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Cuomo, union PACs give Dems the edge in spending on state Senate races

New York State Senate

The state Senate races are among the closest contests in New York on Nov. 6. Democrats need just one seat to take the majority away from Republicans. Spending on the races is growing intense, and accusations are flying.

Senate Democrats in the past have been outspent by the Republicans, who are in power in the chamber. This year, Democrats still have a smaller campaign account, with about $700,000 still on hand, according to filings with the state Board of Elections. The GOP Senate campaign committee had $2.3 million at the time of the last filing in early October. 

But Democrats are getting some extra help. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is spending $2 million — partly from his campaign account and partly through the state Democratic Party — on ads that the governor said are aimed at “flipping” the Senate to the Democrats.

Political action committees, or PACs, many of them associated with unions, are also benefiting Democrats. The New York State United Teachers union’s PAC, “Fighting for Our Future,” has spent nearly $1.5 million on mailings and ads against several incumbent Republicans.

Meanwhile, PACs affiliated with charter schools, which have given money to GOP state Senate candidates in the past, have held back on spending. One, New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, has almost $6 million in its account, according to filings with the New York State Board of Elections, but had spent just over $100,000 a month before elections. In 2016, the group spent over $1.5 million.

The PAC funded by major real estate companies, “Jobs for New York,” also has been sitting out the election cycle so far.

The spending by the teachers union angered state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, who criticized the spending Monday on the public radio talk show, “The Capitol Pressroom.”

“We have what I describe as outside forces, and some of them have now become almost like the forces of evil,” Flanagan said.

He went on to say that by “forces of evil,” he meant the teachers union.

Flanagan, a former Education Committee chairman, said he respects the “tens of thousands of very good teachers across the state of New York,” but he said the Senate GOP won’t “blithely go along” with the union leaders. 

NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said the remarks insult teachers.

“We’re talking about school bus drivers and kindergarten teachers. Where is the evil?” Pallotta said. “It’s just ludicrous. He is really desperate.”

Pallotta said his union has endorsed Republican senators numerous times in the past. But the union broke with the senators after Pallotta said the GOP majority stymied a bill that would reverse some provisions in the controversial Common Core standards that required teachers to be judged on the standardized test scores of their students.

Sen. Carl Marcellino sponsored the measure, with 55 out of 63 senators on the bill, but a provision was added to increase the number of charter schools in New York City. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, called the provision a “poison pill,” and the bill died in the Assembly.

Pallotta said the union does not base its endorsements on party affiliation.

“Two years ago, we endorsed about 20 Republican senators,” said Pallotta. He said the union did not endorse five Democratic senators who voted for what he called the “poison pill” bill.

Marcellino’s seat is now considered vulnerable, along with those of some other key Republican senators.

Meanwhile, the state Republican Party filed a complaint this week with the state Board of Elections alleging that the union-funded PACs are illegally colluding with the Democratic senate campaigns. Pallotta called the charges groundless, and said the PAC and the union “follow the letter of the law.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.