He strides in confidently, wearing a carefully starched dress shirt, sporting a pair of comfortably relaxed dad jeans. In one, he’s in front of a green screen that projects words behind him to emphasize their importance about what the candidate says is a critical issue in this campaign. In another, the background is pure, virginal white – the greenscreen is a sign he’s holding that he casually flips to reveal different campaign messages. He is Chris Jacobs, the likeable, risk-averse scion of one of the wealthiest, most prominent families in Buffalo – an elitist’s elitist. A Republican who isn’t shouty about it, he enjoys a lot of cross-over appeal, and is acutely aware of it during this year of the Trump. Politically safe to a fault, Jacobs has gotten away with neither endorsing nor rebuking his party’s Presidential nominee.
Jacobs owns Buffalo-based Avalon Development, LLC, but has been in elected office pretty much non-stop since 2004. First, he spent seven years serving as an at-large member of the Buffalo school board, was Pataki’s Secretary of State for less than a year, and succeeded Kathy Hochul as Erie County Clerk in 2012.
Jacobs’ political caution and reluctance to be drawn into controversy is well-honed. He avoids running in genuinely competitive, big-money races, and his non-endorsement/non-rejection of Trump is all talk less, smile more. On rare occasions, one can divine what he stands for from his philanthropy, the support he attracts, and his signature campaign issues. This year, for perhaps the first time in his career, he finds himself in an unexpectedly competitive race with an enrollment disadvantage, but a strong record of soliciting promotional pens from campaign contributors for customers to use at the DMV upon which to fall back.
Jacobs’ many years on the Buffalo school board revealed an affinity for charter schools and rejection of organized teachers. Critics charge that charters use public money to set up quasi-public schools that have the flexibility to act as though they were private. Although charter schools can act as a temporary Band-Aid in districts with failing schools, they divert much-needed funding from traditional public schools, which don’t enjoy the enrollment selectivity advantages of charters. Jacobs’ philanthropy includes raising money to send underprivileged kids to local Catholic schools.
Jacobs’ campaign has three platform planks right now – he’s the good guy, striding in to ha-ha joke around about term limits for Albany politicians, and withholding pensions for pols convicted of felonies. You couldn’t find two safer positions, and these constitute the foundation of his campaign. If elected, Jacobs would ensure a Republican majority in the State Senate – the same Republican majority that refuses even to address – actually blocks – the loophole that allows any LLC to max out to political campaigns, much less term limits or pension abuse. Jacobs would have no seniority – how exactly would he push intransigent members of his own party to act against their own self-interests?
Yet, for a guy whose entire campaign is founded on an apparent opposition to term limits, he doesn’t act on that principle. Over the past several years, Jacobs has contributed over $11,000 to long-term politicians, including perennials like Ed Rath, Byron Brown, Ray Walter, George Pataki, Jack Quinn, Mary Lou Rath, Sam Hoyt, Joe Golombek, and Mike Ranzenhofer. The most glaring is Dale Volker, who was a State Senator from 1975 – 2010, serving 18 terms. Jacobs gave Volker $250 in 2008; no self-respecting supporter of term limits would have donated to Volker at any time after, say, the early 80s. Why believe his words when his actions – and his wallet – contradict them?
But on top of that, Jacobs founds his entire effort on term limits and stripping convicted legislators of their pensions, but if he goes to the Senate, where’s his platform going to go? As this astute letter-writer to the Buffalo News notes, “term limits” is Republican sound and fury, signifying nothing,
That’s an easy promise to make, especially since he knows the GOP State Senate Conference won’t allow that to come to the floor for a vote. I’d say that’s true of about everything he professes he will do on arrival in Albany.
If he and his party are sincere, have Majority Leader John Flanagan and a majority in that conference come here to Western New York and sign a pledge to do just that.
Good idea! Let’s see the Republicans in the State Senate, who have controlled the Senate majority almost without interruption since 1939, run with “term limits”, and withholding pensions from the Dean Skeloses of the world. Term limits won’t happen in Albany, and there would need to be a consensus among Senate Republicans to go along with any plan to gut pensions for criminal pols. They won’t even shut the LLC loophole, so this would seem to be a non-starter. These are perhaps the most banal focus-grouped “issues” one can present. Like tea party extremists like Assemblyman David DiPietro, this is all mere shouting into an abyss. We’ll get to Jacobs’ third platform plank shortly.
