Can This Billionaire Save N.Y.’s Senate Republicans? – The New York Times

ALBANY, N.Y. — For months, state Democratic leaders have been contemplating a once-unthinkable scenario: Capture a few more State Senate seats, and their party could win a supermajority in a chamber long controlled by the Republicans.

Money was on their side, as was momentum: Democrats seized the Senate in the 2018 midterms, and next month’s election is expected to further reflect New York’s unfavorable view of President Trump, the Republicans’ national standard-bearer.

But Ronald S. Lauder, the billionaire cosmetics heir, is trying to level the playing field.

In the last few weeks, a new independent expenditure group founded by Mr. Lauder has emerged as a financial lifeline for the Republicans. That group, Safe Together New York, has poured $2.9 million into radio, digital and television advertisements aimed at six State Senate races, including four with Democratic incumbents.

All told, Mr. Lauder has committed $4 million to the group, whose professed goal is to roll back recent criminal justice laws that it says benefit “criminals at the detriment of law abiding New Yorkers.”

“We need politicians in office that will keep New York safe,” the group’s website reads.

Some Democrats, however, wonder if the effort is to prevent their party from winning a two-thirds supermajority: Democrats hold 40 of 63 seats in Albany’s upper chamber and would need to pick up only two additional seats, barring defections.

A supermajority would enable the Legislature to pursue veto-proof progressive initiatives without the typically required blessing of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat who worked closely with Republicans during his first two terms in office. (The State Assembly is already dominated, by a two-to-one ratio, by Democrats.)

A Democratic supermajority would give the Legislature far more sway in the all-important budget negotiations in Albany, which have long been controlled by Mr. Cuomo, a fiscal centrist, and could pave the way for more taxes on the rich, an idea that the governor has opposed.

So, by giving money to Republicans in State Senate races, Mr. Lauder — whose brother and nephew have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the governor’s election campaigns — may be indirectly helping Mr. Cuomo.

Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to the governor, discounted any speculation that Mr. Cuomo could benefit from fewer Democrats in the Senate.

“We’re proud of the legislation we passed, and any connection to whatever this is exists only in the overactive minds of conspiracy traffickers,” Mr. Azzopardi said.

The infusion of cash from Mr. Lauder — who is also a longtime supporter of conservative causes (he gave $100,000 to two Trump re-election committees and another $100,000 to the Republican National Committee in August 2019) — will help Republicans, who are facing a gap in campaign funds. The latest campaign finance report showed the New York State Senate Republican Campaign Committee with a little under $1 million on hand; the Democrats’ campaign committee had nearly three times that.

Republicans acknowledge playing defense on some of their open seats, but are running hard on several issues — like last year’s bail reform laws, which were opposed by many law enforcement officials — that coincide with both Mr. Trump’s calls for “law and order” and the warnings from Mr. Lauder’s political action committee.

“If you’re not safe, if you don’t feel your community is safe, if you don’t feel your leaders have a handle on public safety, and are supporting the men and women who go out and defend us and protect us, then everything else doesn’t matter as much,” said State Senator Robert G. Ortt, the Republican minority leader. “You can’t get to those next things if you can’t protect people.”

Among the Democrats being targeted by Mr. Lauder’s PAC are three first-term incumbents in moderate districts on Long Island, including in Suffolk County, which Mr. Trump won in 2016. Chief among them is Senator Monica R. Martinez, who was among a wave of younger progressives elected in 2018, when Democrats won eight Republican-held seats in the Senate and seized the majority.

One attack ad against Ms. Martinez, paid for by Mr. Lauder’s group, shows a person cocking a gun, and other gritty sounds and imagery, including sirens. “New York’s crime wave is no accident,” a narrator says. “Monica Martinez voted for it.” It mentions her vote for bail reform and ends with a blunt pitch: “Monica Martinez: More Crime.”

Similar ads target two other Senate Democrats on Long Island — Kevin Thomas and Jim Gaughran — as well as Senator Andrew Gounardes of Brooklyn. Two Democratic candidates — Jim Barber and John Mannion — running for seats vacated by Republicans are also facing negative ads paid for by Mr. Lauder.

Ms. Martinez called Mr. Lauder’s involvement “a slap in the face of my voters,” noting that crime rates on Long Island were among the lowest in the nation.

“He’s a New York City billionaire getting involved in a district that has nothing to do with him,” the senator said in an interview.

Mr. Lauder, 76, has been active in politics for decades, mounting a failed bid for mayor in New York City in 1989, and then, four years later, energizing and funding a successful campaign to establish term limits in the city. He currently serves as the president of the World Jewish Congress and his own foundation.

Leonard Lauder, Mr. Lauder’s brother and fellow Estée Lauder heir, has been a major contributor to Mr. Cuomo over the years, as has Leonard Lauder’s son, William P. Lauder, the current executive chairman of the Estée Lauder Companies. State records show that each man has given more than $100,000 to Mr. Cuomo’s campaigns since 2010.

Mr. Lauder declined to comment on his motivations for backing Republicans in the State Senate. Christian Browne, a Long Island lawyer and a spokesman for Safe Together New York, said the group was focused on incumbents who voted for bail reform and other changes to the criminal justice system, claiming that “without a safe environment, New York City and New York State will decline.”

As for speculation that the actual goal was to deprive the Democrats of a supermajority, Mr. Browne called that “a strange idea.”

“Do they think we are concerned with their ability to override the governor’s vetoes?” he said of the Democrats. “The fact is the politicians who voted for these bad laws cannot defend them, so they try to distract from the issue by making up an oddball claim that this group wants to steal their supermajority chances. Sorry.”

Norman Reimer, the board chairman of New Yorkers United for Justice, which worked to get bail reform passed, described the PAC’s attacks as “bad-faith fearmongering.”

“There is no connection whatsoever between pretrial reforms and any spike in crime,” he said.

Whatever the motivation, Democratic leaders in the Senate seem bullish about their re-election chances, despite the spending spree on their opponents’ behalf.

“We’ve grown used to large amounts of dark money trying to affect our Senate races,” said Senator Michael Gianaris, the deputy majority leader who oversees the Democratic conference’s political operations. “And we’ve won even while being outspent.”