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De Blasio's Nonprofits: Were they worth it?


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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.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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De Blasio’s ‘Disarmament’ Deficit


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Mayor Bill de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed, Mayor's Office)


Despite not believing in “unilateral disarmament,” Mayor Bill de Blasio decided to disarm without any sign of a political ceasefire. In doing so, the mayor not only contradicted himself, but gave implicit acknowledgement to problems with the most troubling aspect of his tenure: the establishment of a political nonprofit that took in major donations from entities with business before the city.

Giving the go-ahead to his allies to shut down The Campaign for One New York, which is under federal investigation, and its offshoot, United for Affordable NYC, de Blasio decided a few months ago to put his big extra-governmental weapons away. Amid a flurry of controversy, he said their work was done. Yet, just last week, de Blasio again said those advocacy groups were necessary in the face of a “wealthy” opposition that has already spent at least $11 million against him and his agenda and explained that his side alone should not be expected to put its swords down.

But de Blasio did, essentially eschewing for 2016 the organized outside help he saw as essential in 2014 and 2015. This, while he continues to be attacked by the city’s police union; charter school supporters; Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a fellow Democrat; state Senate Republicans; political consultant Bradley Tusk, who ran Michael Bloomberg’s third mayoral campaign; and others.

Throughout a sustained barrage of criticism over The Campaign for One New York, the mayor has unequivocally maintained that he and his team did everything ethically and legally, that no government favors were promised or exchanged for donations; he and his allies have called criticism of his actions unfair. Asked at least twice by reporters since trouble really started boiling up if The Campaign for One New York’s formation was a mistake, de Blasio has quickly said “no” and launched into a defense.

Going forward, the mayor has promised to continue to push his equity-building agenda, giving, by his logic, no reason to believe that he will not continue to see pushback from the forces of “a status quo...backed up by a lot of money and power.”

If, as the mayor has said, the political nonprofits were essential in accomplishing things like state funding for universal pre-kindergarten and City Council passage of parts of his affordable housing plan; necessary in the face of big-money opposition to his change agenda; and above board ethically, then why shut them down? If a political nonprofit outside of government was needed to help accomplish his goals in 2014 and 2015, then why not in 2016 and beyond?

When asked, de Blasio explained publicly that the groups accomplished their missions. While the reality is that The Campaign for One New York helped build a critical mass for pre-K, de Blasio’s crowning achievement thus far, the organization also became a major distraction as allegations of pay-to-play increased and news broke that federal authorities were investigating whether government favors were offered or provided in exchange for money. The group took in more than $4 million, in large part from unions, real estate developers, and others with city business who are far more limited in what they can give to de Blasio’s electoral campaign account.

The decision to announce the shutdown of the Campaign for One New York early this year was at least in part due to the related headaches and bad public relations, something the mayor has not publicly acknowledged and that is surely a source of frustration for him and others involved. For several months, it has dominated many question-and-answer sessions the mayor has held with the press, events that have become less frequent. De Blasio has regularly decried selective prosecution and persecution against him - largely the result, he says, of those who do not want to see progressive change. He’s repeatedly pointed out that his groups voluntarily disclosed their donors, providing a “road map” for inquiry, whereas other similar groups in the past have not.

“[W]e’re trying to make changes that will help everyday people, not reinforce the power of powerful interests, not continue the status quo, but break the status quo,” de Blasio said on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show at the end of April. “And therefore, we use legal and appropriate means to make big changes, which is exactly what we did to achieve pre-K for all, to achieve a new affordable housing plan.”

De Blasio has more to his agenda than those two items, of course, however significant they may be. And even with regard to pre-K and affordable housing, there is more state and federal funding to secure, additional legislation to pass. If everything was above board, why disband? If your opponents are all but certain to attack more, why disarm?

Months after the decision to disarm, de Blasio said again last week that he wants to get all the big private money out of politics, but until that happens, he asked, "Are we only going to allow one side of the equation to be on the playing field?"

Asked for comment about the apparent contradictions in de Blasio’s explanations, a mayoral spokesperson said by email, “Campaign for One New York existed for specific issue campaigns that were successful and are now over.”

De Blasio’s allies say that the Campaign for One New York was never intended to exist into his 2017 re-election year, when it would clearly raise legal questions. But, central to de Blasio’s defense of the organization is that it was an issue advocacy group promoting an agenda, not him as an official or a candidate. In a recent determination, the city’s Campaign Finance Board did rule that to be the case, but in an advisory opinion looking ahead, the CFB said that there were significant concerns raised by the organization’s fundraising and that if it were to overlap with de Blasio’s 2017 re-election campaign, it would be subject to fund-raise and spend limits of the city’s public-matching program.

“The Campaign for One New York was formed to advocate for New York City’s progressive policy agenda,” said Dan Levitan, a spokesperson for the group, after the CFB ruling. “It never engaged in any election campaign activity for any candidate and shut down more than a year and a half before next year’s election.” He expressed pleasure with the CFB not finding any violations.

