How Julia Salazar Is Trying to Become the Next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

On a recent sticky Saturday afternoon in Williamsburg, a group of volunteer canvassers for Democratic state senate challenger Julia Salazar discussed door-knocking strategy. With all the publicity around the June congressional primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — like Salazar, a young avowed Democratic Socialist — would it be prudent to warm up potential voters with an anecdote about Ocasio-Cortez’s establishment-quaking defeat of Queens machine incumbent Joe Crowley?

“If you see a New York Times, yeah, go for it,” advised canvass organizer Wess Higgins. “Yesterday I was at this loft in East Williamsburg. I saw a Times and some guitars on the wall. I mentioned her and the couple was like, ‘Oh, you mean AOC?’ and then they invited me in for pineapple juice.”

Salazar’s team understands the significance of the Ocasio-Cortez signal boost. Both candidates are working-class women in working-class districts eschewing corporate donations and demanding Medicare for All and the abolition of ICE. Martin Malavé Dilan, the incumbent in Salazar’s race for the 18th District state senate seat, is, like Crowley, seen as a machine relic, for his longtime alliance with the late Brooklyn political boss Vito Lopez. Both women consider themselves community organizers first and foremost, and have pledged deference to their voters. (During a primary debate, Ocasio-Cortez refused to commit to endorsing Crowley in the general election, saying, “I would be happy to take that question to our movement for a vote.”) Ocasio-Cortez joined the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America when seeking their endorsement; though the Daily News recently found that 27-year-old Salazar was a registered Republican in her teens, she has been rank-and-file DSA for two years, focusing on police reform.

Julia Salazar at a fundraiser in Boerum Hill on July 17. The state senate candidate has brought in more than double the donations of incumbent Martin Malavé Dilan so far.

Before Ocasio-Cortez’s win, none of this was the stuff of national headlines. When Salazar endorsed Ocasio-Cortez in June, her field manager Isabel Anreus recalls, it was inside a mostly empty quinceañera hall in the Bronx, before a crowd of “only about a dozen folks.” In the week after Crowley’s loss, though, Salazar received more than $15,000 in individual donations, boosting her war chest by a third in a single week. According to Higgins, the canvass organizer, “A typical Saturday before the AOC victory I’d have about five or six people [canvassing]. Then the Saturday after her victory we had fifty people. It was mostly people who felt like they had missed their shot.”

Anreus says she’s sent out more than 2,000 volunteers, 500 of whom have picked up multiple canvassing shifts. She coaches each volunteer to secure three “yes” votes — if they’re successful, that would be more than the number of votes Dilan collected last election, the second of his two narrow primary victories over Debbie Medina, another socialist and community activist.

“There are these media moments and narratives about who has momentum,” says Michael Kinnucan, Salazar’s deputy campaign manager. “But if you’re running a campaign, there’s nothing but talking to voters. Everything is around talking to voters. You get some more donations? That’s great. You can pour it into talking to more voters.”


Shortly after her primary victory, Ocasio-Cortez broke down her strategy on the Jacobin magazine podcast The Dig. Early on, she explained, she met with small groups of potential supporters at their apartments.

“I would take the train to that person’s living room, and I would talk to people ten at a time for eight months,” she said. Many of these people eventually became committed volunteers for her campaign. While Crowley shelled out for expensive mailers and television spots, Ocasio-Cortez focused on door-knocking and social media, with its cheaper, more precise viewership metrics.

A dozen of Ocasio-Cortez’s paid canvassers, all Latina college students, came directly over to Salazar’s team after the congressional primary win in June. (A 2012 lawsuit compelled New York to move its federal primary to June; New York’s Republican-led senate blocked efforts to move the state primary into alignment.) “I heard about [Ocasio-Cortez] from my college friend and thought her ideas were good for the district,” explained 21-year-old Rael. “It really did inspire me to join Salazar’s campaign.”

Over a few shifts in July, Salazar canvassers swapped strategies for how to get into large apartment buildings: ring multiple buzzers until someone responds, or hang around outside until someone opens the door and then slip through. Once inside, use a trilly, musical knock, “so you don’t sound like a cop”; when someone comes to the door, ask them what issues matter most to them, and listen. Never cross your arms. Spanish speakers should buddy up with non-Spanish speakers.

Salazar is also following the Ocasio-Cortez playbook when it comes to fundraising, refusing to accept corporate donations. Her goal is $150,000, $118,415.43 of which had been raised by mid-July. Kinnucan recently wrote about Ocasio-Cortez’s victory for Jacobin, extolling how much a campaign can do with “your first $100,000.”

“You need things like campaign lit, and a couple of staff organizers who can make sure that the volunteers are trained and know where to go,” Kinnucan tells the Voice. “So the first $100,000 is absolutely essential, and the second $100,000 is really, really helpful.”

Small, informal house parties have been a major source of funding for Salazar. She attends, gives a brief stump speech, and answers questions. The campaign doesn’t have to pay to rent out a venue. A recent house party in Boerum Hill drew dozens of young New Yorkers in their twenties and thirties, only one of whom lives in the 18th District, which includes parts of Bushwick, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Cypress Hills. The event brought in at least $2,500, according to hosts Matt Karp and Katherine Hill, who met Salazar through DSA.

Karp and Hill said their friends are excited about Salazar as just one of several progressive senate challengers, many of whom are hoping to unseat centrist Democrats who for years caucused with Republicans as part of the recently dissolved Independent Democratic Conference. “I know she’s keen on representing north Brooklyn, but the fact is she’s going to be involved in a chamber that does a lot of statewide stuff,” Karp told the Voice. “I feel very invested in the race.”

Standing by the fruit and cheese platters, Salazar assured the Boerum Hill crowd that “I am very proud to be part of this blue wave of challengers to senators who have betrayed their constituents.”

Introverted by nature, she drew laughs from the guests excited to support an outsider candidate. When friends urged Salazar to run earlier this year, she recalled wryly, “I said no. Hard no. Hard no. But I was sold on the race. We need a community leader who can finally bring the voices of Brooklynites to Albany.”


The Salazar campaign’s door-knocking is currently focused on Bushwick, where the candidate lives, and Williamsburg. Canvassing in Cypress Hills, which has a higher concentration of likely Dilan voters, will ramp up in the early fall. “Our goal is by first week of September we’re talking to pro-Dilan people, and people who don’t know about socialism,” says Anreus.

Salazar’s team has identified roughly 800 DSA members who live in, or directly adjacent to, the district. But canvassers are not coached to talk about socialism explicitly. In Williamsburg last month, lead canvasser Julian Graham, a DSA member, offered a possible talking point. “She’s the only one not taking money from corporations or landlords,” he said. “She’s fighting for affordable housing.” He then ticked off campaign priorities: “We all need access to healthcare. We all need stronger rent laws. We all want to end these insane and evil policies like cash bail.”

Especially in neighborhoods ravaged by gentrification, there seems to be real interest in Salazar’s affordable housing platform, which calls for lease renewal guarantees for all tenants and statewide controls on how much landlords can increase rents. “Whether people want to use the ‘s’ word or not,” Kinnucan tells the Voice, “there seems to be a real movement for decommodifying housing.”

