Gotham Gazette Mon, 22 Apr 2019 04:39:24 +0000 en-gb (Webmaster) In Communications Move, De Blasio Chooses Campaign Over City Hall de blasio walzak comms team 2014

De Blasio, center, & Walzak, to the mayor's right (Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office)

There are few people Mayor Bill de Blasio trusts when there is a lot on the line. One of those people, Phil Walzak, has been a top aide to the Democratic mayor since de Blasio’s 2013 campaign, for which Walzak was communications director. This past week, de Blasio’s reelection campaign announced that Walzak is moving from City Hall -- where he had been de Blasio’s press secretary then senior advisor -- to the campaign.

When it comes to a Mayor seeking a second term, there is certainly a lot on the line, and Walzak will be “overseeing the 2017 campaign’s communications planning, and developing and implementing the strategy that will drive the re-election effort,” according to the campaign.

But, the move comes somewhat early in the campaign cycle -- the Democratic primary is 11 months away and no candidate likely to pose a significant threat to the mayor has yet declared a run -- and de Blasio said on Wednesday that he does not plan to replace Walzak at City Hall. This combination of facts shows de Blasio prioritizing the work of his campaign over the work of his government.

Over his nearly three years as Mayor, de Blasio has himself repeatedly cited a need to improve his communication, which has been criticized from in- and out-side government. Walzak is one of three press secretaries and two top strategic advisors de Blasio has employed as he has attempted to find the right approach to both the media and direct outreach to New Yorkers.

Early in his term, de Blasio’s press office was slow and timid, and the mayor was criticized for talking too infrequently to local outlets and to New Yorkers -- he relished national media attention and it took him nearly two years to hold his first town hall as Mayor.

Recently, de Blasio has taken heat around how infrequently he holds press conferences, for limiting the topics during the ones he does hold, for being confrontational with reporters, and for lashing out at the New York Post while refusing to take one of its reporters’ question.

At the end of his second year in office, de Blasio held a December 2015 roundtable with reporters to discuss the first half of his term. During the wide-ranging discussion, at which he took dozens of questions, the only error de Blasio would admit to was in communicating. Promising more town halls and other appearances, de Blasio said he would do better. “I’m not in the business of dwelling on the past,” he said. “I’ve clearly said I need to communicate better and I need to get out to the grassroots more.”

Walzak and other top advisors to the mayor -- some in government, some outside -- have influenced de Blasio’s approach to communications, though the mayor is known for trusting his own instincts and overruling the advice of others. When Gotham Gazette asked de Blasio if Walzak had served him well in light of the mayor’s admitted communications challenges, de Blasio was vehement in the affirmative.

“I absolutely think he served me well, and his role grew over time as you saw,” de Blasio said. “And I am very, very happy that he is going to be leading the charge in terms of our message and our communications on the campaign side because, as you know, our campaign cycle is already happening, obviously, but it will be fully engaged by the people of this city in just a couple of weeks. So we wanted to get him over there and get that work going. Look, I will always try and be better. I take the first responsibility on myself in all things. I think we’ve done a lot of good. I think some of it has gotten through better than others and I’ve got to do better all the time as a communicator and the team has to do better. But, I think Phil did a really fine job.”

Asked if he planned to replace Walzak at City Hall, de Blasio told Gotham Gazette, “Right now, the group we have, I think, is able to continue doing the work well and we’ll stick with the group we have.”

It may be that de Blasio currently feels better about his press office and communications by City Hall -- the office became more organized and responsive to reporters under de Blasio’s second press secretary, Karen Hinton; the communications team has been creating more original content and focusing on social media; and the mayor has been more regularly holding town hall meetings across the city. De Blasio’s current press secretary, Eric Phillips, is the sharpest of the three he’s had, possessing strengths of Walzak and Hinton as well as others.

However, it is not clear why de Blasio feels at such ease moving Walzak to the campaign at this stage and not replacing him -- two follow-up emails to Phillips seeking further explanation of the move were not returned. Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that one reason for the timing of the move was to help dissuade potential challengers from running against de Blasio.

