Print More

“What are you getting so pushy for?” snarls the woman behind the counter of the State Board of Elections office in Albany.

“Excuse me?”

She grabs the stack of papers from my hand, scurries away to have them photocopied, and then, upon returning, throws them onto my desk, a good five foot toss.

Welcome to the warm, hospitable world of New York’s political action committees, better known as PACs. The offense I had been accused of-being pushy”-consisted of driving the three-hour, snowy, rainy trek to the state capital to peruse the dozen or so file cabinets that contain the financial disclosures of all the state’s PACs.

To find out about PACs–fundraising organizations which exert huge influence over state and city politics–you have to travel to Albany. The state legislature has resisted computerization for more than a decade, rigging the regulations so that supposedly public information is held closely under the watchful gaze of patronage hires from the Republican and Democratic party organizations. The employees in the basement of the capital complex office building, where the files are stored, are notoriously hostile, not unlike trained guard dogs. Earlier in the day, they berated me for not putting the paper clips back on the reports properly. No wonder the place was empty.

A PAC, for those who don’t know, is the political wing of a corporation, union, industry association or advocacy group.

PACs can dispense money and help coordinate election campaigns. They make direct contributions to other PACs and to candidates, up to the limits prescribed by law. But PACS, unlike corporations, can also give an unlimited amount of money to Democratic or Republican party organizations. The organizations, in turn, can pour the cash–”soft money”–into the campaigns of their choice. It’s a loophole that gives PACs far more punch than they appear to have under the law.

While in some states the power of PACS has begun to be eclipsed by more creative routes around finance laws, in New York, PACs remain the political battering ram of choice for the rich, powerful and, yes, the truly pushy.

Try to name a single group with a reputation as a political force in New York that doesn’t have a PAC. You can’t. Politicians may not want reporters to have easy access to the dollar amounts on the filing forms, but the PACs themselves want their power to be well known. A million bucks in the bank is important, but cultivating an image as a muscular player is the key to getting your way in New York politics.

“A PAC sends a message,” says Norman Adler, a lobbyist and consultant who has founded some of New York’s most important PACs (two of which are on the following list). “Even though all the check has on it is the name of the PAC, the amount and the signature, it’s as if a thousand words are written on it. And those words say: ‘We’re an important force.’”

With that in mind, City Limits has compiled an accurate, if largely unscientific, list of the most powerful political action committees that influence politics and policymaking. Money was an important factor in rankings, but not the only one. This is a power-rating guide, attuned to an organization’s ability to influence decision makers, make or break elected officials and, of course, project the image of a political titan.

1. Rent Stabilization Association Pac

Pet issues: Gutting rent control and rent stabilization.

Favorite politicians: State Senate Republicans, Rudy Giuliani, Fernando Ferrer the Conservative Party.

With the state legislature preparing to debate the renewal of rent regulations this spring, the Rent Stabilization Association (RSA) takes the mantle of New York City’s most powerful PAC. It has plowed $700,000 into the campaign treasuries of State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and his GOP sidekicks, and helped prime the pump for hundreds of thousands of added dol-lars in donations from individual land-lords. And while RSA can’t muster the foot soldiers that major union-run PACs usually produce, its leadership has proven itself to be exceptionally crafty.

As a result, the organization is in a better position now than at any time in the last two decades to achieve its once-unthinkable goal: abolishing New York’s rent regulations.

RSA PAC has grown considerably over the past four years; it barely squeaked into the Top 10 contributors in 1993. But that was before Joe Strasburg, the current RSA president and strategist. came along with the extensive political contacts he’d garnered in his days as Council Speaker Peter Vallone’s top aide. As landlords lobbed $125,000 to elected officials from the city, Strasburg cobbled together coalitions not only of Republicans, but of black and Latino Democrats willing to support landlord legislation (see “Wedge City,” City Limits, January 1997). While many of these politicians are unwilling to speak publicly in favor of abolishing rent protections, they have already shown quiet support for changes such as decontrol of high-priced rentals. And they’ve sponsored RSA-backed legislation that would require tenants in Housing Court to make up-front deposits of unpaid rent.