Dilan has in recent years supported pro-tenant legislation, though Salazar often points out that he voted in favor of vacancy decontrol while on the City Council in 1994, helping secure a major tool for tenant displacement. “Every inch of this district is affected by the affordable housing crisis,” Salazar told me this spring. “Dilan has had a lot of time, over fifteen years, to correct his course.”

Graham Parker, a spokesperson for Dilan, tells the Voice that Salazar’s priorities are “identical” to his: “The senator has a clear record on his support for unions, women’s rights, and healthcare access.” And now that the IDC has dissolved, Parker says, Dilan is “looking forward to having a [senate Democratic] majority where he can start delivering on these progressive issues.”

DSA, Parker adds, is an organization with “a national message” swooping into Dilan’s district, and that Salazar’s identification as a Democratic Socialist is an opportunistic effort to capitalize on a trend: “It has to do more with an opportunity than a policy.”

Parker declined to discuss Dilan’s campaign strategy with the Voice, but on July 26 Dilan filed a lawsuit seeking to strike Salazar from the ballot on the grounds that she hasn’t lived in New York for five straight years as required, a move her campaign dismissed as “frivolous” and “aimed at political insiders and the press.” As of this writing, Dilan has raised just over half as much as Salazar in contributions.

Anreus, Salazar’s field manager and herself a DSA veteran, remembers attending a Young Democratic Socialists of America conference in 2010 and being the only Latina. At 28, she’s just a year older than Salazar. Last month she sounded proud, addressing a packed room of north Brooklyn DSA members. “This is about building a real socialist movement that continues after September 13,” Anreus said. “I’ve been a DSA member for a long time. Ten years. But this is the most exciting it’s been.”


How One State Senator’s Navy Assignment Could Doom City’s Speed Cameras

Albany is a funky, opaque place — seemingly divorced from all time and space. The state capital, where the legislature in all its corrupt glory resides, has always been emblematic of a certain New York dysfunction. Good ideas go there to die. Lobbyists go there to get rich.

But something unusual, even by Albany standards, has been happening in recent days. The state senate is literally deadlocked. There are the same number of senators present in the Republican and Democratic conferences.

This is especially odd because there are an odd, not even, number of elected state senators. Sixty-three, to be exact.

The cause of the gridlock, on one hand, is simple: One Republican who is not seeking re-election, Tom Croci of Long Island, resumed active service with the Navy Reserves and left Albany before the end of the legislative session. With Croci absent, the Republicans no longer enjoyed their one-vote majority to pass legislation. At the same time, Senate Democrats still can’t force forward their progressive priorities, though they have tried.

The resulting gridlock isn’t just an inside-baseball concern. It has serious consequences for New York City, which has been a prisoner of Albany since at least the 1970s fiscal crisis.

The legislature has remarkable say over what does and doesn’t happen in the five boroughs. For example, speed cameras, which impose small fines on vehicles that break the 25 mph city speed limit, were installed outside certain school zones in 2014 with the approval of the state legislature. The speed camera program is currently set to expire in July, and by law, City Hall and the City Council cannot expand or even renew the speed camera program without Albany’s approval.

There are currently 140 schools in the speed camera program. All could lose their cameras, which have been proven to deter speeding automobiles, if the Senate doesn’t act before the legislature adjourns today.

Theoretically, a single senator could flip to the opposing caucus to make a majority, but that could come with its own strings attached. State Senator Simcha Felder, a conservative Brooklyn Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans, and who chairs the committee that needs to approve the speed camera bill for a vote, has said he won’t vote for a renewal of the program without the Senate acting on his pet issue — adding armed guards and new safety technology at schools. Democrats, understandably, are balking at the cost and the meaning for public school culture if more police with weapons enter the hallways.

Other pending legislative items, including scrapping the specialized high school test, legalizing sports betting, ending cash bail, and legalizing marijuana, are highly unlikely to be taken up in the 2018 session. Once lawmakers adjourn, they won’t be back in Albany until January, barring a special session.

This means that another year will have passed with little in the way of significant legislation coming out of Albany. New York’s voting and campaign finance laws will remain among the worst in the country until at least 2019. Universal healthcare, the DREAM Act, and statewide civil rights protections for the LGBTQ community will similarly not become a reality in New York before next year.

It’s important to understand the history here. This latest example of Albany dysfunction — a peculiarly gridlocked Senate — is neither an accident nor the fault of one state senator who decided to leave Albany early. Democrats could have built a majority a long time ago, had the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference unified with the main party years ago instead of forming a power-sharing alliance with Republicans — something Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn’t see fit to put an end to until earlier this year.

Republicans have survived in power not only with the IDC’s help, but also with the help of gerrymandered districts that, in 2012, were redrawn with Cuomo’s blessing. The oft-maligned Felder presides over a Brooklyn district that was engineered to elect a Republican or conservative Democrat, and which favored Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

There are many like it across New York State.

We can never know what Democratic unification years ago would have looked like, but one conference fundraising together with a powerful governor’s help could have stood up to a Republican conference backed to the hilt with cash from the real estate industry, Wall Street, and the Mercers.

Even now, with excitement for progressive politics growing every day, Republicans enter the midterm with a healthy fundraising advantage. Senate Republicans have $1.5 million in their campaign account, according to a recent state filing, compared to the Democrats’ less than $700,000.

The dynamics for next year are unclear. We could be entering a new era of unified Democratic control or yet another year of divided government. The speed camera program could expand to every single school zone or die altogether.

Perhaps we may get the most unlikely outcome at all, or at least the one that seems farfetched from where we sit: a healthy, functional state government in New York.

We can always dream.

Ross Barkan is a frequent Village Voice contributor who is running for State Senate in Brooklyn as a Democrat.


New York Needs New Blood, Not Cuomo’s Deal With IDC

Everything politics has taught me, and continues to teach me, boils down to power: who wields it and who doesn’t.

I believed this before I ran for office and I believe it more now, especially as I compete for the right to serve in Albany, where politicians’ power struggles affect the lives of millions of people. This is why I reacted with skepticism, as did many other progressives, when Governor Cuomo and his state Democratic Party announced a deal recently to reunite the Independent Democratic Conference and the mainline senate Democrats, who together would form a majority in the state senate.

Both the IDC, which for the last six years has maintained a power-sharing alliance with senate Republicans, and the senate Democrats have tentatively accepted the terms of the deal. Among political insiders, it is considered correct to solemnly affirm this deal because that is the adult thing to do. Do not bicker, do not fight. Everyone must make a sacrifice and compromise — that’s how governing works.

Since I’m no longer a mere spectator of the process, but sunk ever deeper into it, I feel obligated to speak out. The terms of the deal are ultimately self-defeating for senate Democrats, who are still locked in the minority, because they exist with the assumption that the IDC should be allowed to exist, and exist at full strength.

For once, next year’s electoral environment, along with the grassroots energy being generated, will favor Democrats. They will gain everything by picking up their swords, not laying them down.

The terms of this deal were foisted on the Senate from above. Geoff Berman, Cuomo’s handpicked executive director of a state party that he controls top to bottom, announced an ultimatum of sorts last month for the two feuding sides. If the IDC won’t form a majority with the senate Dems, the state party promised to back challengers to the IDC’s members next year. After years of relative silence, it appeared Cuomo’s state party at last had woken up to the egregiousness of the Republican-IDC alliance — an alliance that has ensured we can’t have a statewide single-payer healthcare system, campaign finance reform, the Dream Act, or changes to our antiquated voting laws.

