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All That Kennedy Money

Tim Kennedy and Betty Jean Grant

As this week’s deadline approaches, the result of the primary contest between Democrats Betty Jean Grant and Tim Kennedy remains unresolved, though it is beginning to look as if Kennedy, the incumbent state senator, might squeak by on the strength of absentee ballots.

If Kennedy is certified as the winner, and Grant challenges the results in court, she’ll likely rely on volunteer legal help, while Kennedy will rely on Terry Connors, a high-profile (read: not cheap) local attorney. That’s been the dynamic of the campaign all along: Grant has no money, Kennedy has plenty. It’s true that Grant’s campaign staff has enjoyed special access at the Erie County Board of Elections during the vote certification process, thanks in part to the fact that her political allies occupy leadership roles at the BOE, and in part to the fact that those allies hold a grudge against Kennedy for caucusing with Republicans while we served on the Erie County Legislature. But Kennedy’s financial advantage, and the advantages of incumbency generally, make the closeness of the race remarkable, and paint an indelible target on Kennedy’s back.

Kennedy reports having spent more than $500,000 this year alone on his campaign; reaching back to 2010, when he sent longtime incumbent Bill Stachowski packing, Kennedy has spent $1.6 million to win and retain his seat. Those totals do not include money spent on his behalf by other campaign committees and PACs; that is just his committee’s declared spending. The campaign committee for Mark Grisanti, who also upset an incumbent to become a state senator in 2010, has spent less than half that.

The biggest single recipient of Kennedy’s campaign cash this year was Storefront Political Media, a San Francisco consulting firm to which Kennedy paid $199,000 to create and place television ads. Since 2010, in fact, Kennedy has paid the company about $854,000—more than half his total spending.

Wondering how and why Kennedy—who, when he took on Stachowski, was an Erie County legislator with a South Buffalo political base—chose a San Francisco consultant to handle his local media buys? There are two clues in Storefront’s list of former clients: Tom Golisano’s Responsible New York campaign and Denise O’Donnell’s campaign for New York State Attorney General. Both efforts, like Kennedy, are tied to former Erie County Democratic Party chief Steve Pigeon, whose work has engendered relationships with Democratic political consultancies around the country.

One of the accusations leveled against Pigeon by former deputy district attorney Mark Sacha, who investigated Pigeon’s campaign finance practices in relation to Paul Clark’s 2007 campaign for Erie County executive, was that Pigeon directed candidates toward high-priced consultants, and then took a kickback from those consultants through one of his own consulting companies. (During the Clark campaign, the consultant was the Markham Group in Little Rock, Arkansas, which has done business with another Pigeon-controlled committee, People for Accountable Government.) Sacha’s investigation, which included subpoenas of bank records, was ignored by his boss, Frank Clark, and by Clark’s successor, Frank Sedita III. Sedita eventually fired Sacha when Sacha complained publicly that Pigeon was spared prosecution because of his close relationships to both Clark and Sedita.

Grant spent about $23,000 on her challenge to Kennedy, or about $2 per vote. Kennedy’s votes, obviously, came much more dearly, even if we consider only the money he spent this year: about $50 apiece. Kennedy reports having $223,000 left in his campaign account after the primary.

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