Big Money, and Varying Messages, in Real Estate's Council Campaign

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Beneath the loud back and forth in the mayor’s race, there’s a quieter campaign about the future of city council. A huge portion of the council advertising is being paid for by Jobs for New York, a real estate-backed independent political group, and they're using very different messaging in different districts.

Jobs for New York has raised more than $6.8 million from real estate interests, and it's led by officials with REBNY, the city's real estate industry group. It has spent more than $3.4 million on independent expenditures in 18 council districts. By comparison, candidates competing in those districts have spent a total of $4.4 million. That means in priority districts for Jobs for New York, for every three dollars spent by candidates, Jobs for New York has spent two.

On its website, Jobs for New York says it promotes good jobs and affordable housing. Council candidate Carlos Menchaca sees it another way. “It is a force from Manhattan millionaire developers," he said.

Menchaca is running for council in Brooklyn, in a district that includes Sunset Park and Red Hook, where new immigrant communities have moved into what’s historically been a Puerto Rican political stronghold. Menchaca, who is Mexican American, is running against incumbent council member Sara Gonzalez, who is Puerto Rican.

Jobs for New York has sent out mailers pointing out he’s from Texas, not Brooklyn. One has a pictures of suitcase and a straw cowboy hat, a cactus and a rodeo horse.

Menchaca said voters are bringing it up to him when he knocks on doors in the district.

“They show me these ads and they’re sick. They’re sick by it,” Menchaca said. “It’s not just in one community, it’s in every community. People are sick because they weren’t born in this city. So many people that I’m talking to in the 38th district have the same story. They came to New York. They’re making a better life for themselves and their own families.”  

Pat Purcell, an official with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, is advising Jobs for New York, and he was the spokesman Jobs for New York offered when WNYC called for comment. But Purcell said that he does not support this kind of messaging, which he said can backfire with New York City’s diverse electorate.

“I would never under any circumstance support a flyer that gives that impression,” Purcell said. But he was quick to defend Jobs for New York's overarching message. “An organization that supports good jobs, expanding the middle class, bringing more supermarkets to communities – that should not be a negative stamp of approval by anybody.”

The vast majority of Jobs for New York’s spending has been positive support for candidates – not negative ads. In the positive ads, the messaging is very different.

In the Brooklyn council district that includes Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, Jobs for New York has spent more than 200-thousand dollars to support candidate Kirsten John Foy. One mailer calls him “an authentic progressive.” Another features Rev. Al Sharpton and shows the seal of Jobs for New York alongside his other endorsements, like UFT, SEIU, 32BJ, and CWA.  

There are other unexpected alliances. Ten of the candidates Jobs for New York is supporting also have the backing of the liberal Working Families Party, which is often on the other side of policy debates from big real estate. Bill Lipton, the state director of the Working Families Party, said that doesn’t mean there’s any emerging consensus on city policy. He suggests a more cynical motive.  

“Instead of trying to beat us, they’re trying to purchase influence with their very large checkbook,” Lipton said.  

And with a new a mayor and new council leadership coming, there are a lot of new relationships to forge in post-Bloomberg New York.