Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Street Money

In the 2000 race for New Jersey governor, one candidate set records for doling out what's known in the parlance as, "street money" The NY Times captured this at the time:

"Albert Hawkins, who lives in a homeless shelter in Philadelphia, will not be in Pennsylvania to vote for Al Gore on Tuesday. He will be in New Jersey, ''volunteering'' for Jon S. Corzine in return for a fast $75 and all the coffee, doughnuts and sandwiches he can eat...Street money is nothing new in New Jersey, where elections are generally won on the ground. It was called ''walking around money'' in 1993, when Christine Todd Whitman's campaign manager, Ed Rollins, claimed that $500,000 had been doled out to ministers and Democratic Party workers so that they would not get out the vote among supporters of Mrs. Whitman's opponent, Gov. Jim Florio. Mr. Rollins retracted his statement the next day."

Corzine, however, took this to new heights almost a decade ago: "For years, it was the Republican Party that held the monetary advantage, particularly in presidential election years. This year, however, New Jersey's Republicans will be outspent several times over. The state party is expected to spend only about $750,000 to get out the vote. Much of that went for direct mail. Rocco Iossa, executive director of Gov. George W. Bush's campaign in New Jersey, said that on Election Day most of the canvassers, drivers and poll watchers working for the Republican ticket would receive $75 for their efforts. ''We'll have 2,000 walkers statewide,'' he said. Told of that, one Democratic official snorted, ''We'll have 2,000 people in Newark, at least.''

The reason we highlight this phenomenon-and let's not forget that it also surfaced with the Obama campaign last year in Philadelphia-is because of the way it sheds light on the importance of money-in both generating support, as well as insuring that the support generated actually makes it out to vote. Which brings us to the Bloomberg phenomenon-one that is sui generis in contemporary politics.

Except that with Bloomberg it is, "suite money," rather than street money-and the sheer level of this vast spending is so far under the radar that no one knows just how much Mike Bloomberg has doled out in philanthropic funds to organizations all over the city. The great thing about this legal graft, is that its existence puts every charitable organization in New York into play; those who are getting the Bloombucks, as well as those who hope that they might get lucky. And with over half of the employment in New York coming from either not-for-profits or government, you can see how far this money can go in generating political loyalty.

An small example of how this works was discussed in the Crain's Insider (subsc.) yesterday-and it was Councilman Lew Fidler who pointed it out in the context of explaining why generating opposition to the mayor is so difficult: "But rallying opposition is difficult. Fidler says the mayor “cuts the libraries in the budget all the time” but gets a pass from library advocates. Fidler once asked them why. “One of them came over to me and said, ‘You know, he gives a lot of money privately to institutions that people on my board care about.’ They’re afraid to speak their minds for fear that the checkbook will close.”

And so it goes. From enviros finding themselves flush with cash for ads in favor of congestion pricing; to faux grass roots organizations supporting mayoral control of the schools. Heck, Mike the Mogul was even able to suborn the incorruptible Al Sharpton; someone who suffered from lockjaw during the debate over term limits.

It is past time for our local media to get off their duff on this wholesale purchase of the democratic process. There's a Pulitzer somewhere in here; and a re-emake of the Jack Newfield/Wayne Barrett classic exposé , "City for Sale," would put this undeniably tawdry political bribery in its rightful spotlight.

And for all of those who aren't susceptible to the Bloomberg blandishments, there are the threats-and the money to dig up dirt on just about anyone; which is why Anthony Weiner's comments to the Daily News the other day were so enlightening: "In the face of Mayor Bloomberg's successful maneuver to run for a third term and the billionaire's $100 million reelection campaign, Weiner expressed reluctance to make a long-shot bid. "It isn't that I don't have the stomach for the race," Weiner told the magazine. "I know that I can run the city better than the current mayor. I know it...{but}"You really have to tip your hat to an organization that can find out the immigrant status of someone who wrote me a $300 check," Weiner said of the Bloomberg campaign. "People think I'm paranoid. But I'm not."

This entire phenomenon should be known as the, carrot and the bazooka, strategy. For those who remain unbought-but are still threatening to the rein of this new form of royalty, there is the relentless, spare no expense, digging into their personal histories. Given all of this, we're surprised that anyone has the nerve to run against the king.