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Ratner, no longer a campaign contribution "refusenik," is already investing in Cuomo and DiNapoli 2010

Those studying the history of campaign finance reform might conclude, by reading a 2002 book (described below) by reformer and former New York City Comptroller Mark Green, that Brooklyn developer Bruce Ratner is a prominent "refusenik," having set himself apart from the sullied system that gets candidates elected in New York.

They'd be wrong. Ratner has long been back to playing the game. As I wrote way back in February 2008, Forest City Ratner notably gave $58,420 to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee's Housekeeping account, part of soft money system the New York Times editorial page later dubbed (without reference to Ratner) "sewer money."

And there are more gifts from his company and a relative to Housekeeping accounts, as I write today, even as Gov. David Paterson proposes major campaign reform legislation.

There's more. On 1/23/09, I reported on Bruce Ratner's $3000 campaign contribution to Assemblyman Darryl Towns. Ratner (as did others from Forest City Ratner) gave $3000 to Mill Basin Assemblyman Alan Maisel, who reliably supported AY at the Empire State Development Corporation public hearing last July. He gave $3000 to Assemblyman Karim Camara.

Looking ahead to 2010

More recently, in a look ahead to next year's statewide elections, Ratner gave $5000 to Andrew Cuomo 2010. (He hasn't given to Gov. David Paterson's campaign, though Cuomo, now Attorney General, is expected to challenge the sitting Governor.)

And he gave $2000 to DiNapoli 2010, the campaign committee for Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. (Both Cuomo and DiNapoli have been asked by state Senator Bill Perkins to weigh in on the legality of the Brooklyn Arena Local Development Corporation, or BALDC).

Both such gifts would be banned if Paterson's reform legislation limits contributions to $1000.

Green's hagiography

In his book Selling Out: How Big Corporate Money Buys Elections, Rams Through Legislation, and Betrays Our Democracy, Green groups Ratner under "The Refuseniks," in a section titled "Bruce Ratner: From Donor to Reformer." The book, however, focuses on Ratner's role in campaigns for city office, not for state office.

Drawing on a Village Voice report, Green notes that Mayor Rudy Giluiani's campaign staffers described Ratner as "The Man" in a seating chart for a 1997 fund-raising dinner.

Ratner four years earlier had been a top fund-raiser for incumbent Mayor David Dinkins when he four years earlier had defeated Giuliani, but the issue went way beyond ideology. In fact, Ratner raised more than $100,000 for Giuliani that year.

Perhaps because it would detract from his heroic narrative, Green leaves out a tidbit from Wayne Barrett's 4/29/97 article, headlined GOTTERDAMMERUDY: OPERATIC FUNDRAISER HITS LOW NOTE OF COMPROMISE:
Despite his many publicly assisted projects and campaign extravagance, Ratner, a onetime Liberal Party district leader and consumer commissioner, was so camera-shy that he spent much of the evening ducking a Voice photographer.
That's par for the course for Ratner in the AY saga.

In the system

After describing how Ratner moved from the Department of Consumer Affairs to the development business, Green shows how Ratner became enveloped in the system:
He was first solicited for a campaign contribution by his former boss, when Koch was running for a third term in 1985. Ratner gave out of loyalty and friendship, but in doing so, he opened the floodgates.

In an interview at Forest City's headquarters at MetroTech, Ratner described why he became one of New York City's biggest fundraisers--and why, after a career that included a night in the Lincoln Bedroom, he's no longer in the money game.

"Once it's known that you give," Ratner began, "everybody solicits you. When you do business with the city, you get solicited by everyone from U.S. senators down to members of the City Council." He gave generously to a variety of candidates. "There was an anxiety that, if we didn't give, we might not be able to get a meeting, that it might hurt our development efforts, hurt our access."

...So Ratner fund-raised because he felt he had to, but he didn't like it. "It was very unpleasant. I didn't enjoy it. It's very difficult to ask people to give to someone that they may not believe in, and very few people want to contribute the amounts that were being requested. I would much rather ask people to give to a charity that I'm involved with.
Charity, of course, has been another Ratner strategy, for example giving via the company's foundation to Borough President Marty Markowitz's concert series and borough institutions like the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Business vs. personal

Green writes:
While his fund-raising in New York City was business, the Democrat's fund-raising for Bill Clinton was personal.
Indeed, Ratner gave $4600 to Barack Obama's campaign, while many others in Forest City Enterprises gave to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's less likely bid. But Richardson just happened to support a major Forest City project in his home state.

