Monday, October 20, 2008

Coalition of the Willing

"Follow the money," is usually a reliable axiom when you try to unravel any fraudulent or corrupt activity. It's also a good maxim to follow in analyzing political activities, and the resultant policy making that follows. That's why there's always such scrutiny of lobbyists and political donors-with observers scrutinizing relationships for the inevitable quid pro quo. And so it is with the mayor and his effort to overstay his term mandated welcome.

When it comes to Mike Bloomberg, however, a much greater degree of sophistication is needed-and some would say a forensic accountant-to unravel the impact of money on, not only how the term limits debate resolves itself at the city council, but on how the mayor governs and the manner in which his mayoralty is evaluated.

For Mike Bloomberg is not an ordinary elected official, and his vast fortune introduces an entirely different political calculus into the evaluation process; one that is so different that it confuses many observers, weighed down as they are by traditional categories of analysis that are inapplicable to the billionaire mayor. As a result we get the stale observation that Bloomberg isn't beholden to the "special interests."

Now we have gone to great lengths to debunk this pointless observation, here, here, here, here, and here; but Fred Siegal's remark in the Times, that we site in an earlier post, is extremely relevant: “The traditional politicians are bought by special interest groups, but Bloomberg buys special interest groups,” he said." The mayor has reversed the traditional flow of money-but it only means that the task of following it needs to be reversed.

An issue that gets a follow up scrutiny in this morning's NY Times; with numerous elected officials harshly criticizing the mayor's tactics: "Several of New York City’s top political figures on Sunday denounced Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration in unusually harsh terms for asking nonprofit groups to support legislation that would allow Mr. Bloomberg to seek a third term in office."

As usual, the Bloomberg administration remains tone deaf, even while groups that have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from private mayoral funds speak out without letting the folks know that their on the dole: "But none of the leaders disclosed that their groups received money from Mr. Bloomberg. (For example, Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides services for children and families, has accepted more than $500,000 from Mr. Bloomberg since he was elected, and receives millions in city funds.) Jason Post, a spokesman for the mayor, said, “We are building support for our bill, like we do for any other bill the administration introduces, but we are doing it appropriately.”

Which brings us to the Bloomberg Coalition of the Willing that we commented on earlier. Adam Lisberg of the NY Daily News does a good job in his Sunday column of doing the forensic barium enema, underscoring the public funding side of the lobbying effort (The Times piece yesterday hit the private side; but the blurring really makes it hard to distinguish one side from the other): "Mayor Bloomberg never showed up at hearings on whether he can run for a third term, but dozens of people waited hours to praise him anyway - many of them spurred by the best supporters money could buy. It wasn't Bloomberg's money, though. It was yours."

Lisberg goes on to document some of the old fashioned ways in which the mayor garners support-he buys it: "There were aides from the mayor's Community Assistance Unit, who rounded up pro-Bloomberg speakers from the community and religious and civic groups they work with all day long - many of which thrive on city grants. There were the dozens of "Ready, Willing and Able" guys from the Doe Fund, which gets funding from the city - and used its vans to bring people to the hearing."

All of which underscores just how, on the one hand, the mayor acts as simply another politician, while, on the other, cultivating a vastly contradictory image of the "above politics" statesman, whose only real concern is the common good. This was revealed clearly last spring after the city council slush fund scandal was itself followed by revelations that the mayor had his own earmarks that were used for political logrolling.

The NY Post revisited this in yesterday's paper: "Mayor Bloomberg showered cash on key City Council members with the power to kill a term-limits extension bill in the last year. Members of the council's Government Operations Committee have received millions from Hizzoner's slush fund, a once-secret pot of taxpayer money the mayor doles out to favored lawmakers for their pet causes. All the members are Democrats who will decide whether the change in term limits - which the mayor needs in order to run for a third term - goes before the council for a full vote."

So what we have with Bloomberg is the unprecedented comingling of the power of incumbency with that of his great fortune-and his willingness to unabashedly use this lethal one two punch to stand the concept of democratic governance on its head; and this is exactly what we can see here in NYC, if we're only willing to look closely at how the mayor operates.

When Murray Edelman wrote his classic, The Symbolic Uses of Politics, he pointed out that there were two levels of politics-the symbolic and the tangible. When it comes to Bloomberg, the symbolic revolves around the manufactured image of the mayor as a wealthy benevolent; so unencumbered by special interests that he's able to put the good of the people above the grubby interests of the self serving.

However, in reality and on the tangible side, we can see how the mayor in his active policy making aggrandizes the wealthy real estate and financial communities. He does so precisely because he sees their goals as, not only his own, but coterminous as well with his conception of the common good. Their is the sharing of a common world view, one that colors how the mayor approaches policy decisions.

The deconstruction of Mike Bloomberg has just begun, and is long overdo. As the process continues to unfold, it may be useful to remember Machiavelli's observation: "For the great majority of mankind are satisfied by appearance, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are." Machiavelli, it is useful to remember, wrote The Prince as a primer for the people; so they would be disabused from confusing appearance with reality. How appropriate-is it not?- to apply his principles, adopted for the Italian city-states, to the understanding of our own municipal Prince.