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Citing Taxes, Economy, Trump's Powerful CRE Supporters Pump Millions Into His Campaign

While some commercial real estate leaders have begun to shift toward Joe Biden as the former vice president maintains a lead in election polling, President Donald Trump still has a strong base of support — and millions in campaign cash — from the industry he came up in. 

President Donald Trump

Before the Democratic Party held its primaries, Trump had raised more than twice as much money from the real estate industry as his top challenger, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign spending. But that has since changed, with Biden now outpacing the president in real estate industry funding. 

Biden has raised about $17M from the real estate industry while Trump has raised roughly $16M as of Sept. 8, according to CRP. Multiple Biden-supporting real estate executives last month told Bisnow they see him as the best candidate to guide the U.S. out of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 190,000 Americans, and the economic recession.  

But Trump has continued to raise millions of dollars from some of the most powerful figures in the industry, and multiple real estate leaders who spoke with Bisnow said they see Trump as the best candidate to guide the economy. 

"That people in the real estate industry would support Biden is baffling," said Phillip Huffines, founder of Dallas-based multifamily firm Huffines Communities. "Biden could care less about the real estate industry, and in fact in his tax policy he wants to slow it down, tax it, get rid of capital gains, get rid of 1031 exchanges and deductibility of interest expenses." 

The real estate executives who discussed their support for Biden with Bisnow last month acknowledged that they were skeptical of the former vice president's tax policies, but said their policy priority was the pandemic response. The executives, including Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker and Peebles Corp. CEO Don Peebles, felt Biden would be an improvement in that area over Trump. 

Huffines founder Phillip Huffines

Huffines serves as the North Texas Finance Chair of the Trump Victory committee, a joint fundraising committee between Trump and the Republican National Committee that does not have the same individual contributions limits as a campaign. He has personally contributed more than $200K to the Trump Victory committee, according to Federal Election Commission filings. 

"President Trump is the very first president we've had whose from our industry," Huffines said. "Because he's a businessman, he personally took it upon himself to rewrite and revamp the entire tax code ... He's also done a good job in reducing unnecessary and unreasonable regulations that hinder the real estate market."

The Trump Victory fund has raised millions of dollars from a host of real estate executives across the country, FEC records show. 

Alexandria Real Estate Equities Executive Chairman Joel Marcus, whose California-based life sciences REIT has a $20B market capitalization and is part of the S&P 500, has contributed $275K to the Trump Victory Fund and another $300K to Republican groups. Speaking in his personal capacity and not on behalf of his firm, Marcus told Bisnow his support for Trump is based on his economic policies.

"The Biden agenda is pretty aggressive on taxes, and I think that's regressive because what we want to do is bring back supply chain for research, development, commercial work and manufacturing work to the U.S., and I think the best shot we have is under the current administration," Marcus said. 

Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman, whose private equity firm is the world's largest owner of commercial real estate, has contributed more than $350K to the Trump Victory fund, and more than $3M to other Republican groups, FEC data shows. 

Greystone CEO Stephen Rosenberg, whose commercial real estate finance company originated $14B in loans last year, contributed over $360K to the Trump Victory fund, and at least $300K more to the RNC, FEC data shows. 

Rosenberg has also contributed $4K to Democratic Senate candidates, and a Greystone spokesperson said he recently made a $150K contribution to the Biden campaign that has not yet appeared in FEC records. 

Vornado Realty Trust CEO Steven Roth, whose REIT is one of the largest commercial landlords in New York City, has partnered with Trump on real estate projects and advised the president during his first term. Roth has contributed $200K to the Trump Victory fund this year, and over $800K to other Republican groups. 

Colony Capital Executive Chairman Tom Barrack, who chaired Trump's 2017 inauguration fund, had a public falling out with the president last year. An Aug. 19, 2019, Politico article headlined "Trump Cuts Off One Of His Closest Friends," reported that the two longtime allies were no longer speaking. But that apparently hasn't stopped Barrack from supporting the president. One day after the Politico article published, Barrack contributed $360,600 to the Trump Victory fund. 

John Catsimatidis, a billionaire real estate executive who owns New York grocery chain Gristedes and runs Red Apple Group, has contributed at least $350K to the Trump Victory fund. 

Red Apple Group CEO John Catsimatidis at REBNY's 124th banquet Jan. 16, 2020.

Catsimatidis, who ran for New York City mayor in 2013 and hosts a conservative talk radio show, also owns a Pennsylvania oil refinery and other energy-related assets. He told Bisnow that one of the key issues leading him to support Trump is energy policy. 

"The Democratic platform right now is against fossil fuels, and I have 5,000 employees that depend on me for a paycheck," Catsimatidis said. "I vote for my 5,000 employees and I'm voting for President Trump and I'm supporting him because the policies of the Democratic Party lately have not been what I consider common sense."

