Gotham Gazette

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Role Reversal: Contributions from Candidates

Just two candidates currently running for public advocate or city comptroller contributed to the Working Families Party last year, according to the Campaign Finance Board. Coincidentally, they were the same two candidates who received the party's endorsement.

Council members John Liu, a comptroller candidate, and Bill de Blasio, who is running for public advocate, each doled out $10,000 to the third party last October, both saying it to went to fight against the extension of term limits.

About six months later, though, their contributions may have been rewarded with an influential endorsement from the group, opponents allege. A Working Families Party spokesman said the donations did not curry any favor at the endorsement table. The group based its decision on merit, said spokesperson Dan Levitan, calling Liu and de Blasio brave for standing up against the term limit extension.

When the candidates made the donations, representatives say, they were running for different offices -- Liu for public advocate and de Blasio for Brooklyn borough president.

But like it or not, this is not the first (nor will it be the last) time political contributions from city candidates can be connected with the endorsements they receive months or years down the road. A long established practice, city candidates dole out funding from their campaign accounts to political groups and other New York politicians. Whether it's taking out an ad in a Working Families Party brochure, giving $500 to the re-election campaign of an influential assemblymember, donating $100 to the Stonewall Democrats or paying $135 to attend a luncheon held by the 504 Democrats, candidates for citywide office are making their rounds across the city via checkbook, and some expect payback.

No one may be looking for a reimbursement more than Liu, who in this election cycle has given 77 contributions, or $62,400, to political groups or candidates -- the most of any city candidate. During the 2005 cycle, when he was running for re-election to the City Council, Liu gave just five of these types of contributions, according to the Campaign Finance Board.

A Small Amount, But Large Paybacks

So far this election cycle, $346,440 has been spent by candidates on contributions to city organizations or other campaigns -- about 2 percent of the $14.5 million candidates have spent for the 2009 race so far.

Following Liu in handing out political contributions is Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz with $42,700, councilmember and comptroller candidate David Weprin with $22,110, de Blasio with $14,750, and comptroller and mayoral candidate William Thompson Jr. with $12,965.

These officials have bestowed their campaign dollars on fellow candidates. For instance, comptroller candidate and Councilmember Melinda Katz contributed $300 to Councilmember Dan Garodnick, who is running for re-election.

Or they gave to local organizations, like the $1,000 Weprin gave to Young Israel of Holliswood this cycle.

And sometimes it seems to pay off.

In addition to the Working Families Party endorsement, Liu has seen a couple of other nods from groups that he has contributed to. Last December, the council member gave $1,000 to the Transit Workers Union Local 100 for an ad and tickets to a fundraiser. Little more than three months later, Liu received the local's endorsement -- the first of his campaign.

Liu also gave a $250 donation last year to the McManus Democratic Association in Midtown , and he won their support. (In 2006, Weprin also gave to the group.)

The Liu campaign contends he is trying to connect with constituents. Liu's campaign spokesperson Juanita Scarlett said, "John Liu has supported organizations that share his views and priorities on issues critical to middle class families in New York -- issues such as health care, education, jobs and economical development." Giving to Democratic clubs, she added, "allow[s} him the opportunity to connect with voters who are knowledgeable on priority issues."

But his competitors allege the contributions are not so clean.

"I think it's ironic that someone running for comptroller -- who we are supposed to evaluate on financial uprightness -- paid for an endorsement," said Katz campaign spokesperson Ben Branham.

Liu is not the only candidate who has received endorsements from groups or other officials they contributed to.

Public advocate candidate and civil rights attorney Norman Siegel was the only candidate in that race to give any money to the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats last year, and he gave just $60. This year, he got their endorsement.

Regulated Enough?

By the looks of it, candidates will continue the practice until this November and beyond. In 2005, candidates shelled out $708,895 as contributions to colleagues and political clubs across the city.

According to Eric Friedman of the Campaign Finance Board, candidates cannot use public funding to contribute to another candidate or a political organization. "CFB rules protect taxpayer funds from being funneled through one campaign to another," Friedman said. "Political contributions are not an acceptable use of public matching funds. But the law does allow candidates to use privately raised funds to make contributions to other candidates or political committees."