For his part, the mayor and his allies continue to call The Campaign for One New York essential while dismissing criticisms of it, but also not expressing any public dismay that it is no longer around.

“[W]e are using the tools the law allows,” de Blasio said in April on WNYC, “but somehow that is criticized when it wasn’t criticized in the case of other people using it.”

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Even with Crime Low, De Blasio and Police Union 'Worlds Apart'


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Mayor de Blasio speaks at NYPD graduation (Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Last month, contract negotiations between City Hall and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the union that represents the city’s rank-and-file police officers, again reached a standstill.

On June 28, the PBA filed a Declaration of Impasse with the New York State Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) asking it to appoint a mediator in the negotiations over a contract that goes back to 2012. The union, which represents about 24,000 officers, is the only uniformed service agency without a settled contract with the city -- the other 11,000 members of the NYPD, firefighters, sanitation workers, and corrections officers are all under contract.

After filing the declaration, PBA President Patrick Lynch took the occasion, as he often does, to criticize Mayor Bill de Blasio publicly. “We are hopeful that an independent, third-party mediator can restore a sense of fairness to a process that has been taken over by the Mayor’s insistence on playing politics,” Lynch said, in a statement accompanying the announcement, “and provide our members with a contract that will allow them to provide for themselves and their families.”

It was the latest salvo in a protracted process, accompanied all along with a public campaign by the PBA that, for the most part, has decried what it says are increasingly dangerous conditions faced by police officers without saying much about how cops are performing or the role they have played in bringing crime in the city to historic lows. Instead, the PBA’s message -- backed up by an internal survey of its members -- is that the city is headed in the wrong direction, that there is increasing disorder and police officers on the ground are bearing the brunt of it.

“Everyone else wanted to have productive dialogue and resolve outstanding issues,” said Mayor de Blasio, at an unrelated news conference on Wednesday, referring to other uniformed unions that have settled contracts. “How did we get to the progress on disability with sanitations, with corrections, with the fire fighters? Productive, respectful dialogue…The only one that stands apart consistently is the PBA and I don’t think that’s helping the members.”

Last year, when the PBA and city went into a binding arbitration over their contract and arbitrator Howard Edelman awarded the union 1 percent raises for 2011 and 2012, off-duty officers publicly protested the decision. The current offer on the table, for 2012 through 2015, is for a zero percent raise for the first six months, and 1 percent each year for the following four years. The PBA believes this doesn’t go far enough, that it’s less than the rate of inflation, and that they are paid at least 30 percent less than other uniformed unions at both local and national levels.

On the other side, the city insists it pays police officers nearly 150 percent of the average of large U.S. cities and that it has followed the same pattern as other uniformed unions, offering the PBA 11 percent raises over seven years, which it rejected. A mayoral spokesperson said they are expecting a decision from PERB on the PBA’s request for a mediator perhaps next week. If that mediator cannot resolve the issues in the negotiations, the process moves to a binding arbitration.According to Politico NY, a PERB ruling would apply for 2012 through 2014. The sides would then pick up negotiations again for the subsequent years.

“Since taking office, we have tried again and again to work with the PBA to provide their members with a fair long-term deal with significant raises and benefits – a deal like the ones every other police and uniformed union accepted,” said the spokesperson, Freddi Goldstein, in an email. “The PBA has been unwilling to negotiate, instead choosing to wage a political war and go to arbitration - again.”

PBA BdB billboard indianapolis via PBAThe PBA’s well-funded public effort to influence the negotiations and criticize the mayor, has taken a number of forms: flyering by members (including Lynch) in April; a television ad in May; radio ads calling on the mayor to be fair to police officers; and a full-page newspaper ad accompanied by a billboard truck when the Mayor visited Indianapolis for the U.S. Conference of Mayors (left). Throughout, the message remains the same: police officers increasingly feel unsafe in doing their jobs; unsupported by the de Blasio administration and the City Council; undermined by a slew of new bills and policy initiatives; and unable to support their families on the inadequate pay they receive.

In the overall message being put out by the union, there is little focus on police officers’ performance.

“I would think that any union would want to celebrate the good work of their members,” the mayor said at an unrelated news conference on Wednesday, when Gotham Gazette asked about the PBA’s public campaign and its focus. Emphasizing that crime numbers are at “unbelievable” lows, the mayor added, “They should be celebrating. They should be thanked. So the notion of their own union denigrating what they achieved makes no sense to me and that is not the way to achieve anything in contract negotiations.”

Suffice it to say, the PBA does not agree with the mayor and its representative quickly refuted the argument that the union has not focused on officer performance.

