A tale of two Bill de Blasios

May 4, 2016

Don Lash reports on the scandals swirling around New York City's mayor, and their implications for the hopes many once had that he would be a transformative Democrat.

IT WAS only three years ago that Bill de Blasio was being celebrated as the great progressive hope for shifting the Democratic Party leftward.

Today, the embattled New York City mayor finds himself at the center of two separate criminal investigations related to fundraising scandals that have further exposed him as a typical politician.

When de Blasio came out of nowhere to win the 2013 mayoral election on the strength of his populist "Tale of Two Cities" campaign theme, his victory was hailed by liberals like Peter Beinart as "The Rise of the New New Left." "Bill de Blasio's mayoral campaign offers a glimpse into what an Occupy-inspired challenge to Clintonism might look like," Beinart wrote. "The right presidential candidate, following de Blasio's model, could seriously challenge Hillary Clinton."

Beinart's prediction was proven true by Bernie Sanders, but those who are hoping that Sanders can, in turn, provide a model for future campaigns inside the Democratic Party might want to take a look at New York City to see what it looks like to have the "new New Left" in office.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio

In contrast to his progressive rhetoric on the campaign trail about addressing income and housing inequality, ending abusive "stop-and-frisk" police practices and restoring the city's commitment to its public schools, de Blasio set up opaque relationships with big-money donors and quickly retreated from campaign pledges as soon as he encountered resistance.

In his first two years in office, de Blasio got city unions to accept major health care concessions in return for meager back pay on outstanding contracts; rehired as police chief William Bratton, the architect of "Broken Windows" overpolicing in Black and Brown neighborhoods; and pushed an "affordable housing" plan loaded with goodies for real estate developers.

When de Blasio's lip service in support of Black Lives Matter protesters enraged the police and right-wing tabloids, he retreated and requested that Black Lives Matter protesters end their protests and stay off the streets.

When his proposal for a tax on the richest New Yorkers to fund universal pre-K was thwarted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who opted to fund pre-K without the tax, de Blasio declared victory and went home, abandoning the tax proposal and rarely if ever mentioning it again.

When he briefly tried to limit the practice of "co-locating" charter schools in public schools--in other words, displacing public school students--the legislature and governor slapped him down with a bill requiring the city to subsidize the rent of charter schools if it doesn't offer them free space, and de Blasio stopped talking about charter schools.

And far from offering a challenge to Clintonism, de Blasio ended up endorsing Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential race.

In summary, de Blasio has been a conventional Democrat, measuring his administration's success less by the state of inequality in the city than by his status with donors and his electoral chances in 2017--which are looking a lot dimmer in wake of his fundraising scandals.

ONE SCANDAL is related to fundraising during and after de Blasio's 2013 mayoral campaign.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance are looking into de Blasio's use of an animal rights group that seeks to ban horse and carriage rides, New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets (NYCLASS), to funnel contributions from individuals who would otherwise be barred by rules banning lobbyists and those doing business with the city from contributing to candidates.

Others contributed amounts to NYCLASS that were larger than the individual limit for direct contributions to candidates. All these individuals could give money to NYCLASS, which could then pass it on to de Blasio's campaign or to an "independent expenditure group" established by de Blasio's supporters.

At least one union also used NYCLASS to conceal a contribution. UNITE HERE, which primarily represents hospitality workers, contributed a total of $225,000 to the anti-horse carriage group.

Days later, NYCLASS gave the same amount to New York Is Not for Sale, an independent expenditure group created to run attack ads against Christine Quinn, one of de Blasio's opponents. UNITE HERE, which was headed at the time by de Blasio's first cousin John Wilhelm, did not have to disclose the contribution, and it remained secret until after de Blasio won the Democratic primary.

After winning the election, de Blasio set up the Campaign for One New York, another independent expenditure group, to promote his priorities, including universal pre-K and a housing plan.

Real estate developers have given heavily to the group, while seeking and getting favorable decisions from city government. One developer was championing a streetcar line running past his luxury condo project in Brooklyn. He donated $250,000 to the Campaign for One New York. De Blasio included the streetcar line in his transportation plan.

The other investigation resulted from a criminal referral to Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance by the New York State Board of Elections, following an unusual and aggressive fundraising effort by the New York City mayor to pour money into three state Senate races in upstate New York, in the hopes of winning a Democratic majority.

Donations to individual candidates are capped at $10,300, but each donor can give 10 times as much to county political committees. De Blasio and his top aides solicited massive donations from real estate developers, corporate executives and unions to the county committees, and then directed how it would then be directed to specific candidates.

Billionaire John Catsimatidis, who owns real estate and a chain of supermarkets in New York City, gave $50,000 to the Putnam County Democratic Committee after the mayor personally requested that he do so.