The IDC and Democrats would have to agree to approve who became the deputy leaders of each group, a direct dig at the senate Democratic deputy leader, Michael Gianaris of Queens, who is a mortal enemy of the IDC’s leader and mastermind, Jeff Klein of the Bronx. (The IDC would not allow Gianaris to keep his role.) Since Gianaris accepted this condition — perhaps to Klein’s surprise — I don’t have too much concern about it, though it’s strange to me the IDC can’t just take up the same power-sharing arrangement they currently have with the right-wing Republican Conference: two legislative leaders in control, none deciding the arrangements of the other conference. Why can’t Cuomo command them to do just that?

It only got more confusing and dubious from there. Since there will be two vacant senate seats, both held by Democrats, at the beginning of 2018 — a possibility I warned about in September — special elections will have to be called to fill them. Unlike in city elections, where vacancies automatically trigger nonpartisan special elections, calling a special election for state legislative seats is the sole responsibility of the governor, and one of his most important and overlooked powers.

Special elections must occur seventy to eighty days after they are called, which means if Cuomo calls for elections right after the January 1 vacancies, the Democratic seats would be filled sometime in March. But Berman’s terms — really Cuomo’s, and they should be understood as such — call for special elections in April, after the $150 billion or so state budget is negotiated. It goes without saying that the most significant part of the Albany legislative process is the hammering out of a massive state budget. Since Republicans currently hold a slim one-seat majority, the IDC would control yet another budget negotiating process.  

Progressives are right to decry these terms, especially when these senate seats, likely to be won by Democrats, could be filled sooner. And they are right to be angry about the state party’s other condition: that senate Democrats abandon their primary challenges of IDC members.

The bad news for the many progressive activists who are committed to ousting some or all of the eight-member IDC is that both Congressman Joe Crowley, the chairman of the Queens County Democratic Party and one of the only anti-IDC county leaders, and Hector Figueroa, the president of the powerful union 32BJ SEIU, endorsed the terms of the deal. If they do not invest in these challenges, particularly against the three newest turncoat Democrats in New York City — Marisol Alcantara of Manhattan, Jesse Hamilton of Brooklyn, and Jose Peralta of Queens — the job of beating them in primaries becomes more difficult, though far from impossible.

Losing the nominal backing of the senate Democrats isn’t exactly helpful either, even if they were likely saving most of their limited resources for competitive general elections against Republicans.

The bigger issue, however, is the idea of any withdrawal of institutional support for the primary challengers (in essence, pressuring them to drop out altogether) to satisfy the terms of a nebulous deal. If somehow all the Democrats running against IDC members abandoned their campaigns — and they won’t — there would be nothing stopping the IDC, still eight members strong, from reneging on this “deal” and remaining in power with Republicans.

In fact, this already happened — in 2014, when another IDC-Democratic reconciliation came to nothing after labor unions and Democrats stopped helping two IDC primary challengers, Oliver Koppell and John Liu, who eventually lost their bids. Once the 2014 cycle ended, the IDC renewed its GOP alliance.

For senate Democrats, this kind of deal amounts to negotiating from a place of weakness, not strength, and both Klein and Cuomo know this. Weakening or ending the primary challenges would mean allowing the IDC to remain intact, guaranteeing its existence in perpetuity and ensuring it holds leverage over the senate as long as it wants.

To reduce the IDC’s power — its negotiating position — Democrats must defeat IDC members. Just as importantly, it must become politically untenable for any Democrats to join the IDC in the future, or for another breakaway conference to take its place if it ever dissolves.

How does this happen? Through the threat of primary challenges. Power is wielded through force, through campaigns.

There is no other alternative to building a strong, and progressive, Democratic majority in the senate. Every other option will end in failure.

Luckily, Albany power brokers can do nothing to actually keep these primary challenges from happening. The Democrats running against Peralta, Hamilton, and Alcantara are buttressed by a large number of grassroots activists and organizations rightfully fed up with Democrats who empower Republicans. Since many of these people are also supportive of me, perhaps my view of them is a bit rosy, but I can tell you there are thousands of them and they are willing to lend a good deal of their time (and money) to the cause.

All signs point to a Democratic wave in 2018 — a highly unpopular president, an energized Democratic base, and the history of midterms for the party in power. Given these factors, cutting any kind of deal to allow the IDC to exist as its own conference makes no sense. The Republicans they rely on to stay in power are endangered.

This election cycle could cripple Republican power in New York for good, especially if Democrats retain a majority in 2020 and can finally control the redistricting process for 2022. But Cuomo and his state Democratic Party want senate Democrats to surrender their potential power for short-term crumbs.

Luckily, the people in these IDC districts know better. They know leaving the IDC alone is a mistake. In their passion is logic — that to fight is the only way to win.

Longtime Village Voice political reporter Ross Barkan announced his candidacy for state senate in south Brooklyn’s 22nd district on October 3. Publication of his articles by the Voice does not imply our endorsement of Barkan’s campaign.


First Rule of Elections: It’s All About Money

Longtime Village Voice political reporter Ross Barkan announced his candidacy for state senate in south Brooklyn’s 22nd district on October 3. As his campaign proceeds, Barkan will be reporting for the Voice on his experience navigating the New York state election process.

Publication of these articles by the Voice do not imply our endorsement of Barkan’s campaign, or for that matter of the New York state election process.

It started to happen at a party last month. People were clustered in the small living room, laughing and munching on meaty nachos, sipping beer, and, as always, checking their phones. I was sitting on a folding chair, my eyes wandering.

I was thinking about money.

If the twelve people in the room each kicked in $50 by next week, I’d be a quarter of the way to my arbitrary fundraising goal.… If I could pull $100 from those two bros talking about the Yankees’ starting pitching… If I could convince the host to tell ten of her closest friends to chip in $10 by midnight…

People have asked me, as a journalist, what it’s like to be a first-time candidate for office. How are you? What do you do, exactly? Do you really enjoy it?

I’m great. I do a lot. And yes — mostly.

But what I’ve found is how little the people covering politics — including me (until now) — comprehend how much money rules your universe once you’re in a campaign. To most journalists, politics is something like performance art, with set pieces and hammy actors and gestures toward what is actually going on behind the curtain. A campaign stages a walking tour or a candidate gives a speech or an endorsement email arrives; the reporter dutifully consumes each little prop, and goes about his or her day, unaware of the reality churning below.

Hint: If you don’t see a candidate out on the sidewalk or chatting up seniors, they’re probably somewhere trying to raise money.

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Money pays for staff, campaign mail, a website, and a lot of other things. It’s also about showing outsiders how serious you are. Until we find a better system, fundraising levels are how candidates will be judged.

Campaign finance reform can sound elitist, at least when it’s bandied about by good government groups and that type of politician you know — usually a well-coifed goo-goo from the Upper East or West Side of Manhattan. Some on the left will rank it below bread-and-butter economic issues or social concerns. It’s not always top-tier.

When you’re living in a system that prizes money above all else and creates such perverse incentives in the people trying to get elected, you start to see it differently. It becomes the pressing issue. It’s not so much about whether a single donation will influence you. Journalists overrate how much one $100 or $1,000 check in a sea of money can swing anything. They’re too quick to cry out “quid pro quo!” anytime any two events are tangentially related by cash.

