Meet the Moguls Fueling Lee Zeldin’s Super PAC Boost

New York Focus found six big spenders who have poured money into PACs backing Kathy Hochul’s Republican challenger.

Colin Kinniburgh   ·   November 4, 2022
Lee Zeldin speaking at the 2019 Turning Point USA Teen Action Summit. | Illustration: New York Focus

This story was published in partnership with City & State.

NEW YORK HASN’T elected a Republican governor in 20 years. And, by most measures, it’s hard to imagine it will on Tuesday. Governor Kathy Hochul not only has Democratic incumbency on her side, but has also amassed a record campaign war chest. The $49 million she’s raised represents the largest political fundraising haul in state history — and more than doubles that raised by her Republican challenger, Representative Lee Zeldin.

Yet her lead over Zeldin has narrowed. In recent weeks, as Zeldin has climbed in the polls, his side has seen its own funding surge. Since late August, two pro-Zeldin super PACs have raised more than $11 million from six donors alone — outpacing the amount Zeldin has pulled in from direct contributions. These PAC donations, from a select few heirs and business titans, are among the largest personal contributions to political campaigns in the state’s history.

Their candidate of choice isn’t the sort of moderate Republican one might expect to end up at the helm of a blue state. A staunch Trump backer, Zeldin voted as a member of Congress against certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. Like fellow Republicans across the country, he and his allies have hammered Democrats on what he calls a “crime emergency” in the state. The larger of the two pro-Zeldin PACs, Safe Together NY, has spent millions in recent months on attack ads declaring that Hochul has “failed to keep us safe.” 

Although barred from coordinating directly with candidates, outside PACs offer a key advantage: Contributions to them are not limited by campaign finance law, so the super rich can hand over as much cash as they want.  

Hochul had no comparable apparatus on her side until just days ago, when Democrats formed a new super PAC in a scramble to parry the Republican attacks. (It’s not yet clear how much it has raised or spent, as the PAC was created after the last major filing deadline before the election.)

So who’s behind Zeldin’s home-stretch spending spree? While some of the donors are well known in New York political circles, others have kept a much lower profile. Here’s a look at the campaign’s biggest individual backers. 

RONALD LAUDER: $9.05 million to PACs, $61,000 to Zeldin

Leading the charge on Zeldin’s side is a familiar face in New York politics: cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder. Drawing on the Estee Lauder fortune, he has been a longtime backer of Republicans at all levels of government and one of the all-around biggest donors in state politics for at least 20 years. He is active in pro-Israel causes and has been president of the World Jewish Congress since 2007. In 1989, Lauder ran his own self-funded campaign for New York City mayor, but he lost the Republican nomination to Rudy Giuliani. Since then, he has focused on backing other conservatives.

Lauder’s backing for Zeldin is unparalleled: His more than $9 million in donations to the two PACs supporting the campaign eclipses those even of the Republican Governors Association, which jumped into the race with $1.2 million in PAC funding in October. After Tali Farhadian Weinstein’s spending on her own Manhattan district attorney campaign last year, the three donations Lauder made to Safe Together NY in September and October are in fact among the largest single contributions ever made by an individual to a New York state political campaign, according to records dating back to 1999. 

Forbes estimates Lauder’s current net worth at $4.4 billion. Besides state races, he has spent heavily in federal elections: OpenSecrets, which compiles state and federal campaign records, shows that he has given millions to GOP House and Senate candidates. Lauder has also given at least $200,000 to Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, where Lauder’s family maintains a Palm Beach mansion. In New York City politics, his biggest recent intervention was a $500,000 donation last year to Common Sense NYC, a PAC opposing progressive candidates. 

THOMAS TISCH: $750,000 to PAC, $25,000 to Zeldin

The second-largest individual donor to Zeldin’s PAC backers is not a person, but a company: Charlesfield Five LLC, which has no individual name attached to it in the Board of Elections database. Its donations of $250,000 and then $500,000 to Safe Together NY in October are its first on record in the state, and the company has very little presence online, making it difficult to trace. 

A downloadable version of the PAC’s campaign disclosure report, however, links the donations to Thomas J. “Tom” Tisch, of the family that owns the Loews Corporation and lends its name to the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. 

Thomas Tisch, son of Loews co-founder Laurence Tisch, is a private equity investor, former chancellor of Brown University, and longtime political donor, mostly to Republicans. He has been a managing partner at the investment firm Four Partners since 1992, around the same time he started a charitable foundation along with his wife, Alice. Besides Brown, where he was chancellor from 2007 to 2016, Thomas Tisch has served on the boards of the NYU Medical Center, the KIPP charter school network, and the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank. 

Tisch’s cash infusion for Zeldin appears to mark a step up in his political giving. Members of the Tisch family and businesses listed at the same address have been donating consistently to political campaigns since 2000, according to campaign filings, but no contribution rivals those Charlesfield Partners made to the pro-Zeldin PAC in October. 