“We are going to take a very aggressive approach and it’s the simplest way to say it,” de Blasio said when a reporter from the Wall Street Journal asked him to outline his campaign strategy. “Phil’s going over there to start the communications engine up strong. And you are going to see a very energetic campaign and a very grassroots approach.”

With Walzak gone from City Hall, it is not immediately clear who will step into the void, if anyone. Walzak is one of few people often involved in the mayor’s biggest decisions and most sensitive matters. He speaks to members of the media, both on and off the record, for de Blasio, including occasional appearances on television and at public forums. De Blasio is in the midst of major governmental strategic and communications efforts, essential to his record: assuring New Yorkers that he is truly reforming the NYPD; convincing elected officials and communities to accept land use rezonings and new development in an effort to build more affordable housing; gaining more support for his education agenda; and more.

De Blasio has other top political and communications aides -- Emma Wolfe, Andrea Hagelgans, Phillips -- and advisors not on the city payroll, including several individuals so close to the mayor that his administration has determined them to be extensions of City Hall, and their communications with the mayor shielded from public disclosure. They include several people who, along with Walzak, helped the mayor win his 2013 campaign, such as former campaign manager Bill Hyers and consultant Jonathan Rosen.

The City’s determination to withhold de Blasio’s communications with those outside advisors, termed “agents of the city” by de Blasio’s former counsel Maya Wiley, is the subject of a lawsuit filed against the City by NY1 and the Post, which sought the mayor’s emails with those ‘agents’ through the Freedom of Information Law.

Gotham Gazette asked the mayor if Walzak would immediately fall under that same category. “It’s a different situation,” de Blasio said on Wednesday in City Hall’s Blue Room. “He is, because he is going to be on a leave from City Hall, obviously in a position to keep communicating with us. We haven’t talked about that specific matter that you’re referring to. What we obviously were dealing with in the past with people I had long, long history with who were very close to me and personal advisors. This is someone who has been an employee at City Hall, now going on leave. We will seek guidance, of course, as to how to handle anything in terms of disclosure, etc.”

As de Blasio approaches the final months of his third year in office and then his reelection year, both his government work and his campaign will be under intense scrutiny, though that is nothing new. “City Hall is a meat-grinder” according to a top strategist who knows de Blasio well and spoke about his communications approach on the condition of anonymity. “The mayor is under immense media pressure, unlike any other mayor,” the strategist said. “The market is different than it’s ever been,” the strategist explained, referencing the competition, social media, and the speed of news cycles.

According to a former de Blasio aide who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, de Blasio’s communications struggles have been acute. “Probably his biggest failure as mayor is how he’s done with getting his own message out,” the former aide said. “From the beginning, there have been so many errors -- how many good press weeks has Bill de Blasio had since he became mayor?”

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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In Communications Move, De Blasio Chooses Campaign Over City Hall Sun, 23 Oct 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Bill De Blasio's Resurrection Challenge de blasio gracie mansion celebration

Mayor de Blasio at Gracie Mansion (photo: Demetrius Freeman, Mayor's Office)

After several months of what the mayor himself called “relentless negative headlines” around investigations into his administration and campaign fundraising, Bill de Blasio is facing low public approval ratings, strong doubts about whether he deserves to be re-elected in 2017, and a resurrection mission ahead of him.

For the Democrat more than halfway through his third year in office, the upcoming task comes down to solidifying his base and convincing more New Yorkers that he is a good Mayor - good enough that he deserves a second term. Out of his hands is the necessity that the various state and federal investigations end without charges against him or any of his top associates.

The extent to which de Blasio must improve his standing is not completely clear at this point, though in general New Yorkers do not appear to have great confidence in the mayor. Of New York City voters polled by Quinnipiac at the end of July, 51 percent said that they disapprove of the way de Blasio is handling his job; 42 percent approve. Fifty percent said they do not believe he deserves to be re-elected; 42 percent said he does. In this very Democratic city, however, those numbers are significantly better among only Democrats.

Additionally, how New Yorkers view their sitting Mayor in the middle of his term is not necessarily indicative of how they’ll treat him at the ballot box come election day and against actual opponents. How vulnerable de Blasio is and the best path to unseat him are both matters of widely varying opinion. There’s little doubt, though, that the mayor is not where he wants to be in terms of public perception.

