115 DONORS SPEND LARGE

Big contributors give $27.4M as business interests, labor unions push total to $94M

RICK KARLIN CAPITOL BUREAU
Section: State,  Page: A3

Date: Wednesday, February 18, 2009

ALBANY -- If there's any doubt as to whether politics is an insiders game in New York, consider this: Just 115 people -- from billionaires like Michael Bloomberg to uber-lobbyist Patricia Lynch -- gave the lions' share of the $27.4 million contributed by individuals to legislative candidates during the 2008 campaign cycle.


As for the rest of the state's nearly 14 million people of voting age, less than a fifth of one percent gave any money at all.


Then there were business interests such as real estate/construction and health care ($5.4 million each); insurance, finance and banking ($4.2 million combined) and lawyers and lobbyists ($2.9 million combined) that dominated donor lists, overshadowing even the powerful labor unions in the state's biennial campaign finance derby.


All told, state legislative candidates and political parties raised an eye-popping $94 million for the 2008 elections.


"This is a record-setting number," said Blair Horner, legislative director at the New York Public Interest Research Group, which joined other good government groups Tuesday to release a survey of contributions.


Several trends emerged from the study:


Incumbents raised roughly double the amount of their challengers.


In the handful of truly competitive races around New York, much of the funding came from the state parties -- not from voters within the given districts. North County Democrat Darrell Aubertine, who won a tough special election a year ago, got $121,791 from individuals but $1.7 million from the party. And Republican incumbent Serphin Maltese, who lost his Long Island race in November, received $291,653 from individuals but $1 million from the GOP.


In "marginal" or close races, 20 of 26 winners spent the most money.


The study, dubbed "Capital Investments," concluded that the state's political elite has enormous power due to their contributions. The influence, Horner said, feeds the growing public dismay with Albany's notorious pay-to-play culture.


He said the extent of business contributions was unexpected, given the common belief that public employee unions have the strongest hold over lawmakers.


The survey grouped contributors by categories or interests, rather than by individual PACs.


In past reports, individual PACs representing groups like the New York State United Teachers or the SEIU 1199 health care union, as well as the state Medical Society, have been among the top individual groups giving political contributions. Horner said NYPIRG is working on an update of that data as well.


Either way, Horner and the advocates who joined him -- including Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters and Dick Dadey of Citizens Union -- said this new survey reinforced the need for campaign finance reform. Among the changes they want are lower contribution limits and closure of loopholes. They have no reason to believe contributions won't continue to grow unless something is done.


"That money keeps going up," Bartoletti said.


Rick Karlin can be reached at 454-5758 or by e-mail at rkarlin@timesunion.com.





BOX:


Top givers


By industry


Real estate/construction: $5.4 million


Health and mental hygiene: $5.4 million


Insurance/finance/banking: $4.2 million


Lawyers/lobbyists: $2.9 million


Food or alcohol production: $2 million


Individuals, total given and top recipient


Michael Bloomberg, New York City mayor, media titan: $878,800, Senate Republicans


Robert Wilson, philanthropist, $200,000: Senate Democratics


Lawrence Kadish, real estate investor, $152,000: Senate Republicans


Tim Gill, software entrepreneur, gay rights activist, $130,300: Senate Democrats


Peter Koo, drugstore chain owner, Republican Senate candidate: $116,768, Peter Koo (donors can give to themselves).


Source: NYPIRG