Green Party Raiding & Hedge Fund Money
The local Republican party effectively raided and stole the Green Party line to split the left-of-center vote on November 8th, eroding support for Democrat Amber Small. The Greens mounted a court effort to reject this candidate, and a Supreme Court judge denied that request because the order expelling the candidate from the Green Party was not sufficiently annotated. Green Party leadership is now appealing that denial.
Jacobs’ campaign is enjoying funding from Wal-Mart heirs, who support his public school privatization agenda. Avoiding controversy in his jeans and white background, Jacobs lets the state Republican committee do most of his dirty work for him, accusing Democrat Amber Small – whose ethics are beyond reproach – of somehow being corrupt, without even a shred of evidence. He just attracted an $18,000 contribution from Manhattan hedge fund bad boy Dan Loeb, possibly exceeding campaign finance limits. Loeb is connected with “New Yorkers for a Better Albany“, which is also funded by the Walton family. Alice Walton of Bentonville, Arkansas, in just this election season, has donated $300,000 to “Moving New York Families Forward” – operating out of the same address as this pro-charter organization, $75,000 to “Campaign for a Fair New York“, $500,000 to “New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany“, apparently operated by pro-charter “Families for Excellent Schools“, (Jim Walton gave another $500,000), and $450,000 to “New Yorkers for Independent Action“, based out of a Ballston Spa law office.
Sure, Amber Small enjoys support from the state’s teacher’s union, which is a political committee funded with contributions from member teachers. But Jacobs is enjoying big-money funding from Park Street billionaires. “Campaign for a Fair New York” received $825,000 from Thomas McInerney of Bluff Point Associates of Westport, CT, $300,000 from Robert Niehaus of GCP Capital Partners, and $300,000 from Richard Cashin of One Equity Partners, and $500,000 from Russell Carson. So much money from such a small number of Manhattan and Connecticut-based private equity and hedge fund sources to influence upstate elections. Chris Jacobs – hedge fund Green.
New York’s Fair Share : The Poor Don’t Count!
Jacobs’ third platform plank is that he’ll ensure that the 60th Senate District will get its “fair share” from Albany – that New York City tax revenues are properly redistributed in Erie County. Politifact determined that Jacobs’ claim – “[a]fter how hard you work and how much you pay in taxes, New York City ends up getting the money…I think it’s time we have someone in Albany that’s making sure our region gets our fair share.” – was false. Erie County attracts much more state money for roads, bridges, economic development, education, and social services than it pays into the system.
Not satisfied to leave well enough alone, in an astonishingly tone-deaf column in the Buffalo News, Jacobs claimed that public aid for our poorest and most vulnerable residents simply doesn’t count – literally. Entitled, “WNY’s ‘Fair Share’ is Support that Builds a Community”, he categorically rejects the notion that spending on medical care, food, and shelter for poor people helps to “build a community”. After describing how Erie County drivers pay tens of millions of dollars in taxes and fees to Albany, which gets “dumped into the state’s general fund”, Jacobs adds,
As PolitiFact outlines, much of the money we get from Albany is dedicated to poverty maintenance programs. I don’t count those within our “fair share,” and you shouldn’t either. Albany and its New York City-centric policies have crushed our regional economy. As a result, thousands of businesses closed, families relocated for jobs elsewhere and young people fled the moment they finished school. Our local property tax base was devastated, leaving our area disproportionately poor and dependent on state assistance.
This is simply untrue and horrifically elitist historical revisionism. Ensuring that the poor aren’t hungry, sick, or living in squalor is not a “poverty maintenance program” – to denigrate this so is, frankly, disgusting. We will always have poor people in this country – it’s a fact of life in any country. But ensuring that they are treated with dignity and care was not what brought western New York’s economy down from its post-WW2 peak. Any suggestion that the poor caused our downfall is offensive, oversimplistic, and untrue.
Our region was heavily dependent on industries that no longer exist today as they did then. The working classes did not ship steel jobs to China, or wiper blade assembly plants to Mexico. There are myriad reasons for western New York’s decline, and they have more to do with political mismanagement – paid for and promoted by our local elites – than by working people who lived here building and making things in long-shuttered factories. These are the same elites who decided that, e.g., Main Place Mall was a great idea, or that moving UB to an Amherst swamp would be swell, or that closing off Main Street would revitalize downtown. Blaming the poor for the effects of a global economy is craven. America’s post-industrial shift from a blue-collar town into a knowledge-based, service-oriented economy has been slow and acutely painful in cities like Buffalo (and also in similarly situated rust belt cities). To blame the poorest and most powerless for western New York’s long decline is to insult our intelligence. They need more support – not insults or novel “stab in the back” theorems.
