Dark Money in the New York Mayor’s Race


The New York City mayor’s race already has a national-politics tinge thanks to one guy: the businessman Andrew Yang, whose long-shot campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination sputtered out early last year, but who is now seen as a front-runner in the city’s mayoral election. (That’s despite his knack for eliciting groans on Twitter.)

But it’s not just the personalities that are bridging the divide between local and national politics. It’s also the money.

This mayoral election is shaping up to be the city’s first in which super PACs — the dark-money groups that sprang up after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission — play a major role.

But it’s also the first race in which a number of candidates are taking advantage of a city policy that allows campaigns to gain access to more generous public matching funds, based upon their level of grass-roots support.

With the potentially decisive Democratic primary just over two months away, our Metro reporters Dana Rubinstein and Jeffery C. Mays have written an article looking at how the hunt for super PAC cash is complicating the race — and raising ethical questions about some campaigns, including a few that are also receiving public matching funds. Dana took a moment out of her Friday afternoon to catch me up on where things stand.

Hi Dana. So, the Citizens United decision was handed down in 2010. Yet it seems as if this is the first time we’re hearing about super PACs being used in a big way in the New York mayor’s race. How does this development interact with the city’s newly beefed-up matching-funds policy, which is aimed at encouraging small donations? Is this a case of contradictory policies — or, as a source in your story put it, “like patching one part of your roof and the water finds another way in”?

There was some independent-expenditure (or “I.E.”) activity in the 2013 mayoral primary, but it wasn’t candidate specific — with one possible exception. There was a super PAC called New York City Is Not for Sale that was candidate specific, in the sense that it was targeting one candidate, Christine Quinn, and it got its funding from Bill de Blasio supporters. But this is really the first time we’ve seen candidate-specific I.E.s. As they’ve proliferated on the national level, New York City candidates have been taking their cues from the national scene.

If you talk to folks at the Brennan Center, who are big advocates for the matching-funds program, they’ll point to it and say that voters should take heart, because in many ways it is proving itself to be a success. The six mayoral candidates who qualified for matching funds this year were the most ever. The matching funds are being doled out in accordance with how many voters from New York City are contributing to campaigns, and that means someone like Dianne Morales, who has no previous electoral history and was not at all a big player in the New York political scene before this election, is able to make a real case for the mayoralty. She is able to mount a real campaign. She got like $2 million in matching funds in this round.

But then you have this parallel universe of super PAC money. And in some cases you have candidates who are getting matching funds — which are our taxpayer dollars — and benefiting from super PACs. Of course, super PACs are supposed to be independent and not coordinate with campaigns, but regardless, for some voters it’s hard to see that and think it’s an ideal scenario.

Basically, what we have is two parallel fund-raising systems: One is almost completely ungoverned, and the other is very strictly regulated and involves taxpayer money.

Who is leading the race for super PAC money in New York? And what’s the overall state of the race these days, money matters aside?

Shaun Donovan, the former housing secretary under President Barack Obama, is participating in the matching-funds program, and he has a super PAC. Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, has a super PAC too — although a much less lucrative one — and is also taking matching funds. Andrew Yang has one super PAC that was formed by a longtime friend of his named David Rose; it’s raised a nominal amount of money, but no one is under the illusion that it won’t start raising a lot soon. And there’s this other super PAC connected to Yang that’s supposedly in the works, and that Lis Smith, who was involved in Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign, is involved with.

Then there is Ray McGuire, a former Citigroup executive and one of the highest-ranking African-American bank executives ever. He has a super PAC that has raised $4 million from all kinds of recognizable names. They’re spending a lot, with the goal to just sort of increase his name recognition.

As far as the state of the race, we have no idea. As you can attest, there’s been virtually no credible polling here. In terms of the available polls, there is some uniformity to what they suggest: Yang has a lead, yet half of voters are undecided. You have Eric Adams, Scott Stringer, Maya Wiley, and then the rest of the pack.

It is both too soon to say and also alarmingly close to the actual primary election day, June 22. We really don’t have a sense of where things stand. When you add to this ranked-choice voting, which is new this year, it’s really an open question.

Earlier you mentioned Shaun Donovan, whose story figures prominently into the article you and Jeff just wrote. Fill us in on what’s going on there.

In addition to being the former housing secretary for Obama, he was the budget director. So he’s a very well-regarded technocrat — who also is the son of a wealthy ad-tech executive. Someone formed a super PAC to support his candidacy for mayor; that super PAC has raised a little over $2 million, and exactly $2 million of that sum was donated by his dad.

It’s completely within the realm of possibility that his dad was like, “You know what, I really love my son, I think he’d be a great mayor, I’m going to fund his super PAC,” without any coordination about how that money would be used. But it’s hard for some people to imagine a scenario where a father and son don’t talk about this kind of thing. Or maybe it isn’t! The point is that it’s almost unknowable, isn’t it?

There’s a lot of winking and nodding involved in this stuff, and you don’t necessarily need direct coordination in order to have what is effectively coordination.

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