New York’s top law enforcement officer is defending the state’s ban against mixed martial arts (MMA)—along with the interests of one of his largest campaign supporters.
State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman cancelled a settlement conference with officials from Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) on March 8.
UFC, the largest MMA promotion in the world, had filed a federal lawsuit challenging New York's ban on First Amendment grounds. A settlement could help the UFC and New York avoid a protracted court battle and enable MMA promoters to host sanctioned professional fights in the state for the first time since the ban was enacted in 1997.
But the ban has a prominent supporter in the form of Unite Here, a powerful service industry labor union. The group has launched a nationwide campaign through UnfitForChildren.org to undermine UFC sponsorships by accusing the league of promoting misogyny, homophobia, and bad language.
Support for the ban is just one front in Unite Here's battle against casino moguls Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, the majority owners of UFC parent company Zuffa, LLC.
Culinary Workers Union Local 226, an affiliate of Unite Here, has been unsuccessful in unionizing the Fertitta brothers’ ten Station Casinos.
Unite Here has pumped tens of thousands of dollars into Schneiderman’s war chest. It donated $55,000 to his 2010 attorney general race, making it his largest labor contributor, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The union pumped another $10,000 into Schneiderman’s campaign in July 2012 despite his not being up for reelection until 2014.
Neither the union nor Schneiderman’s office returned multiple requests for comment.
The attorney general’s ties to Unite Here run beyond campaign donations. His former Chief of Staff Neal Kwatra served as an activist for the group as well as the state’s Hotel Trades Council for many years before joining Schneiderman’s office. Kwatra left his post in February to pursue a career as a political consultant, though he pledged to "continue to provide strategic advice for Mr. Schneiderman," according to the New York Times.
Kwatra also did not return requests for comment.
UFC president Dana White has acknowledged that unions have been trying to knock out mixed martial arts through government regulation.
"These guys are focused on what’s going on in MMA instead of their culinary workers … it’s a joke, it’s all an attack on the Fertitta’s," he said in a May 2012 interview. The Culinary Union is "spending your time, energy, and your culinary workers’ money to go out of your way to screw with a mixed martials arts org that brings a ton of revenue into the state and to the people you represent, you guys are gangsters."
Republican state Sen. Joseph Griffo told the Washington Free Beacon that lawmakers and organized labor should focus on benefits that MMA might bring to the state.
"I know there are issues in Vegas, but here in New York state, many of the unions and their members will benefit from this," he said. "We’re focused on pursuing this through a legislative route. The Senate passed it overwhelmingly and now it heads to the Assembly."
Griffo added that he was unfamiliar with Schneiderman’s settlement actions but hoped that campaign contributions did not play a role in the decision.
"You’re in a political arena; you get donations. I’m not familiar with the legal issues, but I would hope [the attorney general’s office] would conduct themselves in a professional way," he said.
New York’s Republican-controlled Senate passed a bill on March 6 to lift the ban. Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver indicated that the bill was likely to pass to the state house at some point in the future.