Darrin Ball was at his day job at an upstate fire department last summer when the phone rang.
“One of my relatives had called me and said ‘Hey, did you check your mail yet?’ And I said, ‘No, why?’ And she goes, ‘Well, there’s a very interesting piece of mail in there with your photo all over it,’” Ball said.
When he got home he found a glossy mailer with his face on it, rendered in somewhat sinister black and white.
“This Stinks!” the mailer proclaimed in capital letters across the top. “Supervisor Darrin Ball wants to use your tax money to build a smelly fertilizer plant in Lincoln!”
Ball was the elected supervisor for the Town of Lincoln, population 2,000, in Madison County, near Syracuse. He’d been in office for a decade, presiding over a rural area with dairy farms and a sizable Amish population.
At the time, the town and county were considering giving land next to the landfill to a Canadian company, to build a plant that would convert biosolid waste into fertilizer. A local resident was raising a fuss about the project and had launched a website to oppose it and other issues. It was a home-made attempt at holding local officials accountable — black text on a green background, rough photo-shopped images and lengthy screeds.
This mailer was different. Slickly produced with clean graphics, it appeared to have gone out to the whole town. On both sides was the name of the group behind the postcard: Reclaim New York Initiative.
“JOIN THE FIGHT to Reclaim New York TODAY,” the mailer said. There was a link to the group’s website.
The name didn’t mean anything to Ball or many other people in the town. Little did they know they were suddenly the frontlines of a battle to remake New York government, started by savvy conservative operatives and right wing Libertarian crusaders, including some of the people who helped put Donald Trump into the White House – Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway and Long Island billionaire Robert Mercer.
“I think that, that person should stay on Long Island and help them make their decisions and let the people in Lincoln make their decisions,” Ball said.
But the movement is only getting started.
Documents and interviews show Reclaim New York is ramping up as it builds a network of citizen watchdogs and pushes into issues at all levels of New York government. Disclosure forms filed with the state show the group started lobbying last summer and has been spending more than $18,000 a month on issues from the state budget to video-game subsidies to a local jail project. Last month, the group filed a lawsuit against the state’s economic development agency over spending records. Its Facebook page has 120,000 followers – pumped up with help from data firm Cambridge Analytica, a Mercer-backed company that worked on the Trump campaign.
Reclaim New York bills itself as a non-partisan good-government watchdog. Its executive director, Brandon Muir, said the mission is to help people understand issues affecting the state, including affordability, transparency and education.
“We want to be in a position to help leverage our voice and our networks so that citizens can advocate for issues they care about,” Muir said. “We are the owners of our government. We pay taxes, they spend our taxes, and we get services back in return. But it is our civic duty to conduct oversight.”
He said Reclaim should be judged on what it does, not its founders or who sits on the board. And a Reclaim spokesman pointed to a number of instances where the group has praised Democrats and criticized Republicans.
But groups on the left are wary as Reclaim’s influence grows.
“Reclaim New York is replicating some of the things that Robert Mercer and Trump and Bannon pulled off at the national level,” said Michael Kink, executive director of the Strong Economy for All Coalition, a union-connected group that focuses on income inequality. “Reclaim New York is trying to agitate everyday New Yorkers, push them to the right, pit neighbor against neighbor, attack public institutions and make it easier for right-wing candidates to win elections on that message of hostility and division. And I think that's a destructive force for New York politics.”
Reclaim New York incorporated in 2013 as a tax-exempt nonprofit. Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News and a mastermind behind Trump’s nationalist campaign, was a founding director. Laurence Levy, a longtime associate of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, filed the paperwork.
The stated mission was to be non-partisan. Tax filings show that the Mercer Family Foundation provided about $1.3 million of Reclaim’s $2 million in revenue during its first three years, including the group’s entire $1.25 million in revenue in 2015, the most recent year for which filings are publicly available.
Muir refused to say what Reclaim’s budget is now or who else is funding operations.
In 2016, a related organization called Reclaim New York Initiative incorporated as what’s technically called a “social welfare organization.” Such organizations have earned the moniker “dark money” groups because they can typically shield the names of donors from the public. New York state rules, however, do require some disclosure.
It’s through this entity that Reclaim does its lobbying.
Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway was a founding director of Reclaim New York Initiative. Disclosure forms filed with New York state show Robert Mercer provided $70,855 in March last year to launch the lobbying unit.
One of Reclaim’s most visible projects is building a giant, searchable database of government spending. The group says it has filed 2,500 public records requests with government agencies across the state, including tiny villages and school districts, asking for their “checkbooks” — records of all expenditures in a given year.