While good government groups are critical of the practice, they are not looking to ban it or regulate it further. Calling the donations "ethically dubious," Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, the sister organization to Gotham Gazette's publisher, said candidates will give to groups or other candidates in hopes of gaining support.

"It's a practice that can't and shouldn't be banned, but it's questionable and arguably distasteful," Dadey said. "The contributors give to candidates with the knowledge that candidates will do what is necessary to win elections."

Logically, any citywide candidate is going to spend millions of dollars in hopes of getting elected. So, according to Gene Russianoff at the New York Public Interest Research Group , candidates who send their checks to groups or candidates across the city in hopes of getting support see that as an effective political strategy.

"They are spending on this instead of direct mail," said Russianoff. "They are making a political judgment."

If they want to spend their campaign contributions on donations to other groups, the law won't be there to stop them.

City Gears Up for Green Buildings

Photo (cc) broddi

This story originally incorrectly said there were 90,000 buildings in the city. It has been corrected to state that there are 975,000 buildings and properties, according to the city's Buildings Department.

Perfectly timed for Earth Day, the Bloomberg administration and the City Council introduced a package of legislation yesterday that seeks to improve energy efficiency in large commercial buildings and could require about 20,000 buildings to improve their use of electricity.

The plan hopes to reduce the city's carbon footprint by 5 percent -- roughly comparable to the carbon emissions generated by Oakland, Calif.

A combination of updating the energy code and creating efficiency and lighting standards, the energy plan already has racked up criticism from a wide array of interest groups, including the real estate industry and tenants rights advocates. Many are concerned over the financial impact of the legislation.

In addition to the energy efficiency legislation, the council also approved bills to create the city's own brownfield remediation program, warn parents of hot playground equipment and to require that the city report incidents in juvenile facilities.

Energy Introductions

At least 85 percent of the buildings that exist today still will be here in another 20 years, said city officials. So the best way for the city to decrease its carbon footprint is to focus on the built environment we already have.

"This is really the first time the city's iconic skyline will be moved into the 21st century to make sure that it isn't just great, but that it's actually green," said Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

The package -- a combination of four bills, two of which had been introduced before -- includes legislation that would require buildings larger than 50,000 square feet to audit their energy usage and make efficiency upgrades once every decade. Robert Newman, the council's legislative director, said the legislation would start by selecting 2,200 large buildings at random and audit their usage.

Those property owners could then be forced to retrofit their buildings, but only if the upgrade would pay for itself after five years, said city officials. For instance, if an audit found that the building needed better insulation, the owner would most likely have to better seal the building because the payback for that type of efficiency would occur after two and half years.

Many upgrades, from trading in current light fixtures for compact florescent bulbs to using efficient showerheads, pay for themselves after a period of nine months to two and a half years, according to city officials.

The package includes $16 million in stimulus funding to help property owners afford the building improvements. Even with that fund, though, the real estate industry is expected to balk at the legislation because the payback is not immediate.

"It's going to be really, really hard," said Newman of convincing some building owners to sign on.

If the package is enacted, building owners could save $750 million, said Newman.

The package would not require that buildings reduce their energy consumption by a certain percentage, but instead ensure that buildings abide by certain energy standards, such as using efficient Energy Star equipment.

Some of these improvements, advocates warn, could end up becoming permanent improvements to rent controlled and rent stabilized apartments, which landlords could then use to increase rents. Advocates say these improvement could amount to $275 per apartment annually.

"The whole premise of the green building's legislation is that efficient improvements will only be mandated if they will be paid back to the owner through energy savings, rent increases based on these steps should be prohibited. How can you have a landlord benefit twice -- once through savings on their energy bills and again through higher rents from tenants," said Judith Goldiner of the Legal Aid Society.

Quinn said that this would not be the intention of the legislation, and officials would work to prevent increases.

The legislative package also would require commercial buildings of more than 50,000 square feet to improve their lighting systems to meet the New York City Energy Conservation Code, which mandates a certain level of efficiency. That bill would not apply to residential spaces.

The city also proposed to close a loophole in that code that exempts renovations which account for less than 50 percent of a property from complying with the efficiency standards. If approved, any renovation would have to be in line with the code.

