Gotham Gazette

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Board of Elections Dysfunction on Display Again Ahead of Hearing

borelli council hearing

Council Member Joe Borelli (photo: William Alatriste)

The dysfunction that has seemed to define the New York City Board of Elections this year was again on display Tuesday when its executive director first declined to testify at an imminent City Council oversight hearing and within hours reversed that decision.

With just two weeks to go before the November 8 general election, the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations scheduled an oversight hearing for Wednesday to gauge the BOE’s preparedness -- something typical of all election cycles. After the board’s abysmal management of voter rolls ahead of the April presidential primary in New York, it was already under pressure to ensure that the general election goes smoothly. Then, the board got pulled into controversy after the recent release of a secretly-recorded video that showed Democratic Manhattan election commissioner Alan Schulkin alleging widespread voter fraud in the city facilitated in part, he said, by the municipal identification program, IDNYC, which has nothing to do with voting.

Following the release of the video, City Council members have been rearing to grill the BOE for answers and it seemed for a few hours on Tuesday that they would be left disappointed. Council Member Joe Borelli, a Staten Island Republican and government operations committee member, had written to the committee’s chair, Council Member Ben Kallos, calling for a hearing on Schulkin’s claims. Kallos, Manhattan Democrat, pointed out that the BOE would be in for a pre-election oversight hearing as usual, and mostly dismissed claims of voter fraud. In the meantime, Mayor Bill de Blasio called for Schilkin to resign and said there is no evidence of voter fraud. Schulkin walked back his claims, somewhat, and said he had no intentions of resigning.

On Tuesday afternoon, Borelli tweeted out the image of a letter in which BOE executive director Michael Ryan declined to testify before the committee.

“Given the timing of the hearing, the notice date and the proximity to the election, unfortunately, it is not possible to cease election day preparations to prepare testimony and appear before the council,” Ryan wrote. The letter pointed out that BOE was given short notice of the hearing, being informed by email on Monday. Ryan also requested that the committee push the hearing to a date after the general election, “preferably after the anticipated election certification date,” which is expected to be November 22.

By 5 p.m., however, Borelli was told by City Council central staff that the BOE had agreed to appear before the committee for its pre-election check-in, as scheduled: Wednesday at 10 a.m. at City Hall.

A BOE spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment and there is no explanation for the flip-flop. “I don’t know if they’re afraid I have some smoking gun, which I don’t,” Borelli told Gotham Gazette when reached by phone. “I just want to know why the commissioner would say those things.”

Borelli pointed out that the hearing has been on the Council’s public calendar for at least a week, but conceded that the BOE may have been given little notice. “I give them the benefit of the doubt,” he said, “because at the end of the day, they agreed to come.” At the hearing, he intends to question the nature of Schulkin’s comments, whether they were true and deserve to be investigated, or whether they were false and warrant Schulkin’s resignation. Council Member Kallos was not available for comment on Tuesday, but will chair Wednesday’s hearing.

Notably, the BOE also cancelled its own weekly meeting that was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. When reached by phone, a spokesperson did not give a reason except to say that the executive committee had made the decision and that the board would meet as scheduled next week on November 1.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Ulrich Starts Raising Funds on Message of Beating De Blasio in 2017

ulrich de blasio 2017

de Blasio, seated, & Ulrich, to his right (photo: Ed Reed, Mayor's Office)

He’s not sure he’ll take the plunge, but City Council Member Eric Ulrich is beginning to raise money and test the waters for a possible 2017 mayoral run. The key motivator for Ulrich, a Queens Republican, is his belief that “Mayor de Blasio is destroying and dividing our beloved city.”

That is how Ulrich is framing a fundraiser he is holding Tuesday evening, adding of Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, “I believe he can be beat in 2017 but I need your help” on the Facebook event page. For the fundraiser, a $1,000 donation puts you on the “dump de Blasio” level.

Ulrich, who calls himself a “moderate Republican,” supported Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the Republican presidential primary and readily talks about working across the aisle. He’s holding Tuesday’s event “to raise some money and have a discussion with my supporters and my friends about running next year,” he said during a Monday interview. “I’m seriously considering a run for Mayor,” he said.

Explaining that he wants to launch a campaign that is both “a referendum on the mayor” and an opportunity to put forward a different vision from current city leadership, Ulrich said he would model himself after former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “bipartisan, independent” approach. Ulrich heaped prasie on Bloomberg during the interview, calling the former mayor “a friend,” and said, “I should hope that I would be half as good as Mike Bloomberg was.”

