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Ronald Lauder: New York’s billionaire political disruptor

Ronald Lauder: New York’s billionaire political disruptor

Ronald S. Lauder, 78-year-old cosmetics heir, philanthropist and art collector who is among the richest people in New York, this fall became the state’s most prolific political donor in living memory, fueling a growing Republican bid for governor in one of the most liberal states in the country.

Mr. Lauder has long been a storm-trooper, throwing millions of dollars behind conservative causes and candidates, including creating term limits in New York and even his own failed mayoral campaign. Now in the twilight of his public life, he is channeling his multibillion-dollar fortune behind a remarkable intervention in this week’s midterm elections.

As the lead donor to two super PACs, he has spent more than $11 million to date trying to make investments Representative Lee Zeldin, a pro-Trump Republican, in the governor’s mansion. Millions of dollars more, some previously unreported, went to successful legal and public relations campaigns to prevent Democrats from sweeping the state’s congressional districts.

The rise of Republican contests in left-leaning New York can be traced to a myriad of factors, from rising crime to waning Democratic enthusiasm and the usual backlash in the middle.

But there is no doubt that Mr. Lauder I tilted the field for my party. Since he began spending on a slew of attack ads, Gov. Kathy Hochul, the Democratic front-runner, has watched voting and fundraising advantages that once seemed insurmountable slip away. And Democrats fighting to keep the House of Representatives have seen their blue protective wall crumble.

Exactly what motivates Mr. Lauder’s spending has been the subject of heated debate.

Ms. Hochul and her allies say he is driven by self-interest and a desire to support a candidate who wants to repeal the estate tax and punish a governor who is moving forward with an offshore wind farm he opposes. Some of Mr. Lauder’s former associates have speculated that he sees the potential for a new Republican king in New York and wants to play king.

But in a rare sit-down interview last week, Mr. Lauder said his main goal was straightforward, even selfless: He fears rising crime is driving people out of the city and wants to take advantage of an unusually favorable political climate to try to revive New York’s moribund Republican Party after years of losses.

“I’m not an ogre,” he said, over tea at Café Sabarsky, a Viennese-style cafe in the Neue Galerie, his Upper East Side museum dedicated to the culture of prewar Austria and Germany, another of his lifelong, and expensive, passions.

“It’s a question of one thing I believe, I’ve always believed,” he continued. “I want two parties. I want a republican party and a democratic party. When you only have one party, I believe things go wrong.”

Mr. Lauder’s outside spending is allied with some of the most prolific political donors across the country, who have poured ever-increasing sums into Senate and White House races through super PACs with few legal restrictions. But his spending is unlike anything New York has seen before in a governor’s race. Campaign finance experts said they fear it could be the start of an arms race that could change contests for decades to come.

Ms. Hochul spent more than a year raising a $50 million war chest from her deep-pocketed donors — including Mr. Lauder’s brother, Leonard — at hundreds of fundraising events that Republicans often attacked as ethically dubious. Mr. Zeldin himself raised only half of that. But with only a few checks (including one for $250,000 the day he sat for the interview) to super PACs, Mr. Lauder and a small group of other big donors have narrowed the gap significantly and funded what amounts to a shadow campaign apparatus.

In recent weeks, television commercials funded by Mr. Lauder have become ubiquitous throughout the country. Over ominous music, they link Ms. Hochul to rising crime and prosecutors such as Alvin L. Bragg, Manhattan’s first black district attorney, an elected official who Mr. Zeldin considered soft on crime.

One of the super PACs, Safe Together New York, also paid for newspaper ads, Zelda lawn signs and SMS campaign spreading out-of-context claims about crime.

“It’s Lauder vs. Hochul, or Hochul’s army,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a good-government group that analyzed the race and found that Mr. Lauder accounted for nearly half of all pro-Zeldin spending from August to the end of October. “It is extraordinary and unprecedented and a real threat to democracy.”

The campaign of Mr. Zeldina declined to comment for this story, but he applauded the super PAC’s past support and encouraged big donors to follow Mr. Lauder’s lead. And as Republican spending increased, wealthy donors and unions raced to fund their own pro-Hochul super PACs, albeit at a fraction of the size.

Lauder’s efforts were not limited to individual candidates. He paid the money last year a $3 million campaign by the state’s Conservative Party to defeat three constitutional amendments that would have lowered barriers to voting but also made it easier for Democrats to wrestle congressional maps this year.

Later, after the democrats made their way to Albania maps that favor their partyMr. Lauder quietly invested the money sue, helping to convince other donors to join him. Its funding has not been previously reported.

Prosecutors won and new, more neutral maps were created in court, paves the way for Republicans to make gains in the House this fall.

“There’s no way we could have succeeded in redistricting without Ronald Lauder,” said John Faso, a former Republican congressman who helped organize the lawsuit and now helps run another super PAC backed by Mr. Lauder, Save Our State Inc. He and Mr. Lauder declined to say how much the billionaire spent.

But where Mr. Lauder sees a boon for democracy, his critics see a mockery of the democratic process that could send a democratic state into four years of conservative rule.

