The Wilfs’ interest in Minnesota did not stop at the turnstiles of the Metrodome. John Marty, the state senator spearheading the political resistance to the new stadium, said that the Wilfs gave no money to anyone in Minnesota in 2004. “But then, during the 2006 election, the Wilf family gave $20,000 to the Minnesota DFL Party and $20,000 to the Republican Party. The Wilfs gave $10,000 to the DFL legislative caucuses and $12,000 to the Republican ones. They gave $5,000 to Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty and $5,000 to Mike Hatch, his DFL challenger.”
According to data gathered from the Center for Responsible Politics, in the 2008-12 election cycles, the family gave $49,700 to 11 Minnesota candidates for U.S. Senate and House seats. The contributions included candidates from both parties, incumbents and challengers. A MinnPost.com news report in August 2011 found that the Wilf family gave $17,000 to candidates for governor and the state legislature in 2010. This followed campaign contributions to the Minnesota legislative caucuses of $18,500 in 2008 and $27,600 in 2010.
This activity constituted just a small amount of the Wilfs’ involvement in Minnesota politics. According to the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, the Vikings spent more than $4.3 million on lobbying in the state between 2006 and 2012.
Giving to elected officials in places where they do business was not new for the Wilfs. A story in the San Diego Reader detailed how the donations to then-mayor Dick Murphy and two city councilmen included many from the Wilf family and other Garden employees, at a time when they were building several apartment complexes and hotels (one of which was burned to the ground by the Earth Liberation Front in the nation’s costliest ever eco-terror incident). This year, the Reader ran a story headlined “Bob Filner raises big political cash from NFL owner.” It details the $10,000 that Garden Communities CEO Stuart Posnock, Zygi’s close friend who runs the West Coast operation, rounded up on behalf of the mayor who this month pleaded guilty to three criminal counts amid a hurricane of sexual harassment allegations.
The Observer’s reporting turned up no evidence that the Wilfs received, or even sought, any special favors for their political generosity. But it probably didn’t hurt. Donating to politicians is good strategy and good business, of course. It’s worth noting that the Wilfs have also been generous in their home state of New Jersey and also that Zygi’s daughter, Elana, landed a coveted clerkship with New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner (her husband works for Governor Chris Christie). And if $4.3 million in lobbying helped pry loose $500 million or so in public subsidies from football-mad suckers in Minnesota, then the Wilfs proved once again that they’re adept at spotting ROI.
As the family’s profile increased, so did its media headaches.
In 2011, Zygi purchased a $19 million townhouse on Park Avenue at the exact moment he was demanding hundreds of millions of tax dollars to subsidize a new stadium for the Vikings. Nineteen million is a lot even on Park Avenue, but in Minnesota, where the single most expensive property in the history of the state—an estate owned by the Pillsbury family that failed to sell even when cut from $53.5 million to $24 million—the Wilf purchase provided particularly poor optics.
So did the recent ugly divorce proceedings of Lenny’s son, Orin Wilf, whose Skyline Developers is working to bring a stone and glass building to 200 East 79th Street. Orin’s estranged wife, Lisa, alleged that Orin “gambled away up to $20 million of their fortune in the Bahamas and Atlantic City over the 12 years they were married.” Friends of Orin confirmed that his gambling habit had taken a toll on the couple’s finances but claimed he was cured of the habit.
Two former employees said that Lenny’s attempts to find a place for Orin at the business were big-footed. Orin was universally regarded as a playboy who looked down his nose at the New Jersey operations and yet expected to displace those who had served the company loyally for decades. Said one former employee, “Orin wanted to be a big shot but couldn’t handle it. I don’t know if he’s officially left the company, but he really didn’t do much even when he was allegedly working there.” Informed by The Observer that Orin’s 79th Street project is by all accounts a hit, this source shot back with some bitterness, “Yeah, they bought low and got lucky. But they lost a pile on 170 East End, which was also an Orin project meant to show what a big shot he is.”
As the family took heat brought by its sports team involvement and heightened NYC exposure, longtime watchers of the greeners wondered why the Wilfs abandoned its founders’ sensible aversion to media attention. One current employee with close access to the brothers’ thinking said it was a combination of two factors. “For one, it was that they had built all of the low-hanging fruit they could. Second, once you’re successful at eating a hamburger, you go for the steak. They wanted to show they could build high-profile projects, not just simple homes in New Jersey.”