In 1996, RSA PAC donated almost $250,000 to state politicians, in addition to $284,416 from its sister Neighborhood Preservation PAC. RSA also poured $50,000 into a new low-key landlord PAC set up in September.

For the 1996 state elections, RSA PAC’s biggest contributions went to the state Senate GOP and the tiny but influential Conservative Party ($75,000 over the last year and half). Mayor Giuliani is a landlord favorite ($7,700, the maximum for a mayoral candidate), as is Bronx Borough President and mayoral can-didate Fernando Ferrer ($7,500). But these numbers don’t tell most of the story. Big landlords associated with RSA–Lenny Litwin and Jeffrey Manocherian, to name two–channel their money to RSA-friendly candidates, as do major law firms, man-agement companies and contractors. RSA PAC also works on lowering property taxes and water rates, and on weakening housing code enforcement and lead paint laws.

2. United Federation Of Teachers Pac

Pet issues: Making sure reforms don’t weaken teachers’ clout; fighting private-school vouchers; blocking new teacher-evaluation laws.

Favorite politicians: Just about everybody.

The media heaped much praise on Mayor Giuliani, Governor Pataki and Albany lawmakers after the recent revamping of city school governance. But an equally powerful player in the process was the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), thanks in large part to the power of its political action committee, VOTE-COPE. Under the new arrangement, the legislature shifted hiring powers from local school boards to the Schools Chancellor, settling an old score from the late 1960s when a small band of black activists in Brooklyn forced then-UFT boss Albert Shanker into negotiating local control over some school hiring.

Largely as a result of pressure from the UFT, reformers declined last fall to give parents any significant control over school-based councils under the new governance plan. Teachers won’t have to contend with pesky parents–just Chancellor Rudy Crew.

School reform activists describe VOTE-COPE as Albany’s “800-pound gorilla,” with near-unanimous support in the state legislature. Small wonder that, in 1996, this was the most active PAC in Albany, dishing out $2,221,875 to state lawmakers’ polit-ical organizations. VOTE-COPE donated at least $135,000 to the city’s state legislators last year, in addition to $24,670 to party organizations in the five boroughs. Of course, that figure does not include the money given to the statewide party organizations; VOTE-COPE donated $134,000 to various Republican organiza-tions and $267,000 to Democratic ones.

The teachers’ city-based chapter of the PAC has dramatically affected mayoral campaigns, playing a pivotal in role in generating voter turnout for David Dinkins in 1989. By refusing to endorse Dinkins in 1993 because of stalled contract negotiations, UFT also helped secure his defeat.

The PAC doles out dollars on the grassroots level, funneling $13,807 to neighborhood-based political clubs in all five boroughs in 1996. (Political clubs, not coincidentally, are often closely tied to their local school boards and thus had major influence over non-teacher hiring under the now-defunct governance system).

Other contributions include $3,000 to Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden, who has many allies in the central board–and whose wife is a prominent community school board administrator. The local pol to receive the most–$10,000–from the local UFT PAC was Brooklyn State Senator and Democratic minority leader Martin Connor, who is a top-gun election lawyer adept at knocking insurgent school board candidates off the ballot.

3. Real Estate Board Pac

Pet issues: Tax breaks for developers; making New York safe for big, shiny sky-scrapers.

Favorite politicians: Giuliani, Ferrer Councilman Antonio Pagan, Councilman Archie Spigner.

Ever wonder how the city always man-ages to find hundreds of millions dollars for arcane real estate schemes, no matter how serious the fiscal crisis? For part of the answer, look at the political workings of the Real Estate Board of New York, the city’s premier interest group for the commercial real estate industry. While the RSA stumps on behalf of residential landlords, the Real Estate Board PAC handles the city’s elite developers–Donald Trump, Lew Rudin, Leonard Litwin (also an RSA player), Bruce Ratner–each of whom donated tens of thousands to the PAC last year. For a developer, it’s a worthy investment; many of those shiny Manhattan high-rises they build pay greatly reduced property taxes thanks in part to REBNY work.

The Real Estate Board PAC lobbies politicians and distributed at least $200,000 last year for a number of causes dear to developers: taxes, building codes, zoning laws. A 1995 attempt by insurgent City Council members to link developers’ tax breaks to job growth, rather than property values, failed to even win a committee hearing; REBNY was a staunch opponent of the plan.

