Albany Times Union
Lobbying group ties are unclear
American Opportunity appears to be linked to Democratic Governors Association
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.