New York pols will have to take all that undue influence exerted on them by lobbyists — to go.
Lobbyist- and fat cat-laden fundraisers near the Capitol in Albany while the Legislature is in session have been all but curbed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than 150 campaign fundraising events usually take place from January through June and dozens would normally have already been held or scheduled.
But many lawmakers are now staying home rather than trekking to Albany, conducting legislative business and fundraisers virtually instead.
“I lost 15 pounds because I’m no longer eating pigs in the blanket,” quipped one veteran lobbyist of the break from the fundraising circuit. “I feel much better. My cholesterol is down.”
The lobbyist said he would typically have an eight page list of in-person campaign fundraisers by this time. Now his list only includes three fundraisers — two of which are virtual.
The Albany insider is relieved — and his wallet is heavier.
“Everyone is chasing you for a buck. The pressure to give is enormous. That pressure has subsided because of the pandemic,” the lobbyist said.
State senate candidates can raise a maximum $7,500 from individuals for a primary election and $11,000 for a general election. Assembly candidates can accept $4,700 each from individuals for primary and general elections.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Albany’s most prodigious fundraiser, who is known to hold events with donors dependent on state actions during budget negotiations, also has gone virtual. His celebrity-studded birthday fundraiser in December was on Zoom.
Conversely, the pandemic has decimated Albany’s catering halls and bars and restaurants, dependent on events held by lawmakers when the legislature is in town.
The building that houses the University Club, a 27-room hotel and catering hall, is now up for sale.
In order to survive, the University Club’s general manager, Mimi Fahy, said she now offers “to go” food and beverage options for lawmakers hosting virtual fundraisers.
“We have developed a ‘to-go’ fundraiser option for virtual fundraisers. They can call me and order 20-25 dinners to go,” Fahy said.
The offerings promoted on the website include chicken parmigiana, linguine with white clam sauce, spaghetti and meatballs, and cheesecake.
Most of her 27 lodging rooms, normally full pre-pandemic, sit empty.
Other venues are barely hanging on such as the Fort Orange Club and Iron Gate Cafe while others are closed, including City Beer Hall, Pinto-Hobbes and Public House 42.
The elimination of in-person events has made fundraising more challenging for legislators. Some donors said their spam filters are blocking email fundraising solicitations from incumbents and other candidates.
“I would say it [campaign fundraising] has slowed down during the pandemic. But part of that is that so much goes directly to spam. We have all adjusted our spam filters to cut down on unsolicited emails that have increased so substantially in the virtual world the pandemic has imposed on us,” said Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the NYC Partnership, the city’s influential business trade group.
As for the virtual elimination of in-person fundraisers, she said, “Silver lining, but much harder to keep up on the gossip!”
Bronx Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz said he held an Albany fundraiser early last year before the pandemic hit, but that’s no longer in the cards.
“It’s going to be harder to raise money. People who contribute like to meet you. I’ve enjoyed the fundraising events over the years. You get to schmooze with people,” he said.
Dinowitz, who represents the Riverdale area, said last year he dedicated more time to personally calling regular donors for contributions and will likely do so again until the COVID-19 outbreak fades away.
One veteran Albany watchdog said the suspension of in-person fundraisers doesn’t mean the politicians aren’t raking in cash.
“I assume now the campaign contributions are much more likely to flow through something like Venmo rather than a wicker basket outside a meeting room where people are drinking cheap wine out of plastic cups and eating pigs in a blanket,” said Blair Horner, of the NY Public Interest Research Group.
“The pandemic has fundamentally altered the way Albany operates and this is one of them but the money still has to flow.”
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