The legislation covers about 22,000 of the city's 975,000 buildings and properties, but, said city officials, about half of the city's total square footage. City buildings are also included, officials said.


The City Council unanimously approved legislation ( Intro 21a) that would establish an Office of Environmental Remediation, which would be charged with cleaning up the city's brownfields.

Currently, said the bill's sponsor Councilmember James Gennaro, the state denies aid to clean up much of the city's contaminated land, or brownfields, because they are "historic fill," meaning it would not pose an immediate hazard to groundwater. It is, therefore, too contaminated for many uses but not contaminated enough for state cleanup.

Under this bill, Gennaro said that land would be targeted by the city for cleanup and reuse.

"Most of the 7,000 to 8,000 acres of brownfields that we have would not qualify for the state program," said Gennaro. "So it's important we do what we do best: Do it ourselves."

Hot Turf

The council approved legislation requiring playgrounds to post warning signs that equipment, from slides to surfaces, could be hot. The move comes after several children received second-degree burns last year.

The bill (Intro 896a) was approved by a vote of 46 to 2 with council members Melissa Mark Viverito and Rosie Mendez dissenting. Both voted against the bill because the warning language was "significantly weakened" during the legislative process.

The bill requires signs that read: "Warning: Some surfaces may be hot. Please take precautions with exposed skin." The legislation will take effect in 45 days, so signs should be on city playgrounds by the height of summer.

Reporting on Juveniles

Last year, Christopher Robinson, a Rikers Island inmate, was beaten to death while incarcerated for a parole violation. That incident sparked the City Council to unanimously approve legislation (Intro 937), which requires the Department of Correction report incidents that occur in juvenile facilities.

City officials hope that by tracking these incidents they can spot trends and prevent similar incidents in the future, said the bill's sponsor, Councilmember Letitia James.

The department will be required to report statistics on stabbings, hospital admissions that occur from assaults on staff, fights resulting in serious injury, attempted suicides and sexual assaults. Though the department reports some statistics from Rikers already, they do not break information down to this level, said James.

The Bronx Family Feud

Diaz photo by Jordan Moss at Bronx News Network
Ruben Diaz Jr., center, Joel Rivera, left, and Carl Heastie, right.

The call of "Don't forget to vote on April 21st" practically overpowers the latest Hot 97 hits pulsing from an audio store on the corner of Fordham Road and Jerome Avenue in the west Bronx.

Evening rush-hour riders depart from the screeching number 4 train, slide down two flights of stairs to the street to get a flyer, a handshake and a wide, mustached smile.

"I am running for Bronx borough president in two weeks," Assemblymember Ruben Diaz Jr. says, stretching out his hand.

Running might be an overstatement. For Diaz, who practically has a set of keys to borough hall already, walking would be a better characterization.

The seven-term assemblymember has only token, Republican opposition in next week's nonpartisan special election to replace former borough president turned-Obama administration official Adolfo CarriĂłn. For such a high profile position, the lack of opposition is relatively unheard of.

Just weeks ago, Bronx Democrats were preparing for a brawl between two political dynasties who have been wrestling over control of the county's Democratic party for months. Since that race has failed to materialize, Bronxites -- left with little choice -- can now ponder what this means for the county's new and old political guard.

A Look Back at the Bronx

The real battle occurred months ago.

Last fall, a rebel faction of the county's Democratic party snatched away power from the then-Democratic party chair, Assemblymember Jose Rivera, installing Assemblymember Carl Heastie as his replacement.

Rivera had held the reins of the Democratic Party in the Bronx since 2002, but it was not until early 2008 that rumblings of change started to emerge. Largely a patronage role, the party chair controls political appointments, many in the courthouse, and is supposed to unify the county's other political leaders.

According to those involved in the political battle, the rebel faction -- the Rainbow Rebellion -- formed as more state and city officials became unsatisfied with Jose Rivera's leadership. Those on the rebel side allege Jose was distributing political appointments and funding unfairly. They charged that he allocated patronage positions to those close to him and his family.

"It always appeared to people like it was Jose and (Councilmember) Maria Baez and a small clique, and that didn't sit well with a lot of people," said Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz of Riverdale, who helped orchestrate the Rainbow Rebellion. "I think that's how he managed to alienate a lot of my colleagues."

