Dining for dollars

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Where Manhattan politicians court donors and raise campaign cash


  • The exterior of the Harvard Club on West 44th Street, a block known as Clubhouse Row where politicians have been raising funds for more than a century. Photo: Wally Gobetz, via flickr

  • Keens Steakhouse off Herald Square, also known as Keens Chophouse, where Mayor Bill de Blasio spent campaign funds. Photo: Leonard J. DeFrancisci, via Wikimedia Commons

  • The interior of the Harvard Club on West 44th Street, a block known as Clubhouse Row where politicians have been raising funds for more than a century. Photo via Wikimedia Commons 

The path to grasping and retaining political power in New York City has long plowed through such sumptuous and moneyed Manhattan haunts as the Regency and the Harvard Club, the 21 Club and the Union League Club, Jean Georges and Il Mulino.

It still does, of course. Pols will always court the uber-rich and venture into their lairs for donations. No sea change has taken place. Probably, it never will. For all his down-with-the plutocrats posturing, even Mayor Bill de Blasio is not immune from their blandishments.

In fact, his reelection campaign held a private fundraising event at the Robert De Niro-owned Greenwich Hotel in Tribeca in March 2016, spending $1,895 at the restaurant, according to its filings with the city's Campaign Finance Board.

Then last November, it paid $266 for an unspecified political meeting at Keens Steakhouse, the eatery at 72 West 36th Street, founded in 1885, that still boasts of the old-line conservatives like J.P. Morgan and General Douglas MacArthur who were members of its “Pipe Club.”

But even as Manhattan's signature clubs, hotels and restaurants retain their monopoly as venues to host high-end fundraisers and attract big-bucks donors, there has also been a slow if steady democratization of the political watering hole in the post-Bloomberg era.

Consider that in Manhattan alone, at least five Le Pain Quotidiens, four Sarabeth's, four bagel shops, two Carmine's, two Lebanese restaurants, two Mendy's, roughly a dozen other kosher restaurants, a dozen-plus Greek diners and coffee shops and 10-plus pizzerias have been used to solicit funds, stage campaign events or hold political meetings, CFB filings show.

“You can raise money just as easily at a humble diner as you can at a four-star restaurant,” said Maureen Eng, a software engineer who lives on the West Side, works near City Hall and says she often crosses paths with Comptroller Scott Stringer in diners and coffee shops both uptown and downtown.

“It's cheaper, and it's probably a lot more fun, too,” she added over a $13.50 Greek omelet with feta and spinach at the Utopia Diner, 267 Amsterdam Avenue near 72nd Street.

Indeed, the Stringer campaign, originally focused on a mayoral bid but now gearing up for a re-election race, held nine fundraising meetings and breakfasts at the Utopia over the past two years, tallying a modest $263.95 for meals, an average of just $29.32 per utopian dining.

Why the Utopia? Was he keeping campaign costs down? Dining at a place he cherishes? Picking a spot convenient to his West Side home? Those questions, asked repeatedly by this reporter, remained shrouded in mystery because, oddly, the Stringer campaign would not address them.

According to CFB filings, Stringer also racked up modest fundraising expenses at the Gee Whiz Diner (motto: “Always Delicious”) at 295 Greenwich Street, and the Good Stuff diner, at 109 West 14th Street. And a political meeting in March at Barney Greengrass, the “Sturgeon King,” 541 Amsterdam Avenue, set him back a mere $17.40.

Like most politicians, however, the comptroller can also be susceptible to a sprinkling of stardust: A 2016 fete at Joanne Trattoria — a mecca for Lady Gaga fans at 70 West 68th Street owned by her father, Joe Germanotta — cost the campaign $4,148.41 in “fundraising, catering” costs.

Republican Michael Faulkner, the former New York Jet-turned-Harlem minister who is vying to unseat Stringer, followed a similar pattern. His campaign reported four payments to the City Diner, a 24-hour stalwart at 2441 Broadway at 90th Street that says it “specializes in the crafting of mouth-watering meals.” The average tab: $45.

But Faulkner also dropped $10,479 at the Harvard Club, at 35 West 44th Street, a bastion of the Manhattan establishment since its founding in 1865. His campaign wrote six separate checks in 2015 and 2016 to pay for “fundraising meetings, hotel rooms ... events, beverage service,” filings show.

That bifurcation of political fundraising venues — the grand and often stuffy on the one hand, the relatively modest or lumpen on the other — is a common thread in campaign finance documents. And surprisingly, the latter can sometimes cost more than the former.

Take the twin campaign launches of Upper East Sider Rebecca Harary, who is running as a Republican for the City Council seat being vacated by Councilman Dan Garodnick, a Democrat first elected in 2005 and barred by term limits from seeking a fourth term.

Her formal March 29 kick-off took place at the Metropolitan Republican Club, 122 East 83rd Street, which was founded in 1902 and numbered Mayor Seth Low and President Theodore Roosevelt among its members. The storied club's venue fee: $300.

For a second, less formal event at Saba's Pizza, 1217 Lexington Avenue at 82nd Street, Harary shelled out $618 for kosher pizza.

As for Garodnick, who has continued to raise money for an undeclared office, his campaign spent $2,009 in December 2014 for a fundraising event at the World Bar in Trump World Tower, 845 United Nations Plaza at 48th Street.

Billed as the spot “Where Manhattan Meets the World,” the bar is famed in Turtle Bay for its Remy XO-based “World Cocktail,” which will set you back $50, as well as the comparatively cut-rate “World Peace Cocktail,” which goes for $12.

Garodnick also held another fundraiser in 2015 at the Brass Monkey, 55 Little West 12th Street, forking over $2,400 for the space, which brands itself an “unpretentious Meatpacking District pub with a roof deck.”

And then there is Upper East Side City Councilman Ben Kallos and his penchant for Bagel Bob's on York, where CFB filings show his campaign spent $239 in 2015, $468 in 2016 and $600 so far this year on the singular New York foodstuff.

Kallos, who is running for re-election, says he uses his political funds to buy bagels for the scores of residents who show up every year for his State-of-the-District Speech: “I hope they come to hear me,” he said. “But it is very possible that many of them come for Bagel Bobs.”

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