By Jimmy Vielkind 

A cosmetics heir, charter school advocates and law enforcement unions are spending more money to influence state Senate races in New York than they did two years ago when Democrats won control of the chamber.

Independent expenditure committees spent just over $14 million between July 1 and Wednesday to support and oppose candidates for the state legislature, more than the nearly $9 million expended during the same period in 2018, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of campaign finance filings. Independent expenditure committees can raise and spend unlimited funds but cannot coordinate with candidate or party committees, whose fundraising is subject to donation limits.

The increase is attributable to Ronald Lauder, an heir to the Estée Lauder fortune and president of the World Jewish Congress, which advocates on behalf of Jewish organizations around the world. Mr. Lauder has directed $4.85 million to Safe Together New York Inc., a group that has so far expended $4.45 million to help Republicans in competitive state Senate districts, mostly on Long Island.

Mr. Lauder was prompted to action by several criminal justice measures passed by Democrats over the past two years over the objections of prosecutors and police unions, according to Christian Browne, an attorney working with Safe Together New York.

The new laws prohibit police officers from using chokeholds, open officers' disciplinary records to public inspection and eliminate cash bail for most misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenses. Proponents say the laws protect against police abuse and have made the criminal justice system fairer, but advertisements funded by Mr. Lauder say they have increased crime.

Advocacy groups that favor the laws demonstrated Wednesday outside Mr. Lauder's apartment on Park Avenue in Manhattan, chanting "Money out of politics, people out of cages." Chenequa Rogers, a member of Center for Community Alternatives, which advocates for less reliance on incarceration, accused Mr. Lauder of "fearmongering."

"We will not tolerate billionaires and people trying to [hijack] an election because of all the money they can throw around," she said.

Police unions have so far spent more than $1 million -- five times as much as they spent in 2018 -- supporting Republican candidates who say they will change the new laws. In a statement, New York City Police Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch said this year's election is "an existential crisis for the policing profession" if Democrats remain in power in the state Senate.

While the primacy of various issues has shifted which groups are spending, there also are major differences between who's on the ballot in this year compared with 2018. Statewide officeholders, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, were up for re-election two years ago, and spending on party primaries for state offices is included for the 2018 total because those elections were held in September -- not June, as they are now.

And the political landscape in New York is quite different. Democrats in 2018 won a solid majority, 40 seats, in the 63-seat state Senate. Progressive-backed challengers also defeated six of the eight members of the former Independent Democratic Conference, which had been allied with Republicans.

As such, groups that had traditionally supported Republicans are now forging alliances with individual Democratic legislators, particularly those who are running in close elections.

Jobs for New York, a group funded by the Real Estate Board of New York, a developer group, spent more than $400,000 in 2018 helping a Republican senator who lost her re-election bid. REBNY hasn't used its independent expenditure committee this year but has given some direct contributions to legislators in both parties.

REBNY had more at stake at the time: State lawmakers, over REBNY's objections, strengthened rent control laws affecting more than 1 million housing units in 2019. The laws, which had previously been subject to renewal every few years, were made permanent.

"Strategically I didn't see the need for huge expenditures at this time, " REBNY President James Whelan said. "It's a matter of building relationships and building relationships over the course of time."

Lyft Inc. and other "gig economy" companies have been bracing for a legislative fight about worker classification. Labor unions are pushing for a law -- similar to a measure enacted in California -- that would classify app-based workers including ride-hail drivers as full-time employees subject to wage and hour laws.

New Yorkers for Independent Work, funded by Lyft, has spent $1 million this year in primary and general elections to support Democratic candidates it describes as "pro-growth."

Charter school advocates have increased their spending from 2018 to $3.4 million so far, mostly by supporting Democratic candidates on Long Island. Jenny Sedlis, executive director of StudentsFirstNY, which lobbies for publicly funded, privately managed charter schools, said it planned to continue spending in the coming weeks.

A committee funded by the New York State United Teachers union, which often duels against largely nonunionized charter schools, is spending roughly half of what it did in 2018. That year a committee funded by NYSUT spent $1.4 million as the union advocated for a bill that would reduce the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations.

That bill passed in 2019. A union spokesman declined to comment.

Write to Jimmy Vielkind at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 22, 2020 18:51 ET (22:51 GMT)

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