In that vein, Ulrich said he has met with Howard Wolfson, a top Bloomberg aide, and other Bloomberg administration veterans, and that he plans to meet with Bradley Tusk, Bloomberg’s 2009 campaign manager who has launched an independent effort, “NYC Deserves Better,” to find the right candidate to defeat de Blasio.

While Tusk has declared he’s looking to back a Democrat in 2017 because he thinks the best path to defeat de Blasio is through the primary, Ulrich said he hopes to get him “to change his theory” and explained what he sees as his wide-ranging appeal: he is fiscally conservative, but also pro-choice, pro-marriage equality, pro-labor, and always ready to work with people of all viewpoints and party affiliations, he said.

“I’ve met with Howard Wolfson privately,” Ulrich said of Bloomberg’s top political advisor. “I’m not going to divulge everything we discussed. We talked about next year’s race, and I was very encouraged by the conversation.”

Ulrich represents neighborhoods including Breezy Point, Ozone Park, and Rockaway Beach, and is the chair of the Council’s veterans affairs committee. He said Monday his plan is to bring in several hundred donors and launch a significant fundraising haul with a series of events between now and the next Campaign Finance Board filing in January. Admitting he has hurdles to clear before declaring a run for Mayor and an uphill battle if he does run, Ulrich said he wants to test the waters and, hopefully, take on de Blasio, who is mostly seen as a heavy favorite to win re-election. A key, Ulrich acknowledged, is raising solid early money and showing he can qualify for the city’s public matching funds program.

He’s been meeting with political, civic, business, and faith leaders across the city, Ulrich said, “on my own time” (as opposed to when he’s performing his City Council duties). Democrats, Republicans, and independents included, the 31-year-old Council member said, many of whom are supportive, though interested in what kind of campaign he can begin moving before endorsing him or offering concrete help. Ulrich said he hasn’t hired a political consultancy yet, but has had several show interest.

Ulrich acknowledges the steep challenge for a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, but also believes that a strong enough candidate could convince the city’s Republicans, most of its unaffiliated voters, and some of its Democrats to change course from de Blasio. He predicts a good likelihood of major independent expenditure money flooding the race in order to remove de Blasio from office.

“Some of the people rumored to run for Mayor, both on the Democratic side and the Republican side, have missed the mark,” Ulrich said. “It’s going to be a referendum on de Blasio -- whether or not people want Bill de Blasio to be a one-term mayor. If you like the direction of the for Bill de Blasio. If you want to put the city on a different direction...then you’ve got to vote for somebody else.”

While he said that “The big albatross around the mayor’s neck is the homeless crisis -- this is an issue that he’s failed to address,” Ulrich listed a few specific issues that he thinks the mayor has not performed on, but appears more focus on pointing to something less tangible, but important.

“I think that we’re facing a crisis of confidence,” Ulrich said. “I believe people simply don’t have confidence in the mayor’s ability to do a good job...People just don’t like the guy, and that’s important to being in public office.” Ulrich referenced the investigations into the mayor’s fundraising practices.

Allies of the mayor are quick to point out that Ulrich doesn’t have the resume, gravitas, name recognition, or money that Bloomberg had when he won three citywide elections as a Republican or independent.

Dan Levitan, a spokesperson for de Blasio’s re-election campaign, said in a statement, “Under Mayor de Blasio, 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. We are happy to match that record against anyone.”

Speaking on Monday, Ulrich gave de Blasio credit for his universal pre-kindergarten program, but said state funding made it possible and that he otherwise doesn’t have anything positive to say for the mayor. He pointed to questions around de Blasio’s education agenda, his mismanagement of the city’s Build It Back Sandy recovery program; said there is low morale in the NYPD, and criticized the mayor for “his combative relationship with the press and the governor.”

Ulrich admitted he has big questions to answer, with the fundraising near or at the top. “I’m not going to run to get embarrassed,” he said. “Am I going to give up my seat on the City Council, where I could run for reelection one more I want to give that up to run for Mayor? Only if I really thought there was a path to victory and I could get the support that I needed.”

Most experts believe de Blasio has a very strong chance of winning another term. He is popular among Democrats and has many advantages of incumbency. But, he is much less popular among Republicans and unaffiliated voters, and he is deeply unpopular among white New Yorkers, polls show. One question for any de Blasio general election challenger is whether there are enough votes out there to be captured in a city that is heavily Democratic and increasingly made up of people of color.

According to the state Board of Elections, as of April 1, there were just over 4 million active registered voters in New York City: 2.76 million of them Democrats; 460,000 Republicans; 785,700 unaffiliated; and about 162,000 registered with other parties, like the Independence, Green, Working Families, and Conservative parties.