Reclaim sued 11 local agencies for either denying the requests or not complying quickly enough. When it won, Reclaim fought for lawyers’ fees. One Rockland County village implored the judge to impose what it called “The Mercer Mercy Rule” and not require the cash-strapped village to pay the legal bills for the billionaire’s nonprofit. The judge agreed.
The group also holds workshops across the state in hotel conference rooms, restaurants and other local gathering spots. The events feature a presentation on New York’s “affordability crisis” and training on how to use public-records laws to keep an eye on local officials.
“They seem to be really building a sort of a grassroots network of activists across the state,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a nonpartisan good government group. “I think they're looking to create a network for conservative-minded fiscal accountability activists to work with them.”
Reclaim’s Facebook page lists 10 public events in 2016 and twice as many last year.
Joyce St George is a Catskills area resident who learned of Reclaim when she and her husband saw a full-page ad in their local paper.
“Nobody takes full-page ads out of a local newspaper,” St George said. “Basically what it said was, ‘Oh, I really would like to go on vacation. Oh, but I can't — I don't have the money. Oh, I really need to get a new car. Oh, but I can't. I'm really stuck financially.’ And it was just three or four sentences that way. And then on the bottom, it said ‘We can help.’ And then it said 'Reclaim New York,' and that was it. Knew nothing about it.”
St George did a little online sleuthing and quickly learned about the Mercer and Bannon connections. She’s an unabashed leftie and started going to workshops, first to observe and then to ask pointed questions about the group’s funding and goals. She said she’s been to seven or eight.
“It’s very insidious,” St George said. “I'm concerned about many of the different issues that they're interested in. I am very concerned though that their practices and tactics and the fact that they are tied to the Mercers and Bannon is going to hurt our state, not help it. It will bring it to the alt-right and it will create much more division amongst our political parties and our communities and government than ever before. That's my big concern.”
Muir, Reclaim’s executive director, said Bannon and Conway haven’t been involved with the organization since August 2016 and Robert Mercer doesn’t play a direct role. His daughter, Rebekah Mercer, chairs the board. He said she’s taken “a very active role in helping us think about how we can look at the policies that we see, economic development spending being one of those.”
Reclaim’s offices were originally on the seventh floor of the old Charles Scribner’s Sons Building at 597 5th Ave. in Manhattan — the same floor as Cambridge Analytica. Reclaim recently moved up four floors. Cambridge Analytica is a data analytics firm reportedly co-owned by Robert Mercer that some on the left have accused of spreading fake news to help the Trump campaign. Muir said Cambridge “worked on a project for our New York Transparency Project to help us broaden the reach on social media.”
He said that was more than a year ago and Reclaim doesn’t “work directly with them anymore.”
The group has amassed a large following on its Facebook page, where it does live chats and posts short videos complete with music and animated graphics. Some videos, like one criticizing the renaming of the Tappan Zee Bridge after Governor Andrew Cuomo’s father, have been viewed thousands of times.
Reclaim’s critics point to the group’s sophisticated use of social media as a cause for concern. But Muir says it's up to individuals to make their own decisions about the issues the group raises.
“Let's not take away from the citizens’ intelligence and think that they can't make decisions for themselves,” Muir said. “Because when I hear people saying ‘you're going to micro-target and you're going to push ads,’ the fact is citizens are still making these decisions. If our content is good it will be shared. If it's not it won't be. And I can live with that. The idea though that we're going to try and convince people of something that's not true — it just doesn't work. We're simply making information easier to digest, but citizens have to make that choice at the end of the day.”
In articles, videos and press conferences, Reclaim New York representatives stress the organization is nonpartisan.
“Parties, whether left or right, are not what we see as the answer,” Muir said. “We believe deeply that it's got to be the citizens. There is no shining elected official on a horse that will take us through to the other side.”
But public records, online bios and LinkedIn profiles for Reclaim’s staff and consultants suggest a staunch conservative agenda with a political edge — a mix of hired Republican guns and young, smart, right-wing Libertarian true-believers.
The organization’s first big hire was Tom Basile, whose title is now senior advisor for policy. Basile worked for the George W. Bush administration in Iraq. After that, he was executive director of the state Republican party for a couple years. He also has his own strategic communications firm. (He was briefly a registered foreign agent for Congo-Brazzaville — not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of Congo. But he never finalized a contract to do public relations and says he did no work.)
