The Brighton Democratic Committee’s designated town board candidates triumphed over two challengers in Tuesday’s primary, but the race still left the committee with a sour taste.
In mid-June, some two weeks ahead of the June 27 primary, Brighton Democrats received several mailers. One urged voters to choose Nate Salzman and Chris Werner, the party-endorsed town board candidates. Two others were aimed at Rachel Rosner, one of two challengers running in the four-candidate race.
Brighton is a long-established Democratic bastion in which a Democratic primary win virtually assures victory in the November general election. Oddly, the mailers targeted only Rosner, ignoring a second challenger to the committee’s designees, Jesus Sowell.
Despite their support of the committee’s anointed candidates, the mailers were entirely unwelcome, says BDC chair Kim Joyce. She pronounced herself “appalled” by the mailers, a sentiment she believes most if not all of her fellow committee members share.
While Salzman, a first-time candidate with deep local Democratic Party connections, and Werner, a 10-year incumbent, were the committee’s endorsed choices, “the BDC will support whoever wins the primary,” Joyce said on the eve of the vote.
Equally appalled by the mailers were their putative beneficiaries, Werner and Salzman, who jointly penned a letter decrying the mailers.
Traced to a PAC
The mailers, which trace back to a New York City-based super PAC called Voters of NY Inc., were unsolicited by either the candidates or the Brighton committee, none of whom had ever heard of the super PAC. The same group also targeted potential primary voters with anti-Rosner robocalls.
Officially known as independent expenditure committees, super PACs are allowed to collect and spend unlimited sums in political races as long as they do not directly coordinate with campaigns or candidates.
Super PACs are a product of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v the Federal Election Commission, which ruled that limits on political spending conflict with contributors’ freedom of speech.
Voters of NY Inc., previously named Voters of NYC Inc., first came to controversy during 2021 special elections in the Bronx. More conservative and moderate Democrat candidates received as much as $79,000 from the super PAC on ads in the leadup to their election, seen through a provocative style similar to the Brighton race.
Both progressive candidates in that 2021 Bronx election who spoke against the PAC’s advertising effort, linking it to New York City real estate interests and “dark money,” lost their primary races. Only one of the two Voters of NY-backed candidates won in the general election.
That spending continued the next year, with the super PAC forking over $360,000 on elections in New York City and the Hudson Valley region for just the June primary election season. While progressive candidate and PAC target Yuh-Line Niou narrowly lost to centrist Dan Goldman, Kristen Gonzalez and Gustavo Rivera, who were also targets of Voters of NY, won their elections.
Away from NYC
Committee campaign disclosure records from this year indicate that Voters of NY has moved away from New York City and is instead solely focused on the Rochester area. Nearly $100,000 is categorized as “Independent Expenditures” with descriptions of “Mailer 2 – Rosner,” “Werner – Salzman RoboCall” or “Werner – Salzman Palm Cards.”
The PAC lists Albany Marketing Solutions Inc. and Live Media Productions LLC as the companies used for these materials. The Voters of NY site is a simple webpage with some basic information and a “contact us” feature. Jeffrey Leb, a political consultant and treasurer for Voters of NY, is the only name listed on the site. Leb is also listed as the treasurer for the PAC Common Sense NY Inc., which similarly opposes progressive candidates.
Available records of contributors to Voters of NY (of which there are only three) are Richard Goldstein, Dawn Good Elk, and Red Rock 1886, who together contributed $127,000 total in individual contributions and loans. Goldstein and Good Elk gave individual contributions of $15,000 and $30,000, respectively. Red Rock 1886 and Good Elk made loans out for an additional $2,000 and $80,000, respectively.
Red Rock 1886 is the marketing consulting firm for former Constellation Brands executive Howie Jacobson.
“Brighton has a number of factions working against the deep-rooted values of our town. Brighton is inclusive, respectful of Jewish community, different ethnicities and those of color,” Jacobson says. “Many community members are aware of the damage to our values these factions are attempting to do and are united to prevent this damage from happening. Fortunately in this latest primary, our community prevailed with Nate Salzman and Vik Vilkhu winning key positions for election in November. Our commitment is strong to keep our values.”
Vik Vilkhu captured more than 50 percent of the Democratic primary vote for Brighton town justice.
Based on state-level contribution records, Goldstein and Jacobson have given monetary support to both sides of the aisle over the past decade, but typically more to Democratic candidates. All three individuals have donated to state Sen. Jeremy Cooney, whose district covers Brighton.
Leb has a triple parentheses or “echo” in his Twitter account, subverting the dog whistle for “Jewish” commonly used by hate groups. His social media feed has declarations of pride in the political advertisements created by Voters of NY and attacks on perceived antisemitism.
So far, there are no tweets on the Brighton race and real estate interests do not appear to be a factor. However, perceived antisemitism and comments against Israel were highlighted in mailers.
One of the Brighton mailers is titled “The Real Rachel Rosner Will Shock You,” which is emblazoned across a reference to the Palestinian flag. Based on Facebook posts including one from “The Witness Palestine Rochester Facebook Group,” it accuses Rosner of antisemitism and encourages readers to vote for her opponents, Werner and Salzman.
“In a time of Jew-hatred, the anti-semitic tropes Rachel Rosner uses to advance her personal anti-Israel, anti-Jewish agenda makes our neighbors targets and divides the people of Brighton,” the mailer reads.
Another mailer in support of Werner and Salzman highlights a “law and order” style approach symbolized by a watchdog. Both mailers have a disclaimer: They were not authorized by or requested by any of the candidates. Jesus Sowell, also running for Brighton Town Board as a progressive alongside Rosner, was not mentioned in any of the mailers by the super PAC.