Now, our residents shoulder some of the highest property tax rates in the nation, and the most burdensome cost on local governments and school districts is unfunded mandates from the state. Albany policies have not only diminished our prosperity, but increased our spending. This is never accounted for in the ledger.
Despite comments to the contrary, the status of the Niagara Power Project as a local asset was confirmed by the State Legislature in 2012 with the creation of the Western New York Power Proceeds Allocation Board and the setting aside of economic development funds specifically for Western New York. Other “state assets,” such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, are not held to the same criteria, and revenues stay there. Why is Niagara different?
A Democratic Congressman, Brian Higgins, was instrumental in the local redistribution of NYPA wealth. Before he intervened, it was all squandered in Albany. Jacobs equates NYPA with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; the energy that Niagara Falls generates can be transported by wire to points throughout the state. The services of the PANYNJ, (airports, tunnels, shipping, buses, trains, etc.) are location-specific. As recently as 2011, the PANYNJ found itself in a financial crisis – something NYPA never experienced. People have called for the abolition of the Port Authority for all the standard reasons why independent authorities are little pockets of inefficiency and corruption, but NYPA is different from PANYNJ because they do different things.
Getting our fair share is about infrastructure, education funding and economic development – state support that builds a community, doesn’t tear it down. It’s funding, and it’s policy. In fact, much of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s rhetoric around the need for the Buffalo Billion revolved around this “fair share” principle, and Albany’s ignoring of Buffalo for decades. Given the positive attention that program has gotten us, I think it’s safe to say we’re happy he didn’t just look at the ledger and say, “Nope, no problem here.”
What Jacobs is saying here is that “getting our fair share” doesn’t count when it means feeding and caring for our the poor; instead, “getting our fair share” is all about roads, and doling out billions of dollars for politicians and developers and businessmen to cut deals so that they can, e.g., avoid paying taxes and fees in exchange for creating jobs, and then whining when anyone tries to hold them to that promise. Ultimately, downstate subsidizes upstate, and I fail to see how providing care for our poor doesn’t count.
Chris Jacobs’ central argument is that our “fair share” is about redistributing tax revenues to pay for things that matter to upper middle-class white people throughout New York State.
Jacobs’ Attacks on Amber Small
Someone at the State Republican Committee discovered that linking a generic Democratic candidate with New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio might pay dividends. I can’t imagine that a lot of people in Buffalo are concerned about De Blasio, if they even know who he is. Nevertheless, the Jacobs campaign and organizations supporting him are spending big bucks on TV and direct mail pieces trying to link Small with De Blasio, or to Albany corruption.
These links don’t exist.
First of all, Jacobs is as much a beneficiary of downstate money as anyone, so he can’t go after Small for taking it too – at least, not with a straight face. Secondly, there simply exists no link between Small and De Blasio – none whatsoever. They’ve never even met. What Jacobs and the Republicans have done, however, is essentially to defame Small and the campaign consultancy firm she retained, Millennial Strategies. Millennial never did any work for De Blasio, but did do some campaign work for a union that was questioned as part of an investigation into De Blasio’s fundraising activities. Millennial did nothing wrong, and is not a target of any investigation.
But the literature from the NY GOP shows a horribly Photoshopped picture of a woman covering her mouth, and Small’s head is superimposed. It says Small was, “CAUGHT!” – “sending tens of thousands of dollars to a political consulting firm under state and federal investigation for a campaign finance scam”. There is no investigation, there is no scam, and “sending tens of thousands of dollars” means “hired”. “The firm Small hired is under investigation for their [sic] role in the campaign finance scandal where New York City Mayor Bil de Blasio funneled contributions to upstate State Senate races to try to seize control of our [sic] state government.” It then goes on to parrot this story about Erie County Democrats paying a Brooklyn consultancy firm.
To call this tenuous is a dramatic understatement.
A Google search of Millennial Strategies and De Blasio reveals nothing about any “scam” or “investigation”. Millennial was accused of working simultaneously for campaigns and the PACs that supported them, but produced evidence that they had erected a wall to ensure compliance with prohibitions on coordination. There is no there there, and to smear Small with this is incredibly false.
