Crossing The Line: Campaigning On Public Money
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
Last week, I was highly critical of NYC Council Speaker Giff Miller for spending taxpayer money to deliver his image and message via U.S. mail to hundreds of thousands of New York homes.
It was a clear case of campaign mail at public expense. Miller is running for mayor.
Using the guise of informing the citizen, Miller mailed his own face – four times in each piece (and his name quite a few times) – along with the local councilmember’s name and face fewer times into district after district throughout the city. The central City Council budget was charged for this exorbitant, political Miller mailing.
Some of the councilmembers, whose name and face were used, were not even asked for permission. Some were asked and requested that they be shown the material before printing – but were denied the opportunity until it was in the mail.
The Trib readers’ overall reaction to my column was outrage with Miller. There seems to be a clear condemnation of anyone using public funds for personal political gain, as there should be.
My email box quickly filled with messages like:
· “Great stuff-you should be proud.”
· “GO GET EM!!!”
· “Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! Yes, Giff is selling his soul to the devil and all for naught.”
· “He [Miller] is conniving. He is all that is wrong with politics and he is why the public hardly votes because when people like him win the disgust is wide-spread.”
My phone rang with a larger than usual response to this column – overwhelmingly condemning the Miller mailings.
There was one lone voice critical of my position. A dear, bright friend very knowledgeable and very high up in national Democratic circles indicated he felt I was picking on Miller. As he emailed me for a lunch get together, he prodded sarcastically, “I am relieved that the standards you set for Giff don’t apply to our friends who have Congressional franking privileges,” suggesting I had different standards for Miller and my close friend and associate Congressman Gary Ackerman.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
To those, like my friend, who believe what Miller did is the same thing as what typically goes on in government – mailing newsletters to constituents — you are missing the point by a huge mark, or you are blinded by being too close to the Miller Mayoral campaign.
Yes, Gary Ackerman is elected by the voters in the 5th Congressional District of New York and is given a budget to keep his constituents informed. His infrequent newsletters do just that and also promote his efforts in their behalf. They are mailed to the people he represents. Period!
My friend Peter Vallone Jr. mails his newsletters to his 22nd Councilmanic District in Astoria to inform the people he represents of his work on their behalf.
Assemblywoman Nettie Mayorsohn’s mailings go to her constituents in the 27th Assembly District.
State Senator Malcolm Smith keeps his 14th Senatorial District residents informed.
At every level of government, a modest budget for printing and mailing an informative newsletter to constituents is an appropriate and long-standing practice.
Constituents: n, residents of a district represented by an elected official.
Giff Miller represents the 5th Councilmanic District of Manhattan. His constituents live on the Upper East Side. He is not a Citywide elected official. He is just one Councilmember who was selected by a political process to be the legislative body’s leader. That does not make him a citywide representative. That does not make the folk in Queens his constituents.
There are only three Citywide elected officials: Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Comptroller Bill Thompson, and Public Advocate Betsy Thompson. And none of them is wasting taxpayer money on mass mailing to promote their names. Citywide mailings are extremely costly. And like Miller, each of them stands for election this year. The Mayor certainly has the city budget line and the right to inform citizens of his actions and accomplishments. He doesn’t spend our money on self-serving mailers. Thompson and Gottbaum were elected by the voters citywide. They don’t have mass mailings to promote their names.
Miller represents just his district – the same size as your Council District. He represents the same size constituency as Tony Avella, Leroy Comrie, Melinda Katz, Dennis Gallagher — one Council District.
Sheldon Silver is Speaker of the NYS Assembly and he doesn’t do bulk mail outside of his lower east side district. Joe Bruno, Majority Leader of the NYS Senate, doesn’t spend state funds to mail his face and into the many districts of the state – just his own. Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House of Representatives, is in touch with his constituents in the 14th District of Illinois by mail – he’s not spending public money for bulk mail outside his district.
Only Giff Miller does.