In a more than four-minute video posted on Facebook a few days before the primary, Rosner lambasted the Voter of NY mailers as “racist, misogynistic and divisive messaging (that) has been inserted into a Democratic primary right here at home with local donors funding the effort.”
Still, added Rosner, “for me the questions are not about the content of the material, although the content is abhorrent. The question is: Why did they choose which candidates to support and which to disparage?”
Rosner’s opponents and other local politicians have been quick and adamant in their efforts to distance themselves from the attack mailings.
County Legislator Susan Hughes Smith also released a statement correcting a false assertion from Voters for NY claiming she had endorsed a candidate for Brighton Town Board.
“You may have seen an ad from Voters of NY, Inc claiming that I have made an endorsement for Brighton Town Board. I have not made any endorsement,” Hughes stated. “I am glad to live in a town where people are willing to serve their community in this way. Running for office is not an easy task and I admire them all for stepping up.”
Salzman decisively disavowed the Voters of NY mailers and the robocalls in a June 15 Facebook post, calling them “disturbing and not reflective of Brighton’s values.”
In the post, Salzman assured Brighton Democrats that the mailers were sent “without my authorization or consent” and that “I did not participate in the creation or distribution of these advertisements and I do not support the divisive tone they take.”
Brighton supervisor Bill Moehle, a Democrat, also decried the Voters of NY mailers as outside interference.
One mailer is a fairly straightforward endorsement of Warner and Salzman, portraying them as favoring a menu of liberal and progressive causes including abortion rights and expanded access to health care. Three others are aimed squarely at Rosner.
Disclaimers at the bottom of the mailers identify Voters of NY as their source and identify Leb as Voters of NY treasurer. The disclaimers acknowledge that the ads are “not expressly authorized or requested by any candidate or by any candidate political committees or any of its agents.”
Roots of animus
A “beyond annoyed” Joyce wonders, “what are they doing coming up from New York City to interfere in our election?”
Rosner backer Julie Gelfand is a member of the BDC who worked on Rosner’s campaign. Gelfand believes the mailers aimed to draw support of pro-Israel Jewish voters away from Rosner. She traces the super PAC’s animus to Rosner to “blowback” from 2021, when Rosner chaired Brighton Town Board member Robin Wilt’s reelection campaign.
In the 2021 race, Wilt was endorsed by the BDC, which in most circumstances would have assured her an unchallenged coast to victory in November. But after the 2021 primary season, she drew the ire of some voters by expressing pro-Palestinian sentiments.
In the fall race, Wilt faced a Republican challenger, Pat Reilly, who highlighted Wilt’s pro-Palestinian stance, drawing support from some Brighton Democrats. A number posted yard signs declaring “another Democrat for Reilly.”
As a 2022 guest on Evan Dawson’s “Connections” program on WXXI radio, Wilt again expressed support for the Palestinian cause. Her remarks on the show sparked a disapproving response from the Jewish Federation of Rochester, which portrayed Wilt as “ignorant of the complexities and nuances regarding an ethnoreligious people and a geopolitical situation” and of “spewing blood-libel propaganda.”
One of the anti-Rosner mailers prominently cites a Facebook post that Rosner put up in February 2022. Citing the Facebook post, the mailer tags Rosner, who is Jewish, as “anti-Israel, anti-Jewish and an anti-Semite.”
“You are not immune from being hateful, racist or misogynistic because you are Jewish. In fact, you are excellent at using your privilege to attempt to oppress and silence others,” the mailer’s citation reads in part.
Gelfand complains that the mailer takes Rosner’s quote out of context.
Citing her own displeasure with the mailer’s portrayal of her in a June 23 Facebook post, Rosner repeated in its entirety the February post from which the mailer’s quote was pulled.
A second Voters of New York mailer accuses “divisive” Rosner of being “missing in action” while “gun violence threatens our communities.” A third portrays Rosner as “being busy elsewhere promoting her own grievance-based personal agenda” despite “children (being) scared of active shooters and women losing control over their bodies.”
Last year, five candidates targeted by Voters of NY filed a complaint claiming no daily or weekly disclosure requirements were filed by the group 30 days or less before an election, as mandated by state law. Some candidates further accused the super PAC of “straight-up lying.”
“The public now has no way to evaluate the claims made in these mailers or whose interests they serve,” the candidates complained in a letter to the Board of Elections.
What action, if any, the Board of Elections took is not clear.
In addition to super PAC duties, Leb is managing partner of Capitol Consulting Inc., a Brooklyn-based lobbying firm on whose website Leb describes himself as “a seasoned political strategist and a respected authority in government and community relations (who) has utilized his expertise in legislative, budgetary, and zoning matters across numerous leadership roles.”
The answer to BDC chair Joyce’s question as to why the New York City-based Leb and Voters of NY targeted the Brighton races seems to lie with two Rochester-area residents, Goldstein and Good Elk, who collectively directed more than $100,000 in donations and loans to the super PAC.
Goldstein, a Brighton resident, is CEO of MAPCO Auto Parks, a family-owned concern that runs parking lots in downtown Rochester and at Frederick Douglass Greater Rochester International Airport. Good Elk is an advocate for Native American issues and lives in Pittsford.
Goldstein’s and Good Elk’s reasons for supporting Voters of NY are not clear. Neither responded to the Rochester Beacon’s requests for comment. Leb could not immediately be reached for comment.
Had Voters of NY not inserted itself into the campaign, Werner and Salzman probably would have won, anyway, concedes Rosner supporter Gelfand, “but maybe not by so much of a margin.”
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer and Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].