Who’s taking real estate cash in New York’s key races — and not
Candidates for mayor, comptroller and Queens borough president differ on industry donations
In 2018, progressives made a point of targeting politicians who accepted real estate donations. Since then, pledging to shun the industry’s money has become de rigueur for candidates fending off challenges or trying to capture votes from the left. But others continue to take it, not only to fund their campaigns but perhaps to signal that they are business-friendly.
The Real Deal looked at who is and isn’t accepting checks from developers, landlords and industry leaders in New York City’s key races this year and next.
Real estate cash has already become a point of contention in the 2021 race for mayor, in which New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Díaz Jr. and Brooklyn Borough President Erik Adams are jockeying for an edge in the crucial Democratic primary.
Corey Johnson: The City Council speaker has pledged to “not accept contributions from real estate developers or anyone employed at their firms,” a spokesperson said. The Manhattan pol had accepted about $63,000 from real estate executives when TRD examined his campaign finance filings in late 2017. Johnson has said he is now rejecting checks because the Council controls land use and other matters affecting real estate.
Ruben Díaz Jr.: A spokesperson for Díaz Jr. confirmed that his campaign is accepting real estate donations.
“We are not going to exclude an entire industry based on some bad actors,” a spokesperson for the campaign said in a statement. “The borough president’s record on tenant protection is unparalleled. He does not have to be against one person to be for another.”
MADDD Equities and Joy Construction have together contributed more than $1.8 million to Díaz Jr. over his tenure as borough president.
Eric Adams: A spokesperson for the Brooklyn pol said his campaign is accepting donations from the real estate industry.
Adams was criticized last year for receiving money from entities with business before the city, including real estate developer Two Trees, which was looking for modifications for its massive Domino Sugar Factory development. Adams, a former state senator and NYPD captain, issues advisory recommendations on Brooklyn land-use applications.
Scott Stringer: The New York Post reported last week that the comptroller is not taking real estate donations, but won’t return the sizable sum he has raised from the industry. A spokesperson for Stringer’s campaign did not comment by press time.
Since 2018, about 18 percent of Stringer’s $1.4 million campaign haul has come from real estate, according to city campaign finance records, the Post reported. From 2014 through 2017, 26 percent of his $2.3 million raised was from such deep-pocketed real estate donors as Aby Rosen of RFR Holding and William Rudin, CEO of the luxury apartment and office tower empire Rudin Management Co. Over half of that was carried over to the current election cycle.
A slew of city and state officials have their eyes on the comptroller’s office, which oversees the city’s contracting process and manages its pension funds and is a stepping stone to the mayoralty. The election to succeed Stringer is in 2021.
Brian Benjamin: Benjamin has a background in the real estate industry, having worked as an affordable housing developer before joining the Senate in 2017. He initially supported “good cause” eviction, but his support has waned, and industry insiders say Benjamin is actively raising money from real estate. Last month Benjamin canceled a fundraiser hosted by real estate firm Greystone after an email from a Greystone employee inviting people was made public. The message touted Benjamin’s reversal on the eviction legislation.
Brad Lander: In a statement, a spokesperson for Lander’s campaign reiterated the City Council member’s commitment to reject donations from real estate or corporate PACs, principals at for-profit development companies and their spouses, and landlords of buildings with more than six units. The campaign is also refusing donations from corporate lobbyists and private equity and hedge fund investors.
David Weprin: The Assembly member said he had “no problems” accepting donations from the real estate industry.
“The real estate industry is an extremely important industry in New York,” the longtime Queens politician said. “Like every industry, there are good players and bad players, but I have a lot of respect for people in the industry. They built New York.”
Kevin Parker: In October, a spokesperson for the senator’s campaign said he accepts real estate donations.
In a statement, the spokesperson added that Parker “has always been a champion for affordable housing for all New Yorkers” and played an “essential” role in the state’s passage of last year’s pro-tenant rent law.
15th Congressional District, Bronx
Rep. José Serrano is not seeking re-election this year, triggering a crowded race. City Council members Ritchie Torres and Ruben Diaz Sr., former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Democratic Socialists of America–backed Samelys López are all running. The congressional district is the poorest in the country.
Melissa Mark-Viverito: A spokesperson for the Upper Manhattan politician’s campaign described her as independent and unbeholden to wealthy interests that “gain access … through donations.” The spokesperson said Mark-Viverito will not accept any contributions from corporate PACs or real estate principals, including developers.