“We fully expect the atmosphere next year to be different than the current one,” said Phil Walzak, senior advisor to de Blasio, by email. “And when the people compare this mayor’s record of achievement for millions of everyday New Yorkers to those of others who want this office, it won’t be much of a contest.”

Walzak, de Blasio, and others close to the mayor tout successes on pre-kindergarten, crime, and affordable housing. They point to the fact that the most recent poll shows similar numbers to the prior one, which was released in May, and say that after the hits the mayor took from all those negative headlines and news associated with the investigations, things seem to have stabilized. There is work to do, they know, especially around communicating the mayor’s accomplishments to his constituents.

It is evident that many New Yorkers don’t see de Blasio as the tough, expert chief executive that they want in a Mayor. This mayor has struggled with projecting the image of a municipal leader focused on city problems, in control and on top of things, despite the fact that many indicators show the city doing well.

“The good news is that he still has a lot of time to turn around the narrative about his administration and his time as mayor,” said Evan Thies, a Democratic political consultant who runs Brooklyn Strategies. “The Fall will be a critical time.”

One issue, Thies notes, is that “It was never clear New Yorkers thought de Blasio was going to be the manager that New York needs, there was always just the potential for that.”

Developments throughout de Blasio’s tenure, basic political rules, and conversations with experts make clear the mayor’s work ahead. De Blasio must ensure that his accomplishments are clear to New Yorkers, connect directly with as many constituents as possible, shore up and showcase allies, and project a stronger sense of executive command. He must also avoid repeating some of the missteps that have hurt him to date, like taking on political fights he can’t win, such as those with charter school supporters and Uber.

A big new policy announcement, either late this year or early next year, could also garner de Blasio the type of positive attention that could help right the ship in terms of public perception and approval.

If news comes that de Blasio and his associates are cleared of wrongdoing in the multiple investigations involving pay-to-play allegations and possibly illegal campaign money maneuvers, potential opponents could be dissuaded from running against the mayor.

The first thing de Blasio must do, Thies believes, is solidify his base, namely black and Hispanic New Yorkers who continue to support the mayor by healthy margins. “I would suggest that he immerse himself in public events and forums, largely in that base, talking about issues important to that base,” Thies said.

For de Blasio to regain momentum, dominate the media with positive stories, and convince New Yorkers that he’s the leader they want, Thies argues, the mayor should get out more. “He should be doing a half a dozen public events a day. He should be everywhere all the time, always looking like he’s in charge,” Thies said. “He should be visiting a construction site making sure it’s safe, he’s cutting a ribbon on a park, he’s at a community board hearing on local schools, he’s hosting a forum on senior issues - constantly out there.”

De Blasio appeared to dabble recently in this type of approach, though it doesn’t seem to be one he embraces. Two weeks ago, the mayor seemed to make a spontaneous decision to endeavor a five-borough tour on National Night Out Against Crime, the annual evening of community events put on by the police department. A few days later, the mayor walked a parade in Queens and a beach boardwalk in the Bronx with his next police commissioner, Jimmy O’Neill. Last week, he held another community town hall, this one in the Bronx. He’s not doing six daily events as Thies suggests, but it’s also not yet the Fall - and the Democratic mayoral primary, for which de Blasio may not have a serious opponent, is 13 months away.

“Our mission is not to get lost in the noise or the day-to-day churn,” said Walzak, de Blasio’s advisor. Extolling the mayor’s “compelling record and vision,” Walzak said that “Mayor de Blasio is at his best when he is out across New York City talking directly with the people.”

People close to de Blasio expect more appearances at community events, where there are naturally occurring crowds and de Blasio can make a positive showing. There will also be a variety of milestones to celebrate as certain de Blasio programs hit benchmarks or anniversaries. One example is likely to be the two-year anniversary of the city’s popular municipal identification card, IDNYC, which will occur in January.

“Along with regular neighborhood town halls, visits to houses of worship and radio appearances,” Walzak said, “community hits” like the appearances with O’Neill “will continue, and so will [the mayor’s] direct interaction and communication with the people of New York.”