Short of viability against de Blasio, unknown for Ulrich is what the Republican primary field will look like. Real estate executive Paul Massey has declared a run, and there are other rumored candidates, but it’s not clear what the city and state GOP leadership are doing in terms of cultivating candidates. Ulrich said he’s had some encouraging conversations with county and club leaders; some people have told him he’d give de Blasio “the best fight,” he said.

Ulrich added, “Some of have said, ‘Eric’s a good guy, but we want another rich white guy...a billionaire.’” But, Ulrich said he’s not sure that Bloomberg-like figure is out there -- a strong candidate who can also self-finance. “If we’re tied with CFB funds,” Ulrich said of himself and de Blasio, “I can’t imagine powerful business and civic folks not getting involved” with independent expenditures.

“Eric has a lot of talent,” said City Council Member Joseph Borelli, a Staten Island Republican. “The mayor is unpopular in many parts of the city where Eric’s voice could resonate, but it’s early in the process and there are a number of Republicans who’ve expressed interest, and we should be careful with who we nominate.”

Borelli and Ulrich come from different wings of the GOP -- Borelli has been a major supporter of Donald Trump’s candidacy, while Ulrich has been in the “never Trump” category and backed Kasich. Ulrich has regularly voted for City Council bills that Borelli and the third Republican in the City Council, Minority Leader Steven Matteo, vote against. Still, if Ulrich is the Republican nominee for Mayor in 2017, it’s all-but-certain that Borelli and other Republicans back him. The question is how much money and enthusiasm Ulrich or any Republican nominee for Mayor can attract -- de Blasio’s 2013 opponent, Joe Lhota, was not the beneficiary of a major rallying of the troops. De Blasio won in a landslide.

One place Ulrich could be looking for support is through Tusk and his ambition to unseat de Blasio, who he has called corrupt and incompetent. Asked about the prospect of meeting with and supporting Ulrich, Patrick Muncie, who works at Tusk Strategies and is a spokesperson for NYC Deserves Better, sent Gotham Gazette a statement saying, “While we like and respect Council Member Ulrich, and are happy to meet with him to discuss our shared belief that New Yorkers deserve honest, competent leadership in City Hall, we’re confident the most realistic path [to defeating de Blasio] is through the Democratic primary.”

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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In Communications Move, De Blasio Chooses Campaign Over City Hall

de blasio walzak comms team 2014

De Blasio, center, & Walzak, to the mayor's right (Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office)

There are few people Mayor Bill de Blasio trusts when there is a lot on the line. One of those people, Phil Walzak, has been a top aide to the Democratic mayor since de Blasio’s 2013 campaign, for which Walzak was communications director. This past week, de Blasio’s reelection campaign announced that Walzak is moving from City Hall -- where he had been de Blasio’s press secretary then senior advisor -- to the campaign.

When it comes to a Mayor seeking a second term, there is certainly a lot on the line, and Walzak will be “overseeing the 2017 campaign’s communications planning, and developing and implementing the strategy that will drive the re-election effort,” according to the campaign.

But, the move comes somewhat early in the campaign cycle -- the Democratic primary is 11 months away and no candidate likely to pose a significant threat to the mayor has yet declared a run -- and de Blasio said on Wednesday that he does not plan to replace Walzak at City Hall. This combination of facts shows de Blasio prioritizing the work of his campaign over the work of his government.

Over his nearly three years as Mayor, de Blasio has himself repeatedly cited a need to improve his communication, which has been criticized from in- and out-side government. Walzak is one of three press secretaries and two top strategic advisors de Blasio has employed as he has attempted to find the right approach to both the media and direct outreach to New Yorkers.

Early in his term, de Blasio’s press office was slow and timid, and the mayor was criticized for talking too infrequently to local outlets and to New Yorkers -- he relished national media attention and it took him nearly two years to hold his first town hall as Mayor.

Recently, de Blasio has taken heat around how infrequently he holds press conferences, for limiting the topics during the ones he does hold, for being confrontational with reporters, and for lashing out at the New York Post while refusing to take one of its reporters’ question.

At the end of his second year in office, de Blasio held a December 2015 roundtable with reporters to discuss the first half of his term. During the wide-ranging discussion, at which he took dozens of questions, the only error de Blasio would admit to was in communicating. Promising more town halls and other appearances, de Blasio said he would do better. “I’m not in the business of dwelling on the past,” he said. “I’ve clearly said I need to communicate better and I need to get out to the grassroots more.”

