hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues October 2015


Will money change votes?

In Saratoga, a new political group raises cash — and draws criticism


Contributing writer



Control of the city government in Saratoga Springs is at stake in the Nov. 3 election, with contested races for four of five City Council seats. Thomas Dimopoulos photo

A fund-raiser in late June at a Broadway sports bar marked the beginning of a new campaign to shape the future of Saratoga Springs.
The gathering raised an initial round of donations for the newly formed Saratoga Political Action Committee, or Saratoga PAC, which counts some of the city’s leading real estate developers among its supporters.
And the event made clear that the group plans to play a major role in the lead-up to the Nov. 3 election, in which every elective office in the city government is at stake.

About a month after its fund-raiser at the Stadium Café, Saratoga PAC filed its first required campaign finance report with the state Board of Elections. The report showed it had so far collected contributions from 217 donors totaling more than $46,000. And the group’s chairman has said he expects to raise more than $100,000 for this fall’s campaign.

That’s a considerable sum for a local election in this city. Even the $46,000 Saratoga PAC raised in its first month is more than three times the total raised in the first half of the year by the city’s Democratic and Republican committees combined. The city has a population of 30,000 that includes about 17,000 registered voters.

What’s not clear yet is exactly how Saratoga PAC plans to spend its money. The group recently mailed a “quality of life” survey to 14,000 city homes, and its 13-member board has been meeting privately with candidates for city office -- in preparation for making endorsements.

In public statements, though, Saratoga PAC’s leaders have been decidedly vague about its agenda. On its Web site, for example, the group says it wants to “enable Saratoga Springs to continue its positive momentum and adapt to changing times.”

Critics, though, say the group represents a transparent effort by wealthy developers to change a city government that over the past year has blocked at least two major projects – a proposed five-story parking garage downtown and a $30 million golf resort proposed for the city’s outer greenbelt district – in response to public opposition.


Rise of the Super PACs
The practice of donating money to political candidates goes back nearly to the nation’s founding, and attempts to regulate political donations go back nearly as far.

Political action committees have been around since at least the 1940s, when the Congress of Industrial Organizations, a federation of labor unions, formed a PAC to raise money in support of the re-election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Campaign-finance laws enacted after the Watergate scandal in the 1970s attempted to limit the influence of big-money donors by capping the amounts that individuals may donate to the campaigns of particular candidates.

But the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case allowed individuals and businesses to make unlimited donations to so-called “super PACs” that operate independently of candidates and political parties. Super PACs aren’t allowed to donate directly to candidates or coordinate strategy with their campaigns, but they can run ads that support or criticize candidates by name.

Although Super PACs have since become common in federal and state campaigns, organizing this type of large-scale fund-raising operation in local elections is something relatively new.
“By and large, it seems a very rare phenomenon,” said Robert Turner, an associate professor of politics and government at Skidmore College.

Turner cited a handful of cases of PACs becoming involved in local politics, including in a recent city council election in North Carolina and a school board election in New Jersey.
He predicts they’ll become more common in local elections in the years ahead, however.

A return to the GOP?
Like Saratoga County as a whole, Saratoga Springs historically was predominately Republican. But control of the city government has seesawed back and forth between Republicans and Democrats in the past 15 years as its population has grown – and as voters have become more concerned about quality-of-life issues like protecting open space. Most recently, Democrats have held a majority on the City Council since the 2011 election.

Some see Saratoga PAC’s emergence as an effort to tilt the balance of power back toward the pro-business agenda of the GOP. But the group’s leaders say it is nonpartisan.

Saratoga PAC’s chairman, Robert Manz, said his group will support candidates at the local and county level and might get involved in races in neighboring towns. As of late September, he said the group hadn’t yet decided which candidates to back.

“We’ve been interviewing candidates in Saratoga Springs, evaluating the Malta race, and looking at things at the Saratoga County level, and a firm decision will be made after that process is complete,” Manz said.

Manz, who lives in Saratoga Springs, is chief operating officer of D.A. Collins, one of the largest construction and development companies in the region.

“Our goal is to support a balance between expanding economic opportunity and protecting our environment, while enhancing the quality of life in Saratoga Springs and Saratoga County,” Manz said.

Mayor Joanne Yepsen, a Democrat seeking a second term in November, said she met with the board of Saratoga PAC but isn’t interested in having its endorsement or financial support.
“I thought the meeting went well, and basically told them what I would tell anybody,” she said. “And that is: We’re already doing a lot of these things, and you guys could get involved, and then you wouldn’t need a PAC. I think people form PACs because they see a gap forming someplace.”
But Yepsen’s challenger, Republican John Safford, seemed more willing to embrace the PAC and the agenda of its donors.

“There are no mixed emotions about the PAC to me,” Safford said. “I support their vision. I support their side of this from a business perspective. My understanding is a lot of the people who support the PAC normally support the Republican mayor.”

In fact, many of the group’s donors did previously contribute either to Republican mayoral candidates or to the city or county Republican committees, according to filings at the state Board of Elections.


‘Independent’ organization
Manz said that as an “independent expenditure committee” under state campaign finance laws, Saratoga PAC may not contribute funds directly to a candidate’s campaign. But the group can advertise in support of, or in opposition to, specific candidates. It can also offer endorsements.
The PAC is not supposed to coordinate with individual candidates’ campaign organizations.
Safford, the Republican mayoral candidate, described how this process works.

