A crowd attends an election campaign rally for Gov. Kathy Hochul...

A crowd attends an election campaign rally for Gov. Kathy Hochul organized by New York State Democratic Committee at BKLYN Studios in New York City on Nov. 5. Credit: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

ALBANY — More than 170 groups called independent expenditure committees have added nearly $200 million to political campaign spending in New York over the past eight years to oppose or support candidates and public referendums.

Allowed by a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, these committees can spend however much they choose without any restrictions short of defamation and libel laws. These committees must identify their donors, but that can mean the name of an organization or company, rather than individuals.

These groups, mostly backed by wealthy donors, often pay for some of the most provocative TV and mailer ads. For example, some blamed Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul for a rise in crime and being soft on crime, while others branded GOP nominee Lee Zeldin a liar who would end abortion rights.

Some political scientists argue this large influx of spending is distorting political discourse and further polarizing voters, while supporters say it  prompts greater turnout and voter attention.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • More than 170 independent expenditure committees have added nearly $200 million to political campaign spending in New York over the past eight years.
  • These committees can spend however much they choose to oppose or support candidates and public referendums.
  • Some argue this spending distorts political discourse and further polarizes voters; supporters say it prompts greater turnout and voter attention.

"The court has set up a rich person’s playground when it comes to influencing politics," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "That further reduces the whispers of everyone else. It adds to the already toxic environment in New York, and in the country, and people will become even more disenchanted with the process."

But David Keating, president of the Institute for Free Speech in Washington, D.C., argues that super PACs help make people more motivated to vote. “We have more competitive elections, we have more turnout, we have more changes in power,” he said.

A Newsday analysis of state Board of Elections records shows these committees took in $198.4 million in contributions since 2014, when the committees started filing required reports specific to independent expenditure committees. During that time, the committees spent $168.7 million on ads, polling, social media, robocalls and traveling billboards to attempt to sway campaigns and ballot propositions. Among those Super PACs are 46 that have each spent $1 million or more, according to state Board of Elections records.

By law, these groups can’t coordinate their efforts with candidates or parties, but independent expenditure committees often mirror the views of the candidates they support, or try to reduce support of the candidates they oppose.

The force of these committees, also known as super PACs — short for super political action committees — was particularly strong in the November congressional and state elections. Independent expenditure groups amassed $44.9 million statewide in 2022 and $51.5 million in 2021 — the two-year period leading to campaigns for state office and Congress decided in November, according to state records.

Governor’s race

The greatest spending by super PACs in New York was on the governor’s race. The super PACs helped narrow the funding gap of Zeldin and most Republicans who sought to win in the state dominated by the Democratic voters and donors to Democratic incumbents.

Some TV ads supporting Republicans used security camera footage of violent criminals and blamed Hochul and other Democrats for being soft on crime and incapable of countering rising inflation. Meanwhile, super PACs backed by Democrats and liberals called Zeldin a liar who would bring the divisive chaos and far-right policies of former President Donald Trump to New York.

“You can’t believe anything, it’s just blah, blah, blah,” said Barbara Bartoletti, who was a leader in the state League of Women Voters for 40 years before her retirement in 2017. “It doesn’t inform anyone … except that you learn to hate the other guy.”

Independent expenditure committees don’t have to identify a single candidate they supported or opposed if their message applied to “various” candidates or was a policy position — such as anti-crime or pro-abortion rights.

But several committees reported they spent $16.9 million to specifically support Zeldin or to oppose Hochul, while other super PACs reported they spent $3.5 million to specifically support Hochul or oppose Zeldin, state records show.

Among the super PACs involved in the race was Save Our State, which collected $7.8 million in 2022 alone to support Zeldin. That included $4.4 million from the Republican Governors Association and $1 million from Ronald Lauder, heir to the Estee Lauder fortune.

Save Our State, which also was a slogan for Zeldin’s campaign, spent $5.7 million on TV ads and production, $96,305 on radio ads, including $40,000 in ads in Spanish; $75,000 on phone banks and robocalls; $96,380 on digital billboards and $85,750 on voter surveys, according to state records.

Super PACs supporting Hochul or opposing Zeldin spent in the same areas, but mostly on TV ads. The Democratic Governors Association spent $1.3 million and the Democratic Action PAC spent $888,230. The Hotel Workers for Stronger Communities spent $307,860 for Hochul, all on TV ads in Spanish, records show.

Constitutional protection

Few rules govern the amount of super PAC spending or how they spend it. In 2010, under a landmark decision known as Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court declared these independent expenditure committees are protected under the Constitution’s guarantee of the right to free speech, as long as the groups didn’t coordinate with candidates or parties.

“What we’ve seen since Citizens United is a handful of wealthy megadonors throughout the country who have an outsized say in our politics,” said Joanna Zdanys, senior counsel in the elections and government program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “This was the most expensive midterm cycle in history, and we just see record after record being smashed. So it’s concerning, of course, when such a small and powerful group of spenders are able to spend without limits in our elections.”

“In this new era of unfettered wealth in our elections, the messages that voters can receive can be distorted,” Zdanys said.

But Bradley Smith, a law professor at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, and former chairman of the Federal Elections Commission, said, “There are a lot of good things about super PACs. I see it as a pretty straightforward application of free speech.

