Ever since Michael Bloomberg won a squeaker of an election, thanks in large part to having his name on an extra ballot line that didn’t read “Republican,” the mayor has had an open-door policy at City Hall for the controversial leaders of the Independence Party.
Bloomberg had the party’s ballot line in the 2001 race, a priceless gift for a political novice running on the GOP ticket in an overwhelmingly Democratic town. Like other political bosses, the Independence Party leaders have since come calling to collect on the debt. But instead of the standard requests—favors and jobs—the party’s officials want something that could be even more costly to the city: They want respect.
The doors at Bloomberg’s City Hall first opened, lobbying records and interviews reveal, a few months after the new mayor took office, when the party’s two key figures were granted a high-level sit-down. At that April 2002 meeting were Fred Newman, a psychotherapist and alleged cult leader who is the party’s main strategist, and Lenora Fulani, a party leader whose comments have been repeatedly denounced as anti-Semitic. They explained to Bloomberg deputy mayor Dennis Walcott and communications director Bill Cunningham that they wanted the administration to take advantage of what they said was their expertise in developmental education efforts. Specifically, they urged that the mayor place after-school programs on his education agenda.
A month later, a Bloomberg panel agreed to provide tax-free status for $8.35 million in bonds that were sold to build a new headquarters for a nonprofit organization controlled by Newman and Fulani that provides after-school activities and theater productions.
Since then, records show, Fulani and other Newman associates have met several times with top City Hall officials, including schools chancellor Joel Klein, to press their agenda. A spokesman for Klein said the meeting was a favor to a former law professor and that nothing came of it. But last year, Fulani took Bloomberg special adviser Ester Fuchs, who is heading an administration task force on after-school programs, on a tour of the new headquarters of the All Stars Project on West 42nd Street, the facility that was purchased and built with proceeds from the tax-free bonds.
Reports filed by James Capalino, a lobbyist for the All Stars Project, show that, in addition to numerous meetings with City Council members, Fulani et al. have met with Fuchs at least four times in the past year. Fuchs said she was “impressed” with All Stars, but could only recall two meetings with Fulani, including the 42nd Street tour. “I met with a huge number of providers,” she said.
However many times they met, All Stars representatives say that they presented Fuchs with their arguments about why the group should be added to a list of contractors receiving city funds to provide after-school functions. When a citywide request for proposals was issued this year, All Stars applied. The contracts, part of a massive multimillion-dollar reorganization of the city’s after-school efforts, are due to be awarded in September by the Department of Youth and Community Development, which is evaluating the applications.
It is the first time, All Stars officials said, that the group, which was formed in 1981 and has an annual budget of $5 million, has applied for government funding. And while All Stars officials refused to say how much they’re seeking in the contract, they said the money was beside the point. Gabrielle Kurlander, the $200,000-a-year president of All Stars, said what her group wants is a place at the table as city education policies are formulated, as well as validation of its efforts.
“We don’t need the funding,” said Kurlander. “It will probably cost us [more] money to run the program, frankly.”
A contract with the city, Kurlander said, would demonstrate to others the worthiness of All Stars’ programs. “It would be part of the city recognizing that this is an important new model for development that has been pioneered over 20 years when it was privately funded, and now it is one of the best approaches,” she said. “It would be the city validating all of our work in this field.”
For some, that’s a chilling prospect.
“Someone should really question whether public money should go to support them,” said Joel Levy, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, which has long criticized Newman and Fulani for alleged anti-Semitism.
The ADL blasted the group anew in 2004 after All Stars opened its new Castillo Theatre on 42nd Street with a play co-written by Newman depicting the causes of the 1991 Crown Heights riots. The play, Levy said, badly mischaracterized events. “These kids become unwitting vehicles for Fred Newman’s distortion of history,” he said.
Despite those criticisms, last month, Bloomberg wrapped himself even tighter in the Independence Party banner, agreeing to be its candidate for re-election. The extra ballot line is intended as a fallback position for all those pro-Mike Democrats who might otherwise balk at pulling the lever for the party of George W. Bush and Tom DeLay. But it remains a politically risky venture, one made all the more so after Fulani’s recent public refusal to back away from remarks she made in the 1980s that Jews “had to sell their souls to acquire Israel,” and “function as mass murderers.”
Bloomberg eventually denounced her comments as “despicable.” Since then, he and Cunningham, who now works for the campaign, have fended off critics by claiming that Fulani is just one of the party’s 90,000 members and by pointing out that George Pataki, Charles Schumer, Eliot Spitzer, and even two of Bloomberg’s Democratic mayoral rivals have all made the same devil’s pact he is now charged with, accepting the Independence line as a kind of political insurance policy.
But as the All Star Project’s ambitious City Hall lobbying efforts show, it’s a lot more complicated than that for the mayor.
Bloomberg is only the most recent in a long series of political partners for Newman, who has danced over the past three decades with, among others, the paranoid Lyndon LaRouche, Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, Black Muslim zealot Louis Farrakhan, and archconservative Pat Buchanan.
In fact, the alleged anti-Semitic remarks that got Fulani in trouble recently stem from the days when she and Newman were still touting the likes of Farrakhan and Qaddafi. (Fulani even visited Libya in 1987 to protest American attacks; a year later, 270 people died when Pan Am 103 exploded over Scotland, a terrorist act now known to have been carried out by Libyan agents.)
But the more enduring strain of criticism aimed at Newman over the years comes from a different, even spookier direction. That rap holds that ever since Newman started out on the Upper West Side in the 1970s with a handful of ardent supporters, he has used a homemade brand of psychotherapy to pull vulnerable people into his orbit and eventual cult-like control.
Newman calls his approach “social therapy,” a creed that links personal advancement to activism. Former adherents have long claimed that participants in Newman’s therapy are often urged to take part in his other endeavors, ranging from All Stars to the Independence Party. The therapy practice, dissidents say, provides both a steady income stream and a fruitful recruiting base.
Kurlander, a former actress who lives with Newman and other organization members in a Greenwich Village townhouse, denied the cult allegations but acknowledged that the All Stars Project is closely based on Newman’s theories.
“We do use the social therapeutic approach,” she said. “Dr. Newman, who is the co-founder of All Stars and our artistic director, is the creator of that approach and has trained our staff in it. It is hugely successful, and tens of thousands of young people have benefited from it.”
Asked if she’d ever discussed the All Stars approach with Bloomberg, Kurlander said she’d “chatted with him informally” at a recent All Stars fundraiser at Lincoln Center. “He is extremely involved in education and obviously a very philanthropic man,” she said. Had she ever hit the mayor up for a contribution? “Not yet,” she said.