Cosmetics heir puts Republican in sight of New York governor’s mansion

Lee Zeldin’s surprisingly strong campaign for governor of New York was fueled by an obsessive focus on crime and lawlessness that resonated with an anxious public.

He was also backed by millions of dollars from billionaire Ronald Lauder.

Earlier this year, Zeldin, a Republican congressman and staunch supporter of Donald Trump, was considered an afterthought in a Democratic-dominated state when Lauder, heir to the Estee Lauder fortune of cosmetics, began writing seven-figure checks.

These contributions helped keep Zeldin’s campaign afloat and have since allowed him to lead the fight against a well-funded incumbent, Kathy Hochul. Days before Tuesday’s midterm elections, he is poised, according to opinion polls, to pull off what would be arguably the biggest upset of this political season. In a sign of Democrat concern, Vice President Kamala Harris flew out to campaign with Hochul late last week and President Joe Biden is due Sunday.

“Lee Zeldin was a killer on the road, then Ronald Lauder came along,” said a New York political strategist. “Win or lose, he owes him his entire campaign. No one else was there.

Lauder’s contributions, totaling more than $11 million as of October 28, are a stark example of the outsized influence the very wealthy can wield in American elections following the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision to lift restrictions on campaign spending by businesses and outside groups.

“Billionaires sponsor candidates like prized racehorses,” Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, recently wrote, citing nearly $30 million in donations this season. campaign by tech investor Peter Thiel.

For Lauder, the question is what motivated such largesse for Zeldin? Other longtime New York Republicans skipped his campaign — either because they thought it was hopeless or because they were too troubled by his vote against certifying election victory. of Biden in 2020.

The pair – a 42-year-old middle-class product and a 78-year-old patron of the arts and heir to extreme wealth – are not said to be close. Yet there is a clear overlap of interests between the candidate and his benefactor.

Lee Zeldin at an October 31 campaign rally in Westchester, New York © Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP

Zeldin would go on to be New York’s first Jewish Republican governor and was a staunch defender of Israel against a growing legion of progressive critics. That should please Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, who is on a mission to restore Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe and who has long been at the forefront of American support for Israel.

Criminal justice is also a shared passion. Zeldin was raised in a family of law enforcement officers in a modest hamlet on Long Island before serving in Iraq and then training as a lawyer. He has made crime the centerpiece of his campaign, promising to fire the reformist Manhattan district attorney and roll back recent legislation that has made it harder for police to apprehend and detain suspects.

Zeldin’s message appeared to be getting through to voters after a dramatic event in early October, when two teenagers were injured in a drive-by shooting outside his suburban home while his daughters were studying inside.

Lauder wrote a book in 1985, when his native New York was in the throes of lawlessness, titled Fighting Violent Crime in America. He argued that business and management expertise should be applied to fight crime. One of the two political action committees he founded and used to support Zeldin through a barrage of anti-Hochul ads is called Safe Together New York.

Murders and shootings in New York City have risen sharply during the coronavirus pandemic, although they are still well below the all-time highs of the early 1990s. As both categories have begun to subside in recent months, car thefts and other crimes have been on the rise, creating a confusing picture.

Yet the statistics may not reflect the unease generated by random assaults on the subway and several incidents of people being pushed onto train tracks by deranged assailants. In response, Hochul announced a plan in September to install security cameras in subway cars.

There is another less savory theory about Lauder’s interest in Zeldin. It is an offshore wind farm project called South Fork. It became an obsession for the billionaire and his neighbors in Wainscott, an exclusive seaside corner of the Hamptons, as the turbine transmission line would land on their property. They have campaigned to have it changed – so far to no avail.

Lauder discussed South Fork with Hochul late last year, according to several people briefed on the matter. The former lieutenant governor had recently been pushed into the governor’s mansion after Andrew Cuomo resigned. Hochul, a Buffalo native, was little known and held introductory meetings with city and business leaders.

The new governor promised to look into the matter, these people say, but ultimately pushed Lauder back, concluding that South Fork — a critical part of New York’s clean energy policy — was too advanced. In February she visited Wainscott to announce the start of construction.

Vice President Kamala Harris, New York Governor Kathy Hochul and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a “Get Out the Vote” rally at Barnard College in New York in November
Vice President Kamala Harris, left, New York Governor Kathy Hochul, center, and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a “Get Out the Vote” rally at Barnard College in New York on November 3 © Michael M Santiago/Getty Images

Through a spokesperson, Lauder declined to comment. One person familiar with his thinking strongly denied that South Fork played a role in his support of Zeldin. This person said it was almost entirely based on crime and concerns that wealthy New Yorkers, who pay a disproportionate share of city taxes, were fleeing because a Democratic-controlled state legislature had failed. to ensure public safety.

“It’s less about Lee Zeldin and more about Kathy Hochul not leading in the right direction,” the person said, noting Lauder’s concern about one-party rule in the state.

Hochul’s office declined to comment. During a recent debate, she alluded to Zeldin’s relationship with Lauder, saying, “What worries me is the fact that you have a billionaire donor who gave you over $10 million. “

A spokesperson for Zeldin did not respond to requests for comment.

Ronald Lauder took a secondary role in the family business to his older brother, Leonard, and spent his years oscillating between interests in art, politics, diplomacy and the good life.

Then President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with Ronald Lauder after a meeting at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida
President-elect Donald Trump, left, shakes hands with Ronald Lauder after meeting at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, in 2016 © Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

He was appointed ambassador to Austria in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan and at one point led behind-the-scenes negotiations for a possible peace agreement between Syria and Israel. In addition to significant collections of Austrian and German art, Lauder has amassed one of the largest collections of armor in the world, which he recently donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“He has no inhibitions about being rich and spending money,” his friend Richard Parsons, the former chief executive of Time Warner, told The New Yorker magazine in 2007. “Ronald is the example of ‘ I won’t die with all this money if I can help it.

In 1989, Lauder, a close ally of former senator Al D’Amato, spent a record $14 million to challenge Rudolph Giuliani for the Republican nomination for mayor of New York. He was beaten by a margin of more than 2:1, with each vote he won costing him around $368.

His financial support for Trump proved successful but came at a cost. He was motivated, say closer observers, by a shared warmongering about Israel. Still, it raised concerns at Estée Lauder about damage to the company’s brand. Angry employees started a petition demanding that Lauder be removed from the board.

“He’s been kind of the political black sheep of the family,” observed a New York political consultant.

Now, with Zeldin — and crime — Lauder has found a long-term political investment that even naysayers recognize could pay off big.

This article has been edited from first publication to clarify that Lee Zeldin would be New York’s first Jewish Republican governor.

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