Ed Towns gets a jumpstart from PACs, and Hakeem Jeffries' camp pounces

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Representative Ed Towns. (Reid Pillifant)
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Last week, Representative Ed Towns dispelled any doubts about his desire to seek a sixteenth term in Congress when he reported raising $233,000 in the fourth quarter, after ending September with just over $11,000 in cash on hand.

According to his filing, Towns' resurgence was fueled, in large part, by political action committees, which gave him $158,000 in the last three months of the year, compared to $75,000 from individual contributors.

Whatever the provenance of the contributions, Towns' fourth-quarter haul erases any doubt that he's a viable candidate, with $162,000 on hand. But it will also open the congressman up to some familiar criticism about his fund-raising.

Towns, who has survived numerous primaries over the last three decades, has often been accused by his opponents of pushing bills that benefit supportive business interests, from pesticides to the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

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Once known as the "Marlboro Man" for his strong support from the tobacco industry, Towns has apparently switched brands, accepting just one tobacco industry donation this cycle: $2,000 from Lorillard, the maker of Winston cigarettes.

He also accepted donations totaling more than $9,500 from the telecom industry, which pushed the Mobile Information Call Act, a bill that would have allowed telemarketers and creditors to call cell phones, and for which Towns was the sole Democratic co-sponsor. That brought his total haul from the industry to $21,000 for the year. (The bill was eventually pulled in December after a torrent of bad press, which included criticism from Towns' colleague, Senator Chuck Schumer.) 

Towns isn't alone in raising money from PACs, which are often fertile ground for incumbents, particularly those with as much seniority as Towns, who holds a high-ranking position on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. (The energy industry is among his biggest contributors.) 

Towns has made his senior position in Congress, and the power it affords for bringing benefits to the district, a cornerstone of his campaign. But his opponents see it as a liability.

Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries was conspicuously quiet about Towns at his campaign kick-off last month. But a spokesperson for his campaign responded to questions about Towns' filing with a direct attack.

“For 30 years, the incumbent has overdosed on special-interest dollars and taken money from the tobacco lobby whose products are likely the biggest cause of preventable death in the district," said Lupe Todd in an emailed statement.

Todd also cited Towns' contributions from the pharmaceuticals industry and called the robocall bill a "unwarranted invasion of privacy."

"In the face of tremendous public opposition, the bill failed but he apparently has been rewarded for his efforts," Todd said. "The incumbent continues to take positions that undermine the best interests of the community. His behavior is unacceptable and represents the worst in pay-to-play politics.”

Through a spokesperson, Towns responded with an emailed statement of his own.

"Negative campaigning has turned off many voters, yet my opponent’s first comments about me dredges up an issue that is decades old," said Towns. "I was a major advocate for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and its reauthorization—bipartisan legislation that provided health insurance coverage for 11 million children, especially the lowest-income children. This was paid for by a federal tax increase on cigarettes and other tobacco products that some estimates made would keep almost 2 million kids from taking up smoking.

"As a long time member of the House Telecom committee I have worked with government and industry to create the framework that has fostered the incredible advancements and innovation in communications that we all—including Brooklyn residents—have benefited from in the last decades."

Towns also criticized Jeffries' spokewoman, making reference to the fact that Todd's employer, George Arzt Communications, worked on his 2008 campaign for re-election.

"I had hoped this campaign would be about the issues and who would do the better job of representing the 10th district," Towns said. "Ironically, his spokesperson not long ago defended me against some of the charges she is now leveling. I guess she has no objections to getting paid to play on that level."

Todd said in response that although she worked for Towns in 2008, she has known Jeffries for more than a decade, and worked for him as a spokesperson during his campaigns in 2002 and 2006.