Lately, the Real Estate Board has concentrated its efforts on ambitious projects such as the Lower Manhattan Revitalization Plan, which would allow developers to convert overbuilt, largely vacant Wall Street-area office space into profitable residen-tial units.

The group’s PAC was among the most active in the 1993 election cycle, donating $45,480 to 32 City Council candidates, In 1996, it gave $27,945 to city and state politicians. Recently, REBNY donated $7,700 to Mayor Giuliani and $3,500 to Peter Vallone for the upcoming election. As with RSA, the group’s members contribute copiously as individuals and bundle cash.

4. District Council 37 Pac

Pet issues: Avoiding layoffs of city workers; holding onto the union’s old image as a kingmaker.

Favorite politicians: Vallone, Giuliani, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi.

The city’s largest municipal union–more than 200,000 strong–also has one of its most powerful PACs. In terms of affecting elections and passing legislation, DC 37 has a record few can match, even though 1990s government downsizing has caused atrophy in its vaunted political muscle. Founded in 1976 by Norman Adler, DC 37 PAC has built a substantial war chest through its own treasury and payroll check-offs from its 50-odd locals. Indeed, affiliates such as Local 372, a union of non-ped-agogical school employees headed by Giuliani supporter Charlie Hughes, have impressive political operations of their own. Hughes fields an army for his favorite pols, such as East New York Councilwoman Priscilla Wooten.

At DC-37’s central headquarters downtown on Barclay Street are computers, hundreds of tele-phones and com-puterized phone banks that are sometimes loaned out to different campaigns. (Last year, the Coa-lition for Voters’ Choice used DC 37’s offices to fight term limits.) The union also has a volunteer force of more than 1,200 men and women ready to knock on doors and work the phones for can-didates at a moment’s notice.

Though it raised $207,000 in 1996 and will raise more for city elections this year, the union ain’t what it used to be. DC 37 has been weakened, thanks in part to executive director Stanley Hill’s decision to accept Giuliani administration headcount reductions in exchange for generous severance packages, no layoffs and no replacement of union workers with welfare-to-work draftees.

Moreover, of late the union has failed to generate the kind of muscle it exhibited for Mario Cuomo’s 1982 run for Governor, when more than 3,000 volunteers turned out for the effort.

DC 37’s lobbying records indicate its hold-the-line stand against privatization, taxes and budget cuts, and its support for liv-ing wage legislation that has boosted wages for employees of city contractors.

The union has not traditionally made endorsements for mayor; David Dinkins was a rare exception in 1989. The bulk of the union’s political activities has gone into city and state leg-islative races. In 1993, DC 37 poured some $60,000 into 38 City Council races, the most of any PAC. DC 37 gave $53,593 to city and state politicians in 1996, in addition to $16,750 to Democratic Party committees in the five boroughs. On the state level, pro-union Democrats can expect money from DC 37 PAC, particularly those in positions of power, such as Comptroller Carl McCall ($5,000) and Bronx Democratic leader Roberto Ramirez ($2,000). But money often flows to Republican pols as well, such as Bronx party leader Guy Velella ($2,250) and Robert DiCarlo ($4,000), the deposed Bay Ridge senator.

5. Council PAC

Pet issues: Keeping Peter Vallone in power; shoving the term limits genie back into the bottle.

Favorite politicians: Vote with Vallone, get a check.

If you want to know why the City Council looks the way it looks (asleep) and votes the way it votes (rarely challenging the mayor or passing legislation of citywide sig-nificance), look no further than Council PAC.

Founded in 1988 by ubiquitous PAC-master Adler, C-PAC has a narrow agenda: keeping Peter Vallone in the speaker’s chair, advancing his don’t -rock-the-boat agenda and supporting his candidates for council seats. In other words, not a penny goes to Sal Albanese, Joan McCabe, and Ronnie Eldridge, renegade council members who frequently vote against the speaker’s wishes; in fact, C-PAC dollars 3ften go to their electoral opponents, even Republicans.

For the upcoming 1997 council elections, C-PAC has raised 282,000. Vallone will likely hang on to much of it until the summer, after the city budget vote, when campaigns begin to heat up.