What they should focus on instead is where the big money is and why politicians act the way they do. It’s not about any one developer, lobbyist, or heavyweight donor. It’s about the crush of money — where it is and how you seek it.

I am running as a pro-tenant, anti–real estate lobby candidate in New York City. There will be at least one PAC that may support me (Tenants PAC), so that’s one financial incentive to be the way I am. Yet this one PAC is significantly outgunned by the millions of dollars the Real Estate Board of New York, the chief advocacy arm of the real estate industry, will spend in each election cycle.

Were I not such a new and unlikely candidate — say, if I were a Democrat who had been viewed as a rising star for a while and decided to take the plunge — it would be easier for me to be much nicer to developers. That’s where the money is, after all, and that’s how you can get $5,000-a-pop donations without trying too hard. One hour schmoozing a millionaire can be worth weeks of pressing friends, neighbors, and fellow activists to kick in cash, bit by bit.

I’ve been fortunate so far. I’ve avoided dreaded “call time.” Anodyne-seeming enough, call time refers to sitting in a room somewhere and calling people to ask for money. A lot of money. Hours upon hours, dialing friends, relatives, vague acquaintances, and the big donors (“whales”) who are used to this kind of dance and enjoy the cajoling. Some politicians actually relish call time. Most put it off as long as they can.

When you’re a candidate, you’ll find yourself monetizing people and things when you don’t want to, refreshing the donation site ActBlue, adding sums in your head toward fundraising goals that can seem mythic.

Before announcing this campaign, I had written approvingly of the city’s public financing system, which matches small donations within the district six to one. If I gave a City Council candidate in my neighborhood $20, that would turn into $120 with public matching funds.

While critics of this process say it wastes public money on campaigns and creates onerous burdens for first-time candidates to hire a good financial compliance person — the Campaign Finance Board will fine you heavily for running afoul of their regulations — it is clearly preferable to what we have at the state level.

As a candidate for the state senate, I don’t have access to matching funds. There is no public finance system. A $500 check goes a lot further than $50, even for candidates who pursue a small-donor strategy. This gives state incumbents a titanic advantage, as many lawmakers sit on war chests in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, amassed over years of wringing big checks out of people who want to defend the status quo.

So when people ask if I’m worried about going up against a Democratic political machine — I’m a registered Democrat who has not been shy about excoriating party leaders in my writing — my answer is always no. I simply think about money. I’m raising it now, and doing well for a first-time candidate, but the mountain I have to climb is far different than the one insurgent candidates facing off against stodgy machines encountered a generation ago. The game has changed.

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When I announced my campaign in early October, I shocked a lot of people by telling almost no one. In politics one is supposed to “lay the groundwork” in advance, but I did little of this — no exploratory committee, no feeling out donors, no fundraising madly for an announcement yet to come. Instead of planning months for a kickoff fundraiser, I spent two weeks (at most) doing it. I just said I was running and away I went.

What this has meant, in essence, has been doing everything on the fly. Planning a good fundraiser should take more than two weeks. Donors should be primed and ready, at least if you’re doing it the conventional way.

It means forgoing a significant host committee, which is the secret of any successful fundraiser — get a few people of means to bundle the cash you need to make the night financially successful. Maybe half of what you need is earned at the door. Again, all of this is about planning and knowing the right people.

I’ve lamented that the general admission ticket to my fundraiser was $75, because that was prohibitively expensive for many people I know. If there were a matching funds system or a limit on how much candidates could spend, the barrier to entry for a two-hour open bar would be a lot lower. Maybe it wouldn’t exist at all.

Ideally, I wouldn’t have to raise money at all. My energy would be channeled into meeting people, dreaming up policy, and giving rousing speeches. I like speechifying, I like talking, I like flesh-pressing.

I’ll have to learn to like money.


Holy Crap, Ross Barkan Is Running for State Senate

Ross Barkan, who has covered city and state politics for the Voice, the Guardian, Gothamist, the Observer, and other publications since 2013, published an article at Medium this morning where he announced that he was entering the 2018 race for Republican Marty Golden’s New York state senate seat, as a Democrat:

If you’ve read my columns in the Village Voice, the Guardian, Gothamist or any of the other outlets I’ve written for, you can imagine what this campaign will be about. My values have been laid bare and will guide everything I do. What I’m finding is, you can only try to hold the system accountable for so long from the outside. Sometimes, you have to break in and do it from the inside.

A political journalist running for office in New York is not entirely unprecedented — most famously, Jimmy Breslin ran for city council president in 1969 on a ticket with mayoral candidate Norman Mailer, on a platform of New York City declaring independence to become the 51st state. But where Mailer and Breslin’s campaign was largely a symbolic protest vote — one of their proposals was to ban cars from Manhattan and encircle the borough with a monorail — Barkan says he’s in this to win.

We sat down with Barkan to ask why anyone would consider giving up one of the least trusted professions in the United States for an even less trusted one.

What on earth possessed you to do this? It’s like a sports reporter sitting in a press box at a hockey game, watching a fight going on down below and thinking, “Hey, I could do that!”

I’ve been thinking about it for a number of months. I am a lifelong Brooklynite, covering city politics, state politics too, and watching how things operate and don’t operate. As the year wore on, I was getting increasingly frustrated with how the political class was acting to handle what I saw were very serious crises.

The big one for a lot of people in where I live in southwest Brooklyn, and in the city writ large, is transportation. I was just struck again and again by the gutlessness of Democrats and Republicans when it came to grappling with this major catastrophe. I mean, our subway system is literally crumbling before our eyes, and we’re arguing over whether the MTA is a state authority or not.

I’ve been very open for a long time about my positions on issues. I’m a reporter. I’m also a columnist — obviously for the Voice, and I do a weekly national column for the Guardian. So people know my values, they know where I stand. We see staffers and millionaires and businessmen and all sorts of hacks try to enter the political arena. Why not a journalist who’s covered the system, who’s scrutinized it, who’s held it to account?

I have no great illusions about this. This is going to be incredibly difficult. The incumbent is entrenched. You have to raise a lot of money. But I felt it was a good time to try something like this.

This is not something I ever dreamed about. This is not something I want to do the rest of my life. This is something that felt right for me right now.

When Jimmy Breslin and Norman Mailer ran for city council president and mayor in 1969, they were running to raise issues, but not necessarily to win. Are there examples of people who’ve come from outside the political structure who have been able to win elections?

The great Errol Louis ran for city council in 1997. He was very active in the community. I think he had founded a local credit union. I believe he’d been a journalist beforehand. He ran a serious Democratic primary. He did not win. I don’t know of journalists turned winners, but I’m not going to let that stop me. As we’ve learned from the 2016 presidential cycle, past is not prologue, and I don’t think it ever will be again.

What do you think are the biggest obstacles to you or anyone who’s not from inside the political system?

The biggest obstacle by far is money — that goes without saying. State-level races have no public matching funds system, which is very unfortunate. There’s very little regulation on the size of donations you can take, so someone who’s very well-connected, who has a lot of rich friends or has sold out to the right people, can raise a lot of money quickly.