“What they can do if they want -- and I would not be sad if they did -- is they can take out ads in support of me,” Safford said.

He said Saratoga PAC provides “a counterbalance” to Sustainable Saratoga, a local nonprofit organization that has, for example, strongly supported development restrictions in the city’s outer greenbelt area.
Candidate endorsements will be decided by the 13 members of the Saratoga PAC board – a group that includes local developer Sonny Bonacio; Stewart’s Shops President Gary Dake; David Collins, majority owner of the D.A. Collins construction companies in Wilton; and Cindy Hollowood, the general manager of the local Holiday Inn and former chairwoman of the state Hospitality and Tourism Association.

Manz said he anticipates the group will make endorsements “three weeks prior to elections,” which would mean the group would reveal its choices in mid-October.


Battles over development
Development pressures and the preservation of green space are perhaps the most contentious issues now facing Saratoga Springs city officials. On one side are those who say the city needs to keep growing to remain successful; on the other are those who say too much development will hurt the city’s quality of life and an its “city-in-the-country” character.

Two development-related controversies have dominated the debate for much of the past year. One is a proposal by the City Center, a local convention and exposition hall, to build a five-story parking garage on Maple Avenue, a block east of Broadway, on one of the last remaining undeveloped parcel’s in the city’s urban core.

The other is a proposed expansion of Saratoga National Golf Club into a year-round “destination resort” with a hotel and other amenities near Exit 14 of the Northway – in the city’s outer “greenbelt” area, where such development is currently prohibited.

Both proposals have been debated extensively in recent months at City Hall, and current members of the City Council, all of whom are up for re-election next month, have been deeply divided.
Saratoga PAC is in favor of both a City Center parking garage and the expansion of the golf course.
Manz said the Saratoga National project would offer “a significant benefit to the tax base and the tourism in Saratoga.” And a parking garage across from the City Center would help Saratoga Springs remain competitive with Albany and Schenectady counties, where a new convention center and a full-scale casino are expected to be developed in the near future, he said.


Who’s donating
As of its most recent state campaign-finance report, filed in July, major contributions to Saratoga PAC included:
• $5,500 from Stewart’s Shops Chairman William Dake and his son, Gary;
• $5,000 from local developer Sonny Bonacio;
• $5,000 from Michael Toohey, a lawyer who has been representing Saratoga National Golf Club in its quest for expansion, and his wife, Linda;
• more than $4,400 from companies related to D.A. Collins, a major construction company in Wilton, and members of the Collins family;
• $2,500 from Jeffrey Vukelic, president of Saratoga Eagle Sales & Service, a local beer distributor;
• $2,500 from James LaVigne, whose firm, Gavin & LaVigne, specializes in financing capital projects for hospitals and nursing homes; and
• $2,000 from J. Thomas Roohan, owner of Roohan Realty, and his wife, Margaret;
• $2,500 from DeCrescente Family LP, which owns a beverage distributing company based in Mechanicville;

The PAC also received smaller donations from, among others, the president of Saratoga Hospital and two current members of the city Planning Board, Tom Lewis and Clifford Van Wagner.
The group’s major expenditures so far include about $2,200 to the Stadium Café, which hosted the June fund-raiser, and nearly $9,400 to an Albany-based company that prepared and mailed the group’s survey, the results of which hadn’t been released as of late September.

Mixed reactions
The arrive of Saratoga PAC has prompted the formation of a counter-organization on social media whose members call themselves “Scrap The PAC.” Efforts to contact the group’s leaders for this story were unsuccessful.

Among candidates seeking office in the November election, the response to the PAC has been mixed.

William McTygue, a Democrat seeking the post of city public works commissioner, said he isn’t opposed to meeting with members of Saratoga PAC but that he wouldn’t accept the group’s financial support.

“I don’t want their money, but I’d like their support” as voters, he said. “I’d like everybody’s support.”

Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen, a Democrat seeking a third term, has adamantly opposed Saratoga National Golf Club’s proposed expansion in the city’s greenbelt. In his campaign literature, he has pledged to “stand firm against Saratoga PAC and developers who want to re-zone and weaken our greenbelt.”

Mathiesen is expected to face a strong challenge from Richard Wirth, the Republican he unseated in 2011. Wirth has said he would vote in favor the Saratoga National proposal.
In a meeting with board members of Saratoga PAC, Wirth said he “basically explained my ideas.”
“I haven’t heard back anything yet,” he added. “I guess they have to go through a process. They listened. I have no idea what they’re going to do as a follow-up.”

Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan, a Democrat who like Mathiesen is seeking a third term, said she would be willing to meet with the PAC board to discuss issues, but she is not interested in being interviewed for an endorsement.

“I feel very strongly about controlling my campaign message, so I would not want them to use their money to market on my behalf,” Madigan said. “But there really isn’t anything I could do to stop them, good or bad. They could market against me; they could market for me. I think it would be important for constituents to realize that if it doesn’t say ‘Paid for by Citizens For Madigan,’ I didn’t necessarily endorse that message.”

Kenneth Ivins, the Republican challenging Madigan in an effort to regain the seat he lost in 2011, said he is “willing to talk to anyone about the issues.

“I’m going door-to-door and talking issues,” Ivins said. “I want to hear what Sustainable Saratoga has to say, I want to hear what the PAC has to say, and everybody in between.”