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City's Veterans Community Meets to Assess Policy, Build Cohesion


veterans policy event pic

From Tuesday's event (photo: NYC Veterans Alliance via Facebook)


A steady stream of hands shot in the air as the speaker asked audience members to indicate if they had served their country, beginning with Vietnam and ending post-9/11.

At a forum on New York City Veterans Policy Tuesday night, hosted by the New York City Veterans Alliance, veterans and veteran advocates of diverse ages and backgrounds gathered to discuss the issues facing their community, including homelessness, funding for employment, healthcare and other services, and even how to define the term 'veteran.' The event occurred amid ongoing debate over how well city government is attending to veterans' needs and organizing its resources to best provide support to the hundreds of thousands of veterans living in the city.

"I would say different era veterans are having much different experiences in NYC. A lot of the student vets, there's a lot more support for them with the new GI bill, they're doing a lot better overall. And they're a lot more active in honing the community and helping with various student organizations and veterans associations at schools," said Vadim Panasyuk, who served in Iraq and works at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). "But other era veterans that are struggling— from more forgotten conflicts, Korea, Vietnam— those vets are still struggling, and find themselves in legal whirlpool of all the different VSOs [veteran support organizations] and dealing with misinformation from one service provider to another and it becomes very discouraging to seek out help."

Iraq War veteran Tireak Tulloch, a spokesman for IAVA, agreed. "If you're a veteran from a different era, [service providers] don't know what to do with you," Tulloch said.

Vietnam veteran Lee Covino, who recently served as Vice-Chairman of the City's Veterans Advisory Board, described witnessing an "identity crisis."

"You have people who are separated by campaigns...you have a huge population out there and one of the things that irks me is when a vet tells me, 'I'm not a vet,'" Covino said. "That's nonsense. You're an era and you need to organize that way."

The efficacy and availability of resources for veterans was a key part of Tuesday night's discussion, with NYC Veterans Alliance interim director Kristen Rouse noting in her opening remarks that the city committed to a "notable" increase in funding for veterans in the fiscal year 2016 budget.

"I think there's been tremendous progress and the city has come together, but...There's a real sense to me of a lack of cohesion of all these different efforts," said Coco Culhane, the founding director of the Veteran Advocacy Project at the Urban Justice Center. "And there's not a whole lot of infrastructure they can turn to at the city level and especially for veterans who are not eligible for these federal VA dollars. The city is their safety net and we need to be there for them so I think we have a long way to go, even with just acknowledging veterans."

There is conversation at the city level over whether the Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs, or MOVA, should become its own city agency, removed from within the mayor's office, but still under the mayor's purview. Creating a separate Department of Veterans Affairs, as called for by a City Council bill that has had one public hearing but does not have Mayor Bill de Blasio's support, would likely give work to support veterans more clarity, resources, and oversight.

"You need people who know what they're doing to serve this population and having experts but also having oversight. If we're going to address all of the issues that are included in that report," Rouse told Gotham Gazette referring to the report NYC Veterans Alliance recently released, "if we want to properly address this stuff, there has to be an accountable agency that has programmatic oversight of what these different city agencies are doing." The report, which surveyed almost 500 veterans in the New York metropolitan area, identified veterans' key concerns, including improving access to the VA suicide hotline and increasing oversight of veteran service organizations that receive city funding.

Comedian and television host John Oliver delivered opening remarks describing his experience being married to a veteran. "It's hard being married to a veteran because you can't complain about your day," Oliver quipped. "'Oh, you had a bad day writing jokes? Shut up!'"

But Oliver also took a more serious turn, underlining the importance of doing more than just saying "thank you" to military veterans.

"It's too easy to say 'thank you,' but you're not actually doing anything. There can be a real seduction in people having lovely commercials on TV, introducing veterans at football games, but it's not doing anything to fix infrastructure," Oliver said.

Moderator Phoebe Gavin, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, commented that "the average American is just not very connected to the [military] campaigns that have occurred," adding that many might not have a veteran in family. "There's just not as much connection to campaigns as there used to be...we've been at the mall all this time," Gavin said of most Americans going about their business, like shopping, while a small group serves in the military or has a family member doing so.

In an interview with Gotham Gazette prior to the forum, Oliver highlighted the work organizations Team Rubicon and Mission Continues do to assist veterans' transition back to civilian life. Team Rubicon unites military veterans with first responders to deploy emergency response teams, giving veterans the opportunity to put the skills they learned in the armed forces to use responding to natural disasters.

"They are a good example of providing practical assistance," Oliver said. "And most veterans don't want help, they're not a group that will complain, they don't want to be treated like a charity case. They want to be given opportunities."

***
by Catie Edmondson, Gotham Gazette
@CatieEdmondson

Despite Unprecedented Scandal, Calls for Special Ethics Session Fall on Deaf Ears


john sampson

Recently convicted former Sen. John Sampson (photo: @SampsonVictory)


It would reason to think that the conviction of two legislative leaders would lead to a flurry of anti-corruption activity in any state capital. But in Albany, where the new normal appears to involve multiple convictions and indictments of sitting lawmakers every year, last week's crime blotter appears to have barely turned a head. The convictions of Republican Senate Deputy Leader Tom Libous and Democratic Sen. John Sampson, a former Majority Leader, on charges of lying to the FBI (Sampson was also convicted of obstructing justice) don't appear to have had much of an impact at all on reform efforts, despite ongoing calls for action from those who don't work at the capitol.

Good-government groups including the New York Public Interest Research Group, Reinvent Albany, Common Cause, and Citizens Union have reiterated calls for a special session on ethics reform, calls that began in June at the end of the legislative session. That was the session that saw the indictments of Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos - and that produced little by way of reform.

"Normally, in a rational world, these indictments would shock the legislative body into action, but it ain't gonna happen, not in New York," said Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, the man who could compel the Legislature to return to session, made it crystal clear during a radio interview last week that he has no intention of doing so. "A special session to do what? I mean, we've proposed every ethics law imaginable," Cuomo said in an appearance on The Capitol Pressroom. "We've proposed and accomplished unprecedented disclosure," the governor added, referring to what did get done.

On Tuesday, Cuomo reiterated that a special session is not in the cards. Speaking to reporters after an event near Lake George, Cuomo said, "I haven't heard anything from the Senate or the Assembly saying, 'Our minds are changed, we now want to pass a bill that we didn't want to pass.' So for the taxpayers to spend a lot of money to bring the legislators back to Albany for the same outcome they had several weeks ago makes no sense," according to Capital New York.

Cuomo's stance has a number of advocates concerned that he has abandoned reform efforts because the public has grown numb to the cloud of scandal that hangs around the state capitol - a cloud voters appear to be attaching to the governor in public opinion polls. Advocates also worry Cuomo has gone as far as he is willing to go on reform and is digging in to defend the reforms he has made, despite the fact that they haven't quelled the tide of indictments.

"It sounds like he's throwing in the towel," said Blair Horner of NYPIRG, one of the reform groups calling for a special session to deal with corruption. "He is trying to create an environment where action is not on the table. He dreamt up the current system, so it could be that he is trying to protect it."

Muzzio said that Cuomo is making the only play he has at the moment. "The upper house is going to come back and do nothing," Muzzio said of the Republican-controlled Senate. "The governor is making a sound governmental argument - he's asking what would the purpose be of having a special session when we know the bottom line is nothing is going to happen."

Other Democrats, including Cuomo rival Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, have been advocating a special session to take on an overhaul of ethics enforcement. Schneiderman has been touting his "End New York Corruption Now Act" that would create a system of public campaign financing, eliminate outside employment for legislators, extend legislative terms, and allow the AG to prosecute public corruption, among other things.

Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat and constant advocate for reform, told Gotham Gazette he thinks a special session on ethics reform is desperately needed. "I can't think of anything that would better help excise the opprobrium from last week's twin state Senate convictions than a special session entirely devoted to ethics reforms," said Hoylman. "No more piecemeal fixes or trimming around the edges; it's time for Albany to address ethics comprehensively and head-on. Let's come back from our vacations and get to work closing the LLC loophole, restricting outside income, and rationalizing our campaign finance system. If this effort isn't begun now, it'll have to be addressed in January when we return."

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins indicated during an interview on The Capitol Pressroom on Monday that she would be more than willing to bring her conference back for special session should Cuomo call one. But she said she doubted Senate Republicans would be interested. "I have not, he has not, we collectively have not been able to get our Republican Senate colleagues to actually be serious about real, strong ethics reforms," Stewart-Cousins said, referring to the governor.

It isn't just the indictments and convictions that have reformers concerned. They point out that recent campaign filings show that candidates are taking in increasing amounts of campaign cash through the LLC loophole that allows corporations to flout donation limits by the creation of multiple LLCs. Developer Glenwood Management was the largest abuser of the system before it became entangled in the corruption cases against Silver and Skelos.

Both Cuomo and Schneiderman, who have decried the loophole and called to close it, were major beneficiaries of it in the last election cycle. Now, filings show that Schneiderman took in over $260,000 from LLCs since January; Cuomo took in $1.4 million from LLCs in the same period.

Meanwhile, two ethics enforcement units created under Cuomo's watch appear either slow to action or crippled by infighting. The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, has been criticized for being the puppet of Cuomo and legislative leaders and its board has seen repeated turnover in its leadership. Legislative appointees are currently fuming over what they say is outside interference from the executive.

Four legislative appointees wrote the Albany Times Union expressing dismay at recent executive hires and appointments and stressed that the next JCOPE director must be found outside of state government (i.e. without direct ties to Cuomo). "If the next Executive Director is not hired from outside State government after an exhaustive search, the public trust will be inexorably destroyed," reads the letter.

"JCOPE is disintegrating," said Horner of NYPIRG. "What better time to act on a new system?"

Cuomo's enforcement counsel at the Board of Elections has also been criticized for being slow to move on the most basic enforcement issues. And the Board recently declined to close the LLC loophole, which it had created years ago.

Muzzio said he believes there will have to be major public outcry before the Legislature gets serious on reform. "You need someone charismatic enough to carry the message, because people forget about it unless they are forced," said Muzzio. "That kind of messenger just ain't there. The governor has been gun-shy since the SAFE Act hurt his poll numbers. I don't think he's gonna push it. It's gotta be another guy. There's Schneiderman, but he doesn't have the same cache as the governor. He can't deal."

Horner said it is obvious to him that New York does have a new, charismatic, corruption-fighting figurehead. He says Cuomo relinquished his status as "conductor of the reform train" to the U.S. Attorney responsible for many of the Albany indictments. "The new conductor's name is Preet Bharara, and New York will go wherever he takes us," Horner said.

A July 15 Siena Poll, taken before the convictions of Libous and Sampson, found that corruption is still on the minds of voters and that legislators should probably be concerned about the issue if they want to keep their jobs. The poll found 90 percent of voters felt state government corruption is a serious problem. Meanwhile 49 percent of those surveyed said recent scandals make it less likely they will re-elect their representatives in 2016.

Horner said he doesn't have much reason to believe Cuomo is going to return to ethics reform, but he does have some hope.

"We often see governors run as reformers in their first terms, and in their second terms become defenders of the status quo - because they become the status quo," said Horner. "Now, perhaps [Cuomo] thinks he will have more leverage next year around the budget. I would argue there is no better time than now. I don't think we've ever seen two legislative leaders convicted in the same week."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Queens Library Scandal Spurs Nonprofit Oversight Bill


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CM Crowley at a City Hall rally (photo: @magghayes)


On the heels of New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer's report on Queens library executives engaging in questionable practices, Queens Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley is renewing her push for greater oversight of officers of city-funded nonprofit organizations.

Crowley's bill, introduced to the Council's contracts committee and currently in preliminary stages, would require officers of nonprofit organizations— defined as chief executive, operating and finance officers— that receive 50 percent or more of their funding from the city to file conflict of interest disclosure forms to the city agencies that fund them.

"This [bill] just came from my frustration learning about this and understanding that this corruption was happening and the city had no idea," Crowley told Gotham Gazette, referencing former Queens Borough Public Library President Tom Galante.

Galante was fired in December after the library board of trustees reviewed his expense account and discovered lavish spending on pricey meals, alcohol, and furniture at the same time the library cut staff. Stringer's audit and investigative report into the library's finances— released in July— found a series of abuses: Galante failed to disclose his outside businesses on government filings and recorded "time spent performing part-time services for another public employer" that conflicted with his library schedule. Stringer's report also questioned the practices of the current interim library president Bridget Carey-Quinn, who served as chief operating officer under Galante.

"If we only had extended this law, that we extend to all elected officials, to those that are top management at nonprofits getting most of their money from the city, then we would know if there was a conflict and we would've known already that Tom Galante was abusing his privileges as CEO of the library," Crowley said.

Crowley introduced the bill in April 2014, a month after the Council convened a special oversight hearing on library executives' compensation following a series of articles scrutinizing Galante's salary. A hearing for the bill is expected in September or October in the contracts committee, which is chaired by Manhattan Councilmember Helen Rosenthal.

"Every time he answered another question, we were more and more horrified by what he had to say," Rosenthal told Gotham Gazette of Galante's 2014 testimony, "and what we unearthed is that there was very little oversight for the Queens library president."

Rosenthal indicated she is eager to have a hearing on it this fall. Questions exist, though, about the burdens the bill would place on nonprofits if enacted into law. These questions are likely to be raised at the planned hearing.

Lauren George, associate director of Common Cause New York, a good government group, said the bill will require nonprofits to do some additional work in order to prevent future malfeasance.

"It will pose an additional burden, on small nonprofits especially, which have very limited staff and resources," George said. "Though increased public disclosure can't be a bad thing, and could help deter bad actors abusing access to city funds in the future, with the appropriate oversight and watch-dogging."

To what extent the bill will prove burdensome for nonprofits is not yet clear. For Doug Sauer, the CEO of the New York Council of Nonprofits, the bill overreaches in trying to regulate private organizations like public employees.

"If you look at Boeing industries and see how much money they get from the federal government, does the federal government come in and control how Boeing operates at the officer level, who their CEO is, or require all this personal information?" Sauer asked rhetorically. "So the basic premise— and there's gray area—is that the vast majority of not-for-profit organizations are independent, private not-for-profit corporations with boards of directors that share responsibility for the organization."

Sauer predicted the bill, if passed, will have a chilling effect on nonprofits and their ability to attract and retain employees in leadership positions.

"A lot of the City Council contracts are for small organizations so this would be tremendously onerous already on a talent pool that's very limited, that they can't properly compensate to begin with," Sauer said. "People won't want to do that [file disclosures], they're applying for a job where they may make $35,000. If they're a public employee they're in the pension system, they get good healthcare, they get good benefits. That's not the case for the majority of nonprofits."

Sauer also took issue with the 50 percent threshold the bill uses to determine whether officers of nonprofits will have to file conflict of interest disclosure firms.

"If you're talking about 85 or 90 percent of government money, you're talking a little bit of a different story, is this really more of a quasi-governmental entity? And that's a different debate," Sauer said. "But this is a real low figure and most organizations are community, grassroots organizations, not institutions, the vast majority don't have adequate funding as it is."

Rosenthal said that once taxpayer money is involved, nonprofits open themselves up to public scrutiny. "Taxpayers have the right to know what [their money] is being spent for," Rosenthal said.

It is also unclear how many nonprofits would be compelled to file disclosures if the bill is passed— an issue Crowley said will be looked into at the hearing in the fall but doesn't foresee as providing a significant burden. Representatives of the nonprofits that received the most money from the Council's pot of discretionary funds, the Hispanic Federation and the Catholic Charities Community Services, Archdiocese of New York, were not available for comment.

