Thursday, February 05, 2009

City for Sale

City for Sale, the original expose done by Jack Newfield and Wayne Barret, was a tale of municipal corruption during the Koch years-with vivid descriptions of how the public interest was subverted by self serving needs and individual greed. The tome-a call for good government-is now being re-written by Mike Bloomberg, who is using his great fortune to transform good government groups into his own cats paw. In the process, the whole concept of good government is threatened with a loss of meaning.

Some of this we laid out yesterday in our critique of the virtual subornation of the Drum Major Institute and its outspoken leader, Andrea Batista Schlesinger. The DMI describes itself as a think tank that champions what it sees as middle class needs; something that, arguably, the current plutocrat in chief has ignored. The hiring of Schlesinger is a bit too much for NY Daily News columnist Errol Louis.

In his column this morning, Louis lays out his case: "Checks and balances, the pride and genius of American political culture, are out of whack in New York these days. Our system assumes City Hall will be analyzed, challenged and checked by robust political competition, fearlessly independent civic advocacy groups and a free press." All of the usual checks, however, are gone-replaced by those issued by Mike Bloomberg.

As Louis points out: "But Bloomberg's brand of checkbook politics is rewriting the rules...What bothers me is that leaders of supposedly independent, community-oriented organizations are running for the Bloomberg gravy train.The latest case in point, Andrea Batista Schlesinger, was executive director of the Drum Major Institute, a nonprofit policy and advocacy group formerly run by Fernando Ferrer, Bloomberg's Democratic rival in 2005. Four years ago, DMI supplied the data, analysis and intellectual basis for Ferrer's campaign, which challenged Bloomberg's attention to middle-class neighborhoods and concerns. Don't expect that to happen this year."

Louis goes on to observe how certain non profits received phone calls from the mayor. What happens here, is that even when some of these groups don't show up, they have been bought out of the political process-their voices silenced by cash donations. In the most egregious cases, groups appeared to testify-reading from the mayor's script.

At a time when charitable donations are disappearing in the aftermath of fiscal meltdown, one person remains standing-or giving in this case. As has been reported, Bloomberg gave out around $235 million last year. A Bloomberg donation, or simply the hope of one, is a powerful potential subornation of many so-called-but cash strapped-good government groups.

And we saw this dynamic in action during the congestion tax controversy; where previously tapped our enviros where suddenly launching ad campaigns costing high six figures. In fact, the pro-tax forces out spent the opposition on the order of 20-1! Newfield and Barrett's Meade Esposito citation is applicable here: "Today's reformer is tomorrow's hack."

But instead of bribery from well healed private sector interests to the so-called public servants, we have a unique reversal; with good government groups shedding any pretense of independence and becoming lap dogs for the interest of of one rich man-someone who believes that his own aggrandizement serves every one else's needs as well, thank you very much! So untoward is this process, that the entire concept of campaign finance has been transvaluated-rendering its original formulation obsolete and meaningless.

Will any of this matters? Will the NY Times, that champion of campaign reform, weigh in? Hardly likely, when the paper itself is drowning in red ink and taking loans from what seems like Mexico's version of Tony Soprano.

So, as Louis writes, it takes groups like Furee to remind us what independence looks like-and the only hope for democracy in this town is that others will see likewise: "The splendid, disorderly demonstration by 100 protesters who interrupted a recent speech by Mayor Bloomberg to an upscale crowd was a welcome sign that our town remains a home for free minds and independent voices. "This is what democracy looks like!" chanted members of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, or FUREE, a grass-roots advocacy organization. Eight ended up behind bars. It was a timely reminder to Bloomberg that a significant number of people feel shut out of public decision-making in this election year. They not only want to discuss the city's substantive problems, they recognize that the normal channels for public debate have been silenced, compromised or bought off."

This is what the upcoming election cycle is all about. With Bloomberg LLP laying off 100 workers-and Bloomberg for mayor hiring a similar cohort of sycophants and retainers-we are entering an era that is the harbinger of the death of democracy; a death lead by the Kevorkian of mayors-someone who feels that the city is for sale, and that he's buying.