Distaste with system

Green describes Ratner's growing distaste with the campaign finance system:
By 1997, he says, "the fund-raising got out of control. I found myself giving and raising money for candidates that I didn't necessarily believe in and didn't believe that they would do the best job." In one case, the Brooklynite [sic--Ratner lives in Manhattan, works in Brooklyn] recalls with distaste giving thousands of dollars to a state legislator, with whom he had little in common politically, because another politician he supported had asked him to do so...
Isn't this exactly what his brother, the constitutional lawyer Michael Ratner, began doing in recent years, supporting Brooklyn machine candidates?

Change of heart

Green writes of the developer's change of heart:
After the 1997 mayoral election, he had had enough. He quit, cold turkey (except for a few favored personal friends).

...Rather attributed his change of heart to the "huge quantities of money that were being raised," to "the public's loss of faith in government"--and to the connection between the two. He was also worried about his company's public reputation, which he feared was suffering as a result of his high-profile political fund-raising.
And Ratner in 1998 helped bankroll an effort to get full public financing of elections on the ballot, an initiative that didn't make the ballot but helped lead to City Council reforms of the campaign finance system.

Perception and reality

Green concludes:
Calling the new law a "tremendous victory," Ratner said he was "overjoyed" to have supported the effort. In his view, public financing is "seminal to a democracy because you can't have a small group of people with a few agendas dominate the political process. It goes against democracy and it happens all over the country," he concluded. "The average citizen will see it that way and it really gives them a lack of faith in government and democracy. The perception is an important as the reality." And the reality, as few know better than this former fund-raising phenom, is that contributions buy friends in high places.
What's missing

Well, the city--rather than state--campaign finance system has been reformed significantly. But the full story includes contributions by Ratner, his colleagues, and his company to candidates for not just city offices, but more importantly state and even federal ones.

After all, while Forest City Ratner in the 1990s was building big box stores and thus especially needed access to city officials, in the current decade a project like Atlantic Yards, overseen by the Empire State Development Corporation, is the province of state officials like the Governor, the Comptroller, and Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

And state campaing finance laws haven't been reformed. So Forest City Ratner is even hosting fund-raisers for the likes of Senator John Sampson.

Post-AY coverage

So an article published shortly after the Atlantic Yards project was announced is now well out of date. Newsday reported (Ratner Breaks the Mold, 1/23/04):
Though [Bruce] Ratner’s company still spends significant funds to lobby City Hall, Ratner a few years ago sharply cut back on donating funds to political campaigns - an unusual move for a real estate developer.
“He decided this was getting him into trouble, because every time he won a project, people would say it was because he gave money,” said former city Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, who has known Ratner for 34 years.
Ratner's still giving.

Another look at the old Bruce Ratner

In her 1996 memoir Who Said It Would Be Easy?: One Woman's Life in the Political Arena, former Congresswoman, Brooklyn DA, and city Comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman writes approvingly of Ratner:
Other contributors seemed to expect favors, although I can recall one exception. Bruce Ratner, a former commissioner of consumer affairs in New York City, because a successful developer. He supported me in my initial bid for comptroller and even raised money for my campaign. After I took office, I had to vote on a development project of Bruce's in the Rockaways. I considered Bruce to be a very responsible and thoughtful person, but in this case environmental questions arose about the development, and I ended up voting against it. Bruce was angry at my vote. But he still supported me and told a friend that it was important to have people in office who will vote against their contributors. Most contributors aren't as broad-minded.
Well, maybe, maybe not. Remember that scene from the New Yorker profile of Borough President Marty Markowitz in which the developer, not the BP, seemed in control:
“Yes, sir, how are you doing, Bruce?” Markowitz said, picking up the handset and falling silent as he listened. Bruce Ratner, it appeared from Markowitz’s responses, had some urgent questions about the way discussions concerning waterfront development in Williamsburg and Greenpoint might affect his own project. Markowitz, whenever he could get a word in, tried to be both conciliatory and upbeat. “I understand,” he said; and then, “I wish I knew, but I don’t know”; and “It’s hard for me”; and “That’s absolutely right.” Finally, he told Ratner to call someone in his office—better yet, he would have that someone call Ratner.