Newsday's Michael Gormley speaks about how spending and donations in this year's race for governor were the highest they've been in 20 years. Credit: NewsdayTV

ALBANY — This year’s race for New York governor was fueled by more than $78 million in campaign donations and more than $68 million in spending, which doubled the figures for each of the last four gubernatorial races to a level unseen in 20 years, according to state records.

Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul raised more than $55 million and spent more than $47 million on the race she won. Her Republican opponent, Rep. Lee Zeldin of Shirley, raised more than $23 million and spent more than $16 million. The state Board of Elections figures cover from January 2021, when the campaign began in earnest, to after Election Day on Nov. 8.

Those figures don't include millions of dollars more spent by what are often national partisan groups operating as independent expenditure committees, which often air negative TV ads and by law are supposed to be independent of campaigns. Such committees spent at least $21 million in support of Zeldin and at least $500,000 in support of Hochul.

“What do I think of this spending? I hate it,” said Gerald Benjamin, a professor emeritus of political science at SUNY New Paltz, referring to overall campaign spending. “It’s one of the great evils.”

The concern is that campaigns get their biggest donations from interests doing business or hoping to do business with the state, he said. Another potential longer-term impact of this year’s spending is how it might further inflate future campaign spending.

“What you do each election … is you establish a baseline,” Benjamin said. “It’s a destructive cycle.”

But not all political scientists see a problem in this level of spending.

"Spending in the 2022 gubernatorial race reflected the fact that Republicans had their first real chance at the governorship in two decades," said David Primo, a professor of political science and business administration at the University of Rochester who has written extensively on campaign financing. "This spending reflected a robust, competitive election with two candidates offering competing visions for the state and vying for the votes of New Yorkers. Isn’t this what we should want in a democracy?"

Some uncommon factors helped drive up donations and spending this year. Those include the lack of an elected incumbent, because Hochul rose to the job in August 2021 when then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo resigned amid sexual harassment accusations. That contributed to a focused effort by Republicans, who saw their best chance at winning a statewide office in 20 years.

In addition, Hochul had to quickly show how she could amass a campaign account large enough to ward off challengers in the Democratic primary, which she won in June. Then, in October, some polls showed the race tightening and donors poured in more contributions to each candidate.

The cost of this year’s campaign for governor falls short only of 2002, when Republican Gov. George Pataki faced two opponents in the general election: Democrat H. Carl McCall and billionaire business owner Thomas Golisano, who spent $75 million of his own money to come in third to Pataki in a race that saw $127 million in total spending.

The 2022 race, however, also bared some perennial concerns about politics in New York, which is one of the most expensive states to run for office.

“New York state government decision-making is being warped by big-money contributions,” said John Kaehny, executive director of the good-government group Reinvent Albany. “State contractors, real estate developers, Hollywood studios, casinos, unions, trade associations, you name it, people doing business with the state are successfully buying influence with big contributions.”

It's an “inherent conflict of interest” as old as politics and practiced by both major parties, said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group and another veteran observer of state government. But he said much of the public only notes the conflict in the occasional scandal or in an accusation lobbed in a campaign.

“New Yorkers should be horrified,” he said.

But Primo said, "Research fails to find evidence that campaign contributions are corrupting. Campaign finance is a convenient target for those who believe democracy is drowning in money. Perhaps, though, as the past few years have shown, money in politics is the least of our problems."

The top contributors to Hochul and Zeldin were from industries in which state policy and legislation play a role.

For example, Hochul’s largest contributors included the maximum $69,700 contribution from the influential unions Amalgamated Transit Union, Service Employees International Union 32BJ and the Transport Workers Union Local 100.

Zeldin’s contributions included $10,000 from the Transit Supervisors Organization Political Action Committee, the union of front-line supervisors at the state’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority; $25,000 from Thomas Jonah Tisch, a lawyer and partner in an investment firm, as well as part of the Tisch family of real estate developers, and $35,789 from Kenneth Langone, a billionaire investor and co-founder of the Home Depot stores.

