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Next Steps for City Council Member's Alleged Ticket Fix


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Council Member Gibson (photo: William Alatriste)


In trying to avoid a traffic ticket more than two years ago, City Council Member Vanessa Gibson might have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.

The New York Daily News reported on Monday that Gibson, chair of the Council’s public safety committee, used her influence to get out of trouble when she was pulled over in March 2014 for talking on her cell phone while driving. The details emerged from an unrelated lawsuit filed last week by an NYPD officer, Michele Hernandez, against the city for $75 million.

According to the report, when Gibson was pulled over, she called Hernandez’s superiors, who then asked Hernandez to void the ticket. Gibson has not denied that the incident took place although she told the Daily News that she could not recollect it. If she had received the ticket, she could have been subject to a $200 fine or received five points on her license. Instead, she now faces the prospect of an official investigation and possibly greater monetary penalties.

“In trying to avoid a penalty, she’s made a minor infraction that much worse, that has now called into question her integrity,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government watchdog group.

At a Tuesday news conference, in response to reporters’ questions, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said that the incident involving Gibson would have to be probed by the relevant authorities. “There are agencies and entities that exist to deal with those issues,” she said, citing the Conflicts of Interest Board when pressed for examples.

Mark-Viverito also stressed that Gibson would not face any immediate action. "Vanessa has been a great public safety chair, and she has the respect of a lot, of all her colleagues in that role she has played in that position,” Mark-Viverito said. “Overall, she's a respected Council member. So any kind of concerns about having used her position, that has to be taken up by the proper entities in order to look at that. But right now, she's a respected individual and a respected member of this body, and she will continue to serve as public safety chair at the moment."

Gibson was not made available to comment for this article. The next steps around the incident are not immediately clear, but it is unlikely to go away without an investigation.

The city’s Conflicts of Interest Board usually begins a probe based on a complaint but in the absence of one it can initiate an investigation based on other sources such as news reports, and it has done so in the past.

“We can’t confirm or deny whether we did, are doing or might do anything on this matter because the law requires confidentiality,” said Wayne Hawley, COIB deputy executive director and general counsel, in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette. Hawley did not comment at all on the Gibson incident and would not say how the possible violation would be characterized or the potential penalties.

The city’s Conflicts of Interest Law prohibits a public servant from using his or her position “to obtain any financial gain, contract, license, privilege or other private or personal advantage, direct or indirect, for the public servant or any person or firm associated with the public servant.” A violation can lead to a civil fine of up to $25,000. Typically, instances which are probed by the COIB lead to negotiated settlements if a violation is found. This holds true for City Council members as well. However, COIB cannot enforce a fine on a City Council member even if it finds a violation. It can inform the Speaker’s office and the Council, which would then refer the case to the Council’s Committee on Standards and Ethics.

Council Member Alan Maisel, chair of Standards and Ethics, said that the committee could “conceivably” look into the Gibson incident, “but it has to be presented to me.”

“The Speaker’s office or the Council would have to refer it,” he said. “I’m assuming that it’s being investigated as we speak.”

On a report by the standards and ethics committee, the City Council can impose a number of sanctions against an erring member including removal from the position of chair or membership of a committee, a reprimand, a censure, fine or expulsion. Any sanction would require a majority of the ethics committee and then a two-thirds vote of the full 51-member Council.

Maisel said this incident could be “the first potential case” to come before his committee since he took office in 2014, though the committee did examine a case involving Council Member Ruben Wills, who is under indictment, and decided not to proceed until the criminal case is through. “I haven’t been very busy with this kind of issue,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

Bill De Blasio's Resurrection Challenge


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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With De Blasio Appearing Vulnerable, Heightened Examination of Paths to Defeat Him


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


Mayor Bill de Blasio often says he doesn’t put much stock in public opinion polls; he believes they’re about as accurate as weather predictions. When asked, he didn’t express much concern after a Quinnipiac University poll released August 1 showed that 51 percent of New York City voters don’t think he deserves to be re-elected in 2017. But even if de Blasio didn’t care, his critics and potential opponents surely did, and are likely buoyed in their belief that there is a way to beat an incumbent Democrat who has been arguably the most progressive mayor in the city’s history and overseen dropping crime, growing jobs, and a record tourism.

As polls show de Blasio’s relative weakness, some voices have grown louder calling for his ouster, and potential opponents weigh jumping into the race, one key question is the best path to defeating him. In an overwhelmingly Democratic city that saw 20 years of Republican dominance of the mayoralty before his election, it’s not immediately clear where de Blasio is most vulnerable.

As can be expected, political consultants are divided on the prospect of de Blasio’s re-election. Republican consultants believe he can be beaten if an opponent uses the right strategy, aptly highlighting the mayor’s weaknesses, while many Democrats are certain the chances of that are negligible at best.

“[De Blasio’s opponents] need to make it a referendum on his competence and his management,” said Evan Siegfried, a Republican strategist. “That includes Democrats, especially in the primaries.”

“An incompetent mayor can lose,” he added.

