Hotel workers union was biggest spender in city primaries

Union has waged a battle against Airbnb, backs special permits for hotels

From left: Laurie Cumbo, Keith Powers and Peter Ward
From left: Laurie Cumbo, Keith Powers and Peter Ward

The city’s powerful hotel workers union, which has fought tooth-and-nail against Airbnb and is backing a proposal to regulate new hotel development in large swaths of the Big Apple, shelled out the most campaign dollars of independent spending group in last month’s city primary elections.

The New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council, through its independent spending arm Hotel Workers for Stronger Communities, spent $400,976 on six city council primary races in August and September, records with the New York City Campaign Finance Board show.

The HTC was the biggest independent spender among a handful of groups that doled out a total of $1.2 million in what was a low-turnout election.

The union, led by political power player Peter Ward, spent its money on some of the most competitive races in the city. Its largest chunk of cash, $122,465, went to support Fort Greene Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, who faced a challenge from Ede Fox in a race that became a de-facto referendum on the controversial Bedford-Union Armory redevelopment in Crown Heights.

A spokesperson for Cumbo did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the HTC said the union “fights tirelessly to deliver good wages and benefits for its members and all working families and the union puts that same strength and energy to electing candidates who share the same deep commitment to protect working families.”

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The HTC also spent $110,988 backing Peter Cooper Village resident Keith Powers – who won the primary for term-limited Councilmember Dan Garodnick’s seat – and another $87,988 supporting Queens Assemblymember Francisco Moya.

With about 35,000 members citywide, the Hotel Trades Council is smaller than other unions like the 200,000-strong United Federation of Teachers or the buildings service-workers 32BJ SEIU union, which has 80,000 members. But it’s a political force in city and state politics with a mobilized membership that can move the needle in political races.

The union was instrumental in pushing state lawmakers to pass legislation last year restricting short-term rental sites like Airbnb, which ran a $10 million super PAC last year in state elections.

HTC has also long pushed for special permits for hotels, which would essentially require developers to strike a deal with the union to build new hotels in areas requiring permits. The city last month began the formal process to fulfill a pledge Mayor Bill de Blasio made in late 2015 that would require special permits for new hotels in manufacturing zones.

Other big spenders in the primary include the anti-horse carriage group NYCLASS, which spent $231,456 on six races.

The $1.2 million independent groups spent this cycle, however, is a far cry from the $15.9 million such groups spent on the 2013 elections. The Real Estate Board of New York’s Jobs for New York was the biggest spender four years ago with $4.9 million, but it sat this election cycle out.