"I think that we'll see a clear benefit by rooting out corruption, you know when I file [my conflict of interest form] every year, I file electronically. I don't know that it would be so burdensome," Crowley said.

The bill currently has nine sponsors, including Crowley (but not Rosenthal), many of whom are from Queens. Indicating her support, Rosenthal lamented the need for the bill, but says it is necessary to ensure ethical practices are occurring at these nonprofits.

"It's always the bad apples that ruin it for the rest of us," Rosenthal said. "And I think that we are often as lawmakers dragged down to the lowest common denominator and it's too bad that we should be in this situation, but given that what [Galante] was doing was so egregious, it raises the question, is this happening in other sectors as well— so you want to check that out."

**
Catie Edmondson, Gotham Gazette
@CatieEdmondson

At 'Begin Again,' Signs of New Approach to Broken Justice System


ken thompson jumaane williams laurie cumbo

DA Thompson, center, with Council Members Williams & Cumbo (@JumaaneWilliams)


During Father's Day weekend, hundreds of individuals received the gift of a new beginning. The Brooklyn District Attorney's office held a 'Begin Again' event to lift open arrest warrants related to summonses for low-level offenses ranging from public intoxication, the most common violation, to being in a park after closing. In total, 1,039 individuals from across all five boroughs attended the two-day event and 670 warrants were cleared.

The 'Begin Again' initiative is part of a larger summons reform movement that aims to make it easier for individuals to respond to summonses and ultimately, avoid arrest warrants. While the total number of summons filings in New York City has decreased significantly in recent years, the system remains strained, with a citywide backlog of over a million summonses.

In Brooklyn, District Attorney Ken Thompson's office indicated that the success of the event would lead to another in September, and that while similar events were held under former District Attorney Charles Hynes, the Father's Day weekend initiative saw the greatest number of warrants cleared in Brooklyn during comparable time periods. Other district attorneys do not appear quick to follow suit.

City leaders from Thompson to Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police commissioner Bill Bratton, the City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and others, are discussing summons reform.

"New York City's criminal justice system is overburdened with severely backlogged courts and millions of New Yorkers with outstanding warrants for low-level, minor offenses," said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in a statement sent to Gotham Gazette.

"District Attorney Ken Thompson's Begin Again initiative is a forward-thinking approach that tackles this issue head on," Mark-Viverito said, "enabling individuals to resolve their warrants and move on with a clean slate without the threat of impending arrest."

Thompson's office is quick to stress that warrants and the summonses that led to them were not simply dismissed wholesale, but that each individual who wanted to 'Begin Again' was given a fair hearing, with most warrants adjudicated and summonses cleared - as is the case when people show up to their summons-dictated court appearance.

While the initiative has received widespread support, some expressed reservations. "It does create a moral hazard that sends the message that people can expect such amnesties in the future," said Heather Mac Donald of The Manhattan Institute, a right-leaning think tank. "It's a real issue and it has to be weighed against the public good in clearing these backlogs of warrants."

By using the term "amnesty," Mac Donald gets at a key issue for critics, who say that people should follow the law in the first place and pay the consequences for breaking it and for missing any mandated court appearance. People, including NYPD Commissioner Bratton, are hesitant to give the appearance of amnesty, believing that if New Yorkers believe there are no consequences to their actions, law-breaking will likely increase.

But Dawn Ryan, attorney-in-charge of The Legal Aid Society's Brooklyn criminal office, notes a distinction between the clearance of warrants and actual amnesty. "To me, amnesty is telling those who received the summonses that they may throw them away and forget they ever received them," said Ryan. By contrast, at 'Begin Again,' "they're still being held accountable in terms of showing up in response to the summons and having this matter resolved before a judge."

At 'Begin Again' events, those with outstanding warrants are assigned a Legal Aid attorney and brought before a judge, who hears the reason for the original summons and for not appearing in court, thus earning the warrant.

The Brooklyn District Attorney's office hailed 'Begin Again' a success and Ryan stated the event attracted so many people on its second day that the line remained open for an additional 45 minutes beyond the scheduled time. But the 670 warrants cleared barely make a dent in the 1.2 million open warrants related to unanswered summonses throughout New York City.

"It's just a drop in the bucket," acknowledged City Council Member Rory Lancman, who chairs the Council's courts and legal services committee. An estimated one in seven New Yorkers have an outstanding summons warrant and with less than one tenth of one percent of open summons warrants resolved thus far through the 'Begin Again' initiative, the need for further reform measures becomes evident. "I thought it seemed to be a great success for what it was," said Lancman. "But in the scheme of things, it's not really a sustainable strategy for getting at the over one million warrants that are outstanding."

The staggering number of open summons warrants is one of the reasons why Lancman, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, and New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman are among those advocating for certain low-level criminal offenses to be reclassified as civil penalties. A reclassification of some offenses would lessen the burden on the summons court system while also granting a reprieve to individuals who have committed non-violent, so-called 'quality-of-life' infractions. Proponents of such measures have argued that summonses are disproportionately issued to poor people of color and that arrest warrants resulting from failure to respond to a summons can have grave repercussions that far outweigh the original offense.

But even certain summons reform measures, it would seem, are backlogged. Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced "Justice Reboot," an initiative including a planned overhaul of the summons process. Among the proposed changes were a new summons form making the court appearance date more prominent, robocall and text message reminders for those with summonses, and a more flexible system allowing individuals to appear in court up to a week in advance of their scheduled court date. While these measures were originally scheduled to begin this summer, they are now slated to start in early fall.

Sarah Solon, chief external strategy officer at the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, stated that the timing for the proposed reforms remains unchanged and that the measures will go into effect sequentially. "The new summons form has to roll out first, because it will collect the cell phone numbers that will allow for text message reminders and contain information about the flexible appearance dates," said Solon via e-mail. That new form will be released citywide within the next few months, Solon said, and going forward the form will collect data on an individual's race/ethnicity in order to ensure transparency in the summons process and provide important data.

The next Begin Again event is also scheduled for the fall-it will be held on September 12 in East New York. The flyer for the event - which will be posted around the borough and shared on social media as the one advertising the last one was - says, "we can help you take care of that old warrant." The literature seeks to reassure people: "over 1,000 people attended the last event," it says, followed by "no one was arrested" and "everyone got help."

Ryan said she and her colleagues at The Legal Aid Society hope other DA offices will follow Brooklyn District Attorney Thompson's lead in hosting such events.

So, apparently, does Thompson. In a July 15 letter addressed and hand-delivered to Mayor de Blasio with Chief Judge Lippman copied, Thompson urged the mayor to take the Brooklyn 'Begin Again' initiative citywide. Of the current way of doing things, Thompson wrote, "We simply cannot continue down this path any longer."

***
Brooke L. Williams is a freelance multimedia journalist based in New York City. She reports on the criminal justice system with an emphasis on those wrongfully convicted. You can follow her on Twitter @williamslbrooke
@GothamGazette

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, July 27


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

BIDEN IN NY: Monday starts off with a bang as Vice President Joe Biden is in New York, first events with Governor Andrew Cuomo in Rochester, then New York City. According to Cuomo's office,  Biden and Cuomo will appear at 11 a.m. at SUNY Polytechnic Canal Ponds in Rochester, where they "will deliver remarks on the economy" and then at 2:45 at the Sheraton New York on 7th Avenue, Biden and Cuomo will make a "major infrastructure announcement." The latter is at an event being held by the Association for a Better New York, a business group. Cuomo was long-planned to speak at ABNY's luncheon, but it appears the specific agenda changed as things came through for Biden to join him and announce new plans for LaGuardia Airport. For the former, the Democrat and Chronicle is reporting that Biden will be announcing a $110 million grant from the Department of Defense to bolster the work being done at the Integrated Photonics Institute for Manufacturing Innovation.

