Stephen Ross-Funded Group Spent More Than $1 Million to Influence New York City Council Primary Races

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  • The financial might of the group was evident in the 24 hours before the primary election. The New York City Campaign Finance Board shows that the organization spent over $100,000 and distributed at least nine mailers on Monday.
  • A leader of the committee told CNBC the PAC is leaving open the possibility of continuing its efforts into the November general election.
  • The sheer amount raised and spent going into Tuesday's primary by the group shows the importance to business leaders of influencing the lesser-known City Council races.

A super PAC funded largely by real estate billionaire Stephen Ross spent just over $1 million to influence New York City's primary race for City Council, with part of that investment going against progressives who are running for key council posts.

The organization, Common Sense NYC, has raised over $2 million. Ross, the chairman and founder of the real estate giant Related Companies, donated $1 million, and Ronald Lauder, also a billionaire and the youngest son of makeup legend Estee Lauder, contributed $500,000. Ross and Lauder have a combined net worth of over $12 billion, according to Forbes.

Ross, who is also the owner of the Miami Dolphins, came under fire in 2019 when he hosted a fundraiser in the Hamptons for former President Donald Trump. Principals of Related, including Ross, are investors in the luxury fitness brand Equinox. SoulCycle and Equinox distanced themselves from the Trump event as customers threatened to boycott. In August, CNBC reported that Lauder, who has been a friend of Trump's for years, had yet to start raising money for the then-president's reelection campaign.

The financial might of the group was evident in the 24 hours before the official primary day. The New York City Campaign Finance Board shows that the organization spent over $100,000 and distributed at least nine mailers on Monday, the day before the election, opposing a group of progressive City Council candidates.

The PAC may not be done trying to sway voters away from various City Council contenders. A leader of the committee told CNBC they're leaving open the possibility of continuing their efforts into the November general election.

"In the event that there are competitive NYC Council races in the general election, Common Sense NYC may be involved. I personally don't anticipate more than two or three Council races being competitive in November," Jeff Leb, the PAC's treasurer, said in an email to CNBC on Tuesday.

The sheer amount raised and spent going into Tuesday's primary by the group, officially labeled an independent expenditure committee, shows the importance to business leaders of influencing the lesser known City Council races. The PAC's messaging has been focused, in part, on pushing back on the idea of defunding the police and other progressive causes.

The New York City Council is the legislative body responsible for creating and voting on proposed New York City laws. A group such as Common Sense can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money on the City Council races they deem important. Wall Street executives have already poured over $9 million into the race for New York's next mayor, with most of the big money going to former presidential candidate Andrew Yang and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

Longtime New York Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf told CNBC that beyond the group being worried about New York in a post-pandemic world, the move by the Ross-backed PAC to spend a ton against progressive candidates for City Council represents a power play by the real estate community.

"This is an attempt to ... prove how powerful they are," Sheinkopf told CNBC in an interview on Tuesday. Sheinkopf noted that members of the City Council have publicly taken on New York's big business leaders and said Common Sense's campaign is a test of how much power New York executives have going forward.

"Well, let's say if they don't win those races, will people be afraid of them? The fact is people aren't afraid of them now. If they win, people will be more afraid. Power is about fear and not friendship," Sheinkopf said.

The political strategist said that the City Council has become more and more progressive over the years and business leaders have often been criticized by those politicians, which led to the creation of PACs such as Common Sense NYC. "Business interests have been attacked by this council and there's been an attempt to constrain the business community, including pushback on the power of the real estate community," Sheinkopf said.

Leb defended the candidates the group supported in a separate email to CNBC.

"Common Sense NYC supported a broad slate of candidates who are pragmatic in their thinking and who are demonstrably qualified to help New York recover from the pandemic," Leb said on Tuesday. "We are highlighting which candidates are qualified for local office and which are not, in races that are getting little attention otherwise. None of our funders played an active role in the operation or direction of Common Sense and they did not pick the races we engaged in."

Leb, who is also a managing partner at Capitol Consulting, is ranked by City & State as one of the top lobbyists in New York.

The PAC has spent over $540,000 supporting 18 local candidates for office and nearly the same amount opposing eight others.

Representatives for Ross and Lauder did not respond to requests for comment before publication.

One of the big targets of Common Sense NYC has been Michael Hollingsworth, who is running for Brooklyn's 35th District on the City Council. The PAC has spent over $100,000 opposing him. Two mailers against Hollingsworth were delivered to voters on Monday. One of the mailers reviewed by CNBC takes aim at Hollingsworth wanting to cut back on New York policing.

"While crime continues to go up, Michael Hollingsworth wants police funding to go down," the mailer reads. "We must stop Michael Hollingsworth from defunding the police!" the ad says. The Gotham Gazette reports that Hollingsworth is supported by New York City's Democratic Socialists of America and has received an endorsement by former gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon.

Hollingsworth responded to the campaign being waged against him in a tweet after this story was published.

"We are not beholden to the wealthy, real estate donors, or special interests. We're with the people," he said on Twitter.

Common Sense NYC has spent over $95,000 to oppose Jaslin Kaur, who running for District 23's City Council spot. The district is located in Queens, and Kaur was recently endorsed by progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. The City reported that Kaur was also endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America.

Common Sense NYC spent just over $26,000 on two mailers against Kaur that were distributed on Monday.

Others seeing opposition from the Ross-backed effort include John Choe, who is running in a primary for District 20's seat, and Alexa Aviles, a contender for New York City's District 38 seat who also saw an endorsement from Ocasio-Cortez.

Choe commented on the moves being made by the Ross-backed PAC in a tweet Tuesday in response to this story.

"As the founder of our neighborhood Chamber that helps small businesses, I challenge the notion these super PAC vultures represent anything more than the rapacious greed and hubris of the billionaire oligarchs who are slowly destroying our country," Choe said on Twitter.

Aviles said the PAC's decision to take aim at her represents a larger campaign being waged by the real estate industry.

"It's no wonder that Common Sense NYC, Inc. is spending a ludicrous amount of money attacking our people-powered campaign in District 38," Aviles told CNBC after this story was published. "After all, one of their top donors is Trump-supporting Stephen Ross, a billionaire real-estate developer focused on devouring up our neighborhoods. I'm proud that the real-estate industry recognizes that we will fight them back. Our campaign is unequivocally against the interests of billionaires, because we're fighting for working people."

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