By Joe Anuta
About half of all the money spent in Queens’ City Council primaries this year came from special interest groups, data from the city show, and their chosen Democratic candidates often won.
Political action committees representing real estate, business or union interests invested heavily in certain Queens campaigns — in three races spending more than all the primary candidates combined, according to a report updated last week by the city Campaign Finance Board.
“It is stunning to see that kind of spending by an outside group in a local race,” said Alex Camarda, director of public policy and advocacy at the good government group Citizens Union. “And I think it potentially undercuts the ability of the candidates to get their message across.”
In total as of Aug. 26, Democratic primary candidates in Queens spent about $1.2 million raised through donations, according to the report. Many hopefuls received public funds from the city’s 6-to-1 matching program, designed to encourage small, community-based donations. Participants in the program are limited to spending a maximum of $168,000.
Political action committees, on the other hand, are subject to no such spending caps due to a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision called Citizens United, although the decision prohibits campaigns and the PACs from coordinating with each other. This is the first citywide election in the wake of the decision.
Independent spenders dropped about $1.2 million in Queens primaries as of Sept. 9, according to the report, constituting almost exactly 50 percent of the total money spent before the Sept. 10 election.
In the Democratic primary to replace embattled City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) in northeast Queens, the candidates spent a total of $369,531, while special interest groups spent $438,285.
Jobs for New York, a political action committee backed by the Real Estate Board of New York dropped $342,675, in support of Paul Vallone — the largest amount in the borough — while the candidate himself spent $117,683, which was the largest amount in the race.
The PAC also spent $45,000 against three of Vallone’s opponents, sending out attack ads on the candidate’s behalf.
Vallone claimed victory in Council District 19 with about 31 percent of the vote. Austin Shafran netted 29.5 percent, Paul Graziano 17.6 percent, John Duane 11.5 percent and Chrissy Voskerichian 10.3 percent, according to preliminary results.
But Matthew Sollars, press secretary for the board, said the city’s matching funds program has been successful in helping local candidates fight special interests.
“The close competition in District 19 shows that the city’s matching funds program provides candidates with the resources to mount strong campaigns, even in the face of heavy spending by outside groups,” he said.
And in southeast Queens, Jobs for New York shelled out $261,533 on Queens County Democratic Party favorite Manuel Caughman in the race for City Councilman Leroy Comrie’s (D-St. Albans) seat. But Caughman came in at fourth place, Sollars noted, adding that two candidates the PAC spent $55,644 attacking came in second and third. Clyde Vanel, No. 2 in the race, has refused to concede.
But the unofficial victor was also backed by outside spending.
Union interests spent a total of $142,971 in support of Daneek Miller, president of a bus drivers’ union. New York City Central Labor Council’s PAC spent $81,183, the United Federation of Teachers’ PAC dropped $52,823 and Empire State 32BJ SEIU’s committee spent $8,965 in support of Miller.
In total the five contenders for Comrie’s spot collectively laid out $214,719, with no one in the race spending more than $60,000 at the time the report was issued. The four political action committees collectively spent $404,504 in support of just Miller and Caughman.
The race to replace term-limited Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) in Astoria was another major target.
The three Democratic candidates spent a total of $198,013 in that western Queens contest, while Jobs for New York accounted for nearly all of the $236,613 in outside spending in support of Costa Constantinides and against his rivals, Gus Prentzas and John Ciafone, records show. Constantinides spent $147,000 raised through donations, while Prentzas spent $30,000 and Ciafone nothing, records show.
Dem Party-backed Constantinides won with nearly 56 percent of the vote.
Jobs for New York issued a statement touting its accomplishments in the primary, saying the PAC won races for candidates who would create jobs and help the middle class.
“We will continue to apply our sophisticated campaign techniques going forward,” the PAC said in a statement.
In Councilman Donovan Richards’ (D-Laurelton) successful run for District 31, he spent only $6,848 that he raised himself, while Jobs for New York laid out $37,502 and the teachers’ union spent $1,271 on his behalf — beyond the reach of his opponents’ war chests.
Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4566.