Obstacle number two is getting your name out there and raising awareness in the community. Since I have something of a following already, that may be a bit less challenging. But I have no doubt that while people in Bay Ridge may know me, it’s a big district that includes Dyker Heights and Bensonhurst and Gerritsen Beach and Marine Park and Manhattan Beach. And while I’ve spent a lot of time there and played in the parks and gone to the beach there, I’m not a household name in any of those places.

You’re going to continue working as a journalist as this goes on?

That’s the intent. Obviously, that’s up to the discretion of the people who I write for. If they’re cooperating, I’m happy to keep writing.

I mean, look, there are definitely challenges. What I would say is, I’m a bit unconventional in that I’m not your AP-style reporter with the allegedly neutral viewpoint who suddenly, ta-da, has opinions now. If you follow me on Twitter, if you read my columns, you know where I stand on the issues, and so nothing about that will change. I see the campaign as an outgrowth of my reporting and seeing these issues up close and scrutinizing them and getting really upset about how badly they’re being addressed.

I want to keep being a watchdog and being a voice and just telling people what I think about things. I can go out and report, I can gather information, I can talk to people, and I can say, “You know what? This is how I have arrived at the truth.” I don’t have to do this false equivalency game of, “This side says this and this side says this and now we’ve come to a grand consensus.”

I’ve been a longtime critic of the Independent Democratic Conference, and my argument has always been quite simple: If you are a progressive Democrat, it makes literally no sense to support the IDC — it is cognitive dissonance. I’m a big proponent of single-payer healthcare. I think we can bring this to New York State. Cleaning up corruption — all these things that I’ve been espousing in my stories will be a part of the campaign, and also part of what I’m writing about.

I can understand people will go, “Well, that Barkan, now he’s just a hack politician, everything he writes is super-slanted and we can’t trust him.” I’m going to be very open and very transparent about what I’m doing. I hope to write about the inner workings of the campaign. I want people to understand how the political process works, because I don’t even entirely understand it. I think until you’re in the muck, you’re really sunk down deep, you don’t really know what it’s like to actually have to beg people for money, to actually have to go out on the street and talk to strangers.

I wonder if it will be an interesting challenge — let’s put it that way — when you come across topics where you’ll have to think about whether to present them in the way that is the most honest and most transparent for readers, or in the way that might make your campaign come across the best.

Yes. That’s a central challenge. You’re running for office, and you have to speak to or court these interest groups and modulate yourself. That’s at least the traditional approach: You have your private opinions and you have your public opinions, then you kind of try to reconcile the two. What I’m trying to do here, and I hope I’m successful, is bridge the divide between the private and public self. For me, what I believe privately will be what I am espousing publicly, and I’m going to be as brutally honest as I can about the political scene.

Now the good news is — and I go back to the presidential race a year ago — is that I believe people are looking for something else in their politicians. I believe they’re tired of the bullshit. I believe they genuinely want to see someone who is at least earnest.

I think that was the success of the Bernie Sanders campaign. And while we know Donald Trump is a compulsive liar, part of the populist appeal was that he seemed like someone who just spoke off the top of his head, really threw out all the pageantry of politics as we know it. I am certainly in disagreement with Donald Trump on literally almost every single issue. But I, too, am not a politician. Political consultants may not like me because they’re going to say, “Ross, you can’t fight for single-payer healthcare in southwest Brooklyn. What are you, crazy? It’s all right-wing nutjobs down there.” And I’ll go, “Actually, there’s a lot of good people who are looking for new ideas, and they will be receptive if you are honest and you explain exactly where you’re coming from.”

So, these are all going to be challenges. I’m not naïve about it at all. But I’m just going to keep doing my best and keep being as honest and forthright as I can be.

It raises that whole question of, not even just for the campaign, but even if you’re to win —

My dad said to me, “Watch out, if you win you’re going to have to go to Albany. You don’t want to have to actually go up there, it’s cold and yucky.” And I said, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

It’s not just that it’s cold and yucky, but that we’ve seen tons of people who were perfectly legitimate human beings in normal life go into elected office, and it’s not like they all turn into monsters, but they —

Become hacks.

They play the game. How much do you expect that you can go in there and try to bring transparency and new ideas and new approaches, and how much do you think there is this institution that tends to change the people who go there more than the people change the system?

Well, obviously, the New York political class writ large is weak and lacks imagination, and the institutions are deeply, deeply flawed. The state legislature is maybe one of the worst in the country, and part of that is because of the culture; part is that the laws have not been changed in a very long time, and there’s been a lack of will to change them. So, one person going in there on his or her own is going to have an uphill battle to really change a lot.

Now, the question is, will I be changed? Will I wade into the swamp and become a swamp creature? I don’t want to, and I aim not to. I look at Bernie Sanders becoming the de facto leader of the Democratic Party, and being someone who’s really in the inner circle of Senate leadership in Washington, and to his credit he really has not changed his approach. He is still unapologetically himself. So I think it can be done.

Truth be told, we’ve had so many lackluster candidates who really weren’t cut out for changing anything in the first place. And that’s part of the problem, too. Who are the people who run for office? It’s someone who’s been on the staff for a really long time, and they wait their turn and then suddenly the opening comes and they run. Or you have the well-connected attorney who can raise some money and jumps into the fray, or you have a millionaire. And so I hope just by being an outsider, rabble-rousing journalist that, if I’m so privileged to get there — and it’s a very long road ahead — I will stay true to myself. I can only promise that I will be unapologetically Ross Barkan, no matter what happens over the next year.


After Attacks, Dems Push Stewart-Cousins for State Majority Leader

It was an amusing spectacle for anyone well-acquainted with the bewildering nature of New York State politics. A slew of heavyweight Democrats clustered together next to a statue of Harriet Tubman in Harlem to demand that one of their Democratic own, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, finally become the majority leader of the state senate.

The rally on Monday, organized by Harlem’s new state senator, Brian Benjamin, was held in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a racial remark made by a man who might be New York’s most influential donor, the billionaire investor Daniel Loeb. The politicians and various activists took turns assailing Loeb — who had said in a Facebook comment that the African American Stewart-Cousins was doing more harm to children of color than the KKK because she is an opponent of the expansion of charter schools (Loeb later apologized and deleted the post) — and also decried a group of Democrats who have spent more than four years sharing the majority in the state senate with the GOP.

The hot afternoon on West 122nd Street was illuminating for a few reasons. For one, it brought together some big names in New York politics — Charlie Rangel, Hakeem Jeffries, Letitia James, Scott Stringer, Adriano Espaillat, and Yvette Clarke — who could all agree that the Independent Democratic Conference, the rogue group of eight Democrats who help Republicans control the state senate, needed to end its dubious power-sharing alliance.

Espaillat, a congressman and former state senator, now thinks the IDC should form a Democratic majority, though just last year he laid much of his political capital on the line to elect a Manhattan IDC member, Marisol Alcantara, who has supported keeping Republicans in power. James, working up similar outrage yesterday, happily endorsed Alcantara last year. And one of the rally’s more fiery speakers, Kirsten John Foy of the National Action Network, this year defended a Brooklyn Democrat who jumped to the IDC.

Adding to the political whiplash, Calvin Butts, the powerful Harlem pastor who thought about running for mayor as a Republican and once spurned a black Democratic nominee to endorse Michael Bloomberg for a third term, delivered a prayer at the start of the rally.