A PBA spokesperson, in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette, said the PBA has clearly and repeatedly stressed that their officers are doing “a terrific job” and that is one of multiple considerations in the negotiations. “That’s actually been an argument and position of the unions going back to the mid ‘90s,” said the spokesperson of the police force’s strong role in reducing crime in the city. “We continue to maintain that position,” the spokesperson added.

But at the same time, the spokesperson said, officers are under duress, understaffed, face more challenges, more paperwork, more oversight and scrutiny, and suffer from rock-bottom morale. The spokesperson also added that the de Blasio administration’s labor policies have been “worse than any other administration” and the city has refused to provide sufficient pay raises to cops at a time when it’s flush with cash - the sides are “worlds apart,” the spokesperson said.

In a statement emailed to Gotham Gazette, PBA President Lynch said, “Our members were instrumental in the historic decline in crime over the past 20 years. Now, with 6,000 fewer officers - who are under heightened scrutiny and have increased responsibilities - we have still been able to keep a lid on crime in New York City."

Former NYPD officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice Eugene O’Donnell said the PBA’s public campaign is “really about internal politics” and a sense of anger and disappointment among police officers.

“It’s meant to go after the mayor, who according to [PBA’s] poll is disdained by their membership,” O’Donnell told Gotham Gazette. “If you were having an ordinary negotiation, you would try to project a positive message and build a rapport with the other side. There’s no advantage to that…All that’s left to do is rain down damage on the administration for what they perceive to be making their job unbearable.”

O’Donnell also says that since the police unions don’t have the right to strike, they have to use other means to get their message out.

PBA leadership’s disdain for the mayor has been long in the making. De Blasio came into office on a platform of criticizing the NYPD and promising reform. Some of his close allies, such as Rev. Al Sharpton, have been fervent critics of the police department. His hiring of Rachel Noerdlinger, Sharpton’s former spokesperson, also irked police unions. Noerdlinger’s boyfriend was a convicted killer and made anti-cop statements on social media. De Blasio then went on to defend Noerdlinger from related uproar before she stepped down. The mayor has also publicly stated his concern about racist policing practices and said that he trained his biracial son Dante to be careful when dealing with the police. Eventually, the tensions between the mayor and police boiled over when two officers were shot dead in Brooklyn in Dec. 2014. At the hospital and the funerals, rank-and-file officers turned their backs to the mayor.

Since then, de Blasio has gone out of his way to ease the relationship and show his support for the police. He worked with the City Council to fund 1,300 new officers on the force and has stood by the police even when faced with criticism from his closest allies. He has vehemently supported Commissioner Bill Bratton, who is largely popular with rank-and-file cops, and Bratton’s signature Broken Windows policing strategy, which the unions support.

Dr. Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University, said the PBA would gain more sympathy if it focused on a performance-based argument, which is easily measurable by outcomes in the city’s crime rate. “I think if they went with that strategy, it would help in the court of public opinion,” she said, insisting that their current arguments largely fall flat.

Just this week, de Blasio and NYPD officials released new statistics that showed some of these measurable outcomes. Murders and shootings were down in the first half of this year over last, with overall major crimes in the month of June at the lowest they’ve ever been in city history. De Blasio called it the “ultimate team effort” by the NYPD and said the numbers suggest changes in the city that will have long-term effects. “[T]his is a really powerful moment where the NYPD is getting to do things that it’s always wanted to do,” he said at a news conference on Monday where the data was released. “It’s now getting the chance to do them and to change the lives of people in all the neighborhoods of this city.”

Police reform advocate Bob Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, said PBA President Lynch’s “aggressive public rhetoric is like throwing red meat to the legions in his union. Perhaps his intention is to distract people from his failure as a leader to obtain for his members a new contract.”

Gangi disagrees with the PBA’s claim that a police officer’s job had become more dangerous. Citing the killing of the two officers in 2014, which the PBA has often relied on as a case of the dangers their members face, Gangi called it an “aberrational” incident without any discernible pattern. “If that’s the sole rack that they’re hanging their hat on, I think it’s a weak argument,” he said. Along with Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, who were killed in Dec. 2014, there have been two other police officers killed in the line of duty since de Blasio took office: Brian Moore in May 2015 and Randolph Holder in Oct. 2015.

The PBA has spent hundreds of thousand of dollars on its effort, but the administration has not budged. De Blasio has 98 percent of the municipal workforce under contract, including all the other uniformed unions. While he can negotiate from a position of power, the police union may also be the most delicate in terms of public relations - no mayor wants to be seen as anti-cop. Still, the mayor has the low crime numbers to boast.

“I think it is a counterproductive strategy,” de Blasio said on Wednesday of the PBA citing increasing disorder instead of strong job performance by officers. “It certainly has not changed the way we comport ourselves. We work with people who want to work with us productively,” he said of negotiations.

But the PBA does not seem like it will back down from taking the mayor to task, whether it be over the contract proposals or police reform initiatives introduced at various levels. “We’re an advocacy group,” said the PBA spokesperson. “That’s our job.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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