At the midtown Hilton last Thursday, an absolute who’s who of New York City real estate descended upon the building’s grand ballroom to nibble on crab cakes, rub elbows with competitors and chow down a big hunk of steak at the Real Estate Board of New York’s annual awards gala. Milling among the tuxedo-clad crowd—with seats alongside REBNY’s executive board, no less—were three individuals who have been getting to know the real estate industry rather well recently, the leading potential Democratic mayoral candidates, City Comptroller William Thompson Jr., U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
For the first time in over a decade, the real estate industry is flexing its muscle in the early stages of a mayoral race, with developers and landlords dumping dollars into the campaigns of the three leading contenders.
Mr. Weiner, Ms. Quinn and Mr. Thompson have together raised at least $2 million from the real estate industry, more than one-fifth of the total $8.76 million raised this cycle by the trio as of Jan. 15, according to campaign finance records examined by The Observer. (Ms. Quinn and Mr. Thompson have not officially filed to run for mayor in the 2009 election.) This is about twice the amount raised by the three leading Democratic candidates at the same point in the 2001 race, the last time when there was no incumbent running and the leading Republican candidate, Michael Bloomberg, was self-financed.
The dollars seem to speak to the industry’s desire to have its voice heard in the corridors of City Hall at the very time when a confluence of forces that could work against real estate appears to be descending upon the city. The crisis in the credit markets is crimping the ability of would-be buyers and developers to find the needed cash to make deals; a possible national recession could lead to cuts in the financial services sector, decreasing the demand for office space; and a fatigue of large-scale development seems to be gripping many neighborhoods in the city, especially outside of Manhattan. It’s probably safe to assume that any political obstacles, such as added zoning restrictions or new regulations on landlords, for instance, would be especially unwelcome today.
And so it goes that developers, landlords, brokers and contractors have found a desire to donate, hoping that maybe when they phone over to City Hall in two years, the call might just be returned. If not, perhaps in the least the mayor will understand and look sympathetically upon the wants and needs of the mighty real estate industry.
A candidate could indeed win without the support of the industry, said former Mayor Ed Koch, citing his successful bid in 1977 as a prime example; but it’s not unusual that those in the industry offer large donations to all viable candidates.
“They don’t really care who wins so long as they think that they will have access,” Mr. Koch said.
With the city having a billionaire mayor the past six years, it’s been quite some time since real estate has had a chance to gain mayoral friends through donations.
“This is really the first time in a while that there’s been an opportunity for real estate to weigh in,” said Kenneth Fisher, a former Brooklyn city councilman and now a real estate attorney.
Mr. Bloomberg, whose views are often in line with those of the industry, did not accept any contributions in either of his campaigns; and the more pro-development Democratic candidates in 2001, Alan Hevesi and Peter Vallone, were seen as less viable, Mr. Fisher said. The industry gave less to the third leading Democratic candidate—and eventual nominee—Mark Green.
Now the industry seems ready to jump at the opening, lest candidates form antidevelopment platforms based on citywide woes about affordable housing and overdevelopment.
“You’ve got a different dynamic than New York has had at any time since parts of the 80’s, where there is a pushback against development,” Mr. Fisher said. “I think that’s what’s causing the real estate industry to mobilize.”
Furthermore, a change in the city’s campaign finance law has led those who do any business with the city to rush in with contributions, as starting next month their donations to mayoral candidates would be capped at $400, a pittance compared with the $4,950 allowed now. The law, which was pushed through the Council last year by the mayor and Ms. Quinn, applies to lobbyists and those that have pending zoning changes and other contracts with the city.