Feedback Loop: Melinda Katz's Effective Fund-Raising Using Story of Her Effective Fund-Raising

Here’s a fund-raising email from a 2009 candidate for comptroller which may partly explain why that industry is so generous to some city candidates.

The message, forwarded to me by an interested reader, is from City Councilwoman Melinda Katz, and it includes a profile of herself that was published in the Real Deal. The profile describes how Katz leverages her position on the powerful Land Use committee to raise money.

Here’s the Katz fund-raising email.

From: [ <> ]
Sent: Tuesday, February 05, 2008 8:06 PM
To: #####
Subject: Update re NYC Comptroller

Thank you again for your consideration and support of my campaign to become the 43rd Comptroller of New York City. As you probably know by now, our campaign continues to thrive. We raised more money than all of the other candidates with a total approaching $2 million in the January filing! Not only have we raised the most money, we are the only candidate with union endorsements, elected official endorsements and a Finance Committee with over 120 distinguished New Yorkers on it.

Below is a recent profile I thought you might be interested in reading. Let me know if you have any thoughts or ideas on continuing to grow the economy of New York City.


P.S. If there is someone you think might be interested in joining my Finance Committee, please send me their contact information and ask them to visit my website to familiarize themselves with my background and experience.

Katz gets help from industry heavy hitters

Melinda Katz may not be a household name, but she’s in charge of the most powerful committee in the City Council and has helped shepherd through legislation that has changed the landscape of development in New York City.

As the chair of the council’s Land Use Committee, Katz makes hundreds of high-voltage zoning decisions and hears requests from developers and property owners that often require her to balance preservation with the omnipresent construction that has defined her tenure in the council.

Now, the Queens Democrat is looking for a promotion and is considered one of the frontrunners in the race to become the city’s next comptroller.

With the exception of Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión – who many predicted would run for mayor, but just announced his intention to run for comptroller instead – Katz has raised more money than any of her competitors.

As of the last campaign filing disclosure, she had banked $1.33 million, while Carrión had $1.36 million, City Council Member David Weprin had $1.25 million, and Council Member Simcha Felder had $1.06 million. Several others, including Council Member David Yassky, who has yet to file his first disclosure, also plan on running.

Katz’s position as head of the Land Use Committee gives her a unique perch to raise money from. And, she has been effectively leveraging it.

Several major developers are helping her raise cash, and her finance committee is filled with some of the biggest real estate heavyweights in city. They include the CEO of the Extell Development Company, Gary Barnett; the head of the Durst Organization, Douglas Durst; the father-and-son team at Two Trees Management, David and Jed Walentas; the president of the Related Companies, Jeff Blau; the president of Muss Development, Joshua Muss; and a number of others.

Developer Howard Milstein is scheduled to host a fundraiser for her on January 10, just before the next campaign fundraising period ends. The invitation, which invites guests to “Max Out for Melinda,” was posted on the New York Observer’s Web site.

“Katz has capitalized on the people she has come into contact with. There’s nothing untoward, but this is the underbelly of political fundraising,” the executive director of the Citizens Union, Dick Dadey, said. “Clearly her position as chair of Land Use helps her raise money in her run for comptroller. People want to be seen supporting those who have a role in effecting their interest.”

Her fundraising strategies are not unique. Many candidates turn to development and real estate contacts for cash. But her position gives her added clout and raises questions about how appropriate those contributions are.

This year those donations may be even more closely examined because of new legislation passed by the Bloomberg administration and the council to cap contributions from entities doing business with the city, from lobbyists, and from those who have land use items under review. The legislation, which has not yet gone into effect, is intended to crack down on even the appearance of pay-to-play.

The Daily News recently reported that Katz received roughly $30,000 in donations from people tied to four companies that are fighting Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to redevelop Willets Point in Queens. The donation raised eyebrows because the project needs to go through her committee.

Katz is not shy about her fundraising. She says it is a show of confidence in her abilities. “There’s always going to be stories about contributions,” she told The Real Deal. “The fact of the matter is I am fortunate that people have faith in what I want to do.”

She has also been quoted saying that her donations do not influence the policy positions she takes.

Katz has a reputation for being smart, ambitious, and personable. She works tirelessly and, between hearings and fundraisers, often makes the rounds singing at events in the city.

She worked at the elite law firm Weil, Gotshal, & Manges before being elected to the state Assembly in 1994. In 1998 she narrowly lost in a Congressional race to Rep. Anthony Weiner, and in 2001 she was elected to her current seat.

While she has played a part in mega rezonings, like Greenpoint/Williamsburg and the far West Side, which Bloomberg pushed for, she has even more influence over hundreds of other lower-profile land use requests that get less public scrutiny.

Her committee votes on everything from zoning variances to landmark issues. The decisions her committee makes not only have the power to change what gets the green light, but are also often worth a lot of money to whomever is seeking the change.

While nobody is suggesting she makes those decisions in a vacuum – both Council Speaker Christine Quinn and her other council colleagues also wield a lot of say – she is the land use clearinghouse.

Balancing the development proposals that the mayor has made a hallmark of his administration with the opposition is a significant part of her job. Opponents often argue that the administration’s development proposals are out of sync with the characteristics of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Ken Fisher – Chair of the Bar Association’s Land Use Committee, former City Council member and partner in the law firm Wolf Block – said she balances it well.

“There’s a very strong antidevelopment crowd in the council,” he said. “I’ve had council members say to me they’re happy if nothing gets built in their districts.”

He said many view Katz as levelheaded because she hears parties out and knows when to be aggressive.

For her part, Katz can rattle off neighborhoods that have been up-zoned, down-zoned, slated for more affordable housing, or earmarked for mixed-used purposes.

“People can be yawning, and I find land use and the economy of the city t
o be one of the most exciting topics that exists,” she said. “It’s the future of the city.”

Author: Judith Zimbalist

December, 31, 2007

Feedback Loop: Melinda Katz's Effective Fund-Raising Using Story of Her Effective Fund-Raising