The most important, yet simultaneously forbidding, campaign stories are always about money.
Indeed, financing issues are already shaping the next great election in New York—the mayoral contest of 2005—yet the media are giving them scant attention. While all the Bloomberg campaign has to do is deposit the next $37 million personal check from the candidate, the Democrats challenging him must sink knee-deep into the inevitable scrum of tapping donors who have a business stake in city decisions. Before Bloomberg, this kind of turnstile contribution was at the heart of repeated city scandals, since cash bribes have long been just so passé. When Bloomberg is gone, however, and even now with other city officials, it still makes sense for reporters and the public to follow the money, matching quids with quos.
Take Gifford Miller, for example. Monday night, the City Council Speaker, second only to the mayor in municipal power, threw a fundraiser at the Ritz-Carlton at Battery Park. The invitation to the chow-less affair omitted the usual names of finance committee honchos, and no seating list of ticket buyers (paying from $250 to $2,000) was available. Asked if he had a finance committee, Miller at first said yes. When pressed to release the names, he claimed he had “no formal such group.” His explanation was that committee members might be “threatened” by the Bloomberg administration if their identities were known, adding that “certain people would rather not put their name on an invitation.” That rationale suggests just how many of this “informal” committee might have business with the city, despite Miller’s insistence that only “a small piece of my overall fundraising” depends on vendors et al.
Miller does file a list of what are called intermediaries with the city’s Campaign Finance Board (CFB). They solicit contributions, not as professional fundraisers on the payroll, but as citizens and, frequently, members of a campaign’s finance committee. Miller conceded in a Voice interview that many of his so-called “bundlers” are lobbyists who represent clients with matters before his office. In fact, more than any other current city official, Miller’s intermediary list reads like a roster of whisperers and buttonholers, an army of governmental go-betweens.
Lobbyists and lobbying firms like Suri Kasirer, Joni Yoswein, Geto & DeMilly, Richard Lipsky, Robert Dryfoos, Steve Rubenstein, Graubard Miller, Kantor Davidoff, Ungar Associates, Greenberg Traurig, and Bob Bookman combined to raise $174,000 for Miller by July, the last time he had to disclose his intermediaries. Kasirer, for example, earned $85,000 so far this year from a wireless company to lobby the council, while a major developer, Related Companies, paid Yoswein $45,000 to pitch Miller on behalf of one of its Manhattan projects. Registered lobbyists accounted for 11 of Miller’s 27 intermediaries, and they reported earning $6.3 million in lobbying fees in 2003, often for cajoling the council.
Miller is hardly the only Bloomberg opponent overreliant on lobbyists. William Wachtel is a six-figure campaign collector for Freddy Ferrer, who owes his job at the Drum Major Institute to Wachtel, the organization’s founder and landlord. Wachtel has already filed for a half-million in lobbying fees through September 2004, including such clients as Ikea and Related Companies.
Remarkably, Rudy Giuliani, of all people, tried to do something about the deluge of self-serving donations from city vendors. He did it in 1998—coincidentally, one year after his mandatory final run for city office. Up to then, Mr. Clean was himself so awash in vendor donations that the CFB had to level its second-largest fine in history against him for grossly exceeding contribution limits, mostly from corporate affiliates feasting at his public trough. Giuliani’s charter revision commission put a referendum on the ballot, which passed overwhelmingly, requiring the CFB to develop new procedures on the “disclosure and regulation of contributions by those doing business” with the city. CFB chair Reverend Joseph O’Hare and executive director Nicole Gordon—two of the modern-day heroes of NY reform—tried to come up with a new regulatory system in 1999, but could not. Until now, this vital advance, mandated by the voters, has receded from view.
Strangely enough, none other than Mike Bloomberg, whose self-financed campaigns are crass end-runs around the expenditure limitations of the CFB’s voluntary system, is pushing an idea that could make it even more of a national model. He’s pressing the CFB or the City Council to set $250 limitations on donations from people dealing with the city. Since he disdains donations, this revolution in campaign finance won’t affect the king, only those who seek his crown. To Bloomberg, this proposition offers the added advantage of distracting attention from his own wholesale disregard of decent campaign finance. As impure as his plausible motive might be, and as flawed as the versions of his initial plan are, Bloomberg is again reaching outside the box for a transformation of city politics that will, if tried, be appreciated long after he is back to being a billionaire.
The CFB, led now by Gordon and new chair Fritz Schwarz, wrote the council a letter early this month laying out the reasons why it should legislate this new regulatory system, as opposed to the CFB imposing one. Every sentence in the letter was simultaneously on and off the mark. Of course, as the CFB contended, the council could better require those who do business with the city to disclose and restrict their donations, rather than require candidates to disclose and restrict donors. But how likely is Miller to do that, even while he moves from schmoozing session to schmoozing session with them? Even if Miller were willing—on the presumption that the effective date of the change would be after he’d dunned his last city-dealing donor—what chance is there that councilmembers who knock on the same donor doors would tie their own hands? Zippo.
The council is going through the motions this week of holding hearings on a mayor’s bill that could only get one council sponsor. Miller told the Voice he’d look at a “responsible” alternative to the mayor’s proposition, which is so garbled it actually restricts homeowners who get a variance from the city. But councilmembers, over Miller’s self-described objections, stripped from a reform bill passed in October any attempt to restrain their own greedy grabs for maximum CFB matching funds even when they have the most nominal opposition. The only way to get rid of the incest in campaign finance is to get out of the bed where it happens—in this case, the council. The mayor and CFB are, for just this moment, potential joint agents of change, uncontaminated by the corrosive power of pay-to-play politics.
The problem is they don’t trust each other. Bloomberg’s assault months ago on Schwarz as some remote half-cousin of Miller’s was disgusting; the mayor appointed Schwarz chair because he is a city saint. Likewise, the CFB’s sabotage of the mayor’s referendum on nonpartisan elections in 2003 was troubling. Bloomberg’s recent attacks on the CFB’s puny attempt to increase the bonus in public funds for candidates like Miller who face the all-time sugar daddy of city campaign largesse are hypocritical. The CFB’s disdain for a “good-government mayor” not bound by good-government rules of campaign finance is understandable, but it also undercuts the ability to achieve a reform Schwarz has cherished since he was corporation counsel in the mid ’80s, engulfed by the city’s worst modern scandals.
Since the creation of the CFB in 1988, spurred by that scandal, there has not been a greater opportunity for grand reform. Schwarz’s boss, Ed Koch, and Miller’s predecessor, Peter Vallone, created the CFB to distract from—and transcend—their own sordid circumstances (both were unveiled as handmaidens of corrupt Democratic Party leaders). Now it is among their greatest public legacies. With help again from Schwarz and Gordon, this could be one of Bloomberg’s.
Research assistance: Eric Cantor, Deborah S. Esquenazi, Emily Keller, Eric Magnuson, and Daniel Ten Kate