What does Kathy Hochul need $5 million in promotional content for?

Support from outside funders urging people to support the governor’s budget priorities has raised eyebrows about her negotiating position.

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With budget negotiations fully underway in Albany, Gov. Kathy Hochul is getting some help from the outside in pushing her agenda. The nonprofit American Opportunity, which has ties to the Democratic Governors Association, has been sending out a flurry of mailers and paying for television ads promoting Hochul’s budget proposals. And new reporting from The New York Times revealed that billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is bankrolling the group to the tune of $5 million.

The interference from Bloomberg to urge everyday New Yorkers to promote Hochul’s budget priorities begs the question: Does this unusual influx of cash indicate weakness? And the potential for the success of the largely untested strategy remains as murky as the nonprofit’s funding.

Turning to the public to pressure their representatives to support the governor’s budget is something of an unusual tactic for Hochul. Some of the mailers exhort New Yorkers to “tell (their local representative) to have Gov. Hochul’s back.” “That’s a lot to ask the voter to do in a relatively short period of time,” former state Democratic Party Executive Director Basil Smikle told City & State. He called it “an indirect use of power that’s somewhat untested in relation to what prior governors have done.” Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo benefited from an advocacy group called Committee to Save New York that raised $17 million in 2011 for radio and TV ads pushing his agenda and helped to fight against the influence of labor, with whom he often sparred at the beginning of his tenure. But Smikle said that the kind of budget advertising happening now, particularly in asking people to lobby their lawmakers, is different.

Even though the governor has incredible power and influence over the budget process, so far Hochul has appeared hesitant to use it. “It’s an indication that she feels like she’s losing even with the great executive power she has,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the government watchdog group New York Public Interest Group. “I think it’s a way to further strengthen… her hand negotiating with the Legislature.”

At a press conference on Tuesday, Hochul told reporters that she has not spoken with leaders in the Democratic Governors Association about the spending on her behalf, adding however that she was “grateful” to have the support of other governors. But even if no coordination happened, the perception of her power could play a role as well. “(They) may be doing it in part because they believe she needs the support,” Smikle said of donors giving to American Opportunity and the group’s spending. He noted that the emboldened Legislature with its two supermajorities has left Hochul less leverage than some of her predecessors.

The sentiment that Smikle mentions rings true at least among one leading lobbyist who said that top fundraisers were reaching out to members of the real estate industry for donations to American Opportunity. “They were like ‘We need her to be seen in a positive light during budget negotiations,’” the leading lobbyist, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about private fundraising matters, told City & State.

Despite his big dollar donations to national causes, Bloomberg has largely stayed away from weighing in on state-level politics. Even when Hochul first ran for governor last year, he did not offer public or financial support for the governor. So the $5 million gift to American Opportunity, which has spent millions to promote Hochul’s budget, represents a marked shift for the billionaire philanthropist. “It did come as a surprise to me that he would go into an Albany fight when I first read (this) because he usually goes for larger initiatives than doing this,” veteran Democratic strategist George Arzt told City & State. 

Still, Hochul’s budget includes issues that Bloomberg cares about, including expanding charter schools and making changes to bail reform. Whether he decided to spend his cash for those reasons or to assist a fellow moderate Democrat at odds within the face of an increasingly progressive Legislature is unclear. But his involvement could serve to further alienate members, particularly in the state Senate that has had a tense relationship with Hochul since it rejected her chief judge nominee. “While (the ad campaign) may garner some support in the public, I doubt very much whether it will help in the Legislature,” Arzt said. “In fact, the left wing members probably consider Bloomberg to not share their values.” Already, Bloomberg’s involvement has faced backlash from leftwing legislators, who rallied against his cash influencing state politics on Wednesday.

Not everyone agrees that the outside spending indicates weakness on Hochul’s part. “I don’t think it shows a lack of power by the governor, but rather a lack of resources by the governor,” Arzt said. But Hochul has millions in her campaign account that according to Horner she could have spent on direct appeals to voters about her budget. But he also noted that since the law does not preclude coordination with officials or political candidates by 501(c)4 nonprofits, which can engage in some political activity, using outside sources would certainly save money in her coffers for her next reelection.