For the few self-identified progressives left who believe the IDC is needed in New York, it’s worth thinking about why Loeb, primarily a donor to national Republicans, wants them to exist in the first place. As long as a rogue conference of Democrats can keep suburban and upstate Republicans in power, left-wing priorities that are the bane of Loeb’s set — single-payer healthcare, more funding for public schools, significantly stronger tenant protections — can’t come to fruition. The Republican Party is dying in New York, but the IDC is its crutch. Someone like Loeb, out of step with the leftward march of the state, needs the IDC to retain his influence.

Standing in the crowd of pols, looking smart in a red tie and crisp suit, was Alphonso David, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s chief counsel. David, who is black, was there to show solidarity for Stewart-Cousins, and got a nice shout-out.

Watching David there, a smile frozen on his face, you had to wonder what was going through his mind when Stringer declared he would return a donation he received from Loeb six years ago and funnel the cash to a Democrat in Harlem running in a primary against Alcantara. Cuomo has taken some $170,000 dollars from Loeb, who has also donated $62,000 to the leader of the IDC, State Senator Jeff Klein of the Bronx, and the IDC’s campaign committee. Neither have any plans to return the billionaire’s cash.

Beyond Klein, the IDC mastermind and nurser of never-ending grievances, there is no one more responsible for the IDC’s existence than Cuomo. Ever wary of moving too far left, Cuomo aided the IDC’s formation in 2011 and did nothing as the group first denied Democrats the majority in 2012.

Since then, Cuomo has rarely used his massive war chest — or the coffers he controls through the New York State Democratic Party — to help senate Democrats. If the mainline Democrats, a minority conference that has struggled over the years with crafting a coherent and compelling message for voters, seem lackluster, they have been competing with a severe handicap: forced to fight multi-front wars against a moneyed Republican conference and the IDC while being undermined by Cuomo and, until recently, disinterested Democratic lawmakers.

This is where the shift is most dramatic, and why the IDC might be in trouble. Regular New York Democrats are treating support of the IDC as a litmus test of a person’s progressive credentials, something that was never true until Trump’s election. The IDC spent more than four years locking Democrats out of the majority, and enough people who matter now care. This is new.

Primaries could thin Klein’s ranks, and the loss of Republicans in next year’s elections may harm his bargaining power. Klein, though, is a survivor, and as long as Cuomo remains governor, the Bronx lawmaker will probably find a way to influence the senate as a co-leader with Stewart-Cousins. New York politics will stay weird.

But all cannot return to the way it was before, when the IDC reigned with nary a word from New York’s lame Democratic class and dodged scrutiny from the state’s most liberal voters. If people like Espaillat can be convinced to rail against the very thing they empowered, the IDC has a right to be nervous. It is a conference besieged, and that won’t change.


Albany Is A Dysfunctional Sewer But At Least Students Might Have St. Patrick’s Day Off Next Year

The state legislature has roughly a week to come up with a budget that sets New York’s legislative priorities. Raise the Age reform, which would prevent the state from charging 16 and 17-year-old kids as adults, passed in the Assembly but languishes in the Senate, where Republicans have blocked it. Substantive ethics reform, touted by Governor Cuomo in his state of the state speech, is a distant memory (a Republican state senator was charged with corruption on Thursday morning). Upstate Republicans are moving to punish New York by shifting Medicaid costs from the federal government to the state, all while “Trumpcare” is poised to leave millions uninsured and millions more with higher premiums. But the State Senate did manage to pass one bill this week: S6747A would make St. Patrick’s Day a holiday in New York City public schools.

The bill, sponsored by Queens Senator Tony Avella, a member of the controversial Independent Democratic Caucus, is tailored specifically to districts home to more than one million students; New York City is the only district in the state that qualifies.

Avella touted the holiday’s significance as a celebration of Irish culture and heritage.

“Two years ago when we passed the Lunar New Year school holiday…it occurred to me, all these years we have had St. Patrick’s Day in New York City, it’s a huge holiday not just for the Irish but for all New Yorkers. Why have we never given consideration to making that a school holiday?” Avella told the Voice. “If anyone deserved to have a holiday based on long standing tradition, it certainly is the Irish-American community.”

In February 2016, city teacher Frank Schorn filed a civil rights suit against the Department of Education, claiming that their scheduling of parent teacher conferences on St. Patrick’s Day violated his right to march in the massive parade up Fifth Avenue. City Council’s Irish Caucus had repeatedly asked the Department to reschedule, and they refused.

Mayor de Blasio refused to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade for two years after organizers banned gay and lesbian organizations from marching under their banners. The mayor ended his boycott this year.

De Blasio campaigned on promises to add three religious holidays to the school calendar, which has long observed Christian and Jewish holidays, and the sacred Muslim holidays Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, as well as the Lunar New Year, celebrated by many of the city’s Chinese families, were added in 2015.

Avella also sponsored a bill to add Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, to the school calendar. It has yet to make it out of committee.

“Once we did Lunar New Year, we set the precedent that if you’re going to celebrate holidays particular to one group or another you have to be fair to all, and that’s something the city of New York is going to have to look at,” said Avella.

The first St. Patrick’s Day parade actually happened in colonial New York City, in 1762. Successive waves of Irish immigration to the city over the next 35 years brought several small-scale iterations of the parades organized by Irish groups and, in 1848, they merged.

Through the decades, the Americanized version of the holiday became associated with binge drinking and violence. In 1867, the New York Times described the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade as a “riot” where “swords and spears” were in use. In 1894, a headline read: “The Death Rate Increased By The St. Patrick’s Day Parade.” The St. Patrick’s Day parade eventually became emblematic of growing Irish political power. Today, the parade is mostly secular, attended by New Yorkers of many ethnicities and backgrounds.

Still, Avella insists that the religious focus of St. Patrick’s Day has emerged over the last decade as the predominant motivation for celebration, and insisted that a day off from school was not akin to condoning the sorts of behavior commonly associated with the holiday.

“It was a problem decades ago with St. Patrick’s Day being associated with drinking, but I don’t think that’s the case anymore,” said Avella. “Obviously school-aged drinking is illegal. I think it’s a party celebration and that doesn’t mean that because we give a school holiday that should encourage any sort of illegal drinking or drinking to excess…[the parade] is clearly not what it was like 10 or 20 years ago.”

He cited increased “education” on the holiday’s true meaning for what he calls a reduction in vice, though he didn’t provide examples of what kind of education, or where and when it happened. Avella insisted that St. Patrick’s Day is a holy day of obligation in which practicing Catholics are required to attend mass.

According to Mercedes Lopez Blanco, who works in the communications office at the Archdiocese of New York, St. Patrick’s Day does appear on the Catholic liturgical calendar and attending daily mass is encouraged, but not required, even on St. Patrick’s Day.

“On certain days we honor certain saints and March 17 happens to be the day St. Patrick is honored on the liturgical calendar,” said Lopez Blanco. “A mention is made in that mass and that mass is said with him in mind.”


New York’s One Step Closer To Making Fake Weed More Illegal Than Real Weed

The New York State Senate today passed a bill that would make the possession and sale of fake marijuana a crime in the Empire State — which would make the possession of fake marijuana more illegal than possession of real marijuana.

