Flood of PAC money has candidates feuding in Bronx specials


Growing up, City Council candidate John Sanchez attended a private Catholic school. He credits the education he got there with enabling him to pursue higher education at New York University. 

“A lot of my peers that weren’t able to go to Catholic school during that time, often they weren’t able to graduate from high school or go to college,” Sanchez said.

He said this experience shaped his support for charter schools. His parents feared he would not get the education he needed at a local public school. 

“At NYU, anyone that was from the Bronx usually came from some type of Catholic or private school,” he said.

Sanchez is a candidate for City Council in the Bronx’s District 15, a special election to replace Ritchie Torres, who won a seat in Congress in November. Campaign finance documents recently revealed that a super PAC funded by hedge fund managers and the Walton family of Wal-Mart has spent over $75,000 on mailers and ads supporting Sanchez’s bid for the seat. 

While the PAC’s mailers and ads were focused on Sanchez’s housing and development platform, the PAC, New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, has previously spent millions in support of Republicans and pro-charter school legislation across the country. This has raised concerns among his opponents about how Sanchez would prioritize public education. 

Over a quarter of school buildings in School District 12, which overlaps with much of Community District 6, are overcrowded, according to a 2020 report from the New York City Independent Budget Office. Surrounding districts fare even worse, with over 55% of buildings in School District 11 and 60% in District 10 being overutilized. That means thousands of students are attending school in overcrowded buildings—a concern as the city looks forward to reopening all schools after pandemic restrictions are lifted. 

“We have overcrowded schools, and we should be building schools especially if seats are funded,” Sanchez said. “But the School Construction Authority says they can’t find a site, and it takes them three years to build a building which is unfortunate.”

While other candidates have also benefited from PAC-funded ads in this race, they said the difference is that the PACs supporting Sanchez have conservative leanings that prioritize the wealthy over the voters of District 15.

He said he believes the spending has now overshadowed the work of his campaign team.

“If I knew it was going to be such a big thing, I wish outside groups would stay out,” he said with a small laugh. “If I do win on Tuesday, it should not be attributed to outside groups. It needs to be attributed to my team.” 

He also isn’t concerned about outside spending influencing his campaign, he said. 

“Donors should not have expectations of receiving anything from me or my office,” Sanchez said.

His fellow candidate Elisa Crespo disagrees. She held a press conference on Friday with Mino Lora, a candidate for City Council in a special election in District 11, state Senator Gustavo Rivera and TenantsPAC, a NYC-based political action committee funded by tenants and labor unions. Together they denounced the involvement of super PACs in the Bronx’s special elections.

A candidate in the nearby District 11 special election, Eric Dinowitz, also benefited from independent expenditures from a lobbyist-run PAC called Voters of NYC, Inc. This PAC spent around $79,000 on ads supporting John Sanchez. 

“These independent expenditures are far from independent. They come with access and they come with influence,” Crespo said at the press conference.

Both PACs focused their messaging on candidates’ housing and development platforms. THE CITY reported that Voters of NY, Inc. saw a number of contributions from large-scale real estate developers.

“Candidates running as Democrats receiving funds from conservative, Republican-led groups in deeply blue districts should at least take the opportunity to denounce this behavior, and make it clear where they stand,” she said. “And that’s not happening here in the 15th.”

A progressive PAC, Our City, has also spent about $18,000 on internet ads and mailers for Crespo’s campaign, focusing on her progressive background. The mailers graded candidates, urging voters to support Crespo, Ischia Bravo and Latchmi Gopal when they rank their choices on the ballot. It gave John Sanchez “F”’s for his record on housing and education. Crespo defended its support. 

The attention has forced Sanchez to stake his claim as the “pro-charter schools” candidate in this race. His interest in bringing new schools to the Bronx is not new. With Sanchez at the helm as district manager, Community Board 6 has been asking the city to prioritize funding in the district for three new public schools for the past four years. The board has argued that schools are overcrowded and will become even more so if new planned developments in the district are built. 

“The School Construction Authority hasn’t had the will to select a location,” Sanchez said. “In the span since I’ve been district manager, a charter school has been constructed right next to my office, and it’s not going to take them three years to have students in the building.”

Sanchez said he is not concerned with being associated with supporters of New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany. He said his interests are based on the needs of the community. 

Charter schools weren’t an option in the early 90s, Sanchez said, recalling his own early education experiences.

“As a city council member I’m going to advocate for as many schools as possible, understanding that there’s a limited pot, but I’m going to be investing in schools that are doing a good job of getting kids to read at grade level and do math at grade level, no matter what type of school they are,” he said.