In 2009, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, running for a controversial third term, needed the blessing of county GOP leaders to run on the Republican line.
By then he had registered as an Independent. But in a quirk of New York law, candidates can run for a party in which they aren’t registered so long as three of the five county GOP party chairmen approve. It’s an odd feature of politics that has been at the center of a corruption scandal this week. State Senator Malcolm Smith, a registered Democrat, stands accused of conspiring to pay $71,000 in cash bribes to win approval to run on the Republican line.
Bloomberg took a different route. He contributed more than $800,000 to county Republican organizations around the city.
Around the time he was seeking approval to run as a Republican, Bloomberg started donating heavily to the “housekeeping committees” of the county organizations, which have virtually no caps on contributions. In the five months before the election he gave $425,000 total to the various committees, campaign finance records show. He continued to give after the election – donating $815,000 total to the committees from 2009 through 2012.
Bloomberg ultimately got the ok to run as a Republican and won a third term.
The mayor’s office did not respond to an interview request or to written questions about the purpose of those donations.
But one influential long-time GOP leader – and Bloomberg supporter -- said the reason was simple.
“I think he wanted to ensure that he would get their support in order to qualify,” said Guy V. Molinari, a former Congressman and Staten Island Borough President. “Maybe money wouldn’t have been necessary…but it sure made it a lot easier.”
To be sure, Bloomberg donates heavily to committees, candidates and issues across the political spectrum. He recently donated $2 million in an Illinois congressional primary to defeat a pro-NRA candidate, and has even supported local school board candidates in Los Angeles.
But the mayor’s donations to the GOP parties in each of the city’s five boroughs highlight the influence of these bodies and their chairmen – influence they have at least once every four years when there’s a mayoral election. That power is central to the burgeoning corruption scandal.
Federal agents this week arrested Smith; City Councilman Daniel Halloran; Vincent Tabone, vice chairman of the Queens County Republican Party; Joseph Savino, chairman of the Bronx County Republican Party; and two Spring Valley politicians. Among the charges, Halloran allegedly helped bribe Savino and Tabone in order the get them to approve Smith running for mayor on the Republican line.
Bill Mahoney, research coordinator at the New York Public Interest Research Group, said the latest case is not a surprise. Local political parties – Democrat and Republican – have been a major source of corruption in recent years, he said.
“They’re really the source of so many problems because they can get so much money. And they really are a position that people seek for power and they don’t do a lot to advocate ideology as much as people would like,” Mahoney said.
Bloomberg has advocated for diminishing the role of these parties. On Tuesday he said the arrests were further proof that local elections should be nonpartisan.
The current system allows a select few to decide who gets nominated, he said.
“It’s very hard to argue it is democratic. It is not,” Bloomberg said. He added that most major cities don’t have partisan local elections.
“If you had it open to everybody, which most places do, you wouldn’t have any of these issues,” Bloomberg said.
While Bloomberg might want to weaken the grip of the county parties on local elections, some said his lavish donations to local party committees have strengthened the connection between money and influence.
“There’s some speculation that some of these county chairmen have forgotten how to go after the small donors because the mayor’s been very generous,” said Bill O’Reilly, a New York Republican strategist.
Molinari, the former Staten Island Borough president, was more direct.
“Bloomberg contributes to what’s taking place in the sense that he has a money tree. And anyone that wants money goes to him and they get it. So money becomes all of a sudden plentiful,” Molinari said.