Before ex-elections board chief George Gonzalez became the poster child for this city’s electoral dysfunction, he was the heavy favorite in Mike Bloomberg’s City Hall.
Yes, sad to say, “George of the Bungle” — in the Daily News‘ indelible phrase — was once Rosemary’s Baby, the spawn of a devilish pact between Bloomberg’s first-term political team and that bad boy Democratic lawyer/fixer from the Bronx, Stanley Schlein, who at the time was tight with Bloomberg’s top political aides.
Yes, I know this is a head-swiveling moment worthy of The Exorcist for those earnest editorial writers who have spent all week — egged on by Team Bloomberg — rightly condemning the board for a steady series of blunders.
And yes, this is the same mayor who this week declared that, under Gonzalez’s rule, the city’s Board of Elections had become “an agency run amok” headed by “the remnants of Tammany Hall.”
But several irreproachably excellent sources confirm that if not for Bloomberg, Gonzalez wouldn’t have been heading the show in the first place.
None of this is exactly ancient history, either. It goes like this: In early 2003, after longtime board chief Danny DeFrancesco stepped down, Bloomberg’s crew initially wanted Gonzalez, a Bronx Democrat, to head the agency. They only backed down after Manhattan GOP chairman John Ravitz said he wouldn’t mind having the job himself, but he’d be willing to take Gonzalez as his $102,000 a year deputy.
At the time, most Democrats on the board were pushing for Pam Perkins, wife of now state senator Bill Perkins, for the number two post. Perkins was considered competent and savvy. Even more urgently, they were desperate to keep Gonzalez from getting the deputy slot, since everyone knew he didn’t have the chops for the job.
Gonzalez’s greatest expertise was driving DeFrancesco around town. His routine clerical chores back then included keeping minutes of board meetings. He had a hard time at this because he often missed the meetings altogether. At one point Gonzalez was fired, and then rehired, because of DeFrancesco’s affection for him.
In fact, just a few weeks before his promotion in 2003, Gonzalez was the subject of a rare memo sent by other top board officials to the commissioners complaining that Gonzalez was simply refusing to do his job. He would have been fired all over again, but DeFrancesco bailed him out one last time, these old election hands say. DeFrancesco also let it be known that he’d like Gonzalez to succeed him in his job. Several commissioners had a hard time taking that idea seriously. “The Democratic caucus regarded it as a joke,” said one former member.
The architect of Gonzalez’s promotion was Schlein, a charming and perennially troubled lawyer who has been helping make the big decisions for the Bronx Democratic Party for decades. The general consensus was that Schlein wanted George in the job for a simple reason: He did what Stanley asked him to do. One of the most important favors performed by Gonzalez for Schlein and others was to feed them early election returns. In a politically astute move, Gonzalez made sure that his friends at City Hall got the numbers first.
Even a top Republican with longtime dealings with the board confirms it: “Gonzalez was the inside guy,” he says. “He was always protected. He was the mole for the mayor. Whenever I got returns I’d say, ‘Where’d you get this?’ The answer was always ‘Gonzalez.'”
When it came time for the board to choose the deputy director in late January 2003, top Bloomberg aide Vincent LaPadula worked the phones on his behalf from City Hall, calling all the Democratic county leaders to push them to support Gonzalez. Schlein got his then-friend and client, Bronx Democratic leader Jose Rivera, to make the deal with the Republicans. Queens Democrats, then in the midst of several negotiations with the Bloomberg administration, also came on board. On the day of the vote, several Democrats from the other boroughs (the board has ten members — one Dem and one Republican from each borough) boycotted the meeting. They didn’t want to have their names on a resolution appointing someone they figured would be a disaster in an important post.
Just to bring things up to date, Schlein’s City Hall ties diminished somewhat after a 2008 report by the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board found that he was using his Bloomberg-appointment as part-time chairman of Civil Service Commission as his personal law office.
LaPadula also was finally shown the door, months after Voice reports that he had travelled the country on the city’s nickel with his since-convicted Giuliani administration pal, Russell Harding.
As for Gonzalez, his claims to fame in the intervening years included putting his sister’s boyfriend on the payroll as a driver, even though he lacked a license at the time. He was also photographed swigging beers at an upstate election board retreat by the News which also caught him running up big bills by ordering pizzas from Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn.
Other than that, some board members actually came to believe he was showing a slow upwards learning curve, although not nearly fast enough to handle the complex ballot booth changes and other issues facing voters this year.
No matter. When the $172,000 executive director job became available again this summer, Gonzalez slid right in. He did so with the backing of current Bronx Democratic leader Carl Heastie, who, in his organization’s great tradition, is taking his political advice from Schlein.
Maybe it’s a coincidence, but the final bungle that brought Gonzalez down this week was his personal hands-on design of the ballot for the special council election in south Queens in such a way that it benefitted a candidate, Nicole Paultre-Bell, who happens to be a Schlein client.
Gonzalez himself, however, should probably be thankful that he got canned this week. The way the bad stories and editorials were starting to pile up, the next thing you know someone would have been accusing him of having “6-6-6” tattooed in big numbers on his torso and posting the photo of it on one of those silly social web pages.
Oh, and we now have Dawn Sandow, Republican of the Bronx running things at the board, at least temporarily. For those interested in her fascinating resume, some details can be found here. Although if she sticks around, there will no doubt be more to come. Maybe even enough for another horror movie ref.
In the meantime, good government groups have recognized that this crisis is also an opportunity and are calling on the board to actually recruit a director with some knowledge and expertise who is not just a hack. Even Mike Bloomberg now thinks that’s a good idea, now that he’s seen what happened after his last demon seed took over.