Tisch has also given occasionally to Democratic candidates, and several members of his family seem to lean blue. He gave $3,000 to David Dinkins in 1989, according to city records, and last year gave $300,000 to two PACs backing Andrew Yang in the Democratic primary for New York City mayor. On the governor’s race, the family appears split: Campaign records show that Thomas’s wife, Alice Tisch, gave the maximum allowed amount — $69,700 — to Hochul’s campaign last November. Other members of the Tisch family have also maxed out their donations to Hochul, adding up to some $350,000 in donations to her campaign.  

STEVE WYNN: $500,000 to PAC, $149,000 to Zeldin along with wife Andrea 

With a Forbes-estimated net worth of $3.2 billion, casino mogul Steve Wynn is a longtime political funder and the third-highest to Zeldin-backing PACs. According to filings reviewed by New York Focus, his support for Safe Together NY marks his most notable foray into New York state politics, preceded only by a $41,000 donation to GOP Attorney General candidate John Cahill in 2014.

His support for Zeldin dwarfs that number: Apart from the $500,000 Wynn gave to the pro-Zeldin Save Our State NY PAC in September, he and his wife, Andrea, each gave just under $75,000 to Zeldin and his running mate, Alison Esposito, and $117,000 to the Republican State Committee earlier this year. 

Wynn has given consistently at the federal level since at least the 1990s. Records show that he gave $4,600 to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2007, as well as to other Democratic groups, but his largesse has skewed right. In August, he gave $10 million — his largest political gift ever, according to the OpenSecrets database — to Our American Century, a conservative PAC that shares a treasurer with the pro-Zeldin Safe Together NY. Wynn previously served as finance chair of the Republican National Committee.

Having stepped down as CEO of his casino business in 2018 following sexual misconduct allegations, Wynn now collects art. He was sued by the US Department of Justice earlier this year over alleged unregistered lobbying on behalf of China, but the suit was dismissed last month.

HOWARD COX JR.: $250,000 to PAC, $56,000 to Zeldin; and EDWARD COX: $250,000 to PAC, $2,000 to Zeldin

Brothers Ed and Howard Cox together make up the next-largest set of donors to pro-Zeldin PACs. Elder brother Howard began his career with a brief stint at the Pentagon in the late 1960s before moving into finance and joining Greylock Partners, an early venture capital firm, where he still works today. 

The elder Cox has recent addresses listed in Boston, Palm Beach, and the Hamptons. Campaign records show that he has donated more than $2.5 million to New York Republicans since the early 2000s, including Zeldin when he ran for state Senate in 2010. He is also a big spender on the federal level, giving $1 million to the pro-GOP Senate Leadership Fund in 2020. He has given just under $100,000 to DeSantis, according to OpenSecrets, and smaller amounts to Republicans across the country.

Younger brother Ed Cox is a longtime lawyer and son-in-law of Richard Nixon, having married the former president’s daughter Tricia in the White House Rose Garden in 1971. He worked in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, serving as vice president of the government-funded Synthetic Fuels Corporation in the 1980s. 

Ed Cox was former chair of the New York Republican State Committee and board chair of the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, where he still sits on the board. He also served in a handful of appointed state positions in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including as a trustee of SUNY, where he founded an initiative to support charter schools, and chair of the state’s advisory Council of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. 

Like his brother, Ed Cox is a major political donor at the federal level, too, but his giving is concentrated in New York.

CARYL RATNER: $250,000 to PAC, $47,000 to Zeldin

Rounding out the list is Caryl Ratner, a New York City patron of the arts and first-time major donor to a state campaign. Ratner, who recently described herself as “in recovery” from a stint in real estate, produced a movie about radio personality Steve Post that premiered this year. The daughter of lawyer and philanthropist Joseph Ratner, Caryl has followed her father’s lead in backing a variety of New York City and Jewish cultural institutions.

Ratner seems not to have been involved in state politics much before. Until this year, her most notable political contributions on record were a string of donations to former Manhattan borough president and current New York City Council Member Gale Brewer, totaling $9,000 since 2003. Ratner also gave Scott Stringer $2,000 in his bid for mayor last year. 

On the receiving end of $250,000, the pro-Zeldin Save Our State PAC is by far the biggest political benefactor of her largesse; Ratner also donated $47,000 directly to Zeldin’s campaign and another $117,000 to the Republican State Committee in September. Her only federal campaign contribution on record is $2,000 to Wisconsin GOP Senator Ron Johnson this year.

NEW YORK FOCUS contacted Zeldin’s campaign and the treasurers of the two PACs, and sought to reach all of the individuals profiled in this story, none of whom provided comment by press time. 

Despite the big spending on Zeldin’s side, Hochul remains strongly favored to win the race. If Zeldin does pull off an upset, though, he’ll have these donors to thank. And even if he doesn’t, the tough-on-crime message they’ve helped spread could have a lasting influence on state politics, boosting critics of criminal justice reform who have already put Democrats on the defensive. The same polls that show Hochul edging out her rival also show that a plurality of voters list crime as a top concern, and that could shape policy for years to come — regardless of who wins on Tuesday. 

Colin Kinniburgh is a reporter at New York Focus, covering the state’s climate and environmental politics. Over a decade in media, he has worked in print, television, audio, and online news, and participated in fellowship programs at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and… more
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