C-PAC collects money from powerful real estate developers and other prominent lobbyists, unions and PACs. In 1991, when a new 51-member City Council was formed, C-PAC was the city’s largest campaign contributor, plowing $45,000 into the coffers of 22 council candidates. That year featured a clash between C-PAC and Dennis Rivera’s Local 1199, which was pushing hard for greater black and Latino representation on the council.

C-PAC and its newly-minted, anti-term limit sibling, the Coalition for Voters’ Choice, are on a major losing streak, however. Since millionaire Ron Lauder (see No. 9) bankrolled the successful term limits referendum four years ago, Vallone has used the coalition to collect contributions from perennial political benefactors–including Litwin, REBNY and Time-Warner of New York–to extend his political career beyond the current drop-dead date in 2002. Impressively, Vallone raised nearly $1 million last year. Then Lauder beat him like an old rug.

6. Local 1199 Martin Luther King Action Fund

Pet issues: Stopping Medicaid cuts and hospital privatization; electing liberal Democrats; pushing the Molinari clan into non-government jobs.

Favorite Politicians: Democrats with hospitals or health workers in their districts; David Dinkins (should he ever run again); Hevesi.

When Local 1199, a union of private sector hospital workers, feared the state’s recent Health Care Reform Act would mean job losses for its members, Dennis Rivera, I 199’s fedora-donned leader, went to an unlikely source for help: Senator Alfonse D’Amato. The senator promptly secured $50 million in job training funds for 1199 employees.

For the most liberal of the city’s big unions, it may have been a transforming moment: sources say Rivera and his union will stay neutral in the Senator’s re-election campaign next year. In years past, they’ve been major supporters of D’ Amato’s opponents.

1199’s more progressive overtures haven’t been so successful. The Rivera-backed Majority Coalition, a 1991 effort to elect more progressive City Council members, was a major debacle, losing so badly to Peter Vallone’s C-PAC-backed incumbents that it virtually has ceased to exist. Furthermore, the coalitions failure was a foretaste of the 1993 defeat of Rivera’s friend David Dinkins, which dealt a major blow to 1199’s bid to become the city’s premier PAC for progressive causes.

Despite an illegal contribution scandal in an East Harlem assembly primary last year, Rivera’s on an upswing today, according to most political observers. Local 11 99’s all-out blitz to defeat — Guy Molinari’s 1995 bid for Staten Island District Attorney won the day. (Rivera and Co. apparently despise Guy and his daughter, Congresswoman Susan Molinari, thanks in part to her opposition to President Clinton’s health care reform plan.)

In 1996, large sums from 1199’s $270,000 campaign war chest went in 1996 to state lawmakers representing communi-ties with numerous healthcare workers: Brooklyn Assemblyman Al Vann ($7,400), Bronx Assemblyman Larry Seabrook ($7,000), and Bronx State Senator David Rosado ($7,000) are some of the leading beneficiaries. Overall, I 199 raised $61,500 from members’ dues in 1996–and donated all of it to city and state politicians.

The PAC has contributed to a variety of would-be Democratic mayoral candidates, but after Rivera’s reputed favorite Comptroller Alan Hevesi announced he was sitting out 1997, 1199’s mayoral plans remain a mystery.

7. Medical Society Of The State Of New York

Pet issues: Fighting HMOs; making sure doctors remain well-compensated for their work.

This is the one PAC on our list not based in the city, but no matter: the Medical Society is the doctors’ PAC, and it plays an important role in health care issues. It is the state chapter of the American Medical Association, with mini-chapters in every county. In essence, the Medical Society is the anti-HMO PAC; its lobbying efforts and campaign expenditures have gone into securing the rights of physicians as more employers move workers into managed care programs.

The PAC took part in the successful effort to insert doctors into Governor Pataki’s “Patient’s Bill of Rights,” which ensured more complete coverage for HMO patients. Under the new law, doctors obtained new protections that give them the right to appeal when they are kicked out of an HMO. Last year, the doctors’ lobby also won new state subsi-dies for medical malpractice insurance, and threw some weight around during the Governor’s deregulation of hospital rate-setting.

