How much do you have to spend to win an open seat on the New York City Council?
In 2017, it was $244,115. That’s the average amount spent by or for candidates who won competitive primary races for open city council seats, including independent spending on the candidates’ behalf. But money wasn’t everything in the election – many of the winners were outspent by their rivals.
First, some notes. Because the race for District 8 between Diana Ayala and Robert Rodriguez was too close to call as of Thursday evening, an average of the pair’s spending was used. Kalman Yeger, who was running unopposed in the Democratic primary for the Brooklyn seat vacated by City Councilman David Greenfield was not included in the average. He spent just over $16,000. Spending numbers used were taken from New York City Campaign Finance Board reports as of the latest filing deadline on Aug. 28. Spending from daily pre-election disclosures was then added, but campaigns only need to report spending of more than $20,000 in these disclosures. This means the average here may be slightly undercounted.
The average of more than $244,000 is heavily skewed by Mark Gjonaj, who won Bronx City Council District 13 by spending more than any City Council candidate in history – $891,095. The vast majority of that was spent by his campaign, and an extra $51,000 came from independent union spenders like the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and the Central Labor Council. Gjonaj, a sitting Assemblyman in the East Bronx, beat his nearest competitor Marjorie Velazquez 39%-34%. Velazquez, who took part in the public matching funds system and was limited to $182,000 in spending, spent just $175,000 in the election.
And that was only Gjonaj’s spending in the primary. In heavily Democratic New York City, winning the primary election is often akin to winning the seat – in fact, many primary winners will not even face an opponent in the general. But Gjonaj will have to spend even more as he takes on Republican John Cerini in November.
So how much do you have to spend to win an open seat on the city council if you’re not running in CD13? The median spent in the ten races was $155,220.
Gjonaj was not the only one to outspend his opponents and win a seat. Francisco Moya ran the second-most expensive race in the primary elections, with more than $317,000 spent on his behalf – including more than $160,000 coming from independent expenditure committees, which cannot coordinate with the candidate or his campaign. Moya, a sitting Assemblyman, defeated former state Sen. Hiram Monserrate for the Queens district 21 seat. Monserrate, who was expelled from the Senate in 2010 after he received a conviction for misdemeanor assault against his girlfriend and was later convicted on unrelated corruption charges, spent far less than Moya, around $74,000.
In Manhattan, Keith Powers and Carlina Rivera also outspent their opponents on the way to winning Democratic primaries. And Alicka Ampry-Samuel outspent Henry Butler $146,000 to $138,000 on her way to an open council seat in Central Brooklyn.
But other candidates were able to win elections while spending less than their opponents. Rubén Díaz, Sr. spent less than both of his opponents, Amanda Farias and Elvin Garcia, but Díaz, a long-time state Senator who had the support of the Bronx Democratic party, managed to win with 42 percent of the vote.
Adrienne Adams won the Queens seat vacated by Ruben Wills, who was booted from the City Council after receiving a felony conviction. Both Hettie Powell and Richard David spent more than Adams, who was the chair of Queens Community Board 12, but Adams won with 38% of the vote.
Southwest Brooklyn’s council district 43 had competitive races in both the Democratic and Republican primaries where the winners weren’t the biggest spenders. Justin Brannan was outspent by Khader El-Yateem, but still won the Democratic primary with nearly 39 percent of the vote. And John Quaglione won the Republican primary while spending less than the second place finisher, Liam McCabe.