‘We Are Taking Names of People Who Did Not Support Israel’: Dark Money Mobilizes to Oust NY Progressives
Political action committees backed by pro-Israel donors are ramping up efforts to oust NY progressives they see as being on the wrong side of the Israel-Hamas conflict.
10:30 AM EST on December 7, 2023
Last month, on the morning of the last high holiday of the Jewish calendar, Gil Cygler raced between five synagogues in his Mill Basin, Brooklyn neighborhood to learn details about the Hamas attacks that were unfolding in Israel.
"This year it was very down," Cygler said. "No one was in the mood to sing and dance. It wasn’t a time to just be happy."
The following day, pro-Palestinian protesters gathered in Times Square and chanted "Resistence is justified when people are occupied," a message that earned a stern rebuke from Governor Kathy Hochul and most New York Democratic leaders. But a handful of left-wing politicians, some of them supported by the Democratic Socialists of America, which had promoted the rally, did not denounce the demonstration, and others issued statements referencing Israel’s history of Palestinian occupation and oppression.
Cygler, who spent years building a rental car empire, said he wasn’t surprised by the rally or the remarks—he had been fighting against DSA-backed politicians for years. But he found that others in his staunchly pro-Israel social circles were now suddenly paying more attention, and eager to make campaign contributions to his cause.
"October 7 galvanized a lot of prominent people in the Jewish world," Cygler said. "In the past, they thought, 'I’m not going to change anything,' but now I’m hearing them say, 'We have to do something.' This is the straw that broke the camel's back."
Cygler is part of a group of centrist-to-conservative donors whose motivations vary, but share a staunchly pro-Israel worldview. Their campaign spending helped persuade legislators to claw back reforms to the state's bail system and stymie bills that would have protected tenants from eviction. In the aftermath of the Hamas attacks that killed 1,200 Israelis and Israel’s bombardment in Gaza that killed 10 times as many Palestinians, these donors have a new wedge issue to divide Democratic voters—using socialist lawmakers' position on the conflict to oust them from office—and are planning to spend overwhelming amounts to do so.
The result of these expenditures and research will be an onslaught of mailers, websites, op-eds, and targeted online ads identifying politicians' stances on Israel that run throughout next year, according to the six politically connected sources who spoke with Hell Gate for this story.
"These are people who are against us and they can’t be in government," said one source who is connected to a real estate-backed political action committee, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. "We are taking names of people who did not support Israel in its time of need and we’re going to consider the political consequences."
The group includes Ronald Lauder and Thomas Tisch, the billionaire heirs of cosmetics and hospitality fortunes respectively, who nearly got Republican Lee Zeldin elected governor last year; political operatives who work with Jewish philanthropic organizations; Democratic party funders who keep close relationships with Democratic bosses; and ultra-conservative, Republican financiers who manage hundreds of millions of dollars. While they don't act in lockstep, some of them share consultants and some contribute to each other’s PACs, campaign accounts that can spend unlimited amounts of money for or against a candidate.
Since October 7, a few of these consultants and donors have been monitoring the statements and social media posts of left-wing politicians. Employees at Mercury Public Affairs, which works with a PAC controlled by the billionaire Thomas Tisch and other donors, even compiled a document with posters, chants, and videos of DSA-affiliated politicians attending a "Ceasefire Now" rally in Midtown on October 20, and disseminated it to journalists as a form of opposition research. A Mercury rep said that the research efforts were not funded by Tisch’s PAC but declined to reveal which of their clients asked them to track legislators' comments for the purpose of candidate research.
According to several sources close to the PACs, one of their top targets is Queens Assemblymember Zohran Kwame Mamdani, who authored legislation that would allow the state attorney general to dissolve any charity that funded Israeli settlement activities in Palestinian territories.
Mamdani dismissed the threat. "My politics are a reflection of Astoria’s politics," the lawmaker said in a statement. "And if an outside PAC wants to attack me for believing that universal values of life and dignity should be extended to Palestinians, then I welcome them to meet my neighbors."
These PACs are also looking to target Brooklyn State Senator Jabari Brisport, and Brooklyn Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynes, Queens State Senator Kristen Gonzalez and Brooklyn Assemblymember Emily Gallagher, as well as Brooklyn Councilmember Shahana Hanif who is up for re-election in 2025.
One DSA-aligned official, Brooklyn State Senator Julia Salazar, may escape their fury because of her close relationship with the city’s Hasidic community and because her positions on Israel were deemed more mainstream, sources said, though someone is certainly combing through her team's social media feeds: A New York Post story unearthed anti-Israel tweets a staffer made on the October 7 attacks, and Salazar subsequently fired that employee.
Many of these PACs have spent heavily in recent elections to defeat left-leaning Democrats, although most of their efforts to date to unseat DSA-affiliated electeds have come up short. Lauder shoveled $11 million into his Safe Together New York PAC for Zeldin, and spread more cash among a smattering of congressional Republicans. Tisch dumped another $750,000 into his Safe New York City PAC for Zeldin, backed Bronx Representative Ritchie Torres, a staunchly pro-Israel Democrat, and spent $15,000 in June in digital ads and a website opposing Councilmember Hanif over her positions on public safety and Israel, despite lacking an opponent (Hanif declined to comment).