TRACKING DE BLASIO: The mayor will not be with Biden and Cuomo for the LaGuardia announcement, it appears. De Blasio starts his week with a noon "press conference to make an announcement at the American Museum of Natural History" which will be in collaboration with City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, according to her public schedule. "Later, the Mayor will host a meeting with M/WBE developers at City Hall," according to his public schedule. Meanwhile, over the weekend de Blasio marched in the Dominican Day Parade on Sunday and, on Saturday, he attended and spoke at "the Northern Caribbean University Alumni Association Homecoming" in Brooklyn and made "remarks at the Staten Island Democratic Party Boardwalk Bash."

Other things we're watching for include the latest crime stats from the NYPD; any sign of news from the Department of Justice or NYPD on the investigations into the conduct of officers involved in Eric Garner's death; further developments in the saga over how the MTA capital program will be funded; and the latest in the special elections set to take place for two City Council seats vacated by members taking new jobs and several seats in the state Legislature vacated due to corruption.

As always, there's a good deal happening all over the city this week, though the City Council has no public hearings or meetings scheduled this week after last week's lone July Stated Meeting and all of the Uber drama that led up to it. Regardless, read our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
At 8 a.m. the Division of Local Government and School Accountability from New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s Office is hosting a seminar for municipal and school district officials.

At 9:45 a.m. Monday U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer will join AT&T and NYU to announce nine winning tech solutions from the ‘Connect Ability’ Challenge and present over $100,000 in prizes for the winning recipients. Victor Calise, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, and Marissa Shorenstein, New York State President of AT&T, will attend.

On Monday morning in Lake Buena Vista, FL, New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will deliver "remarks at GE Foundation's 2015 Summer STEM Conference," according to her public schedule.

At noon, Mayor de Blasio, Speaker Mark-Viverito and others - including Manhattan BP Gale Brewer - will make an announcement at the Museum of Natural History. Brewer is also set to join Cuomo and others for their 2:30 announcement...

At 2:30 p.m. the Association for a Better New York is hosting a lunch event with Vice President Joe Biden and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who will be making a “major infrastructure announcement” together. A live stream will be available via the governor's website. Governor Cuomo and Vice President Biden will also be in Rochester Monday to announce that “the region won a nationwide competition as the site for an Institute for Manufacturing Innovation.” City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Public Advocate Tish James, and Council Speaker Mark-Viverito are scheduled to attend the Biden-Cuomo announcement in New York City. According to the Daily News, "it will focus on the rebuilding of LaGuardia's central terminal building. It's expected Cuomo will announce the winner of a design competition. Cuomo is also expected to touch on initiatives, including the construction of an Air Train to LaGuardia, a high speed ferry connecting the airport to Manhattan, and a new airport hotel and business center."

Earlier Monday, Public Advocate James will speak at a Queens press conference with Congressman Steve Israel calling for a "review of security measures at reserve bases."

At 5:30 p.m. there will be a public meeting of the Contracts Committee of the panel for educational policy at Tweed Courthouse.

At 6 p.m. Monday City Council Member Corey Johnson and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene are hosting “Rat Academy...a free training on safe and effective methods for rat prevention in your building and neighborhood,” at Hudson Guild's Elliot Center.

Tuesday
At 10 a.m. the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs is hosting an information session on the borough-specific processes of applying for and securing City funding for arts and cultural nonprofits in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island. On Tuesday, August 4 at 12pm the Brooklyn and Queens borough-specific processes will be covered. 

At 6 p.m. the NYC Veterans Alliance is holding a forum on NYC Veterans Policy. John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, is set to make opening remarks. A panel discussion will include panelists Phoebe Gavin, U.S. Army Veteran, Freelance writer; Lee Covino, U.S. Army Veteran, Former Vice-Chairman of the NYC Veterans Advisory Board; Brett Morash, U.S. Navy Veteran, Vice President of Veterans Services for Services for the UnderServed; Tireak Tulloch, U.S. Marine Corps Veteran, Veteran Advocate; Julienne Williams, U.S. Air Force Veteran, Veteran Transition Manager for New York at IAVA's Rapid Response Referral Program; and Coco Culhane, Founder and Director of the Veteran Advocacy Project at the Urban Justice Center.

At 6 p.m. there will be a “Red Tape Commission” meeting hosted by Comptroller Scott Stringer, with commission co-chairs Jessica Lappin and Michael Lambert, and Red Tape Commission Members. The Commission is “dedicated to helping success in business by finding ways to help you cut through the red tape.”

At 7 p.m. there will be a “Queens: Contracts for Excellence” public hearing hosted by the Department of Education.

Wednesday
At 8 a.m. City & State will hold an awards breakfast for “Technology, Telecommunications & New Media.” There will be a panel discussion with keynote speaker Minerva Tantoco, Chief Technology Officer of NYC; featured speaker Jay Hershenson, Senior Vice Chancellor at CUNY; and emcee Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Forum. There will be a "Thought Leader Discussion: City & State and partners convene leaders in technology and new media to discuss best practices and trends in corporate social responsibility" moderated by Rasiej, with George Fontas, Capalino and Co.; Manhattan BP Gale Brewer, Neil Giacobbi, AT&T; Guy Franklin, Israeli Mapped in NY; and possibly others.

At 8 a.m. there will be “Uncovering the Code: An Update on NYC’s New Energy Code,” an event on the 2015 New York City Energy Conservation Code. Gina Bocra, Chief Sustainability Officer of the Department of Buildings, will be attending.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday the New York City Housing Authority is holding a board meeting.

The New York City Campaign Finance Board is offering a Compliance & C-SMART training session for the 2017 election cycle at 1 p.m. Wednesday. “Compliance trainings cover campaign finance laws and CFB rules. C-SMART trainings provide an overview of the CFB’s web-based application, which campaigns must use to manage and disclose financial activity. The candidate, treasurer, campaign manager or other individual with significant managerial control over the campaign is legally required to attend both a Compliance and a C-SMART training.”

At 2 p.m. there will be a public meeting for the Department of Transportation on revocable consents.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, the Department of Education is holding a panel for educational policy meeting at Taft Educational Complex in the Bronx.

At 7 p.m. BetaNYC and Coalition for Queens are hosting a civic hacknight.

Thursday
At 9 a.m. the Equal Employment Practices Commission is holding its July public meeting.

At 10:30 a.m. Queens Borough President Melinda Katz is holding a land use hearing.

At 2 p.m. Thursday, ten of City & State’s veteran and military honorees will be celebrated for going “Above & Beyond.” Loree Sutton, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Veteran Affairs, will make the keynote remarks. Honorees include Welby Alcantara, USMC, Military & Veteran Services Coordinator, John Jay College; Joseph A. Bello, Founder, NY Metro Vets; Walter Bridgers, Team Leader, Harlem Veterans Center; Kenneth Curley , President & CEO, Raymond Associates LLC; Tom Gray, Senior Vice President, Capalino & Company; Aaron Leonard, Executive Director, Project Rebirth; Dan McSweeney, Incoming President, United War Veterans Council; Regina Marengo, President, Ensign Engineering; and Kelly Saeli, Director of Operations, NYC Helmets to Hardhats.

Friday and the weekend
Nothing on our radar yet for Friday or this weekend, but stay alert!

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Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: bmax@gothamgazette.com (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

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by Erika Wang and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

The Week That Was in New York Politics, July 20-24


week in review bus readers

photo: Stanley Kubrick via Museum of the City of New York


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday July 24

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: the capitol office of former State Senator and Deputy Majority Leader Thomas Libous, scrubbed of his name after he was convicted of lying to the FBI, via Joseph Spector, Gannett Albany

libous office no name

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. Albany Corruption Drip - Sens. Sampson and Libous Convicted, Plus Additional Skelos Charges: On Tuesday Senator Dean Skelos and his son were charged with additional counts of bribery and extortion by a federal grand jury. On Wednesday Senator Tom Libous, the deputy majority leader, was found guilty of lying to an F.B.I agent and was automatically forced to give up his Senate seat. And on Friday Senator John Sampson was convicted on three federal charges and forced to resign as well.