Things finally came to a head at the county organization's annual meeting last fall when the Rainbow Rebellion managed to oust Rivera and elect Heastie as the new Democratic chair. The legitimacy of those proceedings went to court, where Justice Robert Seewald found in favor of the rebels. The Riveras appealed the decision in January, but according to Assemblymember Peter Rivera, who is not related to Jose but is a close ally, they are considering dropping it. (Most familiar with Bronx politics believe the Riveras would have little chance of getting the courts to overturn the rebels' takeover.)

Explanations abound as to why there was a dramatic shift of leadership last fall: race, power, development projects, nepotism, patronage (it sounds like a political science course on New York City government, doesn't it?).

"It was a perfect storm," said Peter Rivera. "The stars were misaligned for [Jose Rivera], if you want to quote 'Romeo and Juliet.'"

Those close to Rivera say his leadership was hands off and power and ego -- conveniently close to a citywide election -- drove the rebellion.

"County organizations are very difficult, because every elected (official) has his own ego, his own motives, his own list of people he wants to hurt," said Mike Nieves, a Bronx political insider. "You have all these guys starting to grab for their piece. The Diazes wanted something. You get Carl Heastie wanting something... Enemies coalesce."

In addition to political patronage, others close to Bronx politics see race and ethnicity factoring into the party's divide. Anecdotally, Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant, said the decline in the Puerto Rican population and the increase in the black population in the borough was the reason for the coup d'Ă©tat.

"The organization may not be about power anymore," said Sheinkopf. "It may be about demographics."

Jose Rivera, left, and son Joel.

The Riveras are Puerto Rican. Heastie is black. Heastie did not return repeated phone calls requesting an interview. According to the 2000 census, the borough is about 49 percent Hispanic and 36 percent black.

Moving Forward

Enter Assemblymember Ruben Diaz Jr., who is aligned with the rebels, and City Council Majority Leader Joel Rivera, who is Jose's son and had planned on running for borough president since at least 2007.

Many expected they would compete for borough president and present a classic political power struggle -- the quintessential family feud (minus the buzzers and nametags) of Rivera versus Diaz. That race, insiders say, would have solidified the newly minted leadership or given the Riveras an edge to grab back their position as the Bronx Democratic leaders.

But just six weeks ago, Joel dropped out of the race, leaving Diaz as the only Democratic candidate in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 10 to one.

To Diaz and those close to him, the rebellion is over. The rainbow title -- which stood for racial and ethnic unity and diversity -- needs to be tossed aside. Now, the faction is simply the Bronx Democratic County leadership.

Despite a lack of competition in his current bid for borough president, Diaz says he is still wearing out shoe leather.

"Regardless of who is on the ballot I'm still out here at train stations," said the assemblymember outside of the Fordham Road stop. Dressed in a charcoal tweed coat on an exceptionally cold spring evening, Diaz addressed most passersby with his call (alternating English and Spanish) to the voting booth on April 21. A handful of residents approached him, recognizing his face from the streets. "We still have a phone banking operation," Diaz tells me. "I'm doing mailings. We are getting our message out there. We are running the campaign the same way we designed it six months ago."

Well, not entirely. Diaz has declined to take public matching funds, arguing the race is less than "competitive," which is true. He has raised $406,662 and spent $302,437, according to the latest campaign finance filings. Anthony Ribustello, Diaz's G.O.P. opponent, has only raised $5,170 for the race and has spent $4,428.

Diaz has spent most of last month in Albany, debating the state budget (his likely last duty as district 85's representative). If Joel Rivera had run, you can imagine some of that time would have been spent on Jerome Avenue.

"In a sense," said his ally, Dinowitz, "I think Ruben won this election months ago."

Diaz still has a platform. He calls it: "Jobs, jobs, jobs." As the poorest borough in New York City, the Bronx has often been slighted by a lack of resources and opportunity. Though Diaz admits that the post of borough president does not have a lot of influence, he still wants to encourage development and job opportunity by working with developers and through his own capital funding. He is as supportive of creating economic opportunity in the borough as he is of the Yankees -- he chants dismissively at those who pass by wearing Mets gear. Possibly to muster up support for the team, Diaz even suggested reduced ticket prices for those who live in the county.

