Schneiderman Benefits from Union Donations

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The attorney general has topped even his popular predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, in raising money from organized labor.

New York State District Attorney Eric Schneiderman received nearly a million dollars in campaign contributions from union groups during his 2010 run for the office and has already received slightly more than a $100,000 this year from union groups toward his 2014 re-election bid. Analysis of campaign-finance reports reveals that unions were a major part of the first-term Attorney General’s funding structure during his successful bid for the office he now holds, and look to be so again in the future.

New York District Attorney Eric Schneiderman. (Photo courtesy of Michael Nagle/Getty Images.)

Schneiderman raised a total of $7,829,657 during the 2010 race, of which $853,942 came from unions. That amount represents an 18 percent increase from the campaign contributions the previous attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, received from unions during his campaign. Schneiderman, who took office on January, 1, 2011, received $132,196 more union contributions during his 2010 campaign than Andrew Cuomo did during his campaign in 2006, when he was given $721,746 from unions. The large amount of funding attests to Schneiderman’s close ties to organized labor. This year alone, Schneiderman’s campaign received $105,500 in donations for his reelection bid, which is two years away.

Personal as well as political connections have helped Schneiderman make fundraising inroads with labor. His ex-wife, Jennifer Cunningham, is a lobbyist for SIEU 1199, New York’s biggest union. Cunningham, who divorced from Sneiderman in 1996, was Schneiderman’s top advisor during his 2010 campaign.

“He cares about the people that’s why we back him, he works with us get things done that are beneficial to the people,” said Andy King a healthcare advocate at SIEU.Additionally, Schneiderman’s current chief of staff, Neal Kwatra, is a former union activist for Unite Here and the Hotel Trades Counsel. The largest union donors to Schneiderman’s campaign have been the health workers’ unions SEIU and SEIU local 6 and, the service industry labor union, Unite Here. All three groups gave $55,900 to the campaign in 2010. Thus far in 2012, SIEU and Unity Here! have given $15,000 a piece. The maximum contribution  to a candidate for the New York state attorney general is $60,800.

Schneiderman received campaign donations from 85 different unions in total, the majority of which were trade, teaching, public service, hospitality and healthcare unions. The list of donors includes the District 1 Communications Workers, Mason Tenders, New York State Laborers, the New York State United Teachers, the Civil Service Employees Association, AFSCME, United Federation of Teachers, New York State AFL-CIO, and the Firefighters Association. All of them made five-figure donations in 2010 to Schneiderman’s campaign.

Around the country, the topic of unions is politically polarizing, with governors in states like Wisconsin and Ohio attempting to remove some of the collective bargaining power of public workers, claiming that union contracts inflate costs and cause state budgets to swell. “In another state like South Carolina, for example, [having a strong relationship with unions] would be political suicide,” Dine continued. “However, in New York, it’s a necessity for a Democrat to court the unions.”While Schneiderman’s ties to the union may be significant, the financial backing of Schneiderman, who is a Democrat, by unions is not out of the ordinary. ”A Democratic candidate being tied to unions is about as unusual as a hot day in the summer in Washington, D.C.,” said Phil Dine, labor expert, and author of the book “State of the Union.” “New York is the most unionized state in the country, and for better or worse, unions are a big political player tied to the Democratic Party.”

Schneiderman’s current chief of staff and former union activist, Neal Kwatra, is seen here with Assemblyman Lancam in 2010. (Photo courtesy of http://assembly.state.ny.us/)

Schneiderman, who was picked President Obama to head a national mortgage-fraud task force in January, has earned reputation as crusader against corporate corruption and shares a synergy with unions in his policies, which aim to protect employees against abuse from their employers. In 2010, while still a member of the New York State Senate, Schneiderman helped to draft and pass the New York Wage Theft Prevention Act. The bill offered unprecedented protection to workers in New York increasing penalties and fines for wage theft, and added fines of up to $10,000 for employers or managers who threatened or intimidated employees.

Eighteen days after the bill was signed into law, Schneiderman was sworn in the office of the attorney general, where he has since used the law to aggressively prosecute employers and companies for not properly compensating employees. In July of 2012, in a hallmark case, Schneiderman prosecuted Alex Moreno, a car-wash owner in Brooklyn, for paying his employees below minimum wage. Moreno was sentenced to four months in jail and ordered to pay $150,000 in restitution. “When an employer blatantly violates the state’s labor law, my office will take forceful action to protect New York’s workers, including criminal charges where appropriate,” Schneiderman, who has several similar prosecutions in cue, said in a statement.

While union contributions made up a large part of Schneiderman’s campaign funding structure at 16 percent of the total, they do not compose the total picture. Fourteen percent of the former state senator’s 2010 campaign came from himself and his family, with the candidate donating $652,000 and his late father Irwin Schneiderman donating $285,000. Both men’s wealth likely comes from their work as corporate attorneys; the father and son worked at Kirkpatrick and Lockhart and Cahill and Gordon and Reindel, respectively. Schnedierman also received donations totaling $200,000 from Perry Weitz, Felecia Weitz, Arthur Lexenberg, Randi Luxernberg, the partners in the New York person injury law firm Weitz and Luxenberg and their wives. Each of the partners and their wives gave $50,000 a piece to the campaign. An additional $1,054,537 of Schneiderman’s funding came from the Democratic Party.

While New York State is a union stronghold, the topic of unions is not without controversy. In 2011, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times in support of reforming the collective-bargaining rights of public workers. “We should demand a new deal with them – one that reflects today’s economic realities and workplace conditions, not those of a century ago,” he wrote in the article. Additionally, after Schneiderman won the Democratic primary in 2010, Bloomberg donated $235,000 to the campaign of his Republican opponent, Dan Donovan.

There is also a concern that large financial contributions from unions like those given to Schneiderman can have a negative effect on the political and governing process, “the sense that it’s a financial transaction in exchange for political give back is bad for democracy,” said J. Justin Wilson managing director of Union Facts, a union accountability organization. “You don’t ever hear a corporate CEO bragging about their campaign contribution, unions on the other hand scream from the hilltops when they’ve given,” Wilson continued. “It’s done to show Democrats that they owe them something.”

The Greater New York Chamber of commerce, which advocates for business owners and corporations, however seems unconcerned that the donations have had an effect on Sneiderman, “we’re aware of when someone has become a pushover because they’ve gotten a lot of money from a particular group,” said president, Mark Jaffe. “Am I concerned with that happening with a person as of high an intellect and high a quality of public servant as Eric Schneiderman? Not at all.”

While accepting unions’ support can be polarizing, the payoffs can be worth it.  “There certainly is the risk a being seen as being seen as union puppets,” said Dine. “But, in the end of the day there are no better ground game players than unions: they organize, run get-out-and-vote initiatives, and around 75 percent of their membership votes with the suggestion of their leadership, so you get a lot more than cash when they support you.”

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