“Obviously, a lot of people don’t like it,” Smith added. “I just point out that what they mean by ‘outside spending’ is spending by you and me and for that, I don’t think that’s bad at all."

Political scientists said the super PAC ads that portrayed crime as out of control statewide contributed to Republican wins in the State Senate on Long Island, a key Hudson Valley congressional seat, and four congressional seats on Long Island that were important to the nine-seat majority the GOP won to topple the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

Democrats argue the ads were fear-mongering, exaggerating the rise in crime in the election districts while misrepresenting the impact of the Democrats' criminal justice reforms.

Super PACs on both sides poured more than $4 million into the Hudson Valley congressional race that ultimately cost Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney his job. Maloney faced an onslaught of ads about rising violent crime that played in his district despite its relatively low crime rate. Maloney had been in what was once considered a safe seat that in part helped him be elected chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to focus on other Democrats.

On Long Island, the same ubiquitous crime ads were blamed on some losses by the Democratic majority in the State Senate, although Democrats retain solid control of the chamber.

Those super PAC ads also were intended to help Zeldin, of Shirley, win the governor’s office in what was considered the GOP’s best chance in decades. Zeldin came close, capturing 46.7% of the vote to Hochul’s 52.4%.

Super PAC donors

Super PACs also allow wealthy campaign contributors who reach the state’s limits on individual contributions to provide more financial support. Other donors are out-of-state interests pushing political agendas.

The names of many super PACs clearly reflect their positions. For example, the Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation received $5.2 million from police agencies and their supporters since 2014. They were strong supporters of pro-police candidates, including Zeldin and Republican candidates for Congress and the State Senate this year.

Other groups are named for the labor organizations they represent, such as Hotel Workers for Stronger Communities, which received $9.8 million during the period through the hotel workers union and its supporters. Planned Parenthood’s committee spent $315,648 during the period, often defending abortion rights.

The intent of some other independent expenditure committees, however, isn’t so clear.

For example, New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany has collected $21.1 million since 2014. Many of its contributors from around the country are supporters of charter schools or school vouchers to provide families with a choice of public schools. Donors include $250,000 from Catholics for Independent Action.

New Yorkers Together was funded with $3.8 million during the period, almost all of which was from the Communication Workers of American union based in Washington. The Jobs for New York committee received most of its $5.6 million in funding since 2014 from the Real Estate Board of New York and the state Business Council. New Yorkers for Independent Action has collected $6.6 million since 2014. Sixteen of 39 donors had out-of-state addresses, including $450,000 from Alice Walton of Arkansas, part of the family that founded Walmart; and $1.25 million from the Lyft ride-hailing company based in San Francisco.

The Coalition to Restore New York, which lists civic and labor groups as partners, amassed $7.6 million in 2021 and 2022, all from Madison Square Garden Entertainment Corp. and Madison Square Garden Sports Corp. The coalition endorsed Hochul and seven legislative candidates.

Other groups are funded by donors such as Lauder, who hit the maximum donations allowed for individuals under state election law.

Lauder provided the maximum $60,829 to Zeldin’s campaign on June 13, 2022. But he also contributed $472,000 in 2022 alone to Safe Together New York, one of several super PACs he helped fund. Safe Together New York paid for ads that supported Zeldin’s tough-on-crime message. Since 1999, Lauder contributed $23.7 million to candidates, parties and super PACs, with $11 million in 2022 alone, according to state records.

On the left, George Soros contributed $1.37 million to the liberal New York Justice and Public Safety PAC in 2019 and 2020, among several PACs he funded. In that same period, Soros already had hit limits on campaign contributions as an individual, donating more than $2.1 million to various candidates and parties, according to state records.

Neither Lauder nor Soros nor officials from several super PACs or their donors responded to requests for comment.

Independent expenditure committees are also funded by wealthy donors who live outside New York state.

For example, Parents Vote is associated with Students First, a nationwide group that promotes charter schools and reform of teacher tenure. Parents Vote operated in 2018 on $150,000 from the Students First New York group with a Connecticut address and $75,000 each from Alice and Jim Walton from Bentonville, Arkansas, part of the family that owns Walmart.

What can be done

“When the Supreme Court gave license to unfettered spending in our elections, they assumed this spending was happening independent of candidates, and that has not always been the case and that’s been true in elections across the country,” Zdanys said.

The state Board of Elections in October investigated accusations that Zeldin, the GOP nominee for governor, coordinated the work of two super PACs — Safe Together New York and Save Our State. When the board met to consider the case, two Republican commissioners unexpectedly said they couldn’t attend. That ended the board’s quorum and pushed the case off until after the election, possibly later this month.

Zdanys pins her hope on the state’s new voluntary system of public financing campaigns. Candidates running in 2024 have the choice of joining the system that matches small campaign contributions with state funds to try to limit the influence of big-money donors.

The system for all its promise, however, won’t change super PACs.

“I don’t think anyone is under the illusion that we can take big money completely out of politics. The Supreme Court won’t allow that,” Zdanys said. But, she added: “I think that, across the country, voters are really hungry for change in how campaigns are run.”

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