New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio maintains that his team’s efforts to flip the state Senate into Democrats’ control during the 2014 elections and to fundraise on behalf of his agenda played a pivotal role in his fight against the status quo. But those efforts have concerned state officials, and consequently, have stood between the mayor and some of his outstanding policy goals.
Questions about potential conflicts of interest stalling aspects of his agenda dominated a press conference Wednesday at City Hall. Throughout the nearly two-hour event, the mayor maintained that he had adhered to all laws and rules and had sought support for Democratic state Senate candidates and the Campaign for One New York, a nonprofit promoting his agenda, because it helped him fend off those fighting against his agenda.
Minutes after the mayor called on the state to extend his control over the public school system, he was asked about Republican state Sen. Terrence Murphy’s skepticism about why the Legislature should trust him when there are ongoing investigations into donations he and his allies solicited. The mayor said the Legislature should be making its decision based on how much student achievement had grown, not based on probes that he said wouldn’t find any evidence of wrongdoing.
He was prompted to weigh in on the state revoking its support for the construction of two apartment towers in Brooklyn Bridge Park while citing “potential conflicts of interest” posed by the developer having donated to the Campaign for One New York. De Blasio called the state’s reasoning a “smokescreen,” and said he was baffled officials would not back affordable housing in one of the most exclusive New York City neighborhood
And while attempting to explain why a deed restriction was lifted in Harlem, de Blasio was asked how the public could be certain a developer involved with the site was not in the position to benefit because it had contributed to de Blasio’s bid to put the Senate into Democrats’ hands. The mayor said he and his administration had “nothing to do with” the donation. And he said the decision to lift the deed restriction, which previously required the Harlem lots be reserved for nonprofits providing cultural services, followed procedures that have been in place for 25 years.
The city gave the property to the Dance Theater of Harlem decades ago for a “modest price,” but the land sat vacant for 40 years, the mayor said. As the theater fell into debt, it sought to sell the property, lift the restrictions on it and use the profits to financially right itself. The city consented when the theater paid 25 percent of the current appraised property value, as is standard practice. Still, de Blasio said, he planned to put further deed restriction decisions on hold and would work with the City Council to create a more transparent process that better incorporates communities’ priorities.
Throughout the press conference, de Blasio argued that he and his allies’ fundraising efforts were a necessary part of achieving his agenda – and that history shows other New York politicians relied on similar tactics.
“Let’s be real about what was done in the past,” de Blasio said. “In some instances there were leaders who could just do it right out of their own pocket and provide a huge amount of resources for whatever they believed was right in terms of advertising campaigns or whatever it might be or to organizations that they wanted to curry the favor of. There have been organizations formed by elected officials to pursue their policy goals that would not disclose anything. We know that. This is recent in New York state history.”
De Blasio said his team, in contrast, proactively sought advice about what was appropriate from the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board and followed its guidance at every step.
“So we come along and say, ‘Here’s our core agenda. It revolves around fighting income inequality, things like creating full-day pre-K for all and a very ambitious affordable housing program for half a million people. We’re going to put together the resources to achieve those goals. And those are going to be fights,’” he said. “They were fights.”
Pressed for specifics about the Conflicts of Interest Board’s directive, the mayor said his administration was respecting several ongoing investigations and would release details when it could. His counsel, Maya Wiley, noted that there was a process in place to ensure that city officials, including de Blasio, did not solicit donations from people who had “pending transactions” with the administration, but that did not mean such officials were prevented from requesting donations from everyone who did business with City Hall.
Setting aside specific ethics rules, Wiley and de Blasio said the government officials never strayed from acting in the public’s interest.
“Never do we allow any of those considerations to affect the government policymaking decision,” de Blasio said of the contributions. “In fact, as we will be showing you more and more in the coming weeks, a stunning number of donors and supporters not only did not get things they hoped they would get, they got rejection of things they hoped they would get because we ran a government that was clean and appropriate.”