Real marijuana, as we’ve mentioned in prior posts about the proposed ban of faux-weed, was decriminalized in New York in 1977 (a marijuana possession ticket in New York is about as serious a violation as a parking ticket). Under the new bill, possession or sale of fake weed would be would be a misdemeanor, with provisions that make certain sales (sale to children or in school zones) class-B felonies.

“Fake pot has real health consequences, as do bath salts and other
products that are aggressively being marketed to young people on Long
Island and around the State,” Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director
of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, says. “Several journal articles published in the last three months have detailed a wide range of psychiatric symptoms experienced by users including paranoia, hallucinations, delusions and extreme anxiety. Several other journal articles have detailed cases of convulsions, heart attacks and kidney failure in adolescents who, because these substances are legal, often mistakenly believe they are safe.”

While fake weed being more illegal than real weed sounds pretty
ridiculous, the effects of synthetic weed have proven to be more
dangerous than those of the real stuff.

Synthetic weed is herbs sprayed with synthetic canabanoids. Some of the
side effects include rapid heart rate, tremors, loss of consciousness
and hallucinations. In a few cases — like that of 26-year-old Aaron
Stinson — smoking synthetic marijuana can be fatal. On the flip side,
it’s impossible to die from an overdose of real marijuana.

In an attempt to illustrate the dangers of synthetic weed, legislators
point to the case of Richard “Psycho” Velazquez, who was sentenced to 10
years in prison after pleading guilty to felony counts of assault
and strangulation in an attack on a woman and her infant child in Glens
Falls. Velazquez, legislators say, slammed the victim’s face into a
mirror, choked her, and tackled her down a flight of stairs as she held her 7-week-old child. Velazquez claims the synthetic marijuana he and the victim had been smoking prior to the attack directly contributed to his actions. That said, legislators might want to find a better anecdote to illustrate the dangers of synthetic weed than one that references a guy whose nickname is “Psycho.” In other words, perhaps “Psycho” is just a psycho who’s trying to blame his crime on fake weed.

Governor Andrew Cuomo already has placed an administrative ban on
synthetic marijuana (meaning police can confiscate it). If the bill
criminalizing fake weed gets to his desk, it seems pretty likely that
he’ll sign it.


Hiram Monserrate’s Cheating Ways

One of the sadder sights in this desolate political season was Hiram Monserrate’s entrance into federal court last week for his arraignment on fraud charges.

The ex–City Councilman and ex–State Senator knew he had a date with handcuffs that morning, and he had donned a jacket, tie, and a white dress shirt with French cuffs for the occasion. The rules, however, require that ties and belts be removed from those arrested for fear of someone’s possible strangulation. The jacket and cuff links go as well. As a result, Monserrate made his appearance before a press-packed gallery with his shirt tails flapping and his uncuffed sleeves hanging down past his wrists.

He had put on a few pounds since his last court visit in February, back when he was battling to keep from being ousted from the State Senate after his conviction for assaulting his girlfriend. The next day’s Post tagged him as looking “disheveled.” That was putting it kindly. Hiram Monserrate was a mess.

Not so long ago, a lot of people were rooting for the ex-cop from Queens. He proudly entered the Council as the first Hispanic elected from his borough, part of the big new post-term-limits class of 2001. He was a husky former Marine who fought with police brass over racism inside his Queens precinct. He was a founder of the Latino Officers Association and a board member of the New York Civil Liberties Union. On the Council he enlisted in all the toughest causes. He was such an outspoken voice for immigrants that he went head-to-head with the mayor over how city officials interact with illegal aliens. The mayor backed down. Monserrate won a second round when his bill to eliminate metered parking on Sundays passed 43 to 1. Bloomberg vowed a veto, but that was just bluff. Monserrate had him on that one, too. In 2005, he cruised to re-election.

Somewhere along the line, success went to his head. His next stop, he decided, should be the State Senate. At the time, the seat he wanted was held by another popular ex-Councilman named John Sabini. From Monserrate’s perspective, the Italian-American Sabini was an interloper. The district—Jackson Heights and East Elmhurst—was overwhelmingly Hispanic. Why should a white guy have it? Sabini had the support of the Queens Democratic machine. Monserrate ran as the independent outsider.

The result was a nasty campaign with race as the steady undercurrent. Both sides spent more than $300,000. Riding a tide of new Latino voters, Monserrate came just 242 votes shy of victory. That was close enough for the Queens Democratic organization. It suddenly noticed the borough’s growing Hispanic population. It abandoned Sabini and agreed to back Monserrate. Two years later, he won the seat unopposed.

The first clear sign that he’d gone badly off track came when he enlisted with a mercenary from the Bronx named Pedro Espada Jr. Along with a pair of pols with equally pliable morals—Carl Kruger and Ruben Diaz Sr.—the “Four Amigos” pulled a brazen shakedown of the Senate’s new Democratic leadership, demanding as many perks as they could grab.

Another sign came just days before he was to be sworn into his new job: On a late December night, Monserrate showed up at a Long Island hospital with his shaken girlfriend, Karla Giraldo. She needed 40 stitches for wounds suffered when a broken glass Monserrate was holding somehow gashed her face. Elmhurst Hospital was a few blocks away from the senator-elect’s apartment. He drove her 12 miles to another hospital. It had better service, he explained.

At trial, his able attorney, Joseph Tacopina, beat the toughest charge, felony assault, which would have meant automatic expulsion from the Senate. But the judge found him guilty of a misdemeanor for shoving his girlfriend around. Senate leaders, desperate to show they wouldn’t tolerate misbehavior, did something they hadn’t done in modern history: They threw him out.

Last week’s indictment cast new light on Monserrate’s earlier claims to fame. In the Council, he won cheers as an early crusader for transparency in the way money is doled out to pet projects. In 2006, he introduced a bill to mandate that the Council disclose which members were responsible for the otherwise anonymous “earmarks” planted in the budget. “Good conscience,” he said, demanded no less. Council Speaker Christine Quinn soon embraced this idea as her own, announcing that the reform would begin in the next budget.

At the time, the indictment shows, Monserrate was shoveling hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars to his own pet cause, a Queens organization he controlled called LIBRE, for Latino Initiative for Better Resources and Empowerment. The empowerment, apparently, was all his own. One of LIBRE’s projects was registering voters. According to the charges, the group focused exclusively on the district where Monserrate was then challenging Sabini for the Senate. In May 2006, prosecutors say, the councilman e-mailed one of his staffers demanding a list of all of LIBRE’s newly registered voters. On Monserrate’s instructions, the registration forms weren’t filed until the last minute, so that his rival wouldn’t spot them.

That July, he took this hypocrisy up another notch: The same month that he was introducing his reform legislation demanding greater Council transparency, he is alleged to have personally made out checks on LIBRE’s account to those who worked on his Senate candidacy. To do so, he used a rubber signature stamp for LIBRE’s chairperson, the charges claim.

Maybe he was trying to make a subtle point: In another era, former City Councilman Henry Stern famously said that the Council was less effective than a rubber stamp because at least “a rubber stamp leaves an impression.” Hiram Monserrate, crusading ex-cop turned politician, proves that a councilman can indeed use a rubber stamp, even if the lasting impression is only more deceit.

There’s nothing subtle about the message sent by this indictment. In terms of alleged theft—about $100,000—it’s chump change compared with recent cases. Larry Seabrook, the Bronx Councilman now awaiting trial, is alleged to have steered $1 million in public funds to himself and pals. Former state senator Efrain Gonzalez admitted stealing some $500,000.