2. Unaccompanied Minors Initiative Success: City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced that the initiative to provide legal representation for all undocumented immigrant children has been a “success.” Around 1,600 children have been provided with free lawyers and fourteen of them have been granted asylum.

3. Uber Politics: Uber and city officials reached an agreement announced on Wednesday that will not place a temporary cap on the for-hire vehicle industry, within which Uber is the leading operator, while the city conducts a four-month study. There is some controversy over who exactly deserves credit, or blame, depending on your perspective, for brokering the deal, with City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito saying Thursday that the Council had the bill and that she was the key negotiator.

4. Fast Food Wage Board Recommends Eventual $15 Hourly Minimum: The Fast Food Wage Board called by Governor Cuomo through his Labor Department recommended fast food workers to receive a $15 an hour minimum wage by December 31, 2018 in New York City and in 2021 for the rest of New York State. The recommendation must be adopted by the Department of Labor to take effect in the fast food industry at franchises with 30 or more locations nationally.

5. Commissioner Bratton Says He Won’t Serve Two Full Terms: Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said this week that he is not expecting to remain in his post for a full two terms, should Mayor de Blasio be reelected, as he would be “70-some-odd” years old. Mayor de Blasio responded by pointing out that Pope Francis, whom he visited during a climate summit in Rome this week, is well into his seventies and having a profound impact.

THIS WEEK’S NUMBERS:

  • 19,000 Staten Islanders lost power on Monday due to Con Edison outages related to the brief heat wave.

  • 40% of New York’s emissions will be reduced by 2030, promised Mayor Bill de Blasio at a climate conference in Italy organized by Pope Francis.

  • $1 billion boost through 2019 for the MTA in “better-than-expected revenues from fares, tolls and real estate taxes,” part of a larger MTA capital plan restructuring announced in pieces this week amid ongoing controversy over how the agency will be funded.

  • 4,100 minority and women owned businesses were certified in the last year, a record the de Blasio administration announced.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

  • It was a good week for Republican City Council Member Steven Matteo of Staten Island, who officially became the Minority Leader of the City Council on Thursday. While the Republican caucus has just two members, it will likely add a third soon as Assembly Member Joseph Borelli is likely to replace Vincent Ignizio, who resigned his position for another job and stepped down as Minority Leader in the process. Oh, and the gig comes with a $15,000 annual bonus.

  • It was a bad week for former State Senator Tom Libous, who was convicted of lying to an FBI agent during an examination into his son’s hiring. Mr. Libous was the deputy majority leader and his departure leaves 31 elected Republican senators in the 63-member body. The Republicans still hold power, though, due to some complicated caucusing and alliances.

THE FLASH:

  • Last year this week, on July 24, 2014, the City Council unanimously passed ‘Avonte’s Law,’ requiring the DOE to evaluate the need for door alarms after Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old autistic boy, left school and drowned in the East River.

  • Twelve years ago this week, on July 23, 2003, City Council Member James Davis was shot and killed in City Hall.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

  • Neil Barsky, chairman and founder of The Marshall Project, spoke about shutting down Rikers Island jails with Brian Lehrer on WNYC.
  • The Independent Budget Office released another in a series of analyses related to the city's schools, this one focused on per-pupil funding at traditional district schools and charter schools.

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NOTE TO READERS: we hope you enjoy this new Gotham Gazette weekly feature - please share it if you do; on Twitter, use our handle @GothamGazette.

If you have feedback on this feature for us, you can email editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Watch Sunday evening for our latest Week Ahead in New York Politics, which gives you a preview of key issues and events to be aware of for the week about to start. In the meantime, catch up on the latest original reporting from Gotham Gazette here. And have a great weekend!

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by Erika Wang and Ben Max

Conference Keys to Restore Voter Confidence Start with Campaign Finance Reform


CFB conf panelists

Ann Ravel, Jared DeMarinis & Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, from left (photo: @NYCCFB)


Ninety-six percent of Americans are concerned by the role of money in politics. Ninety-one percent think there's nothing they can do to change it.

Federal Election Commission Chair Ann Ravel presented these statistics during her keynote address at a conference - "American Elections at the Crossroads: How do we restore voters' faith in elections and get them back to the polls?" - focused on changing that cynical sentiment, held by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the Committee for Economic Development on Wednesday.

Ravel, joined by elected officials, campaign finance experts, and academics, considered the effects of money in politics - particularly the role public campaign finance programs can play in spurring voter participation and leveling the influence playing field.

In her remarks, Ravel warned that the influence of money in politics is causing people to disassociate with electoral and government processes. "The influence of money in politics is contributing to this low level of political trust," she said. But, she added that the problem is not the amount of money, "the issue is where the money comes from."

John Mollenkopf, a distinguished professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and the director of its Center for Urban Research began by noting the role of political contributions in spurring people to vote.

"The positive takeaway to begin with is people who contribute are more likely to vote. So clearly the act of contributing is an extension of political engagement, it's something people do on top of bothering to go to the polls and public match really incentivizes people to contribute," Mollenkopf said, referring to New York City's small donor matching program. The Campaign Finance Board matches contributions of up to $175 at a six-to-one ratio for candidates for mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough president and City Council.

Former U.S. Congressmember Tom Petri of Wisconsin agreed, describing political contributions as a way for people to feel they have a stake in elections, compelling interest particularly in local elections.

"I think sometimes we get too focused on big money in the big elections which are very important, but we should also remember the political process is a huge broad diverse one," Petri said, indicating that their are many municipal level contests that people often forget when focusing on presidential and congressional races.

For New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, campaign contributions from voters are as symbolically important as they are practically.

"When ordinary New Yorkers put their hard earned money into a campaign, they are putting faith in candidates," James said. Citing her modest personal means, the public advocate often points to the necessity of the public matching system in allowing her to compete electorally.

To combat the problem of low voter turnout in municipal and state-wide elections, Mollenkopf emphasized the role of political parties as agents of voter mobilization and suggested a solution that may be unsavory to many in City Hall.

"As strange as it may seem for a person like me who is a long-time Democrat, I think we need a stronger Republican Party in New York City," Mollenkopf said. "We need a party that will go out and contest these elections with candidates who will give the Democrat incumbents who often have no challenge, give them a run for their money, get everybody really involved."

City Council Member Eric Ulrich, a Republican from Queens, agreed with the importance of a two-party system, but "as much as I'd love to see a stronger Republican party, I'm not going to hold my breath anytime soon," he joked.

Ulrich attributed low voter turnout to a cumbersome voting and voter registration process.

"A lot of people don't vote because they're not registered and they're not registered because we don't make it easy for people to vote," Ulrich said, adding he hopes to see an app developed that could register voters. "Imagine how many 18-year-olds we could register in the classroom in seconds; teachers could encourage students to whip out their smartphones and register."

Additionally, voters should be able to vote at any poll site in New York— not just their district's designating polling site— and should be able to vote early, Ulrich argued.

"One of the reasons voting turnout is so low is that we tell people you can only vote from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on a Tuesday," Ulrich said. "And if you can't make it, you can't be a part of the process."

Panelists also discussed localities which have successfully implemented public financing laws, as well as efforts across the country to pass laws encouraging small donations to candidates. In New York, proponents of the New York City system often call for a similar state program whereby campaign donations are more tightly limited and public matching dollars are available for small contributions.

"Money will always be in politics," acknowledged Jared DeMarinis, director of Maryland's State Board of Elections. In Maryland, Montgomery County's campaign finance program, the first in the country passed after Citizens United v. FEC - the Supreme Court decision that lifted restrictions on political spending by corporations - was designed keeping in mind the altered political environment. "Let's not have the hard caps on expenditures," they decided. "Let's just cap how much public monies we'll give to candidates but allow them to keep raising beyond that but just restrict on how the money is raised." Montgomery's program was "basically modelled after the New York City idea," said DeMarinis.

