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July 24, 2009 @ 11:34 am

Bloomberg and the Boys Political Vignette: The Fundraiser

Last week, I told the story of a press conference that Gifford Miller, Christine Quinn’s predecessor as speaker, had called and a tenant rally that we had organized to announce city council legislation on a Miller-Quinn bill that we were going to get passed to force Mitchell-Lama landlords to negotiate in good faith with tenants.

The city council scheduled a hearing on the bill. Before the hearing, Ethan Geto, our lobbyist, called to invite me to a Gifford Miller fundraiser at the home of Judith and Robert Rubin on October 27. Months earlier, I had volunteered that I would try to raise some campaign money, not anywhere near as much as the real estate crowd, but maybe enough for Miller to notice. It was time to make good on the commitment.

I phoned nineteen other Independence Plaza tenants and asked each of them to contribute $250.1 At the time, the New York City campaign finance law gave candidates four-to-one matching funds for contributions up to $250. Thus we would be giving what amounted to a $20,000 contribution, perhaps the largest donation that Miller would receive at that event. Every tenant responded. They gave as individuals, but Miller knew where the $20,000 came from. This practice is known as “bundling.” It’s done by lobbyists. The purpose and effect of the practice, of course, is to align the objectives of the bundler’s clients with those of the candidate.

I had been to very few political fund-raising events, and never in a private home, much less that of a former Secretary of the Treasury. But I wasn’t all that interested in standing around drinking cocktails and listening to political speeches. I thought I would ask a tenant who had contributed to attend in my place. I called Ethan to tell him that the money would be there, but I wouldn’t. He urged me to attend, shake hands with Miller, and bring along four guests. I had to go.

I invited Jose Torres, a former light-heavyweight boxing champion who lived at Independence Plaza and a couple of other tenants. Torres had written a book and wrote an occasional column for New York’s largest Spanish-language daily.

As soon as we entered the lobby of the Park Avenue cooperative, a half dozen Spanish-speaking, uniformed doormen and building workers crowded around Jose, asking for his autograph. They laughed and hugged him. I was taken aback by how excited they were, and by their obviously sincere affection for the man. A tenant board member, whose family was from Cuba, had driven us uptown. He was Jose’s next-door neighbor. We leaned against the lobby wall and watched the outpouring of emotion. “I never realized that Jose was that big,” I remarked.

“Neil, Jose is the Hispanic Mohammed Ali.” Given the importance of the Hispanic vote in New York, it was something to keep in mind.

The event itself was what I had anticipated. Ethan was involved in the New York arts and culture scene, at least insofar as it intersected with the city budget. This fund-raiser focused on Miller’s support for the arts. The guests seemed to be upper-class New Yorkers, decent people whose politics I would probably find congenial, but whose interest in affordable housing was an abstraction, as mine would have been had I been living in a Park Avenue co-op. Thirty or forty people sat or stood around the living room chatting, munching on canapés and sipping cocktails. An amiable Robert Rubin attended but stayed in the background. This was his wife’s fund-raiser.

Judy Rubin walked to the front of the room, welcomed everyone and introduced Ethan. He said a few words and then introduced Miller, who told the guests that he was passionate about the arts in much the same way that he had told us he was passionate about affordable housing. A few friendly comments from the audience, followed by Ethan’s thank you to the Independence Plaza guests, and the formal part was over. We mingled a bit and left.

I was reminded again what the life of a politician was like and how lucky I was that my own life had not taken that turn. I have an interest in many public issues, but a passion for few. Pretending to share in the passions of others is a talent better suited to the two oldest professions. The reader has by now concluded that in my view they are not without their similarities. I didn’t always feel that way. But because manipulation and lying to constituents have so clearly supplanted truth-telling as the transcendent political skill, how else can one think about today’s politicians? It now seems almost quaint to say that telling the truth is the first democratic principle, the foundation for the principle of the consent of the governed. Thinking those kinds of thoughts puts me in line to write one of those pamphlets that politicians in Albany distribute to visiting schoolchildren on “How a Bill Becomes a Law.

I received a nice thank you note from Judy Rubin and sent it to the contributors along with my own note. I asked that they keep the details of our fund-raising to themselves:

We aren’t going to win a money war with one of New York’s larger landlords. So, we don’t want to talk much about this, and prompt a bigger war than we are already in. That’s why we asked relatively few people whom we knew we could count on. It is a big, big help to take this issue off the table insofar as we can do it.

I didn’t have the slightest idea whether the contributions would help. They wouldn’t hurt, but New York’s mayoral campaigns are hugely expensive. In 2001, Mark Green, the losing Democratic candidate, reported expenditures totaling $17,205,704. Bloomberg spent at least $75,000,000 of his own money. He didn’t need or take real estate contributions. Miller needed millions of dollars not only for consultants, media, and the like, but also because raising it would give him political traction. Big donors, potential political supporters, and the press all watch the early fundraising numbers. Candidates who don’t have the money going in, or can’t raise it early, lose. Real estate operators wouldn’t be the only contributors, but they would be the biggest.

– Neil Fabricant

[1]The current match is 6-1

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