But Monserrate is the first official charged with using the money to try to steal something even more important: elections. He insists he did no wrong. If he can figure out a way to pay a good lawyer, he’ll take the case to trial, where we may hear strong arguments in his favor. But the indictment is still a loud warning shot across the bow to the many other elected officials whose campaign organizations heavily overlap with nonprofit groups they fund with public money.

Up until now, this has been wink-and-a-nod territory: Employees of publicly funded do-gooder outfits are told in no uncertain terms that they’re expected to carry petitions and pull voters to the polls on election day for the greater benefit of their political patrons. With this latest indictment, all such bets are off.

In the past three years, the Southern District of New York, where Monserrate was indicted, has seen almost as many public corruption cases as it did back in the 1980s when Rudy Giuliani was waging a scorched-earth campaign against crooked politicians. At the press conference announcing Monserrate’s charges, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara stood next to city investigations commissioner Rose Gill Hearn, whose office helped make the case. Public corruption is a top priority for his office, Bharara said. He added: “Our work is far from finished.”


Pedro Espada’s Enablers

Andrew Cuomo’s revelations about State Senator Pedro Espada’s calculated looting of his publicly subsidized Bronx health care clinics have produced a wave of anger and disgust. As well they should.

There is the $20,000 in sushi delivered to the suburban home far from his Soundview district, the $9 million severance contract, the jobs for the convicted felons who covered for him during the last investigation, the vending machine and janitorial contracts that go directly into the Espada family pockets. All of it has rightly stoked public outrage.

But if it is worth getting angry about any of this, then it should be worth the trouble to aim some of that fury at Espada’s enablers. These are the deep-pocketed sponsors who have been all too happy to profit from this scoundrel regardless of his obvious taint.

Their campaign checks started rolling in early last year, days after Espada ended the first of his public hijackings of the Senate’s new Democratic majority. His first ransom payment was chairmanship of the Senate’s housing committee, a post that carries a guaranteed lifeline of donations. The names on the checks to New Yorkers for Espada are among real estate’s most prestigious. They came from the Rudin family, the respected builders, who gave some $4,000; from Leonard Litwin, the grand old man of luxury rentals, who gave another $5,000; from Donald Capoccia, the successful developer who depends on government subsidies, who gave thousands more.

All told, more than $300,000 poured in from landlords happy to celebrate Espada’s new leadership.

Last week, as the airwaves filled with tales of Espada’s gluttony, calls were placed to these benefactors in hopes of hearing at least some expression of buyer’s remorse. None could be found. These titans of property prefer not to discuss their dealings with the bad boy of the State Senate. Only Steve Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, who gets paid to take these hits for his team, was man enough to get on the phone. He offered no criticism: “I am not going to jump on him without seeing what happens,” said Spinola. “Do you believe everything you read in the papers?”

Yes, he had helped direct his members’ attention to Espada’s fundraising efforts. “He has been identified by me as somebody with the position and ability to deal with issues that affect us,” said Spinola.

And yes, Espada has responded to their concerns. “I know he has put forward a proposal about how to maintain affordable housing, which I think is a good proposal,” he said. “There are other bills that have not come forward that we are clearly happy about.”

The most recent example of such service came just days before Cuomo’s lawsuit and the FBI raid. A session of the Senate housing committee had been scheduled for April 19. The Friday before the session, chairman Espada had a sudden announcement: Meeting cancelled. His reason? Landlords needed more time to “weigh in” on legislation being considered.

What complex new bills were these? One of them has been kicking around for years. It would tighten a rule that currently lets owners empty buildings by claiming they need all the apartments for themselves. This happened not long ago right here on the Lower East Side when a landlord’s brilliant lawyer spotted the loophole and drove all residents of a five-story tenement right through it and out the door.

Bills to end this abuse have passed the Assembly repeatedly, but always died in the old Republican-controlled Senate. With the first Democratic majority in 40 years, the hope was that such simple measures of social equity might finally become law. They surely would have, except for the alliance quickly forged between the real estate lobby and Espada.

Spinola, a bona fide heavyweight in city and state political circles, acknowledged that Espada was asked to delay the meeting. “We clearly conveyed through our lobbyists our objections,” he said.

It wasn’t hard to deliver the message. One of the board’s lobbyists is an attorney named Stanley Schlein, who receives $4,000 monthly for his efforts. He gets another $4,000 a month from the other major landlord outfit, the Rent Stabilization Association. This is money well spent since Schlein clearly has the senator’s ear, having served as Espada’s attorney on political matters. In fact, when Espada first threatened to align himself with Senate Republicans last year, it was Schlein who represented him in negotiations and won the ex-boxer the housing chairmanship.

Schlein was also at his side last summer when Espada pulled his second shakedown, briefly crossing the aisle to sit with the Republicans. The ransom this time was even higher: Espada was made majority leader, a post that comes with bigger office, bigger payroll, and bigger clout.

One of the first things Espada did was double the salary of his part-time public relations director, a veteran flack named Steve Mangione, to $56,000 a year. As good a gig as this may be, Mangione did even better last year moonlighting for the Rent Stabilization Association. Lobbying records show the RSA paid him $90,000 to craft radio ads for their cause. Mangione, whose past clients include George Steinbrenner and the former mobbed-up leaders of the school bus drivers’ union, is an old hand at this. Back in 1997, when landlords carved a major hole in rent law protections, Mangione produced radio spots promoting that effort as well.

Such are the advisers who have the senator’s ear. Together, they have helped the real estate lobby run the table. Tenant groups are out in the cold, despite having provided many of the troops that helped Democrats win their majority. Their hoped-for reward was that bills that had languished under Republican rule would gain new life. Instead, they have been strangled in their cribs in Espada’s housing committee. Measures to curb the rent deregulation that landlords won during the Pataki years have been snuffed out. Ditto a plan that would—get this—let New York City decide its own rent rules.

Even Espada’s “affordable housing” proposal, as Spinola dubs it, is a landlord-rescue scheme. The script was devised in a panic after landlords were hit with the devastating appellate court ruling in the Stuyvesant Town rent overcharge case. Owners, judges ruled, had illegally collected tax breaks while charging market rates. The ruling means that landlords may have to do the unthinkable: Roll back rents on high-end apartments.

As a fallback plan, landlords suggested that upper-end rents remain as they are, in exchange for freezing charges for lower-income residents. All that need happen is that the city forgo billions in taxes.

Espada, aware that Cuomo’s investigation would soon surface, saw an excellent photo opportunity. He held “Freeze the Rent” rallies and papered them with his clinic employees. It was just for show. The proposal was already dead on arrival. When landlords pitched the plan to Vito Lopez, the powerful chairman of the Assembly housing committee, they struck out. “It’s not something I find acceptable,” Lopez said last week. “The numbers don’t match up. They’re not real.”

Just before Espada’s scandals exploded last week, veteran tenant advocate Michael McKee learned about the cancellation of the housing committee meeting. That’s the last straw, McKee wrote to Senate leader John Sampson. If Democrats want tenant support in the fall elections, McKee said, they must remove Espada from his housing post. It is one thing to tolerate a rogue senator’s own rapacious greed. It’s quite another to let him use his official clout to feed the greed of others far more powerful than himself.