Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio's Nonprofits: Were they worth it?

BdB church service podium

Mayor Bill de Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton, Mayor's Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio and his allies set up three political nonprofits to advance his progressive agenda, two of which are being shuttered, one of which is virtually defunct, and all of which have caused the mayor headaches.

The Campaign for One New York (originally UPK NYC) and its offshoot, United for Affordable NYC, helped accomplish key local policy goals, but, amid controversy, began the process of shutting down earlier this year. The Progressive Agenda Committee, set up on the national stage, has no employees but has not been declared dead by its creators. That group has had little to show for its efforts.

Months of negative headlines about law enforcement investigations into the Campaign for One New York and possible corruption appear to have contributed to a drop in public opinion of the mayor. He’s struggling to get his message out in New York City and he does not have the national leadership role he had hoped. But, de Blasio does have significant programmatic victories to point to - on pre-K and affordable housing - and he can credit the role of his outside help. Even if ongoing federal and local investigations turn up nothing illegal, one big question will remain: Was it all worth it?

In other words, did the establishment of these three political nonprofits yield enough for de Blasio, New Yorkers, and others they were formed to help to be worth the bad press, political damage, and legal implications?

Inquiries about the nonprofits, particularly The Campaign for One New York, have dogged the mayor for months. Allegations of a pay-to-play culture and questions about large donations from entities with business before the city have painted a picture of unethical behavior at and around City Hall. De Blasio has spent hours - during news conferences, TV and radio interviews - defending himself, his administration, his allies, and their intentions in setting up an extra-governmental network designed to exert political influence and sway public opinion.

De Blasio has maintained throughout that he and his colleagues have done everything ethically and legally. He has repeatedly explained that he believes he has been targeted unfairly and has predicted vindication.

At times, the cloud of investigations and questions about alleged impropriety subsumed the public conversation entirely, making it difficult for de Blasio to project strength and publicize his accomplishments. He has not been taking questions as often from the City Hall press corps as he did before news of the investigations became public.

Between January and May, his job approval rating dropped from 50 percent to 41 percent, according to Quinnipiac University polling. A general sense has emerged among many in and around city politics that even if de Blasio and his team did not break the law, they acted inappropriately. As is often the case with unseemly behavior and ongoing allegations, even legal vindication is unlikely to lift the cloud hanging over the mayor. De Blasio is more than halfway through his third year in office and approaching his re-election year of 2017.

The major accomplishments involved are undisputed, even if some question the need for the outside entities and the lines they blurred or crossed. De Blasio’s allies say that the coalition-building and lobbying were absolutely essential.

In a recent Twitter exchange, political operative Josh Gold, who used to work for the Campaign for One New York and now handles government relations for Uber, defended the necessity of the nonprofit in passing pre-K. “I don’t think it gets done without a campaign,” he tweeted, in part. He rebuked a journalist, who had called it a “sham nonprofit” and criticized the campaign’s “process.”

“[W]hat irked me was the idea that the pressers, op-eds, lobbying, working reporters, didn't matter,” Gold responded, giving a snapshot of the methods used to get the message across and create a groundswell for state funding for pre-K that laid the groundwork for de Blasio’s signature campaign promise. Neither Gold nor current spokespeople for the Campaign for One New York responded to requests for comment for this story.

The Campaign for One New York and United for Affordable NYC were successful in achieving the goals of pre-K funding and new affordable housing policies in New York City. The two items are cemented in de Blasio’s legacy and mainstays in his re-election fight, even if the nonprofits tied to them continue to be a source of criticism.

It is debatable whether de Blasio really needed to create these nonprofits to make the case for either policy, both of which had broad support among stakeholders and few, if any, influential opponents. Some people have said the investigations into the administration stemming from the Campaign for One New York are distracting the mayor from effective governance.

“He didn't need to set them up,” said Theodore Hamm, professor of sociology at St. Joseph’s College. “It wasn't justified by the size of the opposition he claimed existed because it didn't.”

Hamm did concede that perhaps the success of the UPK program depended on publicizing it, which required significant money. Bill Cunningham, managing director at DKC, and former communications director for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has a similar view. “In addition to powerful forces that have money, there's also sometimes a very powerful force in politics called inertia,” Cunningham said. “Even issues that people agree with might require a lot of firepower.” He said the mayor had other ways to make the case for his agenda, but didn’t go so far to say that the nonprofits shouldn’t have been established.

Like de Blasio’s major accomplishments, the problems created by the Campaign for One New York are undeniable. A sampling of recent developments are indicative of the negativity surrounding the nonprofit - even good news means only a sigh of relief, and one shrouded in criticism.

On July 6, the city Campaign Finance Board ruled that the mayor and the Campaign for One New York had not violated campaign finance regulations and the unlimited fundraising and spending of the group were not connected to the mayor’s 2017 re-election campaign. At the same time, the CFB chastised the mayor for using loopholes in the law that undermine the contribution limits set by the city’s robust campaign finance law.

“The fundraising conducted by the Campaign for One New York plainly raises serious policy and perception issues and illuminates the ways in which the jurisdiction of the [Campaign Finance] Act is limited,” the CFB said in a statement.

