Monday, August 24, 2009

Learning Disabled

There's a great deal of dismay in certain quarters around the country over what appears to certain folks as a phony grass roots effort to defeat health care reform; by now, everyone knows the derogatory term, "Astroturfing," as the phrase used to denigrate local protests as somehow ersatz. Our feeling is that the critique is purely sour grapes, and is used by those who object to having grass roots organizing-a tactic that the left has used effectively-employed against them.

But in our view, those who really object to these kind of tactics being used to create false impressions of widespread support, should focus on the slickest purveyor of this tactic we've ever seen-one Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York. Bloomberg, utilizing his vast fortune-as well as his network of super wealthy friends-is able to lavishly fund groups who then are either newly launched, or suddenly cash rich invigorated, to go forth and promote, well, whatever is in the interests of Mike Bloomberg; with nary a finger print smudge.

Such was the case with the Bloomberg congestion tax plan-and scores of groups, seemingly on steroids, took to the streets and airwaves to promote the Bloomberg tax. Given the plan's unpopularity, however, even the mayor's wealth was insufficient to get this tax across the goal line. Not so with mayoral control of the schools.

In the case of the schools, we had a more arcane governance issue rather than a more visceral taxing plan (health care anyone?). And the mayor went ahead to set up a very effective grass roots looking organization called Learn NY. As we opined earlier in the year about the group-citing a good WNYC report: "What the station does is to examine the make up of Learn NY, a supposedly independent group formed to back re-authorization of mayoral control of the schools. As one skeptic points out: "Learn NY is being funded inadvertently, not directly, through the mayor. He’s done great P.R. I think its very sad that he’s using parents in this way, and that the real fact is we have to look to see if the mayor has been successful in what he says that he’s brought to New York City. And if you look at the facts, not the spin, the eighth grade scores in math and English are totally flat."

But what about the money's patrimony? The station went on to point out: "So what about the "funded inadvertently" claim? How inadvertent does anyone who examines the situation think it really is? "Learn NY has filled other assembly hearings with parents, many of them from charter schools. It’s hired the political consulting and polling firm Global Strategy Group, which worked for Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and Congressman Charles Rangel. Learn NY claims to have raised $3 million. But it won’t say who’s funding its campaign and because it’s a non-profit it doesn’t have to. The group DOES maintain it’s NOT funded by Mayor Bloomberg."

Now, after the battle has been won, we find out about the stealth bankrolling effort-a labor of love among rich friends. As the NY Post reported last week: "America's richest man chipped in to help preserve mayoral control of New York City schools. Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates -- a pal of fellow billionaire Mayor Bloomberg -- has secretly bankrolled Learn-NY, the group that joined the campaign led by The Post to extend mayoral control. Gates funneled about $4 million to the pro-mayoral-control forces during the fierce, dragged-out legislative debate, The Post has learned. A spokesman for Gates confirmed the donation and the approximate size."

Or, as the song says, "That's what friends are for." And we have nothing against Learn NY's head, Greg Canada, who is indubitably a well meaning educator. What we do object to is the way the Bloombucks are injected into the electoral and governance systems in such a way as to corrupt the nature of the debate-and Learn NY's patrimony should have been outed by a skeptical press core; and not just from one single watt radio outlet.

And Gates was not alone: "Another billionaire philanthropist -- Eli Broad, a proponent of charter schools -- also gave millions to Learn-NY." Now, we'd like to know if Gates and Broad bothered to register as lobbyists with the city clerk's office since Learn NY apparently was a wholly owned subsidiary of the two billionaires. Probably not.

But the real issue is Bloomberg. How much more political activity that specifically accrues to the mayor's benefit is being funded by stealth contributions from either the mayor himself, or from his rich friends. The risible comment last week from Woof Ticket Wolfson that the mayor's not beholden to any special interests elides the reality that Mike Bloomberg is a walking special interest all by his lonesome-funding groups to seed the political clouds with the kind of Bloomberg rain that drowns out any effective oppositional message.

When the definitive history of the Bloomberg administration is finally written (step aside Joyce Purnick), the shameful subornation of democracy will finally be made manifest-and the collusion of the media exposed. At this juncture, however, Bloomberg remains the most overrated chief executive in the city's history-a true emperor without clothes.