Other parts of the country may be passing campaign finance laws, but not all have been as successful as New York City, according to Michael Malbin of the Campaign Finance Institute. He compared the small donor public matching programs in New York City and Los Angeles and found that "not all matching funds have the same effect." A study he conducted with Michael Parrott found the New York program to be significantly more effective than the one in Los Angeles due to differences in how they are structured, including around what percentage matching funds account for spending limits. "You need a program that will actually work, that will do its job well," he said.

One area in which he found success in both cities was that supporting small donations encouraged political participation among less wealthy and non-white racial and ethnic groups. "In both cities, small donors come from much more diverse neighborhoods than large donors," he said. His study found that New York City Council candidates raised campaign contributions from 90 percent of the city's census block groups. In Los Angeles, the percentage was lower, but still significant at 68 percent.

Currently, efforts are underway to create or strengthen campaign finance laws in several cities and states across the country, including Chicago, Santa Fe, Seattle and Maine, panelists said.

"We have seen an enormous interest in cities and states across the country. And in many places over the next two or three years, we are going to see dozens of jurisdictions looking to move small donor public financing," said Karen Hobert Flynn, senior vice president for strategy and programs at Common Cause. "It's about people wanting to reclaim their government."

"Our hope is that Chicago will mimic what's happening in New York, in Los Angeles, and other places," said Mike Petro, vice president of Committee for Economic Development. "Those are the victories that we need across the country."

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by Catie Edmondson and Zehra Rehman, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Cuomo Waves Left with Executive Actions, Is Met with Shrugs


Cuomo wage rally

Cuomo at Wednesday's rally (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)


On Wednesday, the office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo streamed live video of the wage board he convened as its members recommended a multi-year plan to phase in a $15 per hour minimum wage for fast food workers across the state. As the meeting ended the same stream cut to a jubilant rally in New York City. In stark contrast to previous Cuomo administration efforts there was no pretense that the wage board was somehow separate from the governor.

The Cuomo administration attempted to propagate the appearance of independence for previous executive entities such as the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, two tax commissions, and even the Department of Environmental Conservation when it made its decision to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the state. But this time such a separation wasn't useful to the governor.

With his poll numbers at an all-time-low, members of his own party in open revolt and facing an ongoing feud with Mayor Bill de Blasio, Cuomo appears to be looking to bolster his standing among Democrats across the state by taking executive action on issues he failed to deliver on during the legislative session. Many prominent Democratic electeds and activists have questioned whether Cuomo actually expended any political capital during the legislative session to move progressive issues such as criminal justice reform, the DREAM Act, or a minimum wage increase.

"I don't believe the Assembly had a real working partner in the governor or the Senate in terms of getting things done for the people of this city and, in many cases, the people of this state," Mayor Bill de Blasio told NY1 late last month.

Trust among Democrats was further eroded when Senate Republicans released a memorandum of understanding with Cuomo's office that appeared to state that the governor agreed not to phase in a part of the SAFE Act until Republicans agree to it. Other than that MOU, Cuomo's post-session agenda has been dedicated to taking executive action on issues favored by the left and on which he did not deliver through legislation.

Cuomo has promised to use executive action to remove 16- and 17-year-olds from the state's prison system after failing to enact a sweeping policy to prevent those teens from being tried as adults, much less locked up with them. Failing to reach a deal with the legislature on other criminal justice reforms in the wake of death of Eric Garner, Cuomo signed an executive order earlier this month giving Attorney General Eric Schneiderman the authority to investigate police killings of unarmed individuals, an attempt to reduce the perception that local district attorneys are biased toward the police.

Cuomo was celebrated by Democrats when signing the special prosecutor executive order, and he was applauded at Wednesday's minimum wage rally. City Comptroller Scott Stringer heaped praise on the governor as a man of action when he spoke to those gathered. But, many of Cuomo's fellow Democratic electeds and progressive advocates were not so committed to attaching the governor's name to the wage board decision. Three of the state's most powerful Democratic electeds - Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie - all released statements praising the decision, but without any mention of the governor.

Celebratory statements from New York Communities for Change and the Working Families Party also failed to mention the governor by name.

"I think that's appropriate," said former Cuomo opponent Zephyr Teachout of the lack of support from other Democratic electeds. Teachout is the Fordham Law professor who embarrassed Cuomo with a stronger-than-expected showing during last year's Democratic primary. Teachout tapped into displeasure with the governor from his left.

Cuomo defended his use of executive actions during a Wednesday appearance on The Capitol Pressroom radio program, and chose to eliminate any perception that he was separate from the wage board.

"I am the executive, I have many powers beyond those which the Legislature passes, right?" Cuomo told host Susan Arbetter rhetorically. "The executive, whether it's the president, the mayor, or the governor, you run the government, and you have a whole host of powers that are apart and aside from the Legislature. I often say to people [that] dealing with the Legislature and getting a budget passed, and then new laws, that's a part of my job. But that's only a part. And by the way, I don't even think that's the majority of my job. I run the government."

Teachout doesn't think Cuomo's problem lies exclusively with Democrats. "The governor has broad temperamental issues," Teachout told Gotham Gazette. "It's not like Cuomo has a problem with [only] the left. You are going to have a problem finding any group of voters who believe the governor is actually committed to fighting for them."

Cuomo has branded himself as a doer, as an executive who is about making sure the government is running efficiently and effectively, and who can get deals made by working with members of both parties.

Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group said that Cuomo's use of executive action is fairly typical for governors who have served more than one term. "In terms of putting it into context, governors have historically faced challenges in their second terms. Second terms tend to be harder. [Republican Governor George] Pataki had serious trouble in his second term. It wasn't just with Democrats, but with his own party challenging him."

Horner said that Cuomo is also dealing with "eroded approval ratings and unprecedented indictments" of state legislative leaders that have made getting what he wants from the Legislature that more difficult. And Horner said Cuomo is particularly notorious for "liking to put points on the board."

Many Democrats are happy Cuomo has used his executive powers on the issues he has but feel he acted out of political expediency so that he didn't have to place his Senate Republican allies in a difficult position during the legislative session. These Democrats are therefore reluctant to give him credit.

On the other hand, many business groups and Republican electeds are more than happy to connect Cuomo to his left-leaning executive actions, because they are opposed to them. "From day one Governor Cuomo's wage board has sought to silence the business community and force through an unfair and discriminatory increase on a single sector of one industry," said Melissa Fleischut, President and CEO of the NYS Restaurant Association, in a statement. Fleischut went on to accuse Cuomo of "stacking the board" with supporters of a wage increase, and allowing business owners "to get booed and heckled at public hearings."

Other business groups have attacked Cuomo for bypassing the Legislature on the wage issue, saying he has too much executive power. It may be surprising, but Teachout agrees to some extent. "The governor of New York has too much executive power and the 'three men in a room' have too much power," Teachout told Gotham Gazette. "Having said that, I'm happy he's using it for positive ends. But you know with this governor that if he has to move, he is always going to act in a way that maximizes his own power."

Cuomo is likely to face a lawsuit from the restaurant industry over the wage board's recommendations and subsequent adoption by the Department of Labor.

Regardless of his executive actions, pundits say Cuomo has to do something about his sinking poll numbers in New York City, which has been a reliable base for Cuomo in past elections. A June 15 Siena College poll found Cuomo's favorability rating drop to 39 percent, with his numbers dipping among city-based voters.

Horner said that executive actions are simply part of Cuomo's efforts to enact his agenda and that part of his agenda has to be "keeping the coalition together."

