City and State News In Efforts to Clean Up Albany, Reform Groups Tack in Opposite Directions by Chris Bragg
New York Uprising and the New Roosevelt Initiative—two organizations that have emerged as the most prominent Albany reform groups this year—share the goal of ousting lawmakers that they perceive as opponents of their good-government causes.
But beyond their basic shared aims, the groups’ methods have differed widely: New Roosevelt has narrowly focused their resources towards ousting Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada, Jr., while Ed Koch’s New York Uprising is attempting to wade into nearly every legislative race in the state.
How successful both groups will be depends on how much deference voters give to reform.
Siena pollster Steven Greenberg said that until polling is done in individual Senate districts, the degree to which the issue will resonate outside traditionally reform-minded areas like the Upper West Side of Manhattan remains unclear. The New Roosevelt Initiative’s pledge to spend $250,000 to oust Espada will definitely matter, but it will be confined to that particular race, Greenberg said.
“When you spend a quarter of a million dollars on a State Senate race it clearly has an impact. And Ed Koch has been getting a lot of free media attention, but the question is, ‘Will it resonate with voters?’” Greenberg said. “These are two very different kinds of organizations with two different kinds of appeals.”
New Roosevelt is funded by momentary lieutenant governor candidate and multimillionaire CEO Bill Samuels, who has reported his funding to the independent expenditure effort as more than $259,000 in loans. Over the course of five months, they have already spent $184,000 on a slew of consultants—Red Horse Strategies, Kallos Consulting, Hudson TG, Sunshine, Sachs and Associates, and others—which a spokesman for the group said were laying the groundwork for a field operation to defeat Espada.
Despite the high burn rate on consultants, Samuels retains ample resources to take on Espada on Election Day, according to Jay Strell, the group’s spokesman.
“There’s still plenty of money on the table,” Strell said.
Espada, meanwhile, claims that all the spending by New Roosevelt actually represents illegal campaign coordination with his chief primary opponent, Gustavo Rivera. Espada has asked federal investigators to look into the charges, though there has been no public action to do so to date. New Roosevelt denies the claim.
So far, New Roosevelt’s efforts have focused on spreading around anti-Espada literature, such as at a recent movie screening in Crotona Park, where a group of mostly white volunteers from outside the district passed flyers to local residents.
Espada has sought to cast New Roosevelt’s efforts as outsiders seeking to unseat the state’s highest-ranking Latino official.
But Strell insisted that the local community was also engaging in the cause and that it was not just people outside the district working on New Roosevelt’s behalf.
“Do we have the young, Anglo kids come out? Yes. But we also have Hispanics, African-Americans,” Strell said. “And almost everyone they meet says they’re not voting for Pedro Espada.”
In the general election, New Roosevelt is expected to back a slate of female Democratic Senate candidates including Susan Savage, Joanne Yepsen and Mary Wilmot. Samuels, who served as finance chair for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee in 2008, has said he is open to supporting Republicans with his group, but has made no moves toward doing so to date.
Meanwhile, New York Uprising is supporting anyone who signs its pledge to support non-partisan redistricting, GAAP budgeting and ethics reform—including the very lawmakers Samuels is targeting, Espada and the entire Senate Republican conference.
Though Koch has now completed his three-city upstate tour to target those who refused to sign the group’s pledge and tout those who have, its aim appears to be more oriented toward getting lawmakers’ word that they will support their issues than swaying elections. To reject Espada’s signature on their pledge, when the Legislature could still hold a vote on non-partisan redistricting this year, would be foolish, said Mark Botnick, the co-executive director of New York Uprising.
“Redistricting could come up tomorrow. Why would we want to lose that vote?” Botnick said. “We want that pledge, and we want it in writing.”
New York Uprising had raised $120,000 mostly from individual donors through July 15.
The group’s limited resources have been amplified considerably, though, by the spate of earned media attention given to Koch and his crusade to clean up Albany, said Jerry Skurnik, a political consultant and former Koch administration staffer.
The media attention—and Albany’s low approval ratings—has made government reform a more prominent issue than it otherwise would have been in an election still expected to be dominated by the weak economy, property taxes and economic development. Skurnik argued that if the effort had gotten going earlier, New York Uprising likely would have lured even more strong challengers into races against incumbents who refused to sign the pledge.
“People got spoiled last year by the City Council elections, in which New York City has public financing,” he said. “For state offices you have to raise money, and by the time that they started meeting, the year was already pretty far gone.”