On another tack, Republicans hit Small for attending a fundraiser that incumbent Marc Panepinto hosted with Tim Kennedy. If anyone thinks that Small and Panepinto are on good terms, remember that Small announced her candidacy – and her intent to primary Panepinto – before he decided to withdraw under a cloud of controversy. If anything, Panepinto had to be drawn kicking and screaming into co-hosting a fundraiser for a Democrat looking to succeed him after only one term.
Jacobs’ Money to Bush
Geoff Kelly wrote about this in “Anatomy of a Smear“, but I don’t think it should be so quickly dismissed.
Jacobs’ girlfriend, Martina Rehorik, was his campaign volunteer in 2011, and they began dating during that effort. Rehorik was rewarded in mid-December 2011 with a job at the Clerk’s office as a document clerk earning $26,000 per year. She was able to start two weeks before Jacobs was sworn in as Clerk. By January 11, 2012 – less than a month later – Jacobs promoted Rehorik to be his “Special Assistant”, earning almost $38,000 per year. As of July 8, 2013, Rehorik was also running Jacobs’ pen donation program, and by the time she left the State’s employ in February 2014, Rehorik was in a position at the Clerk’s office earning a over $40,000 per year.
As Geoff pointed out, someone in Rochester filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission, alleging that Jacobs funneled funds through Rehorik to the Jeb Bush for President campaign, thus bypassing maximum campaign contribution limits. On June 29, 2015, Jacobs maxed out to Jeb at $2,700, and on May 28th had given $250 to Jeb’s “Right to Rise” PAC. On July 15, 2015, Rehorik also maxed out at $2,700 to Jeb.
Rehorik’s only prior contributions were a $25.00 donation to the Marilla Republican Campaign Committee in October 2011, and a $100 donation to Walter for Erie County in July of 2015. The $2,700 donation seems wildly out of line with her prior giving and reported salary level. Check out the occupations:
The biggest problem with the story, which I pointed out to a Democratic elected official who conveyed it to me a few weeks ago, is this: The address attached to Rehorik’s donation is the same as Jacobs’s on Saybrook Place in Buffalo. They were living together. No one was trying to hide anything. If a married couple gave $2,700 each to a candidate, would anyone worry about who earned the money? Or from whose bank account the donations were drawn? Why shouldn’t an unmarried couple, living together, do the same?
The addresses don’t match. I redacted Jacobs’ because it’s his home address, but not Rehorik’s, which is given as a P.O. Box. As for marital status, sure it doesn’t matter, but if the Queen had testicles, she’d be the King. If a married couple gave $2,700 each to a candidate, no one would bat an eye, because it’s legal and allowed. It’s only since 2013 that married gay couples can combine their contributions. Note that Rehorik also lists her employment as “County Clerk”, working for “Erie County”, but she had left that office over a year earlier. What gives? This isn’t just some nothing about a cohabitating couple who should just be treated as married because reasons.
Rehorik is, individually, perfectly free to contribute the max to any candidate she wishes, and anyone bringing up her immigration status is playing xenophobic games. But there is a legitimate question here of whether she donated her own money, or Jacobs’ money – the former is allowed, but the latter is not. Change the law if you don’t like it, but this smacks of illegality.
What also galls me is that Republicans are quick to jump all over, say, Mark Poloncarz’s brother’s job at the Water Authority and the Board of Elections, yet when confronted with almost an identical level of apparent nepotistically fueled patronage, everyone just dummies up. It doesn’t work that way.
Chris Jacobs got his girlfriend a job at the Clerk’s office, and promoted her at least twice. Unmarried, and using different addresses, they both maxed out to Jeb Bush’s campaign, although it’s highly doubtful it was her money.
Chris Jacobs may very well make a very capable State Senator, and he’s certainly a nice and personable guy, but he is neither untouchable nor beyond reproach. Hey, guess what? Amber Small would also make a very capable State Senator, and is a very nice and personable woman. The difference here is that Jacobs and his hedge fund charter school allies have mercilessly and falsely attacked Small, and tried to make her out to be some sort of corrupt career politician when she’s just an average Buffalonian working hard to make a positive difference in her community, and she’s never held public office before.
During the primary, Jacobs and his allies accused Small of illegally using her non-profit’s offices for political purposes. That was a contemptible lie – her campaign bought an ad in the Parkside Tour of Homes program. All this garbage about Bill De Blasio is a similar lie.
Above all, however, Amber believes that all people matter – whether they’re poor and on assistance, or wealthy property developers. She doesn’t draw the line