He also said he thinks Trump has been better for the economy, praising the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and highlighting the unemployment rate before the pandemic. Catsimatidis said one of his main concerns in recent months has been public safety and unrest in the streets of major cities.

"I have known Joe Biden a long time, but my problem with the Democratic Party is none of the Democrats have stood up to say that what's happening in our streets is wrong," Catsimatidis said. "People have the right of freedom of speech and peaceful demonstrations, but not the violence that's going on in our streets."

Trump has vocally opposed the demonstrations and the Black Lives Matter movement generally, calling it a "symbol of hate." Democratic-leaning real estate executives said Trump has inflamed racial tensions in the country and Biden would be better at healing the divide. 

“If you look at where the wealth and values are concentrated in commercial real estate, it's urban centers ... and so where those major investments are is where protesting is taking place," Peebles said last month. "I think the industry is recognizing that can have a more chilling impact than tax policy, and I think that’s why our industry is beginning to, and you’re going to hear more people, take a second look at Biden.” 

Real estate executives who are supporting Trump also include Peterson Cos. founder Milt Peterson, a major owner of retail, mixed-use and other properties in the D.C. area. Peterson contributed $150K to the Trump Victory fund and another $142K to the RNC. 

GH Palmer Associates owner Geoffrey Palmer, whose firm owns over 15,000 Southern California apartments, contributed $50K to the Trump Victory fund and over $750K to other Republican groups. 

Probity International CEO Robert Zarnegin, a Southern California developer who has built millions of square feet of properties, has contributed over $375K to the Trump Victory fund and at least $350K more to other Republican groups. 

Crown Acquisitions founder Stanley Chera, a New York developer who built billions of dollars of real estate and was a close friend of the president, contributed $125K to the Trump Victory fund and at least $200K more to other Republican groups before he died from COVID-19 in April.

Chandi Group founder Nachhattar Chandi, a California-based developer and franchise operator, has contributed $175K to the Trump Victory fund and at least $300K more to other Republican groups. 

Associated Builders and Contractors, a construction industry trade association with more than 21,000 members, announced Aug. 28 it is endorsing Trump for president.

ABC President and CEO Michael Bellaman, who served on Trump's advisory committee for reopening the economy, said he supports the president because of his economic policies. He said the tax reform law had a positive impact on the construction industry by lowering the corporate tax rate and by enacting the opportunity zone program

"It has stimulated investment in real estate, with a lot of adaptive reuse and ground sites that may not traditionally have been invested in," Bellaman said of the opportunity zone program. "Whenever a developer goes to invest in that area, they've got to do construction, so it creates opportunities for construction and generates workforce opportunities."

Catsimatidis and Huffines also praised the Trump administration for signing the opportunity zone program into law. Opportunity zone experts are confident the program will remain in place under either a Trump or Biden administration, but the two candidates have differing ideas on revisions that need to be made. 

The program, which provides breaks on capital gains taxes for investors who develop in underserved communities, has led to at least $75B being raised into funds that have financed projects across the country. But reports have found it is not providing the intended community benefits to underserved neighborhoods, leading critics to argue that it is only benefiting the wealthy investors who are receiving the tax breaks. 

The real estate leaders who back Trump have a series of initiatives they would like to see the president pursue in a second term. 

Joe Biden campaigning for president in May 2019.

Bellaman said he wants the administration to prioritize a major infrastructure package, an initiative it has discussed since Trump took office but that has not moved forward in Congress. He said that gaining support for $1 trillion or more in spending could be difficult after the coronavirus relief efforts, but he thinks the government could utilize public-private partnerships to help reduce the costs. 

"There are certain things the government has to fund, getting the bridges safe and making sure our basic infrastructure is solid," Bellaman said. "But getting creative on these real transformational infrastructure projects has got to be in partnership with the private sector."

The Trump campaign Aug. 23 released a second-term agenda featuring a 50-point list that included "expand opportunity zones" and "build the world's greatest infrastructure system." It did not provide more details on the proposals. 

The list also called for cutting taxes, continuing deregulation and providing tax credits for companies that bring back jobs from China. 

Huffines said he hopes Trump continues his efforts to reduce regulations on businesses. 

"I want to see the same as he's done for the last four years," Huffines said. "It's to allow the economy to flourish by reducing unnecessary government regulations."

Marcus, whose REIT is one of the country's largest developers of life sciences and healthcare-related properties, said he wants to see the president continue to tackle the coronavirus, address the opioid addiction issue and try to cover uninsured people through a fund-based model that wouldn't get rid of existing private insurance plans. 

"I view it not as Trump and Biden, but I view it as a difference in policy perspectives that are really important," Marcus said. "Too much about politics is about personality, but that leads us in a bad direction."