Friday, April 02, 2010

Constrained by Conventional Wisdom

The NY Post inveighs today against those who have been carping about the fact that Deputy Mayor Patty Harris is also moonlighting as the head of Mike Bloomberg's family foundation. As one of the carp in question, we need to point out that the Post's diatribe underscores the limits of conventional wisdom when dealing with the mayor's vast fortune.

Here's how the paper dismisses the critics: "Some good-government and philanthropy types are raising a minor stink about Mayor Bloomberg's announcement that First Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris will now chair his $1 billion-plus personal foundation -- while keeping her City Hall portfolio. Give it a rest. First of all, we're talking about Bloomberg giving his money away -- which is not the usual direction of cash flows when New York politicians are involved."

Yes, it is an unusual direction for political cash flow, but the Post misses how the political system can be corrupted by the use of personal wealth for personal political objectives. And even more so, it's cavalier dismissal of the critics, misses the extent to which the mayor's money has already corrupted the democratic process-from congestion taxing to term limits.

Let's put it a simply as possible. The mayor's own self interest is not coterminous with the public good. And we haven't even touched on the scam of Learn New York, where the mayor logrolled millions from his rich buddies to perpetuate his own control of the city's public schools-while simultaneously spewing propaganda about the achievements of the school system that he leads-gains that are now shown to be demonstrably false.

When John Corzine first ran for governor in 2000, he used street money to gain support-a tactic that Ed Rollins had been excoriated for when he ran Christie Whitman gubernatorial campaign against Jim Florio in 1993. Now in New Jersey, the law was changed so that only checks are legal-so there is a paper trail and disclosure.

Now all of Mike Bloomberg's charitable largess is almost entirely off of the political radar-and is basically unaccounted for. In addition, when he is able to bogart or cajole others to hand out big bucks, no one knows how that may be impacting the city's body politic-how many critics are silenced and cheerleaders spawned.

Take Al Sharpton-please. His unholy alliance with the school's chancellor-bankrolled by the same folks who funded Learn NY-is not being done for nothing. And anyone who thinks that this isn't hush money is really kidding himself. But the alliance-and its manner of funding, highlights just how Bloombucks, or those of his classmates, can alter the political dynamic. In this case, giving lockjaw to a person who has the justified reputation as a rabble rouser and racial arsonist.

Now as far as the Post is concerned the subornation of the good reverend-in as much as it shuts him up-may indeed be a good thing. But his lavish lap dog status is representative of a more malevolent phenomenon-the use of private fortunes to tamp down the salutary and raucous nature of political debate. This becomes even more important when the local papers act as an amen chorus for the man manipulating with his millions.

One final thought. When the Post exculpated the mayor for this exercise in charitable moonlighting, it compounded its error by citing the actions of the city's Conflicts of Interest Board: "Yes, this new title was awarded without consulting the city's Conflicts of Interest Board. But the board gave its approval in 2008 to Harris serving as both president and deputy mayor. Nothing's changed, apart from her title, so why should she need another bureaucratic review?"

Right-and who appoints this august body? Yup, none other than the very man who has requested its opinion about the rectitude of the moonlighting Ms. Harris-the same board that could not find any conflict between Deputy Dan Doctoroff and Related's Steve Ross, old friends and business partners, when the charitable Dan managed to cede the Bronx Terminal Market to Related, sans any public bidding process.

So we need a new lens to understand just how potentially corrupting the unaccountable use of a private fortune can be in any democratic system. The mayor's money flow can be seen in some ways as an even more dangerous perversion of democratic practices precisely because it falls outside of our conventional understanding of how money can corrupt a democracy-and remains therefore unexamined.