It is the competence argument that is already being made by the loudest voice to thus far openly declare intention to defeat de Blasio in 2017 - that of consultant Bradley Tusk, who ran former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s third successful mayoral campaign, in 2009. Tusk has said, though, that he believes the most likely path to defeating de Blasio in 2017 is through the Democratic primary. He’s currently waging a public relations campaign to damage the mayor while he attempts to recruit the strongest candidate possible.

As Tusk and others, even Republicans, acknowledge, the voter registration numbers don’t lie. They also see that while de Blasio’s approval rating is low, he still has fairly strong support among Democrats, especially African-Americans.

In order to beat de Blasio, “Republicans and independents will have to appeal to disaffected Democrats and have to bring in pretty much every constituency,” said Siegfried. “Bill de Blasio is absolutely beatable only if you run a good and strong campaign with a solid candidate...They should aim to peel off the pork from where de Blasio is strong, particularly the African-American community.”

On the Republican end, there are already a few candidates who’ve indicated they may run against the mayor, including Queens City Council Member Eric Ulrich; billionaire businessman John Catsimatidis, who lost in the 2013 Republican primary; real estate developer Paul Massey; and former professional football player and Harlem pastor Michel Faulkner. The latter two have officially declared their runs.

Republican campaign consultant Jessica Proud of The November Team, who is working for Massey’s campaign, believes there is a path to victory against the incumbent mayor. “Clearly de Blasio has not been able to inspire the confidence of voters,” she said. “He has not shown himself to be a good manager of the city.” Proud said Massey’s appeal is that he’s not a politician. “He’s not an ideologue, his approach would be one of good management,” she said, with an implicit nod toward a Bloomberg-esque technocrat and citing Massey’s top priorities in the campaign: public safety and quality of life issues, housing, and improving city schools.

The management issue is a common refrain and relates directly to competence. Even though crime is down, Republican consultants point to polls that show the perception of crime remains skewed. Many people believe other quality of life issues, like street cleanliness, are getting worse even if there is evidence to the contrary. The Quinnipiac poll released August 1 showed that 49 percent of New York City voters disapproved of how the mayor is handling crime, compared to 42 percent who approved.

George Arzt, a Democratic consultant, said, “[De Blasio is] vulnerable to a challenge but not from a Republican.” He said that contenders like Massey or Catsimatidis don’t have the same level of resources as Bloomberg did, and that they definitely don’t have the political skills or organization. “There were circumstances that cannot be duplicated as we see now,” he said of Bloomberg’s election as a Republican candidate. “It’s doubtful that anyone even with money can make a go of it.”

Another Democratic strategist, Hank Sheinkopf, said a Republican candidate could only be elected if the city were to undergo a serious crisis, say a crime wave, massive corruption, or another recession. De Blasio's administration and campaign allies are being investigated on multiple fronts by state and federal law enforcement officials - the results of those investigations could shift political dynamics drastically, of course. Short of major indictments, Sheinkopf did point out early indicators of problems -- certain crimes have increased, like rape, but overall the crime rate is at historic lows; school test scores may be improving but the schools are underperforming in general; violence in the city’s jails; and future budget deficits despite the city being flush with cash.

Even with those considerations, Sheinkopf said, “A fusion candidate will have a better chance,”  referring to a candidate who runs on multiple party lines. “They have the Republican line and other lines which makes it easier for people to vote for them.” An effective Republican challenger would have to draw crossover votes from traditionally Democratic voting sections of the population, as Siegfried also suggested and any Republican candidate or consultant must understand.

Democrats’ immense voter registration advantage is simply a reality that all involved in New York City political campaigns must recognize. However, one caveat to the voter registration numbers are the voter turnout numbers, which are often quite low. If a certain candidate, incumbent or otherwise, can motivate more people to vote in a significant mass, an election can be swung.

As of April 1, there are more than 4 million active registered voters in the city, of which 2.75 million are Democrats and only 414,478 are Republicans. However, that advantage isn’t necessarily borne out by history, a fact pointed to by Steven Romalewski, director of the mapping service at the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center. In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Romalewski said, “The enrollment advantage doesn’t necessarily tell you much. It matters less than personality of the candidates and the issues. If everyone turned out to vote who is registered to vote and voted the party line, a Democrat would win. But that doesn’t always happen.”

Romalewski noted that a 2013 general election analysis showed that in certain districts, de Blasio received fewer Democratic votes than the total votes cast by registered Democrats, indicating that some may have voted for his Republican opponent, Joe Lhota. In other districts, de Blasio received more votes than the total Democratic votes cast, meaning he had support from outside the Democratic party as well. There were six major qualified parties and 14 minor parties on the general election ballot, with de Blasio holding the Democratic and Working Families Party lines.

The city also has nearly 800,000 unaffiliated voters, often called “independents,” which adds another facet to the Democrat-Republican enrollment imbalance.

“In 2017, I think the same kind of analysis holds,” Romalewski said in an email. “If none or just a small number of Democrats vote for de Blasio's opponent, he'll do ok.  But if his challenger can persuade enough Dems to "defect," he'll be in trouble.”

