New York City’s far-left mayor Bill de Blasio is previewing a new model of progressive policymaking that relies on what even his liberal allies have begun calling “dark money.” Think of it as de Blasio-ism, and the first-term mayor hopes soon to take it nationwide.
At the center of de Blasio’s local political operation is the Campaign for One New York, a nonprofit run by his allies and eagerly funded by labor unions, the real estate industry, and other special interests. It’s an age-old political arrangement: I scratch your back, you scratch mine. In 2014, Crain’s New York reported that the American Federation of Teachers made a $350,000 donation to the Campaign for One New York less than a month before de Blasio gave the city’s teachers a massive retroactive pay raise as part of a $9 billion contract. The animal rights activists behind the mayor’s push to ban horse-drawn carriages in the city donated more than $100,000 to the group. Though the horse-carriage battle has become a public relations albatross for de Blasio, he has promised to continue waging it.
Behemoth left-wing philanthropies such as George Soros’s Fund for Policy Reform have also ponied up large contributions to the Campaign for One New York. Call it a bet on de Blasio’s political future. Last year, de Blasio established a second nonprofit—the D.C.-based Progressive Agenda Committee—with “seed money” from the Campaign for One New York. The second organization seeks to promote de Blasio’s progressive agenda around the country.
De Blasio’s reliance on political organizations that can raise unlimited funds makes a jarring contrast with his past statements against money in politics. As the city’s public advocate, he issued a report critical of “political committees that masquerade as tax-exempt nonprofits.” These “sham nonprofits,” he said, posed “a threat to our democracy.” But many of the private firms that have contributed to the Campaign for One New York do business with or seek approval from the city government that de Blasio runs, a fact that has drawn the attention of good-government groups that would normally support his progressive agenda. On Monday, the left-wing watchdog group Common Cause New York expressed concern about these arrangements in a letter to two agencies charged with policing corruption and conflicts of interest in city government. “It appears the mayor trades his public office for personal political advantage,” the group said, while skirting “campaign finance laws designed to avoid using monetary contributions to curry favor with, and gain access to, public officials.”
The Campaign for One New York is more than just a creative way for de Blasio potentially to dodge Gotham’s strict campaign-finance laws, which ban contributions from corporations and individuals doing business with the city. The nonprofit also provides the mayor with the means to employ a coterie of high-powered political consultants, many with conflicts of interest of their own. A New York Times investigation late last year revealed that most of the money that the group raises goes to pay consulting firms that advise the de Blasio administration, while also representing clients doing substantial business with the city. Critics have called these consultants a “shadow government.”
A general affinity for the mayor’s political agenda has made the city’s political and business elites reluctant to discuss the propriety (not to mention the legality) of the Campaign for One New York’s business model—at least up to now. This week’s bad press might change that, but de Blasio seems unfazed. He dismissed Common Cause’s letter by saying, in effect, “Don’t worry about this. My motives are pure.”
The true threat to democracy and transparency, de Blasio said, comes from conservative political actors like the Koch brothers: “[They] are not doing what they’re doing to help kids get pre-K. They’re doing a lot of what they’re doing to help their business.” De Blasio, by contrast, is trying to save the world, one progressive government policy at a time. “The idea that organizations would come together to fight for things like full-day pre-K for all, or affordable housing programs that could reach hundreds of thousands of people, I think is understandable and makes sense.” What’s good for Bill de Blasio is good for New York City. Get it?
It’s far from a novel argument. Noted political manipulators from Richard Nixon (“If the president does it, that means that it is not illegal”) to Louis XIV (“I am the state”) have made versions of it. It’s a bit surprising, though, coming from a man elected with record-low voter turnout and whose job approval ratings have mostly been abysmal. Whether the mayor can convince politically savvy New Yorkers that the Campaign for One New York is above board remains to be seen. But don’t be surprised if de Blasio-ism comes to your town—and sooner than you think.
Photo by NYC Mayor’s Office