Locally, Basile worked on Adolfo Carrion’s failed bid to run for New York City mayor as a Republican in 2013. More recently, Basile has been raising money for a possible state senate run. Last month, Rebekah Mercer donated $18,000 to his campaign.
Muir, the executive director, was also a political consultant. He said he met Basile working on the Carrion campaign.
Reclaim’s director of field operations, Mike Armstrong, worked at The Leadership Institute, which trains conservative activists.
Southern Tier regional director George Phillips ran for congress as a Republican.
Central and Northern New York regional director John Byrne was a Republican state assembly candidate.
Hudson Valley regional coordinator Domenick Cocchiara was a research analyst at a conservative political action committee called America Rising.
Former-operations coordinator Nate Soule left and worked on Republican John Quaglione’s campaign for New York City Council.
Former Hudson Valley regional director John Lange, who once ran for Congress as a Republican, is now working for U.S. Rep. John Faso.
Reclaim’s former Suffolk County lobbyist, Gavin Wax, is editor-in-chief of a Libertarian website called The Liberty Conservative. Reclaim’s program manager, Nickolaus Anzalone, has written for the site, including a post calling for a special “anglo-American visa program” in England.
“After all, why should a Pole have a greater right to live and work in Britain than an Anglo-blooded American?” he wrote. Muir said that’s not an official position of Reclaim, and said the organization does not advocate on social issues. Reclaim’s Facebook page also “likes” The Liberty Conservative page.
Even Reclaim’s outside consultants and partners come from conservative political circles. Early on, Reclaim filed some public records requests with the assistance of Denise Cattoni, founder of the Illinois Tea Party. David Webb, a right-wing radio host, was chairman of Reclaim’s advisory board. And Maureen Blum, a consultant who helped Reclaim launch, has an online bio describing her as a “veteran of strategic political warfare.”
Blum said she did community outreach on Long Island for six months and didn’t do any political strategy work for the group.
Despite all these political ties, Muir insisted the group is non-partisan.
“That stuff all gets checked at the door. We show up and we want to make it easier for people to understand the issues and engage with government, and we need Republicans and Democrats and independents to do that,” Muir said.
After the interview, a Reclaim spokesman sent links to posts where the group praised Democrats like Bill de Blasio for his position on term limits, and criticized Republicans.
The Front Lines
Since late May last year, Reclaim New York Initiative has been spending more than $18,000 a month lobbying, according to disclosure reports filed with the state. In comparison, the New York Public Interest Research Group spent about $26,000 a month on lobbying last year while Common Cause spent nearly $5,000 a month.
Reclaim lobbies on some big issues, like the state budget and healthcare. But the group is also getting involved in small fights — opposing electrician licensing fees in Ulster County, a hospital project in Utica and, of course, the fertilizer plant in Lincoln.
Reclaim’s advocacy appears tied to its aggressive effort at building a network of community watchdogs.
“Democracy fails or succeeds at the local level and those issues were identified by citizens who came to us and said ‘something's not right here,’” Muir said.
The citizen who brought them to Lincoln is Al Szablak.
Szablak bought a home in Lincoln in the summer of 2015, not far from the landfill. Months later, a new water tower went up nearby, and Szablak viewed it as eyesore. Szablak said he would have protested before it was approved, but he believes the public notices were intentionally vague. So he got angry and took to his computer.
“I googled ‘transparency in New York’ and Reclaim came up,” Szablak said.
He sent an email and the next day, Reclaim’s regional director for the area, former Republican state Assembly candidate John Byrne, showed up to meet with him.
“Well, I had been filing [Freedom of Information Law] requests and I wasn't doing it right or timely and that was the first thing we did. He showed me the right way to do it,” Szablak said. Byrne referred questions to a Reclaim spokesman.
Szablak started closely following local politics — things like a local news report that the head of the Industrial Development Agency was making money renting office space to the county. That made him mad.
When Szablak found out officials wanted to let a Canadian firm open the fertilizer plant, he got involved — filing public records requests, posting on his website and raising concerns at meetings.
The group sent the glossy mailer, which said the project “would give $8 million in taxpayer money to a Canadian company.” That claim proved untrue, and Reclaim acknowledged in a later web posting that the Canadian company would pick up the $8 million tab. But it said taxpayers might still be on the hook if the government gave the company any grants. Reclaim also produced a short video for social media.
Between Szablak and Reclaim, local meetings turned into raucous affairs. Ball, the former supervisor, said normally, fewer than 10 residents show up at a town meeting. But suddenly the meeting room was packed. Some people spilling into the parking lot.