He wants to create job training programs and affordable housing. Making the Bronx greener and reducing the borough's asthma rate, which is the highest in the city, has also made his to do list.

"I am going to be selfish," Diaz said. "It's going to be all about the Bronx, the Bronx, the Bronx."

The Rivera Crew

A tad farther east, Councilmember Joel Rivera strolls down Southern Boulevard touting his accomplishments as if he were a candidate.

The truth is, he is -- except he is running for re-election to the City Council's 15th district. Rivera says he changed his plans a day before he was expected to announce his candidacy for borough president, because he had already frozen his campaign finance account for his run -- at the time he didn't know whether Carrion would be sent to Washington -- and he wanted to "put politics aside."

Rivera argues that he would have had to start over fresh with a new campaign account if he had put in his hat. According to the Campaign Finance Board, that is not entirely true. While the board would have had to give the OK to Rivera to open his old account, there is no reason to think it would have said no. The city's new "doing business" rules, which cap contributions from city contractors, would not have applied retroactively, leaving much of his account intact. He would have had to comply with the special election caps, which are half of the normal contribution limits. Of the $207,451 Joel had raised for the race, he would have had to return $13,425 to run in next week's special election.

Joel says it's not like he thinks he couldn't have beaten Diaz. He argues it would have been a "coin toss" on who would have gotten the borough president title. "We could have won," Joel said. "We could have raised the money, but we would have inherited a splintered borough."

Now that he has abandoned that bid, he turns to a re-election run considerably more challenging than expected. The councilmember faces a well-financed challenger, Radame Perez, who actually used to fundraise for the Riveras. Perez has already raised nearly $156,000 for his campaign -- a sum that should easily cover the run. Despite that funding, Rivera contends he will win his seat for another four years.

Joel's new council campaign account has a little more than $500, according to the latest finance filings. Because his district overlaps with Peter Rivera's, his sister's (Assemblymember Naomi Rivera) and his father's assembly district, Joel says he already has an advantage come September's Democratic primary.

"You would really have to outmaneuver me in my neighborhood," Rivera said in his district office last week. "This district has voted for Riveras for 30 years."

Others aligned with the Riveras may be more vulnerable than Joel. Councilmember Maria Baez, a close ally to the family, has already conjured up six challengers, according to the Campaign Finance Board. Baez says she is running on her record and expects an endorsement from the county because of it.

Others beg to differ.

"I personally believe that the world would be a better place if there was a new councilmember in the 14th district," said Dinowitz, who shares part of his district with Baez. Adding that he was only speaking for himself, Dinowitz said the new county leadership would set up a formal process to hand out endorsements. All of the other council members have aligned with the new leadership.

Unity in the Bronx?

A comeback, those close to the Riveras say, can't be ruled out. They could be taking aim at district leader seats this fall in hopes of winning back a majority of the 24 in the county, which could allow them to reclaim the chairmanship.

False hope or clinging to nostalgia -- one can never tell.

At a recent gathering of his district's Democratic club, Peter Rivera refused to even refer to the newly minted leadership as the county leaders. To him, they are still the rebels.

"A lot of people will be watching," said Peter. "I think the future -- the political future of Bronx County -- will be determined in the next months."

The longer the dispute -- which some say is already over -- continues, the greater chance the Bronx will be balkanized, others argue. Fewer resources will gravitate to the city's poorest borough if officials only expect political infighting, say those aligned with the rebels.

"I look forward to a new day of unity in the Bronx," said Councilmember Helen Foster, who bowed out of the borough president's race at Heastie's urging. "The longer this drags, the longer Assemblyman (Jose) Rivera keeps this going on, it just does more damage to the borough and the people we are supposed to be representing."

Others hope that call for unity will hold.

As the wind picked up along Fordham Road last week, Diaz and his staff braced for another hour of handshakes and handing out palm cards.

A man who exited the train station approached Diaz. He asked, "You Puerto Rican?" Diaz replied in the affirmative. "I'm Puerto Rican too," the man answered. Striking the familiar campaign message, Diaz replied, "But I want to be everyone's borough president."

We will see if that resonates.

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