Teachout thinks Cuomo's executive actions indicate that he knows he faces an increasingly hostile electorate. "He is losing that default New York City vote that he could count on last time, and that's a big, big deal. When all you have left is the Buffalo base, that's a real problem. I don't think the wage board does much to help that."

Teachout - who has not ruled out challenging Cuomo again in 2018 (assuming he seeks a third term) - said that she believes voters have developed a view of Cuomo similar to the one that de Blasio expressed: a transactional politician, cynical, power-obsessed, and untrustworthy; and not much is going to change that.

A key question is how much workers, activists, and elected officials associate Cuomo with the action he is taking. Will the special prosecutor move endear Cuomo in communities distrustful of the police and district attorney offices? Will his move on the minimum wage earn him the loyalty of those low-wage and union workers? Are the progressive activists who have been burned by Cuomo willing to live with a governor who they don't feel they can trust but sometimes delivers for their causes?

"I compare this moment to the fracking moment," said Teachout. "I think the administration thought the fracking ban would have an equal impact to the marriage equality moment--that it would be this inspirational moment for people to rally around the governor. But I think most people saw it the same way I did: 'Great! He banned fracking.' But with no change in how they see him."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Inside the Campaign Finance Filings of NYC's 'Big Four'


de blasio stringer james mark-viverito

The city's 'big four' (photo: @NYCCouncil)


Mid-way through 2015, the latest campaign finance filings are in and the raise and spend activity of New York City's top four elected officials can be analyzed through their principal campaign committees. Mayor Bill de Blasio, Public Advocate Letitia James, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, all Democrats, maintain active committees during their current terms in office.

While it is presumed that de Blasio, James, and Stringer will each seek re-election to city-wide office, Mark-Viverito is term-limited out of the Council at the end of 2017 and her future plans are unclear. It is well-documented that Mark-Viverito continues to raise money, readying, perhaps, for a mayoral run somewhere down the line. Both James and Stringer continue to raise funds too, with the comptroller outpacing his colleagues.

Mayor de Blasio has not been fundraising for his re-election campaign, though the account shows quite a bit of spending - instead it appears that the mayor is directing donations toward either the non-profit that he is closely aligned with, Campaign for One New York, and the city's Mayor's Fund for New York City.

All four candidates are subject to New York City Campaign Finance Board rules when it comes to their official campaign accounts. Information about the CFB program and its rules may be found on the CFB website, but one key concept is the contribution limit - a specific donor (individual or institution) may commit to a single politician. Though the limit varies per office, for all four of these officials, that effective limit is $4,950 per donor. When a donor has given this amount, they have "maxed out."

All of the data and charts below include the accumulated filings of July, 2015, for activity from January 1, 2014 through the July filing cut-off date of July 15, 2015. De Blasio has raised no money into his principal campaign account during his time as mayor, and he spends from a "war chest." The other three officials - James, Stringer, and Mark-Viverito - have sought out funds during this term. Popularly elected to citywide positions and assumed mayoral aspirants, Public Advocate James and Comptroller Stringer are both raising money at a significant pace, though Stringer has raised more thus far:

Stringer James 1

While James and Stringer appear to push their own fundraising performance around the January and July filings, Mark-Viverito had her big month in April (it was reported that she held a birthday fundraiser on April 20):

MMV 1

In terms of where the money comes from, James has enjoyed city-wide political financial support since January 2014, but has relatively few links to the Bronx:

James contribs

Stringer is heavily reliant on the Upper East Side and his home-turf in the Upper West Side since January 2014:

stringer contribs

Mark-Viverito's fundraising is Manhattan-centric; though less than $5,000 is from her district - which spans parts of Manhattan and the Bronx - since January 2014:

Viverito contribs

For each of the three (James, Stringer, Mark-Viverito), the share comprised by "maxed-out donors" (everyone who gave $4,950) as part of overall fundraising shows differences in those largest donors. Stringer's fundraising outpaces both of his colleagues by quite a bit, and the portion of his haul made up of max donors is largest. Stringer has about 50% of his raise from max contributors, whereas James is at about 35%, and Mark-Viverito about 20%.

MMV James Stringer bars

In raw numbers, the maxed-out donors to each of the three - sums and headcount for each segment are shown:

max raise james stringer mmv chart

All three officials count a common basket of labor institutions in their max-out club. All three also are in receipt of $4,950 from Greenberg Traurig, LLP as well.

A few individual donors have maxed out for two of these officials:

  • Kate Engelbrecht for James and Stringer
  • Alexander Rovt for James and Stringer
  • Roger Sherman for Stringer and Mark-Viverito
  • William Zeckendorf for James and Stringer

Campaign finance filings also require disclosure of spending. While the mayor is reticent to raise to his campaign account, he has spent from it. Stringer and James are both spending as well.

james stringer mmv spending

Mark-Viverito's biggest expenditure is on legal services, likely due to combatting allegations regarding her use of a consultancy during the speaker's race.

MMV spending

The top expenditures for each campaign - every relationship worth $1,000 or more entered into by these campaigns since January 2014 and through the July 2015 filing - show the bulk of expenditure is directed towards one or two firms that provide consulting and/or legal advice.

De Blasio has Hilltop Public Solutions and Genova Burns; James has Bedford Grove and Mirram Group; Stringer has Tucker Green Consulting and Genova Burns; while Mark-Viverito has Pitta Bishop Del Giorno Giblin and Nashban Mansur LLC. Mark-Viverito's very large payments to Ballard Spahr, meanwhile, are said to be related to the ongoing Conflicts of Interest Board investigation into her speaker's race.

Beneath that, the campaigns pay a small handful of staffers, handle some housekeeping, and some have funded their fund-raising operations to varying degrees. De Blasio's campaign is making substantial payroll payments, including various forms of insurance and taxes as well. In the "count" column we are displaying how many checks each vendor is receiving from its respective campaign, and the "average" column simply performs the division to provide a general sense of the ongoing relationships at play.

de blasio spending

tish james spend

stringer spend

mark-viverito spend

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by Jon Reznick for Gotham Gazette
Data analysis performed using FTMSQL2 by Competitive Advantage Research, LLC

Note: The author has provided paid photo, prior to their current terms, to Stringer and Mark-Viverito, and in-kind photo to James.

Black, Hispanic & Asian Caucus Faces Growing Pains, Tense Relationship with Cuomo


Cuomo Schneiderman presser

At the special prosecutor announcement (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)


Gov. Andrew Cuomo was beaming. Touting the historical significance of the executive order he had just signed to give Attorney General Eric Schneiderman the authority to act as a special prosecutor in cases where police kill unarmed civilians, Cuomo smiled for photos. Often rivals, Cuomo and Schneiderman, who are both white, sat smiling at the July 7 press conference. They were surrounded first by a group of mothers who had lost their black and Hispanic sons to police violence, then by a group of legislators, all people of color. The cameras snapped and then the smiles faded.

It was indeed momentous, real movement after years of work by advocates and legislators pushing for a special prosecutor to investigate such police shootings. But, the order by the governor, aimed at what he called a "crisis of confidence in the criminal justice system," does not wipe away another trust divide. Despite support for and appreciation of the special prosecutor mandate, Cuomo himself faces a crisis of trust from many members of the state legislature's Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus.

Many advocates and legislators say it was a gargantuan effort to keep up enough pressure to make it politically impossible for Cuomo not to sign the order after there was no legislative deal before lawmakers ended their spring session in Albany. Just the day before the order-signing, victims' families had met with Cuomo to express concerns that the order would not go far enough.

While many give intense gratitude to Cuomo for taking the action, they also resent that it took so much time and energy to get him there when the issue has been such a prominent one for years.

Members of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus - 33 in the 150-member Assembly and 14 in the 63-member Senate - have experienced a roller coaster ride for the past five years since Cuomo came into office.