For the mayor, it was a slap on the wrist. Others have thrown more pointed jabs.

Comptroller Scott Stringer, a fellow Democrat who is often seen as a potential challenger to the mayor in 2017, took a swing based on the CFB’s decision. “This slush fund should never have been constituted,” he said when asked at an unrelated news conference. “I think it does not work for this city…I’ve never felt that the way to govern is to set up a slush fund and think it is in the best interests of the city.”

Told of Stringer’s comments, de Blasio shot back that the comptroller “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” The exchange and associated news coverage were additional examples of the ongoing troubles the Campaign for One New York has caused the mayor.

The New York Times editorial board, often complimentary of de Blasio, also weighed in. “If the mayor were serious about ending the influence of “pay to play” in politics — as he used to be when he was the city’s public advocate — he would endorse recommendations by the Campaign Finance Board and good government groups like Citizens Union, which have called for the City Council to make groups like the Campaign for One New York subject to the city’s campaign-finance law, with strict spending limits, full public disclosure and no connection to anybody trying to do business with the city,” The Times wrote. “If Mr. de Blasio cares about ethics and accountability, he should be proposing this change.”

At no point has the mayor publicly expressed regret; he has not come out in support of regulating groups like the Campaign for One New York.

At an unrelated news conference following the CFB decision, the mayor was asked, as he had been on one earlier occasion by Gotham Gazette, whether it was a mistake to set up the nonprofit. He again said it was not, stressing that his political nonprofits were necessary to fight off wealthy opponents of his progressive policies, that the groups had followed legal and ethical guidance each step of the way, and had even voluntarily disclosed sources of its funding.

“Now, you know there’s a whole lot of money in politics in this country that goes to back up the interest of big business and the wealthy and the powerful,” the mayor said. “We were trying to help children and people who needed affordable housing. So, I feel very comfortable with that choice.” De Blasio has also repeatedly said that he does not support the outsized influence of money in elections and politics but must use the same legal methods at his disposal as his many wealthy opponents.

When all is said and done, the mayor seems to think, the city will be better off for having universal pre-kindergarten for every four-year-old and strong mandates for affordable housing development that lead to thousands of new units, and no one will remember the hubbub over the Campaign for One New York.

De Blasio’s national group, the Progressive Agenda Committee, was established with high hopes of influencing the 2016 elections. It has not caused him as many troubles, but has also not been associated with any success. It cost him time, money, and political capital with little to show for it.

An effort that started with a bang but ended with a whimper, the mayor made an impressive display of launching the group and its 13-point policy platform with a news conference outside the Capitol building in Washington D.C. just over a year ago. Dozens of high-profile progressive allies signed on to the platform and some of them were by his side that day, including Representatives Barbara Lee from California and John Conyers Jr. from Michigan; New York Representatives Yvette Clarke, Charles Rangel and Jerrold Nadler; and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean.

The platform was to be progressive Democrats’ agenda for 2016 and the national version of what de Blasio was doing in New York City. Beyond proposing the policies and associated media attention at the time, however, the group gained little traction, particularly as it failed to host a promised bipartisan presidential forum in Iowa last December.

The group received seed funds of $480,000 from the Campaign for One New York in 2015 and raised another $348,500 in 2016. It spent a majority of that funding on consulting fees (with firms closely tied to the mayor) and communications costs. It also flew the mayor around the country for several events.

If anything, the mayor’s national efforts invited criticism from New Yorkers who felt that he was spending too much time building his national profile and ignoring duties at home, especially so early in his tenure. Ironically, many of the agenda’s proposals have made their way into the presidential race largely because of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who opposed Hillary Clinton, a de Blasio ally set to accept the Democratic nomination for President.

Requests for comment about the coalition to the offices of Clarke, Rangel, and Rep. Jose Serrano, another co-signer, went unanswered. A spokesperson for Nadler responded that he was unavailable to comment.

Government reform activist and Democratic fund-raiser Bill Samuels, founder of EffectiveNY, finds himself in the awkward position of criticizing the mayor while being one of the signatories of the Progressive Agenda. The group’s formation came not long after de Blasio criticized Democrats across the country for not running hard enough to the left during the 2014 midterm elections.

Samuels made a clear division between the group’s policy platform, which he says has been a success, and its fundraising methods (through the Campaign for One New York and its donor base of many with business before de Blasio’s administration). "When I signed on, I signed on for the ideas,” said Samuels. “I did not sign on for raising major money from organizations that may have conflicts of interest.”

He said de Blasio’s approach was “Cuomo-esque,” drawing parallels with the Committee to Save New York, the business-backed group which promoted Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s agenda in his first term and was shuttered amid criticism. Samuels has long been a vocal critic of the governor and said the mayor’s rationale was analogous in this case and it undercut his credibility.

“It was a mistake taking large money and [de Blasio’s] paid a price for that,” he said, while praising the mayor for shutting down the two New York-focused political nonprofit groups. “It wasn't progressive. It wasn't the new way we want politicians to take money. He's underestimating how good his ideas are and he could sell the ideas as they are without raising big money. It impinges on and hurts all the other things he’s done.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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