Horner notes, however, that the U.S. Supreme Court has cemented this conflict in place, at least for now. The 2010 decision known as Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission ruled campaign contributions are a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment.

“Unless that’s changed, that’s the way it is,” Horner said.

Zeldin benefited from TV ads and other campaign material paid by independent expenditure committees, including more than $15 million from the Safe Together New York committee and nearly $6 million from the Save Our State committee.

Hochul benefited from the support of independent expenditure committees, including New York Women Lead, which spent $317,000 in 2022; the Coalition to Restore New York, which spent $111,000, and Empire State Forward, which spent $105,000.

Political observers term those who fuel campaigns with big contributions “The donor class.”

“This leads to mutually escalating money chasing,” said Douglas Muzzio, a political-science professor at Baruch College. “It enhances the already enormous power of the financial elite, the donor class.”

A direct exchange of campaign contributions for a state contract or other favor is illegal, and state and federal prosecutors have said such actions are hard to prove. The issue became part of the 2022 campaign when Zeldin accused Hochul of “a pay-to-play” deal with a big contributor that landed a state contract. Hochul denied the claim.

Hochul and other governors in both parties before her have denied any quid pro quo. Defenders of the process say donations only bring access, not favor. Campaign spokeswomen for Hochul and Zeldin didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Some advocates such as Horner said the state’s plan to offer voluntary public financing of campaigns beginning in two years will reduce the power of cash in politics by encouraging small donations and limiting the amount of big donations. But the reform doesn’t include restrictions on the increasing flow of millions of dollars from wealthy individuals such as billionaire Ron Lauder, who supported Zeldin through independent expenditure committees.

“Donors are going to be heard,” Horner said. “If two phones ring at the same time and one is a $10,000 donor and the other is an average New Yorker, which phone do you think gets picked up first? They have every expectation that their pleas for favor will be heard. Whether the governor does anything about it is another thing entirely.”

ALBANY — This year’s race for New York governor was fueled by more than $78 million in campaign donations and more than $68 million in spending, which doubled the figures for each of the last four gubernatorial races to a level unseen in 20 years, according to state records.

Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul raised more than $55 million and spent more than $47 million on the race she won. Her Republican opponent, Rep. Lee Zeldin of Shirley, raised more than $23 million and spent more than $16 million. The state Board of Elections figures cover from January 2021, when the campaign began in earnest, to after Election Day on Nov. 8.

Those figures don't include millions of dollars more spent by what are often national partisan groups operating as independent expenditure committees, which often air negative TV ads and by law are supposed to be independent of campaigns. Such committees spent at least $21 million in support of Zeldin and at least $500,000 in support of Hochul.

“What do I think of this spending? I hate it,” said Gerald Benjamin, a professor emeritus of political science at SUNY New Paltz, referring to overall campaign spending. “It’s one of the great evils.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • State Board of Elections figures show that, from January 2021 to after Election Day, Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul raised more than $55 million and spent more than $47 million on the race she won.
  • Republican challenger Rep. Lee Zeldin of Shirley, raised more than $23 million and spent more than $16 million. 
  • National partisan groups operating as independent expenditure committees spent at least an additional $21 million in support of Zeldin and at least $500,000 in support of Hochul.

The concern is that campaigns get their biggest donations from interests doing business or hoping to do business with the state, he said. Another potential longer-term impact of this year’s spending is how it might further inflate future campaign spending.

“What you do each election … is you establish a baseline,” Benjamin said. “It’s a destructive cycle.”

But not all political scientists see a problem in this level of spending.

"Spending in the 2022 gubernatorial race reflected the fact that Republicans had their first real chance at the governorship in two decades," said David Primo, a professor of political science and business administration at the University of Rochester who has written extensively on campaign financing. "This spending reflected a robust, competitive election with two candidates offering competing visions for the state and vying for the votes of New Yorkers. Isn’t this what we should want in a democracy?"

