BY BARRETT SEAMAN
The Democratic primary that will, for all practical purposes, determine who succeeds Nita Lowey in Congress next year, is not exactly on PAUSE along with the rest of New York State, but neither is it the crowd-gathering, barnstorming, whistle-stopping extravaganza one would expect from a battle among eight pretty qualified, reasonably well-funded candidates.
The problem, of course, is the lockdown that has deprived the candidates of any possibility of campaigning publicly or debating in ways that give voters and pundits alike a sense of how popular or persuasive they might be. Instead, each has pursued virtual contact with the electorate. As a result, any true sense of how they’re doing is somewhere up there in the Cloud, and it’s up to us to go find it.
In March, the public got a peak at one measure of success when the final numbers of petition signatures were released. By that very limited measure, Assemblyman David Buchwald took first prize. Then in mid-April, a more significant clue was revealed when the Federal Election Commission released fundraising and expenditure totals for the first quarter of 2020. If you’re looking at contributions raised as a measure of popularity, then Evelyn Farkas came out on top with nearly $460,000.
But if having money, whatever the source, is your criterion, then Adam Schleifer blew everyone else away. He registered a whopping $1.6 million in the first quarter—given largely by his immediate family. And since the purpose of having money is to spend it, then Schleifer is in great shape going into the last eight weeks of the race with a war chest of $1,515,210.
It’s worth peeling back a few layers of the campaign, however, to look for less obvious clues. But first, here is what rank and file Democratic voters are seeing:
Truth is, if you don’t have access to a computer, you’re not seeing much of anything…except a handful of TV ads. During the breaks of your favorite cable channel, you might catch Adam Schleifer and his special needs younger brother or David Buchwald with his two young daughters at their home in White Plains. As the election nears, you will likely see other candidates popping up on 30-second spots.
One you won’t see is Allison Fine, whose plan from the outset has been to conduct her campaign entirely digitally. She continues to blast out emails to a list of some 5,000, offering practical advice and occasional philosophical observations. She recently held one of her Zoom sessions—this one on Earth Day eve to discuss her environmental proposals. All the candidates had something to say about the environment that day, however, and Evelyn Farkas had a competing digital forum tying the coronavirus to climate change.
Farkas also launched an internet-age version of the old whistlestop tour by holding Zoom sessions in different communities to hear about hyper-local issues. Playing to the strength of her Washington experience, she has also held forums that are somewhat like Council on Foreign Relations panels where she is often joined by defense and foreign affairs experts.
Mondaire Jones has also been going the Zoom route but ran into one of the inherent risks of digital exposure on Friday, the 17th, when his event got “bombed” by a hacker who posted images of child pornography that one participant described as “very upsetting.” Jones’s response: “Targeting a civic-minded public meeting with the intent to traumatize its participants and make them fearful of gathering has absolutely no place in our elections.” Yet it can happen to any of them.
Another measure that doesn’t require face-to-face exposure is endorsements. Throughout the campaign, David Buchwald has held the title of Most Endorsed—certainly by local officials. More than 60, including former rival Catherine Borgia and a recent eyebrow raiser in James Skoufis, the state senator from Rockland whose district abuts that of David Carlucci, have publicly backed Buchwald.
Also chasing local endorsements is Mondaire Jones, who appears to have corralled many of the area’s progressive groups, like the Irvington Activists. He also won the backing of Irvington Mayor Brian Smith who, not too many years ago, was a registered Republican. His biggest name endorsement comes from no less than Elizabeth Warren.
When it comes to big names, however, no one comes near Evelyn Farkas. For weeks, she’s been dropping names like former ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, former defense secretary Leon Panetta, former Senate Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin and former senator, secretary of state and presidential candidate John Kerry. For icing on the endorsement cake, add actors Rob Reiner and Jane Lynch.
One could argue—and Farkas’s rivals do—that marque names don’t carry the weight that local legislators and village mayors carry in terms of translating into votes on June 23rd. Farkas’s campaign counters that only ten percent of her donations come from her Washington ties. There should be, however, some relationship between endorsements and money, as in putting money where your mouth is.
At least by the measure of first quarter fundraising, there is a curious disconnect with the Buchwald campaign. According to FEC figures, only Catherine Parker raised less money during those three months. His campaign would argue that he was too busy doing his thing, which is legislating in Albany—a much better indicator of what kind of a congressman he will make. Perhaps, but with only about half a million dollars in cash on hand, the former tax attorney may be scraping the bottom of the barrel going into the final few weeks if he is to produce ads and gather meaningful polling data in time to make adjustments.
Equally curious are David Carlucci’s numbers. Not only did he raise only $119,000 in the first quarter, but his coffers currently have less than $100,000—15 times less than Adam Schleifer’s bank account. Considered early on to be a contender because he purportedly “owned” Rockland County, the state senator would seem to be behind in endorsements, especially in Westchester; and now in money.
Allison Fine is also low on cash—because, she says, she stopped fundraising at the same time she stopped petition-gathering, that is, when the lockdown got underway. But she will recommence fundraising and, because she is foregoing TV buys, her overall budget doesn’t need to be as high as those who go the traditional route.
Looking purely through the prism of money then, the eight-candidate field breaks down into three segments: Asha Castleberry-Hernandez didn’t file for the quarter (though she later reported raising a little under $14,000 for a total of about $66,000). Along with her at the back of the money pack would be Catherine Parker, Allison Fine and David Carlucci.
In the thick of the race are Farkas, Jones and (still) Buchwald, each of whom has roughly half a million in cash on hand. But out front in the money race, lengths ahead of the pack, is Adam Schleifer. Not only has he outspent his rivals two to three times over, but he has that much more cash on hand going into the final eight weeks. As political blogger Dan Weinfeld (https://www.nycd17.com) of Hartsdale points out, in the first quarter, Schleifer outspent all seven of his competitors combined.
“Money doesn’t necessarily buy political races,” writes Weinfeld. “Michael Bloomberg just proved that. Money, however, can buy media time and pay for mailings, which in turn, build name recognition. In a race where there is no incumbent and no candidate can claim broad name recognition, Schleifer’s willingness to invest his personal wealth in his campaign to outspend rivals in buying media time and mailings is a major advantage.”
The next pole in the race will be polls—the closest indicator of where candidates stand other than the actual vote. Carlucci and Schleifer have line items in their expense ledgers for polling. Jones and Buchwald are paying for consultants who may in turn poll for them, and Farkas may be in the process. Of course, we may not see polling by individual campaigns unless the results favor their candidate.