“He’s a walking example of the vileness of the Citizens United decision,” said Michael Gianaris, the Democratic state Senate leader who lost to Mr. Lauder in a redistricting lawsuit. “The ability of someone with unlimited wealth to pervert democracy by spending untold millions to distort elections is the whole reason why campaign finance reform is so important.”

There is no real limit to how much groups can raise and spend as long as they are separate from the actual g campaign. Zelda. But the country’s top election watchdog now he is seeking a subpoena as part of an investigation into whether Mr. Zeldina violated state law by coordinating with Save Our State and Safe Together New York.

Multiple individuals appear to have overlapping roles with the PACs and the campaign of Mr. Zeldin or the states that coordinate with her, including Allen H. Roth, vice president of the Conservative Party and adviser to Mr. Lauder he’s close to: His office, located near Estée Lauder’s headquarters, is just down the hall from the billionaire.

Although he has spent far more money on art and philanthropy for Jewish causes over the years, large political giving is not new to Mr. Lauder. He has spent at least $35 million over the past few decades endorsing mostly Republicans in state and federal office, including about $200,000 for former President Donald J. Trump. He also spent seven figures on campaign to preserve entrance exams for elite public high schools in the city, like the one he graduated from.

The most expensive race in which he invested so far was his own. In 1989, when Mr. Lauder ran for mayor in the Republican primary against Rudolph W. Giuliani, he is spent 14 million dollarsor about $33 million in today’s dollars.

In 1993 he mounted a successful campaign to impose two four-year term limits on New York politicians, much to their chagrin. (2008 he briefly he turned and gave his blessing Michael R. Bloomberg, a fellow billionaire, to seek a third term as mayor.)

Despite his willingness to support Republican goals, Mr. Lauder is not fully aligned with his party’s policy, or with Mr. Zelda’s. He said he supports “a woman’s right to choose”, while Mr. Zeldin has long sought to limit abortion rights.

In Mr. Lauder’s view, he is more of a political outsider — a remnant of a once-thriving strain of moderate Rockefeller Republicanism.

“I’m Chingachgook,” he joked, referring to the fictional Indian chief in James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans.”

He rejected the voice of Mr. Zeldina for nullifying the 2020 election, but also refused to defend the former president, whom he has known since college: “I’m not here for Trump, I’m here for the Republican Party.”

If there is one issue that unites Mr. Zeldin and Mr. Lauder, it is crime. Mr. Lauder said he was bothered that Ms. Hochul did not push harder to reverse changes to the state’s bail law that barred prosecutors from seeking cash bail for less serious crimes. Mrs. Hochul worked on tightening law, but Mr. Zeldin made its abolition the centerpiece of his campaign.

“You couldn’t pay me to get on the subway,” Mr. Lauder said, adding that he didn’t want his children and grandchildren “to have to go with bodyguards.” (Mr. Lauder travels with a bodyguard.)

“He sees the city moving in the direction it went in the mid-1970s,” said Richard D. Parsons, a former chairman of Citigroup and one of Mr. Lauder’s closest friends. “He doesn’t want to see it. I understand that too.”

But some around Mr. Lauder have another, less charitable theory about what drives his bid to elect Mr. Zelda. For years, Mr. Lauder and his wealthy neighbors in Wainscott, a hamlet in the Hamptons, have been fighting to prevent the state from allowing a wind transmission cable to run near their properties.

Last October, just months after Ms. Hochul took office, Mr. Lauder hosted the new governor at his Park Avenue duplex for dinner. For Mrs. Hochul, it was a chance to make good with one of the most powerful men in town. Mr. Lauder used it as an opportunity to talk about the wind farm, according to two people familiar with the conversation.

The project is currently proceeding according to plan, part of Ms. Hochul’s ambitious effort to decarbonize the country.

Mr. Lauder rejected the idea that the governor’s decision influenced his own.

“I had dinner with her,” he said. “I’m not doing it for the sake of it.”

Anyway, Mr. Lauder’s spending now made an enemy of Mrs. Hochul. She checked him out at a fund-raiser last month, complaining that after a year of fundraising she was still badly in need of money because Democrats had not anticipated Mr. Lauder’s decision to jump into the race with such enthusiasm.

In a brief interview, Ms. Hochul said she believed he was motivated not by personal animus but by self-interest.

“It’s not beef. That’s what they will get in return,” she said, citing Mr. Zelda that he will reduce taxes, including large estates. “Ron Lauder will get a lot more than a thank you from Lee Zeldin.”

And Mr. Lauder scoffed at the suggestion.

“It has nothing to do with money for me, the millionaire’s tax,” he said. “Honestly, if I were the other person, I would have already moved.”

Regardless of the outcome this week, Mr. Lauder said he had no plans to follow his friends to Palm Beach, Florida. His home and his art are in New York.

Besides, Mr. Lauder has other plans on election night. While other supporters of Mr. Gathered at the party, Zeldin will greet friends and fans at the Neue Galerie for the opening of a new exhibition of some 500 works, including a nearly 600-year-old Flemish tapestry and an 800-year-old walrus ivory chess piece from the personal collection of Ronald S. Lauder.





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