The Medical Society PAC also works with good-government and consumer groups on HMO issues, lead poisoning and anti-smoking legislation. In 1996, the Medical Society gave nearly $821,000 to state lawmakers, fostering broad support in both the state Senate and the Assembly. Within the city, the PAC was most generous to (once again) Senate minority leader Martin Connor, who raked in $4,000, and Bronx Republican boss Guy Velella, who collected $2,500.

8 Pac Of The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association

Pet issues: Keeping police brutality an internal affair; guarding pensions and salaries.

Favorite politicians: Councilman Noach Dear, Councilman Sal Albanese, and anybody who’s against Rudy Giuliani–for the moment.

The PBA’s power was never more evident than last year, limits law. when the state legislature overrode the Governor’s veto of a police union-backed bill allowing New York City contract arbitration to be settled by the state’s Public Employee Review Board. It was one of the very few times this century that a Governor’s veto has been overridden.

Pataki, who was doing a rare favor for Mayor Giuliani in opposing the bill, won in the end: the veto override was itself over ridden by the courts. Previously, the mayor and the union had been strong allies, joined in their opposition to Mayor Dinkins and to (TWU).the appointment of an all-civilian complaint review board to examine police misconduct. But the love-in has turned to loathing over the contract issue, and what the Cop-PAC does in ‘97 could have a big impact on Giuliani’s reelection prospects.

The PAC raised $170,000 in contributions during 1996 and gave most of it to state lawmakers, coinciding with the campaign to defeat Pataki and Giuliani’s arbitration efforts. They are likely to raise more as the mayor’s race approaches.

Not surprisingly, the bulk of the donations to city candidates went to state lawmakers who represent white, middle- class sections of Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, where a large number of officers live. The Rudy-PB A grudge played a big part in Cop-PAC’s successful campaign to defeat pro-Rudy incumbent Bob DiCarlo, a GOP state senator from Bay Ridge. Mayoral candi-date Sal Albanese raked in $3,000 last year, but the largest donation went to Borough Park Councilman Noach Dear ($3,500), who is planning on running for Congress in 1998.

9. New Yorkers For Term Limits

Pet issues: Name says it all.

Favorite politicians: Nobody. Unless Ron Lauder ever gets elected.

You remember those commercials: Joe Sixpack, sitting on his Brooklyn stoop, waxing indignant at the prospect of the term limits law being weakened by “da politicians.”

Perfume heir Ron Lauder, one of the least popular mayoral candidates in modern city politics (including Norman Mailer), has become the most potent political spoiler by bankrolling the campaign to pass and sustain the city’s eight-year term

Lauder’s pet PAC, New Yorkers for Term Limits, invested $2.8 million last year in defeating Council Speaker Vallone’s anti-limit referendum. Though the PAC promoted term limits as a populist demand, all but $12,337 of its money came from one man–Lauder. Indeed, a bitter Vallone dubbed him the PAC’s “sugar daddy.”

10. Transport Workers Union Local 100

Pet issues: Demolishing dollar vans; keeping the city from firing train conductors; upping mass transit aid for New York.

Favorite politicians: Noach Dea, Peter Vallone.

What kryptonite is to Superman, van services are to the Transport Workers Union (TWU). In both the City Council and the state legisla-ture, the union has done battle with the private van services that are a cheaper alternative to mass transit in many outer-borough Caribbean-American communities.

Van services compete with city buses, and the union has worked to limit licensing and to forbid them from using city bus stops to skim off passengers–which could put bus dri-vers out of work.

TWU’s effort to institute free transfers between subways and buses could also be a big blow to the vans, and would probably boost overall ridership. The union also lobbies for greater mass transit aid to New York, as well as pension issues and other labor matters. The TWU has had some success in restoring mass transit cuts, but it failed to stop the 25-cent fare increase last year. On the state level, the TWU PAC donated $45,000 to New York City law-makers in 1996. Among city politicians, it has contributed to the campaigns of Ferrer ($5,000), Hevesi ($2,000), Messinger ($1,000) and Vallone ($1,000). Prominent labor lobbyist Vincent Montalbano does the group’s bidding in the City Council–he racked up $26,000 in lobbying costs for the first three quarters of last year, on top of $36,000 in 1995.