Yet even among those who gave the maximum $5,000, few said they were willing to put their votes where their money went.
De Blasio got their $5,000 donations, their votes are another matter
NEW YORK — As Mayor Bill de Blasio enters the 2020 presidential race, an exclusive group of people would seem to be natural allies: the 115 people who contributed $458,000 to his federal political action committee.
Dozens of interviews conducted by The New York Times with de Blasio’s donors provided a snapshot of his lukewarm support for president — even from a self-selected group of people willing to spend thousands of dollars to help the New York City mayor in his federal efforts.
De Blasio’s fundraising targets resembled those from his mayoral campaigns, as he tapped familiar sources of money from the middle rungs of the construction and real estate industries, and from ethnic business communities in and around New York City.
They said they gave to de Blasio’s federal committee, known as Fairness PAC, for a variety of reasons. Some pointed to his record as mayor. Some said they did so to have a chance to talk to the mayor. Others donated after being asked by another member of their community.
“Honestly speaking, I was asked by a co-worker if I can help, and I did,” said Nail Capri, an executive at a roofing and restoration company who contributed $5,000 in 2018. In March, Capri also attended a fundraiser for the mayor, a Democrat, that drew attendees mostly from New York’s Albanian community.
So is de Blasio your candidate for president?
“For me, personally, no,” he said.
The same could be said for a better-known $5,000 donor: billionaire media mogul Barry Diller.
“I’m certainly not a supporter of him running for president. I’m not a supporter of anyone at the moment,” said Diller, who is funding the construction of a park-island on Manhattan’s west side. “He was very helpful to us in building, and supportive of building, the island that we’re building in the Hudson River.”
“And that’s why,” he said.
At least Diller recalled the $5,000 donation to de Blasio’s federal committee. Howard Gottlieb, an Illinois political donor, said he could not even remember making his $5,000 contribution, one that federal filings show occurred in October.
“I’m 95 years old,” he said. “Do you think I remember every dime that I’ve ever given to anyone, especially as insignificant as that?” He added that he had no interest in seeing de Blasio as president.
“For president? No,” he said.
De Blasio’s fundraising practices have brought him scrutiny for years, including from federal and state prosecutors. Those inquiries ended without charges, but the Manhattan district attorney, in 2017, wrote that de Blasio violated the “intent and spirit” of the law.
As he raises money for his federal political action committee, he has said he goes further than is required by refusing donations from people listed in the city’s “doing business” database. De Blasio has defended his fundraising as legal and appropriate.
But that computerized database does not include many potential donors with active financial interests in giving to the mayor.
In recent months, as he entertained a run for president, de Blasio allowed a Boston-based construction firm seeking to expand its presence in New York City to play host to a fundraiser for him. He has raised money from those seeking to influence city business through lobbyists and from a local Democratic fixture, Frank Carone, who was in the middle of an active real estate negotiation with the city.
“There’s nothing wrong with the mayor’s fundraising,” said Carone, a lawyer and fixture in the Democratic Party in Brooklyn who gave the mayor $5,000 in 2018 while he was negotiating a real estate deal with the city. “If asked, I would be happy to support the mayor as he runs for president.”
The Times first asked donors why they decided to donate to the mayor; for those who didn’t immediately hang up, a second question followed: Do you think he should be president?
Out of 35 people who stayed on the line long enough to hear the question, five said yes — including a lawyer in Pennsylvania, an architect in Brooklyn and a woman on the upper East Side. Seven said no, and the rest either expressed no preference or declined to say.
Alex Tourk, a San Francisco public relations executive who gave $5,000 in September, had kind words for de Blasio. But as a presidential candidate? “I am supporting Sen. Kamala Harris,” he said of the California Democrat.
Several less well-heeled donors said they had given to de Blasio’s committee not so much out of personal support for the mayor’s mission, but because of interpersonal ties in particular immigrant communities.
Donations to Fairness PAC clustered around a handful of such events: one fundraiser in 2018 in Queens drew many Asian American donors; another tapped into bonds in an Indian American community on Long Island.
An event in March saw a large number of Albanians gather for the mayor in a private room at Joseph’s Italian restaurant in lower Manhattan. The host, Ilirjan Rusi, said the event attracted a range of small-business people, restaurateurs and those who work in the building trades. “The Albanians like the photo ops!” he said, laughing.
(That night’s haul might have been offset by Rusi’s brother, Selim, a longtime supporter of de Blasio’s: Records show that a month earlier he had donated $41,000 to President Donald Trump’s re-election.)
What about a President de Blasio? “I don’t know,” said Rusi, who owns a contracting company.
“Well, somehow I guess I’m going to have to support him,” he allowed. “He’s the mayor and everything.” (He expressed greater fondness for Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and was seeking to organize a fundraiser for him.)
At the home of Maninder Sethi in the village of Old Westbury on Long Island, several dozen people gathered in fall to hear from the mayor and donate. Many of those present gave relatively small amounts, in the hundreds of dollars, and said they were brought together by common communal bonds, not by affinity for de Blasio.
“It was at my uncle’s residence,” said one attendee who runs an online cellphone store and requested anonymity to discuss his $4,500 contribution. “My uncle asked me to donate, and I did it.”
Ravishankar Bhooplapur, the president of a medical school in Aruba, donated $500. He said he gives to “both parties” but had been a longtime supporter of the mayor, and would support his bid for president.
“Whether he appeals to the rest of the country, I don’t know,” he said of de Blasio. “As a New Yorker, I would love to have him.”
David Jiang, who described his business as importing and manufacturing, said he gave $5,000 during a Queens fundraiser in 2018 because “it just seemed like this was an opportunity to meet the mayor and give my point of view.”
“I support both sides,” he added.
For the moment, pricey fundraisers are not de Blasio’s focus: He’s seeking donations as little as $1 to $3 from thousands of people, to meet the Democratic Party’s 65,000-donor threshold to qualify for the primary debate stage in June.
The mayor opened his federal political action committee in July, presenting it as an effort to help Democrats in state and federal races. Of the nearly $500,000 raised last year, only a small fraction went to 2018 candidates. (The next filings will be released in July.)
“The mayor has been very clear that all official decisions are based on merit,” said de Blasio’s campaign spokeswoman, Olivia Lapeyrolerie, adding that a “campaign finance plan” for the presidential run would be released soon.
Many donors had correctly viewed his federal efforts, starting in 2018, as a precursor to a 2020 presidential campaign.
“I don’t recall exactly what he said, but my assumption was that it was for his presidential ambitions,” said Scott Nash, who owns a chain of organic grocery stories in the Mid-Atlantic region and, along with his wife, gave a total of $10,000. “I like the guy. He’s my kind of politician. Do I think he’s going to win? No.”
“I’m a very pragmatic liberal,” he added. “Right now, for me, it’s Joe Biden.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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