From the comptroller contest down to City Council, candidates are building large financial edges that matching funds could narrow or widen.

comptroller candidates 2021

NY State Senate & Assembly, NYC Council

The Democratic candidates for comptroller, clockwise from top left: Sen. Kevin Parker, Councilmember Brad Lander, Assemblyman David Weprin and Sen. Brian Benjamin. Lander leads in fundraising but Benjamin is not far behind, and Weprin raised the most in recent months.

This article was produced in partnership with Gotham Gazette. Read a companion story about fundraising in the mayoral race here.

If money plays a decisive role in the Democratic race for city comptroller, it looks to be a two-man affair. But, even in the race to be the city’s accountant, money isn’t everything.

According to filings with the New York City Campaign Finance Board for the key Jan. 15 deadline, Brooklyn Councilmember Brad Lander now has $2.7 million on hand, fueled by $800,000 of his own fundraising and a $2.3 million dose of matching funds in December.

State Sen. Brian Benjamin, whose fundraising has been the source of controversy, trails Lander by $100,000 in private donations but did on Friday receive a $950,000 injection of matching funds and now has $1.5 million on hand.

Assemblyman David Weprin had $295,000 in the bank and Sen. Kevin Parker just over $81,000.

However, Weprin was the most successful fundraiser during the July to January period covered by last week’s reporting deadline. He hauled in $292,000 to Benjamin’s $244,000, Lander’s $173,000 and Parker’s $119,000.

Down ballot but big money

In 2021 as in earlier years, the race for mayor usually gets the spotlight. But down-ballot races contribute mightily to the cost of New York City’s municipal campaigns.

In 2013, the last time a large share of offices were thrown open by term limits, mayoral campaigns comprised just under half of the $122 million spent by city candidates. Races for comptroller, public advocate, borough president and City Council made up the rest.

As in any contests, money is just one factor—always important, but not always decisive—in these races. John Liu outspent the field when he won a crowded race to be comptroller in 2009. But Eliot Spitzer’s heavy spending advantage in 2013 did not help him prevail over Scott Stringer.

Last week’s fundraising numbers do indicate something about how the down-ballot races are shaping up. In a year featuring an abundance of open seats, pandemic-related restrictions on campaigning, the first use of ranked-choice voting and a generous eight-to-one matching ratio for public campaign financing, having the most money might not be crucial, but having enough money to compete will. It’s a long five months between now and the June Democratic primary.

The hunt for matching funds

The threshold for receiving public matching funds in the comptroller’s race is raising $125,000 in matchable donations from at least 500 New York City residents. Lander qualified in December and received money based on his fundraising through July. Benjamin received public funds on Friday based on the July numbers.

The CFB will now look at the July through January fundraising reported last week to determine whether Parker and Weprin qualify, and to figure out the amounts any qualified candidates are owed. Benjamin and Lander could receive additional money based on their more recent fundraising.

Parker, with just over $53,000 in matchable donations, appears to have fallen short of the threshold. Weprin posted matchable donations of more than $209,000, which is enough to qualify, and would generate $1.6 million in matching funds.

As for Lander and Benjamin, they appear to be in line for additional public funds payments of as much as $940,000 and $480,000 respectively in February, based on matchable donations they received from July on.

According to the CFB’s calculations, Benjamin had the highest average donation at $328 and Lander the smallest at $169. Lander raised far more ($38,000) through intermediaries than anyone else in the field, though no single go-between brought in more than $2,500 to Lander.

In the very quiet race for public advocate, there’s been very modest fundraising. Having raised $106,000 since July, incumbent Jumaane Williams now has $44,300 on hand—a tiny amount for a citywide campaign, but much more than any of the three other candidates registered for that race. Closest to him is Anthony Herbert with nearly $1,500 on hand. The threshold for public funds in the advocate race is identical to the one for comptroller, and with just over $50,000 in matchable donations against the $125,000 threshold, Williams is short of qualifying.

Races at the borough and district level

Councilmember Fernando Cabrera has the biggest bankroll of anyone running for Bronx borough president, with $120,000 on hand. Sen. Luis Sepulveda has the second-most cash ($48,000) but his campaign has been imperiled by the allegation that he tried to strangle his wife. Councilmember Vanessa Gibson has $29,000 to spend and Samuel Ravelo some $16,000. Assemblywoman Nathalia Fernandez’s campaign is in the red by $28. (Fernandez’s campaign stresses that it has filed matching claims that would generate $270,000 in public funds; others in the race have filed claims for between $6,000 and $700,000 in public financing.)

“Council Member Cabrera has built unprecedented support on the grassroots level throughout the Bronx,” Cabrera’s campaign manager, Timothy Tapia, said in a statement. “Fernando has demonstrated that his vision for repairing the Bronx has been embraced by residents from every corner of the borough.”

In the contest for Brooklyn borough president, Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon ($187,599) and Councilmember Antonio Reynoso ($139,089) lead the money race. Simon’s campaign said in a statement, “Raised in just three months, the filing demonstrated strong local support for Simon, with Brooklynites making up over 80 percent of her more than 800 unique contributors.” Simon’s cash position includes a $125,000 loan she made to her campaign.

Councilmember Ben Kallos has an healthy stockpile of cash ($574,139) in the race for Manhattan borough president, but Sen. Brad Hoylman ($278,421) and Councilmember Mark Levine ($235,920) also have competitive cash on hand.

Councilmember James van Bramer’s bid to unseat newly elected Queens borough president Donovan Richards received a boost with the CFB’s award of $395,000 on Friday, giving him a balance of $384,000—more than three times what Richards, who just won a November special election to serve out the rest of now-DA Melinda Katz’s 2018-2021 term, has. Staten Island beep candidate Steven Matteo, a Councilmember, now has $545,000 to spend. The only other Richmond County candidate registered with the CFB, Leticia Remauro, reported $34,000 in the bank.

Given the low threshold for qualifying for public funds as a borough president candidate (100 donors and matchable donations totaling $10,000 in Staten Island, and up to $50,094 in Brooklyn), it appears that multiple candidates will qualify for funds in the beep races once the CFB goes through the most recent filings.

Citywide, Council candidates have dropped a combined $4.8 million on the race so far, and have a collective $10.9 million to spend. Ten Council candidates received matching-funds payments on Friday based on pre-July fundraising. A few dozen had received public funds in the previous round of awards, in December.

The best-funded candidate citywide is Erik Bottcher, running in Manhattan’s 3rd district, who has raised $133,000, received $160,000 in matching funds, and has $244,000 on hand.

However, no one has raised or spent more than incumbent Councilmember Mark Gjonaj of the Bronx, who has already expended $446,000 of the $577,000 he has raised. Four years ago, Gjonaj outspent nearly every candidate in the city by dropping $1.3 million to win his Council seat.