Andrew Yang’s two campaign managers, his press secretary, his policy director and multiple senior advisers don’t actually work for his New York City mayoral campaign. They’re employed by Tusk Strategies, a lobbying firm that’s regularly hired by clients to advocate for or against bills that are being considered by the City Council and the mayor. And the arrangement raises concerns about what kind of access this lobbying firm – and the private clients that hire Tusk – would have to the mayor if Yang were to win the election.
“We believe that it is improper for the same firm to be both a campaign consultant, and then lobby the person that they helped to elect,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of good-government group Common Cause New York. Consultants build “a special relationship of trust” with the candidate, and Lerner added they’re increasingly cashing in on that relationship.
That’s exactly what Yang co-campaign manager Chris Coffey drew attention for in 2018. While employed at Tusk, he had been a paid adviser on New York City Council Member Corey Johnson’s effort to get elected speaker in 2017. Johnson won, and Coffey continued to lobby Johnson on behalf of Tusk clients, including the New York City Police Benevolent Association and New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets, a group that opposes the horse carriages in Central Park.
Other leading mayoral clients also have registered lobbyists consulting on their campaigns. For just a few examples, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer is consulted by Global Strategy Group, which also has a lobbying practice. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams employs Pitta LLP, a consulting firm run by the same people as Pitta Bishop & Del Giorno, a lobbying firm. And former Citigroup Vice Chair Ray McGuire has hired Greenberg Traurig for compliance, and the group also has a lobbying practice. But none of those firms are as central to the candidate’s operation as Tusk is to Yang’s. And with Yang having led all the public polls so far, it’s not too early to consider what position the firm would be in if Yang won.
Coffey and Yang’s other co-campaign manager, Sasha Ahuja, both work for Tusk Strategies, as do Yang’s press secretary Jake Sporn, policy director Erika Tannor, senior adviser Eric Soufer and senior communications adviser Alex Sommer. They all also continue to work for Tusk Strategies’ other corporate clients at the same time – even if Yang’s campaign takes up most of their days.
Tusk Strategies runs issue campaigns for clients, and formal lobbying on the city level is a relatively small part of the company’s business. They were ranked 24th in total lobbying compensation in 2019, far behind more traditional shops like Kasirer or Bolton-St. Johns. However, with 44 employees, it was the largest lobbying firm in the city in 2020, making Tusk primed for growth if it were to help elect a favored mayor.
City lobbying reports show that Tusk has active contracts with at least two clients with business before the City Council: Latch, a smartdoor startup lobbying on data privacy regulations, and Pymetrics, which sells an AI-based hiring tool and is lobbying on a bill that would regulate programs doing just that.
These tech clients arguing (presumably) against regulation is typical for Tusk Strategies, the firm founded by Bradley Tusk, who worked as an aide to then-New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and as campaign manager for his successful 2009 reelection campaign. Tusk’s firm got in with Uber early and helped it become the behemoth that it is now by crushing regulations that would have slowed its growth. Much of Tusk Strategies’ work now follows that playbook.
Ahead of the 2017 mayoral election, Tusk engaged in a highly public attempt to recruit a serious challenger to take on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in the Democratic primary. It failed, and de Blasio won easily. But Tusk apparently never gave up the dream of replacing de Blasio. Opportunity emerged in the form of Andrew Yang, a politically gifted, tech-friendly presidential candidate who happened to live in New York City. When Yang dropped out of the presidential race in February 2020, Tusk Strategies reached out. They kept the conversation going with Yang throughout the entire year, and revisited the idea of him running for mayor in November, after the presidential election. Yang and Tusk worked out the details in December, and formally launched the mayoral campaign in January. Yang – and his communications team led by Tusk – have dominated the conversation around the race since day one.
In Yang, Bradley Tusk found someone who shared his big business-friendly, politically moderate worldview. “He opposes tax increases and certainly buys into the same notion that you do and I do, the people will vote with their feet,” Tusk said to Fox Business host Stuart Varney in an April 9 TV appearance. Tusk also said Yang was “fully a private-sector person” and is “really taking positions that are a bit at odds with the Democratic orthodoxy on things like education,” referencing Yang blaming the teachers union for keeping schools closed.
Powerful lobbyists have helped elect mayors in New York City before. Politico New York reported on the way lobbyists from Capalino + Company were entrenched in de Blasio’s government throughout his first term. Capalino did not formally work on de Blasio’s campaign, but the firm’s founder James Capalino was a friend of de Blasio who raised money for the mayor’s campaign and his political nonprofit. The company’s lobbying earnings soared after de Blasio took office. And though public relations firm BerlinRosen does not formally lobby, its influence in de Blasio’s City Hall was the subject of intense speculation and scrutiny, particularly in the mayor’s first term. BerlinRosen consulted on de Blasio’s mayoral campaign, and one of its founders, Jonathan Rosen, was one of the “agents of the city” with whom de Blasio unsuccessfully tried to shield his communications from the public.
While Capalino was fined for specific fundraising practices and Rosen had to deal with the lawsuit over disclosing emails, there was nothing inherently illegal about helping get a candidate elected, and then profiting off of that relationship through a government relations business. “When a firm has been representing a candidate and that candidate wins, obviously that firm is going to get more and more business – there’s no question about that,” said Betsy Gotbaum, a former New York City public advocate and current executive director of Citizens Union. “I think there is an ethical question, that probably something should be done about it – but I don’t know what should be done about it.”
But even if Gotbaum doesn’t have a solution, her organization is willing to draw a hard line when public money is involved. “Taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used to foster a practice that’s going to give a disproportionate influence to the few at the expense of the public,” said Rachel Bloom, director of public policy and programs at Citizens Union. Up until now, Yang’s mayoral campaign has been fully funded by private donors. But he has opted into the city’s public matching funds program, and the Campaign Finance Board is expected to approve a payment of more than $4 million in public funds to Yang on Thursday – money that would help pay for Tusk Strategies’ services.
Would a Mayor Yang be able to avoid giving favored lobbyists special access? Asked in March if there had been discussions with Tusk about how to deal with the firm’s clients and potential conflicts of interest, Yang dodged the question. “We’re laser-focused on making a positive case to New Yorkers and winning this race,” he said. “That’s all I’m paying attention to.”
Yang’s campaign did not say whether there had been such discussions, but said Yang would run things differently than de Blasio. “Anyone who works for or with the Yang for NY campaign will be subject to the strictest ethical guidelines in a Yang administration. No agents of the city. No exception,” said Yang communications director Alyssa Cass. “Instead, voters will finally get the independent, transparent and accountable leadership they deserve.”
But government ethics advocates like Lerner would like to see more than just a promise. “We are advocates for there being a code of conduct for campaign consultants,” she said. “There’s no oversight on this. It’s the Wild West.”
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