Ahead of the 2021 primary election in June, a prominent law firm whose lobbying arm regularly weighs in on zoning matters and housing bills has poured thousands of dollars into candidates long rumored to be contenders for the next Council Speaker.
The Cozen O'Connor Political Action Committee, created by their eponymous Philadelphia-based law firm, has so far contributed $13,275 to candidates in mayoral, comptroller, borough president, and New York City Council races, according to campaign finance records for the 2021 cycle. While the funds amount to a comparatively small sum when compared to independent expenditures, they stand among the top PACs to contribute funds to 2021 candidates so far.
Benefitting the most from the PAC are council members, including three incumbents who have been rumored to be considering a run for Council Speaker since 2018. The leader of the 51-member Council—currently Corey Johnson, who's term-limited—helps set the agenda by assigning members to all committees and prioritizing bills for a vote, including rezoning proposals in the city. (Outside Council races, the PAC also contributed to Scott Stringer.)
The Council incumbents, all elected to office in 2017, include Brooklyn's Justin Brannan, the Bronx's Rafael Salamanca Jr. (currently the council's Land Use chair), and Manhattan's Keith Powers. While Salamanca Jr. and Powers each received the maximum allowable PAC contribution of $1,000, Brannan received $750. Brannan, who chairs the Committee on Resiliency and Waterfronts, also received $500 from ACEC New York City PAC, another Cozen-tied PAC, campaign records show. Powers also received an additional $500.
In a statement, Salamanca Jr. said as Land Use chair for nearly five years his record has shown that "campaign contributions have never influenced my vote." He added that he's "approved over 7000 units of 100% affordable housing, [...] mandated a 15% homeless set aside and got it passed into law" and rejected the "Southern Blvd rezoning because 90% of the empty lots were privately owned and I believed it would of led to displacement of my constituents. I’m also the lead co-sponsor of the Racial Impact Study for rezoning."
In an emailed statement, Brannan said he is not swayed by donations.
"I just voted in favor of Intro 1116-B, which Cozen lobbied strongly against," Brannan said, referring to a bill expanding the number of street vendor permits. "So no, I'm not influenced by donations. That's not how I operate."
A spokesperson for Powers reiterated as much, saying that "contributions have no bearing on any outcome or decision.”
The contributions come at a time when New York's real estate industry faces greater scrutiny from progressive groups that have mobilized against expansive projects while championing greater protections for New York City residents. It also comes on the heels of defeats for the real estate lobby, including a move by developers of Industry City to back out of a rezoning application, blaming a "lack of leadership" on the part of New York City government.
The hostility toward the real estate lobby can grossly impact the interests for Cozen, which has an office at One World Trade Center. City records show its lobbying arm had represented 66 clients in 2020, with just under half of them related to real estate. In 2020, clients included Chris Papamichael, the principal owner of a property in Gowanus, a neighborhood in the middle of a massive rezoning battle; Two Trees Management Inc., which seeks to build a beachside community on Williamsburg's River Street; and the National Civic Art Society in relation to a redevelopment project at Penn Station.
City records show the Cozen O'Connor law firm's lobbyist to be Stuart Shorenstein, who also chairs Cozen's PAC. A call to the PAC was not returned.
George Artz, a seasoned consultant on New York City politics, said PACs are not necessarily looking to buy lawmakers but to simply get into their appointment book.
"Access to the speaker is extremely important," Artz said. "If you can get in the door, you can argue your case. And you might even persuade him or her to go along with you, but he or she is not going to do anything without a feeling from his caucus."
Kenneth Fisher, a fellow lobbyist for Cozen who works with Shorenstein and doubles as Cozen's land use attorney, said there were no strings attached to the contributions, telling Gothamist that any suggestion of a quid pro quo are "insulting to the elected officials and to us to think that somebody could be bought to the small amounts of money that the New York City campaign finance law allows us to contribute."
He added, "The reason that these are candidates for speaker and other leadership positions in the Council is because they are among the brightest, hardest working, accessible, and effective members of the Council."
While most of the candidates have accepted the money, others have returned it. They include Council Member Mark Levine, who's running for Manhattan Borough President; and Council Member Brad Lander, who's running for comptroller.
"It's hard for, in many cases, a normal New Yorker to know the points of access on something that matters," Lander said. "So there's nothing untoward about a firm building relationships and people hiring them. But if those firms have also contributed to those same elected officials, then I think the public would might raise their eyebrows and ask questions about potential conflicts of interest."
Fisher, who said the City Council's failure to embrace the Industry City's rezoning would cost thousands of jobs, argued that PAC campaign contributions do not carry the same influence as they might once have in NYC, given the city Campaign Finance Board's 8-to-1 matching funds program, in which individual donations can go even further.
"A lot of the Council members have decided not to take any PAC money or any real estate money. And that's their choice. And then I think it illustrates the fact that they don't need the money. Nobody's dependent on PAC money anymore," Fisher said. "Nobody's dependent on contributions from firms like ours. That's why the campaign finance law is so transformative."
The story's been updated to reflect that the PAC contributed to Stringer's campaign only.