And then there is content. Typically ethically acceptable government mailings provide constituents with useful and hopefully important information. Miller’s mailings criticize the man he hopes to run against – Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
So let’s get this straight. A majority of people of New York City vote for and elect Mike Bloomberg as Mayor. A majority of one fifty-second (1/52) – one Council District out of 52 – vote for and elect Giff Miller as their Councilman, but he has the right to use New York City money to mail throughout the City to attack the citywide elected Mayor?
Gimme a break.
Should the Mayor mail to answer back?
It’s good one of them has scruples.
Miller’s actions are outrageous, unethical and immoral.
Elected officials’ newsletters inform; they do not attack opponents. Attack an opponent? That’s a political mailing. Campaign funds, please!
Elected officials’ newsletter’s go to constituents; they must not go to people outside the district with the hope of winning their votes for another or future office.
Miller represents only one Upper East Side district. He mailed citywide. He should (make that must) be forced to repay the people of New York City. He has crossed all lines of acceptability. Sadly, he would also use city-paid-for lawyers to defend his abuse of city funds.
I believe it is possible he violated city or state law and Campaign Finance rules. But the process is tedious and the system awfully political. I’d love to see him punished for his abuse of public funds. But it’s unlikely to happen that way.
To my good friend trying to equate Miller’s morally bankrupt mailings to an appropriate newsletter informing constituents who are represented, it is as clear as the difference between right and wrong – black and white – you get the idea.
Giff Miller used public money for political purposes and he should repay to the public the cost of printing and postage of his egregious ethical violation.
In any event, on Election Day, the people will make sure it costs him dearly.
Stern Thoughts On Government
Briefs from HENRY STERN
TERM LIMITS: All five daily papers oppose Council trying to extend term limits in defiance of two referenda on the issue. Such unanimity is relatively rare, since some newspapers are more liberal and others more conservative. None of them, however, likes cheating.
ALBANY: As the adjournment of the state legislature approaches, it becomes harder than ever to keep up with the players and their machinations. Toward the end of the session, even more power is assumed by the leadership.
Bills are rushed through or buried in minutes; legislation is passed that no one has had the time to read, much less understand; and the important issues are resolved, or not resolved, not only far from the public eye but far from the eyes of most senators and assemblymembers. This is the way matters have been handled for many years.
LITTLE LULU HAS GROWN BIG AND FAT: Lulus. This is the way big elected officials get to decide how much little elected officials (rookies, independents, members of other parties) get paid each year, and what compensation their significant others will receive when the officials are eventually laid to rest.
Originally meant to cover payments made by committee chairs in pursuit of their duties (Lulu - payment in lieu of expenses), these stipends simply came to be additions to member’s salaries. The speaker has the power to move these payments up or down.
Since lulus are pensionable, largesse in one’s last years will last for two lifetimes.
CITY LOBBYING: The city has a lobbying problem, as explained in the Times: “LOBBYIST HAS A DUAL ROLE AT CITY HALL: Working for Nonprofits and Council Members.”
It highlights the activities of the Parkside Group, a powerful Queens firm that helps Councilmembers get elected, and then comes to them to ask for city money for other clients. There is a question as to whether this is an inherent conflict of interest, and whether being a paid campaign functionary gives someone greater influence later when he is wearing his schnorrer’s hat on behalf of a nonprofit organization seeking city subsidies or contracts. The answer to the question is clear as the light of day: It frequently helps and it certainly never hurts. That is because of a basic principle of human nature expressed by Park Rule 21-O. “One hand washes the other.”
There is always the possibility of the more blatant form of influence peddling: doing the campaign work at a lower rate, and making it up later in fees from the nonprofits they represent. But even if there is no financial quid pro quo, and you are just helping each other out because you are old buddies, that is not what one would call good government. Is it?
None of that is illegal or immoral, although it may be a bit fattening.
City lobbying has been neglected because of a general preoccupation with state lobbyists, some of whom are far richer and more powerful than their city cousins. Other firms lobby both City Hall and Albany, not to mention Washington, D.C. That’s where the real money is.
Not4Publication.com by Dom Nunziato