Catsimatidis has no stores in Putnam and is a Republican who actually ran unsuccessfully for mayor in the same election that de Blasio won. Yet he contributed $50,000 to Democrats in Ulster County when the mayor asked him to show that he is a "team player," according to the New York Daily News.

THE FUNDRAISING scandal is the latest shady farce involving Democrats and the New York state Senate. It's a history that should give pause to those leftists who want to pursue the strategy of reforming the Democrats from within.

Democrats have long controlled the state Assembly and Republicans the state Senate. Activists, unions and liberal interest groups have been battling for years to win the Senate for the Democrats, raising money and turning out voters on the promise that a solidly Democratic legislature would pull the governor to the left and enact a progressive agenda.

In 1999, Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, currently awaiting sentencing after a conviction for racketeering, engineered the repeal of a commuter tax to benefit New York City in the mistaken belief that key suburban districts would vote Democratic the following year and give control of the Senate to the Democrats. It didn't work, and residents of the city have been paying for city services consumed by commuters from the wealthy suburbs ever since.

Democrats actually won a majority in 2008, only to have two Democratic senators sell the Senate back to the Republicans by agreeing to caucus with the Republicans in exchange for leadership positions. (One is now in prison for looting a community health care center, and the other lost his seat after being convicted of a domestic violence offense.)

In 2012, the Democrats again won a majority, only to have a group of four "independent Democrats" again sell the Senate back to the Republicans. The Democrats lost seats in 2014, and failed to win any of the races into which de Blasio pumped money.

After a Democratic win in a 2016 special election following the former Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos' conviction for extortion, a majority of senators are again nominally Democrats, but they have no prospect of running the Senate.

So Democrats are still trying to mobilize the base to capture "a majority"--which in New York vernacular means a Democratic caucus too big to be overcome even by the seemingly inevitable band of corrupt Democrats willing to sell out the party for patronage.

De Blasio hasn't denied any of the factual allegations at the heart of the investigations, but has said that everything he did was "legal and appropriate."

The mayor justifies his potentially criminal fundraising for upstate Senate races by arguing that a Democratic Senate was key to getting his agenda passed for the people of the city--despite the dismal record of Democrats in the Senate.

PERHAPS DE Blasio was too dependent for advice on professional political consultants and operatives, the same people who profit from the war chests filled with bundled and secret contributions.

On the other hand, it may be that de Blasio's offensive against upstate Republicans was really directed against Cuomo. The Democratic governor has done nothing to help the state Senate Democrats in their perpetual quest for an unsellable majority, and Democrats believe he is more comfortable with the current situation of divided rule in the legislature.

For generations, all decisions of any consequence in the state capital have been made by "three men in a room"--an outdated but biologically accurate term.

Rank-and-file legislators have no real power over budgets and significant legislation, but simply wait for deals to be reached between the governor--of whatever party--and the Republican Senate Majority Leader and Democratic Assembly Speaker. Governors come and go, and Speakers and Majority Leaders go to jail with embarrassing frequency, but the dynamic of the three men in a room continues.

Governors occupy the middle ground, which generally corresponds to their agenda. Cuomo has seemed to enjoy this position and probably doesn't relish the prospect of battling for control with Democrats in command of both houses in the legislature.

De Blasio may have been trying to build a base in the Democratic Party outside New York City as a fundraising powerhouse as the best way to challenge Cuomo. Predictably, Cuomo is reportedly angling to profit from de Blasio's current sorrows by courting potential challengers to unseat de Blasio in 2017.

NEW YORK is not unique in having laws and a political culture that tolerate massive corruption, and de Blasio is neither better nor worse in this regard than his predecessors, or any successor looming on the horizon. But what these scandals should do is put to rest any notion that de Blasio ever had the potential to transform the Democratic Party, as many of his supporters had hoped.

His real achievement was to create a dynamic campaign that seized a moment created by struggle and protest by Occupy Wall Street and the movement against police "stop and frisks," and use it to energize voters.

He never had any intention of helping to build and sustain those movements against the opposition of big-money interests because the Democratic Party is dependent on those interests for money exchanged for influence and favors.

As the supermarket billionaire Catsamitidis made clear, de Blasio and the big money people are on the same team, not because they are members of the same political party or share the same positions on issues, but because they share a common understanding that money is central to achieving success with a political agenda, whether that is getting favors from the administration or obtaining leverage with the state legislature.

The measure of success for movements on the left cannot be their ability to change the climate so that progressive politicians can step in to transform the Democratic Party.

Bill de Blasio provides an object lesson--one among many--on the need to build and sustain movements outside of the Democratic Party--and eventually to create a truly working-class party to defeat the big money interests that do business with both the Republicans and Democrats.

Further Reading

From the archives