Who Needs Small Donors When You Have Friends? Ask Gov. Cuomo.
Posted July 17, 2018 11:06 p.m. EDT
New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has always been a big-money politician, relying on large benefactors to accumulate a $31.1 million war chest. But even as he emerged as one of the Democratic Party’s most prolific fundraisers, he has all but ignored grass-roots contributors.
Now, mindful of the party’s insurgency, and facing a vigorous primary challenge from Cynthia Nixon, Cuomo has raced to find small donors.
He has offered a chance to win Billy Joel tickets. His daughters emailed supporters to ask for $5. And he has invested in a raft of digital ads and advertised an unlimited-drinks happy hour in Manhattan for only $5, though the format had to be scotched to avoid running afoul of state rules.
But campaign disclosures Tuesday revealed the extent to which Cuomo remains dependent on big donors — and some of the maneuvers undertaken to obscure that fact.
One donor contributed 69 times to Cuomo in the final days before the deadline — 67 of them $1 donations, driving down his average donation size. The donor, Christopher Kim, shares the same address on his filing as one of Cuomo’s campaign aides, Julia Yang.
“We appreciate his enthusiasm,” said Abbey Collins, a spokeswoman for Cuomo’s campaign. “Going forward, we’ll put measures in place to count contributions like this differently.”
But Kim was just one in a line of aides, relatives, roommates, allies, appointees and lobbyists sprinkled through Cuomo’s filing, giving tiny sums like $1 and $5.
Cuomo’s finance director, Jennifer Bayer Michaels, whose firm received $126,500 from Cuomo in the filing period, donated $5.
Other small donors included the father of one of Cuomo’s spokeswomen (who gave $1), the lobbyist father of Cuomo’s top aide (who gave $10), as well as others who share addresses with Cuomo’s paid campaign staff. Another lobbyist gave checks of $10,000, $5,000 and $50 in the period.
Jaynne C. Keyes, a Cuomo appointee to the state arts council married to a former top aide to Cuomo’s father, gave Cuomo $20,000 on July 9. Days later, she followed that up with two more donations — for $5 each.
The cumulative effect of these donations was negligible: Of the $6 million raised in the last six months, only 1 percent came from those donating $250 or less. All told, Cuomo earned more in interest payments on his campaign war chest (nearly $154,000) than he collected in total contributions from donors who gave less than $1,000 (just under $110,000).
“I think they’re experimenting with how to do this and you are always innovating and trying to figure out the best ways,” said Chris Coffey, a Democratic strategist who has given some informal advice to the Cuomo campaign. “I don’t know there is anything wrong with taking very small donations.”
On Monday, before releasing the full report, the Cuomo campaign had touted that 57 percent of his contributions were for $250 or less and his most common contribution was a mere $5. Nixon’s campaign on Tuesday accused the governor of running an “AstroTurf campaign,” and highlighted her more than 30,000 donations.
Overall, the filings reveal the depth of the challenge that lies ahead for Nixon, who trailed Cuomo in a recent public poll by 35 percentage points. She reported less than $660,000 cash-on-hand compared with Cuomo’s $31.1 million.
In fact, Cuomo’s report showed that so far he has spent more on television ads, $1.7 million, than Nixon has raised in total. He spent another $93,000 on polling.
Cuomo’s financial edge has only expanded in recent months, as he added large contributions from powerful institutional donors such as the New York AFL-CIO ($65,000), the state nurses association ($64,600), and Viacom Telecommunications LLC ($50,000). Billy Joel and Alexis Joel each reported $26,992 in in-kind contributions to Cuomo, as well, this month.
One of Cuomo’s largest donors in 2018 are the brothers Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, who together gave $130,000. The brothers founded a virtual currency exchange in New York to trade currency like bitcoin.
They gave $50,000 each in April. In May, the New York Department of Financial Services authorized their firm to trade a new currency, Zcash. They each gave $15,000 in June and co-hosted a fundraiser for Cuomo in July.
A spokeswoman for the Winklevoss brothers said, “They contributed to Cuomo’s campaign because they believe he’s doing a great job, is a problem-solver, and is definitely the right person to lead New York in the years ahead.” A Cuomo campaign spokeswoman said contributions do not influence government action.
From Nixon’s first day on the trail, she mocked that 0.1 percent of Cuomo’s funds came from small donors. She has to hope that attacking Cuomo for his wealthy donors remains as potent a talking point as the television ads Cuomo is expected to buy promoting his progressive accomplishments.
In a sign of the potential power of the issue, Cuomo’s campaign announced late Tuesday that he was giving away $534,000 in donations tied to those recently convicted in a bid-rigging trial of Alain E. Kaloyeros, a former Cuomo administration point man on economic development upstate.
Nixon and Marc Molinaro, the Republican nominee for governor, had both called on Cuomo to give away the funds.
Some of Nixon’s campaign aides also appear on her donor reports, including Rebecca Katz, a top adviser who hosted a fundraiser for her. She gave $3,500 and five other smaller donations, a pattern noted by the Cuomo campaign.
“We rolled out a new low-dollar campaign to reach a wide variety of supporters and as part of that effort reached out to our network, just as Nixon’s campaign has dozens of contributions from her staff and their family members,” Collins said.
Katz said some of her donations went for “some of Cynthia’s campaign merch,” including a “What the F?” T-shirt with a #CuomosMTA hashtag, featuring the F train logo. “It’s absurd to suggest that that’s comparable to the Cuomo campaign’s systematic effort to juice the numbers to make up for a lack of genuine grass-roots support,” she said.
Some other members of Nixon’s team also gave $1, which Katz said had been used to test the functions of their website. Unlike Cuomo, Nixon is less in need of small donations and more in need of large ones.
She added a couple of donations from fellow actresses, including $10,000 from Lena Dunham, $11,000 from Susan Sarandon and $1,000 from Chelsea Handler.
Nixon’s average contribution was around $50. Cuomo’s was about $3,100.