also contributed the same amount.

Both executives declined to comment through a spokesperson, who noted that “what’s most important right now is federal support for New York as this region recovers from the pandemic.”

Vornado Realty Trust’s Steven Roth donated more than $100,000 to the NRCC and several other Republican groups this year, the analysis shows. He also donated $200,000 to Trump Victory in 2019.

Many of Trump’s real estate supporters have been behind the so-called “developer in chief” since the beginning. But others appear to have recently pulled back: Ziel Feldman of HFZ Capital, for example, donated $25,000 to Trump Victory in 2016; $5,600 in 2019; and nothing this year, according to the analysis. Feldman declined to comment.

Tom Barrack of Colony Capital and Douglas Elliman chairman Howard Lorber were among Trump’s largest donors from the real estate industry in 2016. They have not donated thus far in 2020, though they gave $360,000 and $150,000, respectively, to Trump Victory last year.

Developer David Bistricer, Cushman & Wakefield chair Charles Borrok and investor Michael Fascitelli — the former CEO of Vornado and chair of the investment committee at Jared Kushner’s startup Cadre — have not donated to Trump Victory since 2016. Developer Richard LeFrak, a longtime Trump friend, has not donated to him since 2017. All four men either did not respond or declined to comment.

In one case, there has even been a shift in allegiance. James L. Nederlander — son of Broadway titan James “Jimmy” Nederlander — donated more than $30,000 to Trump’s campaign in 2016. (His father also donated $50,000 before his death that July.) But this time around, the younger Nederlander is putting his money behind Biden, donating $11,200 to the Democrat’s victory fund, records show. Nederlander did not respond to requests for comment.

Catsimatidis said he could see why Trump’s conduct during his presidency may have alienated industry figures who previously supported him.

“If it’s based on personality, Trump loses. If it’s based on performance, Trump wins,” he said, pointing to the president’s approach to foreign relations with Iran, China and Russia as examples. “You know they’re scared to go against Trump.”

Ross echoed Catsimatidis, calling Trump “a little divisive” in his interview with the Times, but said he’s enacted “a lot of great business policies.”

“So I mean, you have to put it all together, and no one’s perfect,” he added.

Trump’s presidency has been a mixed bag for the real estate industry. His administration lowered corporate tax rates, created Opportunity Zones and rolled back parts of the Dodd-Frank Act to reduce some regulatory burdens on community and regional banks. But Trump has also angered some of his real estate friends by limiting state and local tax deductions and placing tariffs on supplies from China.

Casino cash

As a developer, Trump had a love affair with the casino industry that never ended well. In Atlantic City, the Trump Marina Hotel Casino was sold at a loss; the Trump Taj Mahal shut down in 2016; the Trump Plaza Casino and Hotel is currently being demolished.

Donald Trump and Phil Ruffin (Getty)

Donald Trump and Phil Ruffin (Getty)

Yet some of Trump’s largest real estate backers hail from the industry, according to federal filings. Phil Ruffin, a partner in Trump’s hotel in Las Vegas, donated $500,000 to Trump Victory this year, while Steve Wynn, the developer of Mirage and the Bellagio on the Las Vegas Strip, donated $468,500. Ruffin and Wynn could not be reached for comment.

Steve Witkoff, who is developing one of Vegas’ most anticipated projects — The Drew Las Vegas — donated $575,000 to Trump Victory, according to filings. He did not respond to a request to comment.

Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the Blackstone Group — which acquired the Bellagio casino through its REIT for $4.25 billion last year and purchased stakes in MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay casino earlier this year — is a strong Trump financial supporter. He recently donated $3 million to the America First Action committee. Schwarzman also donated $355,000 to Trump Victory last year. Blackstone declined to comment.

There’s still something of a question mark over Sheldon Adelson. While the billionaire octogenarian and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the GOP in the past decade, Adelson and his wife, Miriam, have only given a combined $1.7 million to Trump Victory. A recent contentious phone call between Trump and Adelson, during which the president chided the casino mogul over his lack of donations, have left some Republican fundraisers nervous, according to Politico. But Adelson is still projected to donate between $20 million to $50 million to Preserve America, a new Trump super PAC, according to CNBC. Adelson’s Sands Corporation did not respond to a request to comment.

Many of Trump’s donors have long-standing personal or professional relationships with the president.

Peter Kalikow (Getty)

Peter Kalikow (Getty)

Peter Kalikow, a vocal Trump supporter and head of the development and management firm, H.J. Kalikow & Company, donated almost $500,000 to Trump Victory in 2016 and $33,458 last year, according to TRD’s analysis.

“I know him well,” Kalikow said in a 2018 interview. “Trump’s done a good job,” he added. “He’s not like any other president we’ve had.”

Witkoff also spoke warmly about the president during an interview following the death of New York real estate retail titan Stanley Chera in April.

“Stanley, like me, was a very good friend to the president,” Witkoff said.

“I think, when you’re a very good friend to somebody, you support them, unequivocally.”
















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