Some uncommon factors helped drive up donations and spending this year. Those include the lack of an elected incumbent, because Hochul rose to the job in August 2021 when then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo resigned amid sexual harassment accusations. That contributed to a focused effort by Republicans, who saw their best chance at winning a statewide office in 20 years.

In addition, Hochul had to quickly show how she could amass a campaign account large enough to ward off challengers in the Democratic primary, which she won in June. Then, in October, some polls showed the race tightening and donors poured in more contributions to each candidate.

The cost of this year’s campaign for governor falls short only of 2002, when Republican Gov. George Pataki faced two opponents in the general election: Democrat H. Carl McCall and billionaire business owner Thomas Golisano, who spent $75 million of his own money to come in third to Pataki in a race that saw $127 million in total spending.

The 2022 race, however, also bared some perennial concerns about politics in New York, which is one of the most expensive states to run for office.

“New York state government decision-making is being warped by big-money contributions,” said John Kaehny, executive director of the good-government group Reinvent Albany. “State contractors, real estate developers, Hollywood studios, casinos, unions, trade associations, you name it, people doing business with the state are successfully buying influence with big contributions.”

It's an “inherent conflict of interest” as old as politics and practiced by both major parties, said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group and another veteran observer of state government. But he said much of the public only notes the conflict in the occasional scandal or in an accusation lobbed in a campaign.

“New Yorkers should be horrified,” he said.

But Primo said, "Research fails to find evidence that campaign contributions are corrupting. Campaign finance is a convenient target for those who believe democracy is drowning in money. Perhaps, though, as the past few years have shown, money in politics is the least of our problems."

The top contributors to Hochul and Zeldin were from industries in which state policy and legislation play a role.

For example, Hochul’s largest contributors included the maximum $69,700 contribution from the influential unions Amalgamated Transit Union, Service Employees International Union 32BJ and the Transport Workers Union Local 100.

Zeldin’s contributions included $10,000 from the Transit Supervisors Organization Political Action Committee, the union of front-line supervisors at the state’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority; $25,000 from Thomas Jonah Tisch, a lawyer and partner in an investment firm, as well as part of the Tisch family of real estate developers, and $35,789 from Kenneth Langone, a billionaire investor and co-founder of the Home Depot stores.

Horner notes, however, that the U.S. Supreme Court has cemented this conflict in place, at least for now. The 2010 decision known as Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission ruled campaign contributions are a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment.

“Unless that’s changed, that’s the way it is,” Horner said.

Zeldin benefited from TV ads and other campaign material paid by independent expenditure committees, including more than $15 million from the Safe Together New York committee and nearly $6 million from the Save Our State committee.

Hochul benefited from the support of independent expenditure committees, including New York Women Lead, which spent $317,000 in 2022; the Coalition to Restore New York, which spent $111,000, and Empire State Forward, which spent $105,000.

Political observers term those who fuel campaigns with big contributions “The donor class.”

“This leads to mutually escalating money chasing,” said Douglas Muzzio, a political-science professor at Baruch College. “It enhances the already enormous power of the financial elite, the donor class.”

A direct exchange of campaign contributions for a state contract or other favor is illegal, and state and federal prosecutors have said such actions are hard to prove. The issue became part of the 2022 campaign when Zeldin accused Hochul of “a pay-to-play” deal with a big contributor that landed a state contract. Hochul denied the claim.

Hochul and other governors in both parties before her have denied any quid pro quo. Defenders of the process say donations only bring access, not favor. Campaign spokeswomen for Hochul and Zeldin didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Some advocates such as Horner said the state’s plan to offer voluntary public financing of campaigns beginning in two years will reduce the power of cash in politics by encouraging small donations and limiting the amount of big donations. But the reform doesn’t include restrictions on the increasing flow of millions of dollars from wealthy individuals such as billionaire Ron Lauder, who supported Zeldin through independent expenditure committees.

“Donors are going to be heard,” Horner said. “If two phones ring at the same time and one is a $10,000 donor and the other is an average New Yorker, which phone do you think gets picked up first? They have every expectation that their pleas for favor will be heard. Whether the governor does anything about it is another thing entirely.”

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