Just call state and Suffolk Independence Party chairman Frank MacKay New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg‘s $1.2 million man.
That’s the amount that the billionaire mayor deposited in the minor party’s housekeeping account during the State Senate Republicans’ bruising and ultimately unsuccessful battle to hold on to their four-decade control of Albany’s gold-gilded chamber.
By giving to the Independence Party’s housekeeping account, Bloomberg was permitted to make unlimited donations – far in excess of what would be allowed if giving to an individual candidate. In addition, the mayor’s largesse was not reported before the election, unlike direct contributions to candidates or a party campaign account.
The donations were not reported until Jan. 15, months after the election, and then only in an account that is supposed to be limited to paying for things like voter registration and other party building, staff salaries and polling.
But the bulk of the money went to radio and television ads and direct mailings in key Senate battlegrounds involving 36-year GOP Sen. Caesar Trunzo (R-Brentwood), 82; Queens GOP senators Frank Padavan and Serphin Maltese and GOP upstater Dennis Delano from Erie County.
MacKay’s fig leaf is that the money was used for “issue advocacy ads,” which speak favorably about an official’s stand on an issue and ends with the admonition to call the official at their office number.
“It was all issues,” said MacKay, who earlier tried to help launch Bloomberg’s ill-fated third-party presidential candidacy. “We didn’t ask anybody to vote for anyone.”
MacKay, who earlier in the year got $150,000 from Bloomberg, justified the ads, saying it let the public know where the minor party stands on the issues. “We went by the law with a fine-tooth comb and did everything appropriately and by the rules. And I challenge anyone to prove otherwise,” he said.
However, critics are less charitable. “I call them sham issue ads,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York. “These ads are supposed to educate the public about a particular issue, but this is a backdoor way to electioneering.” She also said that it shows that the very wealthy like Bloomberg can throw unlimited money to skew the electoral process.
“It’s symptomatic and emblematic of the weak system we have in New York, which is one step away from anything goes,” she said.
While Democratic Senate candidates were targeted by the effort, the winning new Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith (D-Queens) would not criticize Bloomberg – whose vast wealth and deep political pockets has in the past benefitted contenders across parties lines. “The mayor is a billionaire and can spend his money the way he sees fit,” he said, vowing no retribution. “That was the campaign, now it’s time to govern.”
When first asked about the money, Bloomberg spokesman Stu Loeser indicated it was part of a joint effort by the mayor and upstate billionaire Thomas Golisano “to support reform-minded candidates statewide.” However, the two men first met long after the election after the $1.2 million was spent. Golisano also backed Trunzo’s foe, now his successor, Brian Foley. And no one has ever accused Trunzo or Maltese of being reformers.
Later, Loeser backtracked, saying, “The mayor gave this money to support the Independence Party’s work.” His aides had no comment on whether Bloomberg knew or had a say on how the money was used.
But Lerner said Bloomberg in the past has shown “little sensitivity on drawing the line” on campaign spending. “What’s wrong with it is that it is a backdoor around disclosure and transparency,” she said, “And to the extent there are campaign limits, it’s a way to funnel large amounts of money without accountability.”