Walzak and other top advisors to the mayor -- some in government, some outside -- have influenced de Blasio’s approach to communications, though the mayor is known for trusting his own instincts and overruling the advice of others. When Gotham Gazette asked de Blasio if Walzak had served him well in light of the mayor’s admitted communications challenges, de Blasio was vehement in the affirmative.

“I absolutely think he served me well, and his role grew over time as you saw,” de Blasio said. “And I am very, very happy that he is going to be leading the charge in terms of our message and our communications on the campaign side because, as you know, our campaign cycle is already happening, obviously, but it will be fully engaged by the people of this city in just a couple of weeks. So we wanted to get him over there and get that work going. Look, I will always try and be better. I take the first responsibility on myself in all things. I think we’ve done a lot of good. I think some of it has gotten through better than others and I’ve got to do better all the time as a communicator and the team has to do better. But, I think Phil did a really fine job.”

Asked if he planned to replace Walzak at City Hall, de Blasio told Gotham Gazette, “Right now, the group we have, I think, is able to continue doing the work well and we’ll stick with the group we have.”

It may be that de Blasio currently feels better about his press office and communications by City Hall -- the office became more organized and responsive to reporters under de Blasio’s second press secretary, Karen Hinton; the communications team has been creating more original content and focusing on social media; and the mayor has been more regularly holding town hall meetings across the city. De Blasio’s current press secretary, Eric Phillips, is the sharpest of the three he’s had, possessing strengths of Walzak and Hinton as well as others.

However, it is not clear why de Blasio feels at such ease moving Walzak to the campaign at this stage and not replacing him -- two follow-up emails to Phillips seeking further explanation of the move were not returned. Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that one reason for the timing of the move was to help dissuade potential challengers from running against de Blasio.

“We are going to take a very aggressive approach and it’s the simplest way to say it,” de Blasio said when a reporter from the Wall Street Journal asked him to outline his campaign strategy. “Phil’s going over there to start the communications engine up strong. And you are going to see a very energetic campaign and a very grassroots approach.”

With Walzak gone from City Hall, it is not immediately clear who will step into the void, if anyone. Walzak is one of few people often involved in the mayor’s biggest decisions and most sensitive matters. He speaks to members of the media, both on and off the record, for de Blasio, including occasional appearances on television and at public forums. De Blasio is in the midst of major governmental strategic and communications efforts, essential to his record: assuring New Yorkers that he is truly reforming the NYPD; convincing elected officials and communities to accept land use rezonings and new development in an effort to build more affordable housing; gaining more support for his education agenda; and more.

De Blasio has other top political and communications aides -- Emma Wolfe, Andrea Hagelgans, Phillips -- and advisors not on the city payroll, including several individuals so close to the mayor that his administration has determined them to be extensions of City Hall, and their communications with the mayor shielded from public disclosure. They include several people who, along with Walzak, helped the mayor win his 2013 campaign, such as former campaign manager Bill Hyers and consultant Jonathan Rosen.

The City’s determination to withhold de Blasio’s communications with those outside advisors, termed “agents of the city” by de Blasio’s former counsel Maya Wiley, is the subject of a lawsuit filed against the City by NY1 and the Post, which sought the mayor’s emails with those ‘agents’ through the Freedom of Information Law.

Gotham Gazette asked the mayor if Walzak would immediately fall under that same category. “It’s a different situation,” de Blasio said on Wednesday in City Hall’s Blue Room. “He is, because he is going to be on a leave from City Hall, obviously in a position to keep communicating with us. We haven’t talked about that specific matter that you’re referring to. What we obviously were dealing with in the past with people I had long, long history with who were very close to me and personal advisors. This is someone who has been an employee at City Hall, now going on leave. We will seek guidance, of course, as to how to handle anything in terms of disclosure, etc.”

As de Blasio approaches the final months of his third year in office and then his reelection year, both his government work and his campaign will be under intense scrutiny, though that is nothing new. “City Hall is a meat-grinder” according to a top strategist who knows de Blasio well and spoke about his communications approach on the condition of anonymity. “The mayor is under immense media pressure, unlike any other mayor,” the strategist said. “The market is different than it’s ever been,” the strategist explained, referencing the competition, social media, and the speed of news cycles.

According to a former de Blasio aide who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, de Blasio’s communications struggles have been acute. “Probably his biggest failure as mayor is how he’s done with getting his own message out,” the former aide said. “From the beginning, there have been so many errors -- how many good press weeks has Bill de Blasio had since he became mayor?”

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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