This year, political strategist Jeff Leb, a former Democratic operative and UJA Federation of New York manager, deployed $517,000 from donors that included real estate brokers, property managers, and physicians, to sway 13 City Council races this year, according to New York City campaign finance records. His PAC, Future NYC, supported a slate of moderate Democrats, including Bay Ridge Democratic Councilmember Justin Brannan who edged out his Republican opponent, Councilmember Ari Kagan. Michael Nussbaum, the president of Eagle Urban Media, which publishes the Queens and Brooklyn Daily Eagle, supported Republicans Vickie Paladino and Ari Kagan through his PAC. And Cygler’s PAC, People Enhancing New York, spent $19,500 on five races this year, including $5,000 to help Brooklyn Council candidate Chris Banks topple outspoken socialist Charles Barron. He also took credit for pressuring Kristin Richardson Jordan, an outspoken Harlem Council member, out of running for re-election earlier this year.
Then there’s the country’s most powerful pro-Israel organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is planning to unleash $100 million in ads against progressive members of Congress in primary races next year. The lobbying group has also been behind the successful effort to recruit Westchester County Executive George Latimer to run against Representative Jamaal Bowman next year (they are not expected to invest in state and local races, according to multiple sources).
Not everyone agrees on their targets. For instance, Leb said that his PAC won’t spend in a race where a left-wing Democrat and a moderate Republican are squaring off but will invest in a primary between two Democrats where one has what he described as "extremist" views on homelessness, crime, and Israel.
"It happens to be that the DSA is wrong on all the issues that we care about. It’s pretty easy to say that they are our primary target," Leb said. "If people refuse to condemn Hamas and refuse to call for the release of hostages, then I don’t care how good your argument is."
For nearly a half-century, ambitious New York politicians were sure to schedule excursions to the "Three I’s"—Ireland, Italy, and Israel—due to their status as nations they needed to visit to cater to the city’s predominant ethnic voting blocs.
As New York’s Democratic electorate became more diverse, Ireland and Italy’s importance began to shrink while legislative trips to Puerto Rico as well as the Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries grew. But a network of Jewish philanthropic groups continued to bankroll trips for City lawmakers to travel to Israel to visit holy sites and meet with governmental counterparts. The UJA-Federation paid for Hochul’s visit last month before Hochul reimbursed the group amid pressure, while the Jewish Community Relations Council led a tour with 13 City politicians in November. Both organizations sponsored Mayor Adams’s three-day trip to Israel in August.
Even though state and local officials don’t have a say in foreign policy, Jewish leaders have sought to influence lawmakers about the history and significance of the U.S.-Israel relationship in order to support the Jewish community and stamp out proposals that they believe would harm Israel’s interests, including efforts to curtail trade and investment in Israeli companies known as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).
"New York Jews consider their voice to matter and they expect elected officials at all levels to be responsive and understand the importance of Israel," said Jonathan Kopp, a partner at FGS Global and board member of J Street, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports Israel and has opposed a ceasefire in Gaza. "And it does end up mattering at City and state levels when there is legislation to pass BDS or to ban charitable contributions to the West Bank."
Progressive candidates critical of Benjamin Netanyahu’s increasingly right-wing government began winning state and local races in the early 2010s, often with the help of PACs backed by a coalition of organized labor groups that often bolster candidates regardless of their position on Israel. By the middle of the decade, the BDS movement had grown far beyond college campuses, prompting then-Governor Andrew Cuomo to issue an executive order permitting state agencies to stop investing with companies endorsing boycotts.
But New York’s donor class didn’t pay much attention to the rise of democratic socialism in local politics until Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez toppled House Democratic Caucus chairman Joe Crowley in 2018. A wave of DSA-aligned candidates won state office that year too, and with the help of mainstream Democratic leaders, passed sweeping tenants rights legislation the following spring.
Other measures such as bail reform and stringent climate regulations garnered notice, but the 2019 rent reforms in particular jolted the real estate community awake, multiple donors said.
"A lot of the real estate industry is on the pro-Israel side, even if they have been quiet, but I think those two movements together will be significant," Cygler said. "The residential market is getting killed with rent laws."
Leb has been soliciting donors and collecting research to determine which races he will get involved in next year, while Cygler has been meeting with business associations and Brooklyn Democratic Party officials to identify and recruit candidates for the next two cycles.
Polls have shown that half of Democrats do not approve of how President Biden has handled the Israel-Hamas war one month after the attack. But Jake Dilemani, a Mercury Public Affairs partner who consults with several donors, believes Democratic voters in New York will punish DSA-backed candidates deemed insufficiently supportive of Israel once they hear more about their positions.
"It sends a signal, if you’re going to behave this way and be on the wrong side of issues, there are going to be consequences," Dilemani said. "You won’t only hear from far-left activists singing praises of everything you do. There’s another side, and it’s going to attack you and make your record known."
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