The June primary election proved to be the costliest in New York City history, with record-breaking contributions coming from both outside groups and the city’s public-financing program, according to updated campaign finance figures. A Gothamist/WNYC analysis shows that most of the money donated to political action committees by wealthy individuals went to losing candidates, while public funds allowed candidates up and down the ballot to compete in this high-stakes election.
According to Campaign Finance Board data that began posting late Thursday, independent expenditures, commonly known as super political action committees, spent more than $36 million in the races for mayor and City Council combined. That’s $23 million more than super PAC spending in 2013, the last time there was an open mayoral primary, illustrating the extent to which deep-pocketed donors sought to secure influence and counter the CFB’s generous 8-to-1 matching program.
In total, 24 super PACs participated in the mayor’s race by spending on issue ads and in support of candidates; they legally are not allowed to directly coordinate with candidates and their campaigns.
Strong Leadership NYC Inc. stood as the most formidable super PAC, spending $6.3 million in support of Eric Adams, who went on to win the Democratic nomination for mayor. Figures show the super PAC spent mostly on television, social media, and radio ads to power Adams’ message, more than any of the nine super PACs supporting Adams. Formed by Jenny Sedlis, the executive director of StudentsFirstNYC, an advocacy group in support of charter schools and school choice.
Sedlis secured funding from millionaire and billionaire donors, including Daniel Loeb, Ken Griffin, Stanley Druckenmiller, and Paul T. Jones, who have previously supported charter schools. In an interview with Gothamist/WNYC, Sedlis said the PAC was intended to demonstrate major support for Adams’ vision for quality education and a balance for public safety and social justice.
Adams received the most super PAC money among the mayoral candidates, according to the CFB filings. He received $7.7 million, or 24% of the total amount super PACs pumped into the mayor’s race so far this year.
This stands in sharp contrast to Kathryn Garcia, the former sanitation commissioner who finished second in the race, losing to Adams by less than a percentage point. Preliminary data shows the New Generation of Leadership PAC spent just under $235,000 for Garcia, or 3% of Adams’ total super PAC spending, lower than all the eight leading mayoral candidates except Dianne Morales.
“If we were to raise half as much as some of the PACs that were in support of the other candidates I’m almost certain Kathryn Garcia would be the nominee for the Democratic party for mayor of New York City,” said Ronnie Cho, treasurer of New Generation of Leadership PAC, adding that he limited spending on digital ads rather than paying for expensive television time.
Like all but one of the leading candidates, Garcia benefited from the CFB’s 8-to-1 matching funds program. Filings show that of the over $2 million she raised, she received $6.4 million in matching funds.
Mayoral candidates Ray McGuire and Shaun Donovan both benefited from outside spending. Wealthy donors pumped a total of $5.7 million to the New York for Ray PAC in support of McGuire. The super PAC in support of Donovan netted $6.5 million, with the bulk provided by his father, Michael.
Considering the relatively small number of votes won by these lower-tier candidates, the rate of return for their campaign supporters was low. McGuire received 26,355 votes and Donovan with 24,033 votes before they were eliminated in early rounds of the new ranked-choice voting system. When dividing the total amount of super PAC money by the number of first-choice votes, it cost super PACs $218 to win one McGuire vote and $246 for one Donovan vote.
That contrasts with $18 spent on every Adams first-choice vote and $1.70 for every Garcia first-choice vote, following ranked-choice voting (these calculations did not take into account affidavit ballots).
“In retrospect, it was money down the drain,” Doug Muzzio, a politics professor at Baruch College, said. “Prospectively, it’s a rational calculation of money spent and potential political influence.”
Contributing and losing large amounts in local elections is a gamble many wealthy donors are willing take, Muzzio said. It beats sitting on the sidelines and losing the chance of having access to the next mayor of New York City.
“A couple of a hundred thousand dollars is chump change,” he said, “and on top of it, you might hit the jackpot and be an influential player.”
The super PAC strategy seems to have delivered more results in City Council races in which over $4.8 million was spent on a total of 82 candidates across 47 races.
Of the 20 super PACs that spent money on media ad buys, 16 saw at least one of the candidates they funded win their race. Among the biggest winners was the Labor Strong super PAC which backed 29 candidates, 23 of whom won their primary race. That super PAC included a coalition of unions—including 32BJ SEIU, District Council 37, Communication Workers of America District 1, The Hotel Trades Council, and the New York State Nurses Association—that spent over $1 million in support of candidates.
While Labor Strong PAC came out big for union-friendly candidates, Common Sense NYC, another super PAC, sought to blunt hardline progressives from notching victories across the city. The super PAC, funded by real estate magnate Stephen Ross, followed through on its promise to influence the outcome of the City Council contests by contributing $1.2 million in support of, or opposition to, 26 candidates.
Of the 18 candidates Common Sense NYC supported, 13 went on to win their race, a 72% success rate. The super PAC was also focused on making sure candidates endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America did not win, and six of the eight candidates they opposed lost their primaries. Common Sense NYC, which funneled the most money into City Council races, ended up spending $550,000 on winning candidates.
“Most of the candidates who were supportive of defunding the police lost their elections, thanks to our intervention, sending a clear message that public safety is critical to the future recovery of New York City,” said Jeff Leb, the super PAC’s treasurer.
Their success rate was better than NY4KIDS Inc., a group supporting public school education, which spent $520,252 supporting 15 candidates, with eight winning in the primary. The group also spent $3.7 million on media ads for candidate and comptroller Scott Stringer.
It also fared slightly better for the super PAC dubbed Our City, which supported progressive candidates directly opposed by Common Sense NYC. Gabe Tobias, the Our City creator, said that while their picks for Council candidates came short (none of the four campaigns they financed won), they were successful in the race for comptroller in which Brad Lander, a current councilmember, defeated Council Speaker Corey Johnson for the Democratic nomination.
“I think that was a great bet,” Tobias said. “It was very clear from the very beginning that Brad Lander was the progressive choice in that race.”
In the mayor’s race, Tobias noted the large amount of super PAC money behind the Adams’ campaign, raised questions about the presumptive next mayor’s loyalties and the tension he may face between the blue-collar, outer-borough constituent he credits with his win and the interests of deep-pocket donors.
“He has to make a choice,” Tobias said. “Who’s he going to be the mayor for at the end of the day?”
City Councilmember Ben Kallos, widely seen as the architect behind the city’s 8-to-1 matching funds program, said the generous public support helped to blunt super PACs influence and allow more candidates the get their messages out and compete.
“We wouldn’t have had the field that we did,” Kallos said. “That story repeats over and over again.”
CFB chairman Fred Schaffer downplayed the role of super PACs in this year’s election at the CFB meeting on Thursday, pointing to the outlay of $109 million in public funds.
“The support provided to candidates through the campaign finance program surpassed the amount spent by the outside groups,” Schaffer said, “helping all the candidates who qualified get their story and vision for the city out to voters.”
Cho, the treasurer behind Garcia’s super PAC, agreed, saying he would prefer to abolish super PACs altogether.
“If there was another way that didn’t include a super PAC I would’ve pursued that,” Cho said. “I don’t think this kind of outside money should be as influential as it has been.”