But de Blasio’s great strength, as Romalewski pointed out, is that he “not only did well and much better than the prior three Democratic candidates [for mayor] but also did well in areas where Bloomberg did well. He kinda combined the traditional Democratic base -- Black and Hispanic areas -- with liberal white areas.” De Blasio won a dominant 73 percent of the general election vote against Lhota in 2013.

Critics point to the fact that only 26 percent of registered voters cast ballots in that election, which indicates some combination of apathy, recognition that de Blasio had a huge polling advantage heading toward Election Day, and limited enthusiasm for Lhota from Republicans and independents.

A Republican would have to have a “cache” of progressive politics combined with the skills of a good manager, Romalewski said, to cut into de Blasio’s voter base. “The conventional wisdom is that it’s unlikely [de Blasio will] have effective challengers,” he said.

Most observers assume that the mayor will only face a stiff challenge in the Democratic primary, due to the aforementioned factors and no obvious other big name Republican or independent waiting in the wings. And a tough Democratic primary is only possible, some say, if a single strong candidate runs against de Blasio instead of multiple candidates who could split the anti-de Blasio vote. “If two or three Democrats challenge the mayor, he’s going to win,” said Bill Cunningham, managing director at DKC and former communications director for Bloomberg. “If only one runs, there’s a chance to coalesce the people who view [de Blasio] unfavorably and give them a place to go vote.”

One other path some experts float would be for a strong African-American candidate to enter the race - someone like Congressional Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, for example - who would chip away at de Blasio’s deep African-American base, and one strong white candidate - someone like Comptroller Scott Stringer - who could pick up as many other disaffected Democrats as possible.

Cunningham said for a competitive race, “You need a message, a messenger and you need to be able to deliver that to the public. There’s no mystery to what the recipe is. The trick is finding a candidate who is intelligent and can campaign effectively and has the money to deliver the message to the voters.” Bloomberg had those qualities, he pointed out, but the current crop of contenders don’t. Along with Stringer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. is currently seen as the other most likely Democratic challenger to the mayor.

When asked about potential opponents, de Blasio has repeatedly said he’s ready to take on all comers, at times mentioning the pillars of his term: universal pre-kindergarten, affordable housing, and low crime. At one point last year de Blasio discussed his "record of achievement" and said of potential 2017 opponents, "come one, come all."

A spokesperson for de Blasio’s campaign, Dan Levitan, emailed a statement about the prospects for 2017, saying, “Crime just hit another all-time low, jobs are at record highs, the City is building and preserving affordable housing at a record pace, while graduation rates and test scores continue to improve. That is Mayor de Blasio's record and that is what next year's election will be about.”

Even Tusk, who is arguably de Blasio’s most vocal opponent right now, acknowledges that he’ll be hard pressed to find a candidate who fits the bill of a Democrat with appeal among Republican voters. He recently indicated to the New York Times that a successful candidate could run on a third-party line in the general even if they lost the Democratic primary; or a candidate could possibly skip the Democratic primary altogether and run on an independent line.

As CUNY’s Romalewski notes, in the 2009 general, Bloomberg did well in areas where he consistently won votes in the prior two elections -- much of Queens, the Upper East Side, Upper West Side, Downtown Manhattan, South Brooklyn, and almost all of Staten Island. His Democratic opponent at the time, Bill Thompson, made it a close race, losing by less than five points. Thompson, who is black, won large blocks in Southeast Queens, Central Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx. Unfortunately for him, though, turnout wasn’t as high in these areas as he needed for a victory. De Blasio upended the pattern in 2013, pulling votes from constituencies that voted for both Bloomberg and Thompson in ‘09.

Romalewski’s analysis of the 2013 election also notes areas de Blasio lost to Lhota, including the traditionally Republican-leaning Upper East Side, Middle Village and other areas in northeast Queens, a few orthodox Jewish communities in Southern Brooklyn, and most of Staten Island. In general, these areas were dominated by white New Yorkers who have been increasingly critical of de Blasio. The mayor overwhelmingly won communities dominated by African-Americans and Hispanics, who continue to support him. The Quinnipiac poll noted as much, finding that in hypothetical match-ups whites largely favored Comptroller Scott Stringer and former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn over de Blasio, who maintained huge margins among African-Americans and Hispanics. (The poll did not include possible Republican candidates.)

In terms of approval rating, 63 percent of black voters and 50 percent of Hispanic voters approve of de Blasio’s handling of the job, while only 25 percent of white voters felt the same. The Democrat-Republican divide is even greater, with 55 percent of Democrats giving de Blasio a thumbs up and only 9 percent of Republicans doing so. Among independents, 30 percent approved of the mayor.

On Tusk’s “NYC Deserves Better” podcast, Democratic consultant and pollster Jefrey Pollock pointed out that despite the mayor’s weakening numbers, he has enough support among African-Americans and Hispanics for a strong showing in the Democratic primary. Pollock noted, and Tusk reiterated, that popular adage that almost every political expert and consultant says of the mayoral race -- “You can’t beat somebody with nobody.” Pollock said independent groups support an opponent of de Blasio, if an effective one were to emerge.

“That is the great challenge,” Tusk said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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