It goes something like this: the governor announces that he shares some of their major priorities in his State of the State speech, they move to back him, and then they watch as their top agenda items are thrown out of the budget when a deal is reached. They build up hope again after the budget is passed, seeking inclusion of the same issues in the typical end-of-session "Big Ugly" deal. They rally, publicly express certainty that Cuomo will deliver for them, that he is in fact on their side and the side of their constituents, all while privately wondering if he is only paying them lip service when he says he continues to be committed to their issues.

And then the session ends.

No DREAM Act, no college for inmates, no reduced punishment for possession of small amounts of marijuana. And this year no legislative action on either criminal justice reform efforts sparked by the rash of police killings of unarmed civilians or the governor's own 'Raise the Age' proposal. While Cuomo has promised executive action removing them from adult prisons, New York remains one of just two states that tries 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

There was heightened internal tension in the caucus this year as the new and old guards struggled to direct the group. Younger members are pushing for more forceful action on issues important to their communities while veteran members urge caution and warn that major bills in Albany can take a lot of time.

"We need continued pressure on these issues from the caucus and the governor because communities of color cannot feel their issues are second because they are harder to achieve," said Bronx Assembly Member Michael Blake, a freshman legislator and veteran of the Obama Administration.

Brooklyn Assembly Member Nick Perry became caucus chair this year and has served for over 20 years as a state legislator. He acknowledges he is in a particularly tough position after the results of this year's legislative session. Perry's rival for the position, vacated when Karim Camara resigned to take a job in Cuomo's administration, Walter Mosley, was thought to be the choice of the younger members of the caucus but his candidacy collapsed after he took a controversial position on a bill dealing with the East Ramapo School District.

"We had a number of enthusiastic, young freshmen who wanted to bring home their bills but they met with the frustration that is Albany," Perry told Gotham Gazette. "They had a rude awakening," he added, saying that frustration is something he has gotten used to after spending so much time in the state legislature. Perry said that he hopes to marshall the caucus to focus on what is achievable. "We have so many votes that we can achieve so much if we work together. You have to realize you aren't going to win every time and we must pool our efforts into what is possible."

Bronx Sen. Gustavo Rivera agrees with Perry. "I think as a caucus we are not as effective as we should be considering our numbers but I am committed to working with them to enact a progressive agenda," Rivera said.

Despite having been in the Senate for five years, this was the first year Rivera really felt like he was in the minority, he says, as he was unable to impact some of the most important issues facing his community. "This is the first time I really felt it," said Rivera, who added that the caucus will be in control of its destiny if Democrats take control of the Senate in the 2016 elections.

It's a sentiment shared by Perry, who said he expects most of the caucus' agenda will have to wait until 2017, indicating he hopes the presidential election will attract a surge of Democratic voters. "I would bet that the presidential year will bring a wave of working class voters much larger than last year and that the seats Republicans hold narrowly will become Democratic," said Perry.

Perry sees 2016 as intensely difficult for the caucus' issues because of the pressure Republicans will feel to keep their seats.

"We have to realize on issues like the DREAM Act that if some of these Republicans go against the grain they will eventually get blown away," said Perry. "We have to be realistic about the political realities Republicans face in their districts and it is our duty to convince them that there is enough support across the state."

Blake, however, is not content to wait until 2017 on issues of criminal justice reform, or a minimum wage increase. "For me this is not about waiting for 2017," Blake told Gotham Gazette. "Communities of color are not interested in waiting for the next presidential election to move on these issues. Kalief Browder was my constituent. Kalief Browder's parents don't want to hear that we couldn't do 'raise the age' because we don't have the Senate Majority. They are thinking he is dead because we didn't have 'raise the age.'"

Caucus members want to see Cuomo go to bat for their issues with the conviction he's shown in previous legislative victories, but they are conflicted about how much public pressure to put on him. Most members agree that it was their constituencies that delivered for Cuomo during last year's election and that Cuomo needs to be mindful to actually deliver for those voters and not get completely distracted by the upstate economy.

"The problem we have is that at the the end of session what is on the table for black and Latino voters simply hasn't been enough," said Perry. "We were there for the governor during his elections. Something like 77 percent of black voters supported the governor so it is fair for us to expect him to be with us on our issues."

This year discontent with Cuomo among Democrats has exploded into the open as many city legislators feel he failed to go to bat on city issues and in some cases decided to ally with Senate Republicans and wealthy campaign donors over Democratic interests. Cuomo ran on delivering The DREAM Act, an increased minimum wage, campaign finance reform, and the Gender Non-Discrimination Act (or GENDA), but none of those issues ever appeared to be seriously in play in the post-budget session.

Instead Cuomo put his real political muscle into controversial school reforms, the equally controversial education tax credit, and to a lesser extent, 'Raise the Age.' Cuomo also took executive action toward increasing the minimum wage for fast food workers by convening the state wage board and resolved to manage compromises over rent regulations and mayoral control of city schools.

A number of caucus members told Gotham Gazette on the condition of anonymity that they simply no longer believe any of Cuomo's promises and they expect the only way they can hope for him to deliver on their issues is to make it politically impossible for him not to. "Yeah, he got off his ass on the special prosecutor but it's because we dragged him there kicking and screaming," said one caucus member. They are well aware that Cuomo is being attacked by district attorneys and police organizations for signing the order and many of them are concerned he may do away with it if it begins to impact him politically.

Perry said he is certain that Cuomo acted on the special prosecutor order because it is something he fully believes in but he was miffed that Cuomo didn't act sooner. "The special prosecutor was an extremely important move and I believe there is no turning back now - we will have legislation on it next year. The only thing that I don't understand is why the governor didn't do it much earlier. He supported it when we talked about these issues even before he was governor. So, I think when he took this action, it was something he truly believed in."

Adding to the frustration was the departure of Camara as caucus chair. The former Assembly member joined the Cuomo administration to head the newly-created Office of Faith-Based Community Development.

As was made clear by that appointment, Camara has had an extremely close relationship with the administration, was known to stay in contact with the governor and to often be polled by administration representatives before the executive branch took action. Now many members say they've never actually heard from the governor except perhaps in passing at an event.

"This was clearly a transition year for the caucus," said Rivera. "We had a lot of new members who need to adjust to the reality of Albany and we had Karim step off and a new Assembly Speaker added to the reality of us not being in majority [in the Senate]."

It is important to note that the new Assembly Speaker, Carl Heastie, is a member of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Caucus and the first person of color to lead the chamber.

Although the dance between the Cuomo administration and the caucus has become a familiar one the situation is particularly nettlesome after Mayor Bill de Blasio openly lambasted Cuomo's transactional style of politics and what he actually delivered for the city this year. "I don't believe the Assembly had a real working partner in the governor or the Senate in terms of getting things done for the people of this city and in many cases the people of this state," de Blasio told reporters on June 30.

"The governor has developed a relationship with Senate Republicans that could be beneficial to the Democratic agenda," said new caucus head Perry, who represents part of Brooklyn. "So I plan on working with him rather than attacking him for the relationship, as some have."

Sen. Rivera said he is thankful that the governor issued his executive order regarding police killings but he plans to keep up the pressure. "I congratulate the governor on taking such a bold step but we need it in statute and to extend it to all police misconduct. I've been carrying a bill that would do that for the past five years but it hasn't seen the light of day in the Senate."

Assembly Member Blake said he is committed to working to educate Senate Republicans on major caucus issues - especially criminal justice reform - but he said more pressure to act has to be applied on Cuomo.

"We've seen in the history of the civil rights movement that sometimes it takes someone willing to risk their political career to enact important change," said Blake.

When asked if he was discouraged or caught off guard by the political gridlock in Albany, he laughed. "No," he said. "The reality is we made changes, we didn't get everything but this was not a rude awakening. I was at the White House when we were fighting for health care, when we were dealing with the 'death panel' nonsense. One thing I remember was the president talking to David Axelrod and Rahm [Emanuel] and telling them 'if it means me being a one-term president to do the right thing, then so be it, I'm committed to that.'"

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing



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