Unsurprisingly, Democratic and Republican analysts have different assessments of the path ahead for the mayor and his re-election chances. On a recent segment of NY1’s Inside City Hall, Republican consultant Kevin Fullington said that de Blasio is “in a very difficult position” with the administration “trying to change the narrative, but they can’t as long as all these investigations are going on.”

“Until these investigations are wrapped up, he can’t advance his policy agenda and create a compelling reason for him to be reelected,” Fullington said, citing a “General growing sense of incompetence and dysfunction in his administration.”

Alexis Grenell, a Democratic strategist who partners with Thies, indicated on NY1 that short of indictments, the corruption stories are not really that influential with voters. “Voters typically judge mayors on the economy and well-being of the city, as well as their sense of safety. By those empirical measures,” she said, “the mayor has done actually a very good job,” but “a very poor job of communicating to those constituencies his record of success there.”

Indeed, crime is at all time lows, but 49 percent of those polled by Quinnipiac said they dissaprove of how de Blasio is handling crime, with 42 percent saying they approve. 

Perhaps two data sets in the most recent poll indicate de Blasio’s struggle most clearly. Among only Democrats, de Blasio received high marks for whether he “understands the problems of people like you or not” with 64 percent saying “yes” and 31 percent saying “no.” Yet, also among only Democrats, on “Would you say that Bill de Blasio has strong leadership qualities or not?” the numbers dropped to 49 percent “yes” and 44 percent “no.”

“I am very, very proud of what we have done,” de Blasio said in April on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show after listing some of his top accomplishments on pre-K, crime, policing reform, and affordable housing. “The bottom-line is keep doing it. And, of course it is important to get out to the people, spread the message in every neighborhood. I have been doing town hall meetings and I will be doing a lot more.”

The question will be how New Yorkers feel the impact of de Blasio’s city government in their daily lives and what they credit, or blame, the mayor for. The Quinnipiac poll shows that 46 percent of voters were either very or somewhat satisfied “with the way things are going in New York City today,” while 53 percent were either somewhat or very dissatisfied.

“It’s not too late to adjust New Yorkers’ opinions,” said Thies, “[de Blasio]’s done the most important thing, which is he’s achieved some real broad positive changes in New York at a time when New York is arguably in the best shape it’s ever been. So now he’s just gotta convince folks that it was really him that got us to where we are and project that image that he can run the city and run it well and that we should trust him to keep doing it.”

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Bill De Blasio's Resurrection Challenge Tue, 16 Aug 2016 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio and The Complications of Vetting Campaign Donors 14050600720 28fac6382a z

Mayor de Blasio, 2014 (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office) 

In the early stages of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s run for office in 2013, thousands of small donations flooded in but big donors were rare. “I will admit to you there was a time early in the mayoral campaign when a maximum donation was a very unusual thing in our campaign, so it certainly got attention then,” the mayor said, at a June 15 news conference.

As the situation changed and bigger donations became more “typical,” the mayor said his campaign was careful about vetting big donors. His instructions were “to look carefully at every donation, and there was a thorough vetting process, and whenever there was a feeling on behalf of the lawyers and others who looked at it that a donation did not make sense to accept, it was returned,” he said.

Even then, however, questionable donors, some of whom may have flouted the rules, slipped through the cracks.There were the two businessmen, Jona Rechnitz and Jeremy Reichberg, who donated and raised large sums of money for the mayor and are now at the center of a federal investigation into the bribery of top NYPD officers. Just last month, Reichberg and three high-ranking police officers were arrested in connection with the case.

In a June 10 radio interview with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, when asked about Rechnitz, the mayor said, “We try to vet things very, very carefully but even with careful vetting you can’t always pick up what someone’s intentions are.” Earlier, in April, a spokesperson for the mayor’s 2013 campaign said that they would return the $9,900 donated by Rechnitz and his wife. Following that, in May, DNAinfo found cases of possible straw donations -- in which a person illegally contributes another individual’s money under their own name -- made to the mayor in 2013, which prompted the mayor’s campaign to refund $32,200 to seven donors. Individuals can donate a maximum of $4,950 to a citywide candidate in an election and can only donate from personal funds.