Ultimately, the Canadian company pulled out and the fertilizer plant was never built.
Szablak said he didn’t know who was behind Reclaim before he contacted the group. He leans Democrat and his Facebook page is filled with anti-Trump memes.
“I probably never would have emailed them if I had known who they were,” Szablak said.
But he’s happy he did.
“To me, loyalty is to people, not organizations. And I think there’s good and bad in every organization. I’m not saying that Reclaim is bad. But John did what we needed him to do for us,” Szablak said.
Reclaim is trying to court people like Szablak to build a network of resident watchdogs — a gadfly army.
Reclaim calls them “citizen owners.”
“Our long-term goal for New York is to have a citizen owner in every community. That's a person who attends the town board meeting, who attends the school board meeting, who thinks about where his or her taxpayer dollars are going. And Lincoln’s a good example where we have that person,” Muir said.
So far the group has about 100 citizen owners, he added.
Reclaim’s opponents see another motive for the group getting involved in places like Lincoln. They think the group is targeting areas where there could be tough races for state senate and U.S. Congress.
Madison County has more registered Republicans than Democrats. Yet, the state senator who represents the district including the Lincoln landfill is David Valesky, a Democrat who has been caucusing with Republicans as part of the Independent Democratic Conference. Republican Claudia Tenney represents the area in Congress. The Cook Political Report labeled her as one of the most vulnerable incumbents as Democrats look to take back the U.S. House.
Reclaim New York is not entirely unique.
“In the United States, we have an especially permissive or kaleidoscopic definition of a nonprofit organization,” said Rob Reich, a Stanford political science professor who has studied how philanthropy influences democracy, often through tax-exempt family foundations like the Mercer’s.
Really wealthy people in recent years have increasingly funded networks of nonprofits to push an agenda, Reich said. The right wing has been more active, although some wealthy liberals also try this approach, he added.
“It turns democratic dialogue and contestation into the competing positions of rich people and not citizens,” Reich said. “That describes a plutocracy or an oligarchy, not a democracy.”
The arch-conservative Koch Brothers pioneered the approach. And their donor forums have taught other wealthy people, like the Mercers, how to use their money outside traditional political campaign channels, said Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, an assistant professor at Columbia University. His research focuses on how organized interest groups and donors shape public policy.
“When you sort of dig into what these organizations are actually doing, many of them like Reclaim New York do have a political purpose,” Hertel-Fernandez said.
That can mean mobilizing voters, changing political preferences and getting specific policies passed. Increasingly, these groups are looking beyond big national fights.
“I think you're seeing more and more of these donors like those backing Reclaim New York, but also those participating in the Koch seminar, digging into all levels of politics across the country,” Hertel-Fernandez said.
As it digs into state and local government, Reclaim developed ties to other conservative nonprofits, new and old. In addition to Steve Bannon, Reclaim’s founding directors included Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society and Lawrence Mone of the Manhattan Institute.
Reclaim also has ties to a conservative legal-advocacy group, incorporated in Delaware in late 2016, called the Government Justice Center, which has filed a lawsuit in Syracuse to stop the school district from paying the salary of union officers. A judge tossed that case. The Center has also filed a lawsuit in Suffolk County alleging the county is charging illegal fees. That case is pending.
And just last month, the Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of Reclaim seeking pubic records from Empire State Development, the main vehicle for Gov. Cuomo's ambitious and sputtering economic development agenda.
Reclaim’s Facebook page features Government Justice Center videos. Muir, Reclaim’s executive director, is on the Center’s board. Muir declined to discuss the Center’s funding.
Rob Ryan, a longtime Republican operative in New York, shrugged at Reclaim New York’s overt political agenda. He thinks groups like NYPIRG and Common Cause lean left.
“Any group that says they are nonpartisan is usually partisan in some way shape or form. They’re just trying to please the tax man,” Ryan said.
The Mercers have also used their resources in more traditional political channels. A Newsday analysis found they gave nearly $4 million from 2009 through early 2017 for state and local races. That includes nearly $1.6 million to help Republicans and hurt Cuomo during the 2014 election.
Ryan said the Mercer’s big bet could someday pay off.
“We’ve seen all sorts of scandals attached to the Cuomo administration,” he said. “We repeatedly see people being indicted in the legislature in Albany. Sometimes a whole bunch of things can come together and congeal and you can have victories.”
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This story was reported and produced by WNYC Radio.