New York State

Charter school super PAC targets state Sens. Robert Jackson, Gustavo Rivera

New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany has spent more than $200,000 so far in three New York City state Senate races.

New York State Senator Robert Jackson (left) and New York State Senator Gustavo Rivera (right)

New York State Senator Robert Jackson (left) and New York State Senator Gustavo Rivera (right) NYS Senate Media Services/Flickr

A billionaire-funded super PAC meant to support conservative educational reforms has spent more than $200,000 so far to unseat two incumbent state senators, Robert Jackson and Gustavo Rivera.

New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany reported spending $126,000 on production and dissemination of a digital ad supporting Miguelina Camilo, who is challenging Rivera in the state Senate District 33 Democratic primary in the Northwest Bronx. The group has also reported spending  $95,000 on a digital ad backing Angel Vasquez, who is taking on Jackson in state Senate District 31 in Upper Manhattan and the West Bronx.

Gothamist first reported that the super PAC had spent $7,500 backing incumbent state Sen. Kevin Parker, who is facing an energetic challenge from Democratic Socialists of America-backed David Alexis. But these new, significantly larger expenditures have not yet been covered. 

Big money donors

As an independent expenditure group, New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany has no limits on the donations it takes in, or the amount of money it spends, as long as the people working for it do not coordinate with the campaigns of the candidates it supports. So while billionaire investor Daniel Loeb can only personally donate $11,800 to Camilo’s campaign, as he did in May (plus another $11,800 from his wife Margaret Loeb on the same day), he can donate $250,000 to the super PAC – as he did on July 14. 

Other major donors include Walmart heir Jim Walton, who has contributed $525,000 since May, and hedge funders Paul Tudor Jones, Rob Granieri and Ian Schaad. Loeb, Walton and Tudor Jones have all been public supporters of charter schools and alternatives to the traditional public school system. The donors have also supported some other conservative causes, as well as Republican candidates. Loeb recently gave to Republican gubernatorial candidate Harry Wilson, and Ian Schaad gave $50,000 to the state Senate Republican campaign committee last cycle. 

New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany was formed in 2014 to support Republican candidates for state Senate, when Democrats were making an aggressive effort to flip the chamber and win a majority. Donors like Loeb and Tudor Jones have been making huge contributions to the committee since then. Though now, with Republican control of the state Senate out of reach, it’s more focused on supporting relatively moderate, pro-charter school Democrats. In the June primary, New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany spent in support of Democratic Assembly Members Inez Dickens, Eddie Gibbs and Jeffrion Aubry, and all three won their competitive primaries by comfortable margins. The super PAC is an arm of StudentsFirstNY, a pro-charter education reform advocacy group. 

“New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany has a proud history of supporting candidates who advocate for education reform and parent choice,” Crystal McQueen-Taylor, chief advocacy officer at StudentsFirstNY, said in a statement emailed to City & State. “We are thrilled to support Miguelina Camilo and Angel Vasquez for state Senate, and are excited to see what they will bring to Albany.” 

Super PAC support earns criticism

Jackson and Rivera are both running for reelection as progressive stalwarts and were eager to criticize their opponents for winning the support of conservative billionaires. Jackson’s campaign took aim at the fact that Vasquez is a former teacher, who later worked as a deputy political director for the United Federation of Teachers – traditionally the chief political opposition to groups like StudentsFirstNY. 

"It’s sad and disgraceful that our opponent who talks about being a teacher has sold out our children to the hedge fund billionaires,” Jackson campaign spokesperson Richard Fife told City & State. “Robert Jackson has taken on the special interests and fought his whole life to improve our public schools."

Vasquez’s campaign distanced itself from the charter advocates’ message.

“As a former teacher and an education policy expert, Angel Vasquez is committed to supporting public education for all families and has also demonstrated his commitment to supporting our labor workforce by having worked on several key policy initiatives including the passage of legislation in New York to combat the impact of the Janus vs. AFSCME Supreme Court decision,” Yeison Lopez, Vasquez’s treasurer, wrote in a statement referencing the 2018 Supreme Court decision that barred unions from requiring nonunion employees to pay fees to cover negotiations. "Our campaign is focused on bringing our message to voters and has no control over, contact with, or thoughts about outside spending."

McQueen-Taylor, who represents the super PAC, said Jackson “refuses to engage” on issues like “school choice,” and she’s “optimistic that Angel Vasquez will bring the fresh and open-minded perspective that the district is yearning for.”

A digital ad running on Facebook and Instagram produced by the super PAC doesn’t get into details about policy, just saying that Vasquez will “fight to keep the streets safe, build better schools and strengthen local businesses.”

The digital ad for Camilo also largely avoids education policy, simply saying she will “protect a women’s right to choose, invest in education and make New York affordable for everyone.” The ad wrongly says Camilo is running to be the first Dominican woman in the state Senate. Marisol Alcantara, who was defeated in her state Senate reelection bid in 2018 by Jackson, is a Dominican woman. Vasquez was her chief of staff.

Rivera campaign spokesperson David Guirgis took aim at the super PAC for spending against the incumbent. “Corporations and outside interests could have spent $125,000 on funding education or training programs in the community. Instead, they’re using it to attack a sitting senator who has been a fighter for education and working families his entire career,” he wrote. “The Bronx is not for sale – and we need a state Senator who can’t be bought and sold.”

Camilo’s campaign also distanced itself from the spending. “As you know, candidates have no coordination and should have no coordination with independent expenditures and that is the case for us,” read a statement from Camilo. 

There is one connection between the two, however. The firm Moonshot Strategies counts both StudentsFirstNY and New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany as clients. A senior vice president at Moonshot, Jason Laidley, lobbies for StudentsFirstNY. He also consults directly for Camilo’s campaign with his other firm, London House. Laidley told City & State that in his campaign role, he’s firewalled completely from StudentsFirst and any independent expenditure work they’re involved in. A statement from Camilo said the same: “my campaign consultant and one of his employers have also taken all necessary precautions to not have any crossover of information between his two separate roles.”

More spending to come?

A representative for the super PAC declined to provide information on how much more it planned to spend, and on which candidates. But the committee account reports having about $1 million on hand, as of August 1. StudentsFirstNY also has an associated political action committee called New Yorkers for Putting Students First, that is able to donate directly to candidates, and its contributions may suggest future priorities for the super PAC. That committee has donated directly to Camilo, as well as three other Democrats: state Sen. Joe Addabbo; Assembly Member Nathalia Fernandez, who is running for the open state Senate District 34; and Andrea Smyth, who is running for the open state Senate District 43, in the Capital Region.