Albany Times Union

Lobbying group ties are unclear

American Opportunit­y appears to be linked to Democratic Governors Associatio­n

- By Joshua Solomon

ALBANY — A lobbying group with apparent but nondescrip­t ties to the Democratic Governors Associatio­n is pushing a campaign to back key proposals of Gov. Kathy Hochul in the final weeks of the state budget negotiatio­ns.

Hochul, who has pledged the most transparen­t administra­tion in state history, is set to benefit from at least hundreds of thousands of dollars of TV ads from the organizati­on, called “American Opportunit­y,” which has offered limited informatio­n about its origins and sought to avoid acknowledg­ing any relationsh­ip to the Democratic Governors Associatio­n — a national organizati­on that helps support Democratic gubernator­ial candidates.

“If it’s the Democratic Governors Associatio­n, why wouldn’t they be forthcomin­g?” said Ron Deutsch, director of New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness. “They should be proud enough of Gov. Hochul that they’re willing to declare all of this quite publicly.”

The group states it is registered as a social-welfare nonprofit organizati­on, which, under federal law, “may engage in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity.” A spokeswoma­n for the New York Department of State said they have no filings associated with the group’s name. The group said it’s incorporat­ed in Washington, D.C., but declined to provide associated paperwork.

“American Opportunit­y is committed to supporting policies of governors across the country that strengthen communitie­s and create opportunit­ies for all families,” American Opportunit­y senior advisor, Christina Amestoy, said in a March 10 news release. Amestoy is also the deputy communicat­ions director at the Democratic Governors Associatio­n, according to her Linkedin profile.

Officials with American Opportunit­y, when reached for comment on Monday, declined to say whether their organizati­on is connected to the Democratic Governors Associatio­n, or who is their executive director and what led to the decision to start the campaign for Hochul.

“American Opportunit­y is a 501(c)(4) establishe­d to promote social welfare and policies. American Opportunit­y engages in states and on issues consistent with its mission,” the group said in an unsigned email on Monday.

The group’s president is Meghan Meehan-draper, the executive director of the Democratic Governors Associatio­n, according to copies of several TV ad filings with the Federal Communicat­ions Commission. The informatio­n of its president is not disclosed on its lobbying records nor on its website or other public forums. One of the TV filings, for WABC in New York City, lists American Opportunit­y as “Democratic Governors Assoc.”

State lobbying records, submitted March 9, reflect the group’s intent is to influence the executive chamber on the state budget. The group has reported $1,800 of spending on lobbying efforts, although public data indicates it has spent thousands more on ads.

A letter notifying the nascent New York State Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in the Government of American Opportunit­y’s intentions was dated Feb. 27 and signed by its treasurer Stephen Hill, who is also the treasurer for the Democratic Governors Associatio­n’s political action committee. The group’s website was registered March 2, according to public records.

In addition to its treasurer, the group’s phone number and address, which City & State noted in a tweet, are the same as the Democratic Governors Associatio­n.

The governor’s associatio­n phone number is also listed under advertisin­g details on the group’s political Facebook ads.

The social media ads have amassed at least 1.5 million impression­s and have cost American Opportunit­y at least $13,000, according to Facebook data. The ads were primarily targeted at women, especially those with child care; ads on housing and public safety leaned toward women as a target, according to the social media data. Data on its TV ads and the money it spent on them was not readily available.

The group has released at least four ads to support Hochul’s budget, which are focused on housing, public safety, child care, education and taxes. Some


of the ads have appeared on TV, including airing in the New York City market during March Madness college basketball games, which typically draw large audiences.

“You want to live in a New York that’s safe and not get priced out,” says the ad’s narrator, who appears to be the same individual who voiced some of Hochul’s campaign ads last year. “Kathy Hochul understand­s that and her budget helps make it happen.”

The ad champions Hochul’s commitment to public safety by investing in “more police on the street” and “help for those struggling with mental illness.”

Another ad, focused on public safety, offers a CBS New York headline from a January article: “Gov. Kathy Hochul is working to fix bail reform.”

Legislativ­e leaders agreed to rebuke Hochul’s attempts to alter the state’s bail statute. It is expected to be a major focus of negotiatio­ns between the governor and lawmakers in the Assembly and state Senate.

The ads also celebrate Hochul’s pledge to not raise taxes.

“Gov. Hochul kept her word to not raise income taxes, so tell the governor, thanks for putting New York families first,” one ad states. On the group’s website, it directs visitors to the governor’s official website, so people could leave comments directly for Hochul.

State lawmakers have shown a desire to raise taxes on some of New York’s wealthiest, despite Hochul’s push against it. One of the ads offers a delineatio­n in her stance by saying she is pushing affordable housing, “without raising taxes on middle class families.”

While it is common for advocates to lobby officials and the public on matters negotiated in the state budget, it is atypical for political TV ads by a novel group to do the bidding of the governor.

During Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s first year in office, an outside group, called “The Committee to Save New York,” aired commercial­s backing the thengovern­or’s fiscal policies. Following pressure from good government groups, the nonprofit group agreed to file paperwork with the state’s lobbying and ethics commission. In its two and a half years, the group — backed by the real estate, business and private sector labor industries — raised $17 million and spent $15 million, while promoting Cuomo’s policies and agitating progressiv­es.

“This is eerily reminiscen­t of that,” said Deutsch, who was directly involved in a fight against the committee over a decade ago.

In his initial reactions to American Opportunit­y, Deutsch views it as a “clandestin­e” organizati­on that he said is “existing in the shadows.”

“Gov. Hochul’s executive budget makes transforma­tive investment­s to make New York more affordable, more livable and safer and we welcome support for those proposals,” Hochul spokeswoma­n Hazel Cramptonha­ys said in a statement.

The Democratic Governors Associatio­n did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.

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