Experts agree that the size and volume of donations in most modern day elections makes donor vetting a daunting but necessary task. It’ll be particularly important for de Blasio as his 2017 re-election operation ramps up amid scrutiny at multiple levels around his fundraising practices, which originally stemmed from the probe into the NYPD and expanded to include allegations of pay-to-play relationships with top donors.

At the June 15 conference, de Blasio also told reporters that his lawyers have clear instructions for campaign staff ahead of 2017 and “the bottom-line, which I’m certainly aware of, is vet before you deposit,” he said. “So a check can come in, and you have no idea it’s coming in. It can come in the mail, it can come in at an event, but you have to vet it before depositing and be very careful and make sure that everything is proper.”

That’s a rule that former political consultant Cynthia Darrison lived by. Darrison, who now teaches campaign fundraising at New York University, has worked for campaigns at the city, state and federal level. “If we got a check from someone we don’t know, we wanted to know - why is this person giving to us? Who is this person?,” said Darrison, in a phone interview, referring to her time working for late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s campaign. “My basic motto is: paranoia is usually good and warranted,” she added.

She pointed out some clear red flags that campaigns should look for to avoid what she calls “dicey spicy” contributions. For instance, when a campaign receives sequential money orders at a fundraiser, in multiples of the admission price.

She laid out the dos and don’ts of fundraising. The first step is a simple online search of the donor to check for any possible news stories or negative headlines. Another resource, she said, is LexisNexis, a massive online database for public records often used by journalists and legal researchers. For citywide candidates, she collected employee and employer information and ran names against the city’s vendor tracking system, VENDEX, and against the Doing Business Database which lists companies and individuals with business before the city. She also checked for any possible investigations of a donor by the Department of Investigation. Online contributions are trickier, however, since they’re automatically accepted and deposited. “You still need to vet them and refund if necessary,” she said.

Daniel Bright, a lawyer who worked for President Obama’s New York campaign in 2008, doesn’t think there’s any one standard practice for vetting donors. “It’s almost impossible to have a foolproof system,” he said, especially considering some campaigns, like de Blasio’s, can get thousands of donations. “When you run for citywide office, lots of people come to fundraisers and you don’t know who they are,” he said. “I don’t really know how you could vet everybody who writes you a check…. Everyone wants to be friends with the mayor and other public elected officials.”

He said campaigns should be wary of suspicious behavior and patterns that suggest impropriety, such as the same handwriting on multiple checks. “One obvious flag is large checks from people with jobs who don’t usually write large checks,” he said. Darrison raised the same concern. “If you see that they’re a factory worker or a beautician and they’re giving a $10,000 donation, you have to wonder, what’s going on here?” she said, “Is this credible?” This was apparent in the donations exposed by DNAinfo, where they found that two commercial drivers who were employed by a wholesaler donated about $10,000 each to Mayor de Blasio’s campaign and transition team.

It’s unclear whether the mayor has dedicated more resources to vetting donations for his 2017 campaign. Multiple requests for comment to a campaign spokesperson went unanswered. Last week, the mayor’s senior advisor Phil Walzak, appearing on NY1, gave host Errol Louis a sense of the process. Walzak said, “We look at people. We look at their backgrounds. We look at the public documents and records that’s available about someone’s past and we try as hard as we can to intercept any potential problem at its core. If there are circumstances where someone may have gotten through the screen, we move swiftly to repair that.”

Costas Panagopoulos, director of the Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy at Fordham University, said, “My sense is that campaigns take the money first and then ask questions later. There’s no specific vetting process that happens systematically in most campaigns and if campaigns discover that a donor is problematic or a contribution is problematic for any reason they’ll usually send it back.” He also stressed that campaigns have to work quickly to raise significant sums of money in a short period of time, making it difficult to vet every contribution. Sometimes, he said, the monitoring happens “after the fact, after they’ve already accepted the contributions.”

Often, that monitoring is done by the media or by political opponents, said Bright. He said contributions are usually returned either in response to a news article or revealed through opposition research done by the person running against a candidate. “That’s a standard practice,” he added.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio and The Complications of Vetting Campaign Donors Wed, 06 Jul 2016 03:35:17 +0000