Ritchie Torres: Torres confirmed to TRD that he accepts real estate donations. A recent report found that at least $110,000 of Torres’ contributions have come from the industry.
“We do accept contributions from individuals in a whole host of industries, including real estate,” Torres said in a statement, noting that he prefers to take a case-by-case approach rather than to “indiscriminately vilify” an industry. “By what logic is it OK to accept contributions from those in finance, health care, and tech but not from real estate? The line-drawing is arbitrary.”
The left challenger is a former community board member and founder of the group Bronx Progressives — which helped propel Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into Congress. López has vowed to not take real estate donations, and is running on a platform that mirrors AOC’s agenda: Medicare for All, the Green New Deal plan and Universal Childcare.
Ruben Díaz Sr.: The controversial reverend and former state senator has taken real estate donations in the past, including during his successful 2017 bid for the City Council.
Queens Borough President
Melinda Katz’ election as Queens district attorney has given rise to a competitive race for the borough presidency she vacated. It represents a chance for the moderate wing of the Democratic Party to re-establish control of the borough after Ocasio-Cortez ousted Rep. Joseph Crowley and unheralded Tiffany Cabán came within a few dozen votes of besting Katz in the Democratic primary for D.A.
James Van Bramer: The Long Island City Council member has been criticized for accepting real estate donations in the past, but has said he is not accepting money or bundled contributions from real estate. Van Bramer even posted returned checks to four real estate donors on his Twitter feed.
Donovan Richards: Donovan Richards recently secured the the endorsement of the Queens County Democratic organization and it is clear that he is not shunning the real estate industry.
In a statement to TRD, a spokesperson for his campaign said Richards has built “countless relationships in his years working to improve his district and build more affordable housing.”
Costa Constantinides: A spokesperson for the City Council member’s campaign emailed that the candidate won’t accept financial support from what “Big Real Estate developers.”
“Costa regularly returned any checks from Big Real Estate developers, and fought Jobs for New York’s 2013 efforts to spend in his name,” the spokesperson wrote, referring to a REBNY political action committee. “He believes in being an honest broker when it comes to negotiating fair deals that ensure real, deep affordability for western Queens.”
Senate District 25, Brooklyn
State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, the longest-serving member of the upper house, last week announced her retirement after months of rumors. Three candidates are vying for her seat: Assembly member Tremaine Wright, former Montgomery staffer Jason Salmon and Democratic Socialists of America–backed Jabari Brisport.
Tremaine Wright: The legislator recently supported a state bill to expand foreclosure protections for homeowners, an issue that has plagued her Bedford-Stuyvesant and northern Crown Heights district. Her most recent filing does not show any apparent contributions from real estate. Wright, who is being supported by Montgomery, did not return requests for comment.
Jason Salmon: In a statement, a spokesperson for the campaign said Salmon will reject any corporate PAC or private real estate contributions. Salmon had hoped for backing from Montgomery — his former boss — and from the Democratic Socialists. He got neither, but has notched endorsements from Sunset Park City Council member Carlos Menchaca and the United Automobile Workers.
Jabari Brisport: Brisport said he will not accept donations from real estate. The public school teacher said in an interview that he hopes to form a “socialist caucus” in the Senate and is running on an anti-capitalist platform that highlights housing affordability and inequality.
State Assembly, 36th District, Queens
Aravella Simotas: Highlighting her support of the pro-tenant rent law reform package, the Assembly member said she has “proudly pledged to reject any real estate contributions.”
Zohran Mamdani: A foreclosure-prevention specialist backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, Mamdani has said he will not accept donations from real estate. Mamdani has said he aims to “decommodify housing.”
State Assembly, 54th District, Brooklyn
Erik Dilan: Over the years Dilan has received donations from the landlord group Rent Stabilization Association, hotel developer Sam Chang, former Real Estate Board of New York President John Banks and landlord Jay Wartski. Dilan has been in his Assembly seat for four years since term limits forced him from the City Council. Dilan did not return requests for comment.
Boris Santos: Santos said he will not take donations from the real estate industry. The Democratic Socialists of America–backed former chief of staff for state Sen. Julia Salazar told TRD in August that the Senate “needs more comrades.”
In a statement, Santos said his campaign would not take any money from “for-profit real estate individuals or corporations.”