Member item reform and promises to the Orthodox await likely mayor-elect.
Barring a seismic shift in public opinion, as measured by consistent polling, Bill de Blasio is on track to become New York’s 109th mayor in the biggest landslide in decades.
An NBC 4 New York/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll released the day before the election gave the Democratic nominee and current public advocate a seemingly insurmountable 41-point lead over Republican Joseph Lhota, the former deputy mayor and ex-MTA chief who never seemed to gain traction in the general election cycle.
Succeeding independent Michael Bloomberg after a dozen years in January, de Blasio’s biggest and most immediate challenge would be negotiating postponed deals with the city’s unions and putting together a first budget he has promised will shift priorities to deal with a stark income gap. Reforming police procedure and public education are also high on the agenda.
But a Mayor de Blasio, the first Democrat to hold office since 1993, will also encounter pressures from Jewish groups based on campaign positions he’s taken.
Chasidim and haredi leaders will remind him of his pointed criticism of Bloomberg’s court-challenged consent decree regarding a risky circumcision practice. Others will remember his support for day care vouchers, eliminated by Bloomberg, that have heavily assisted large struggling Orthodox families. He has also said he’d be open to ways of helping religious and other private schools get more public funding, if it doesn’t conflict with the law.
And social service organizations all over the city will be looking for cues about how their contract processes may change.
Although de Blasio doled out funds as a councilman to worthy causes in his Brooklyn district, he later became a stark critic of the member-item process because of its penchant for corruption, and has called for that system to be scrapped.
With no indication of who will succeed Christine Quinn as speaker, it remains to be seen if that leader will be a friend or foe of the mayor, and how he or she views the member-item process which is negotiated in the budget with the mayor.
That uncertainty is causing some anxiety within the organized Jewish social service network at a time when some programs for the needy have already been frozen because of a state probe of misappropriated funds at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.
One Jewish organizational leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his organization has no official statement on the matter as of yet, said he was hopeful an alternative to scrapping member items could be found that also addressed the corruption concerns.
“There are a number of ways one could retool the system,” said the official.
“You could have a pot of money for aging and youth services go through the Council or go through city agencies with Council input. This could have more accountability and I would hope we could engage with the new mayor, whoever that may be, to discuss how to make sure his money is best spent and avoid the political and financial pitfalls we have seen in a very small number of contracts.”
The offcial noted that there is currently no other means of city funding of neighborhood-based projects outside the Council member-item system and discretionary funds granted by the mayor's office.
Quinn, during her mayoral campaign, cited new methods of transparency as sufficient reform to avoid corruption.
De Blasio’s campaign did not respond to several requests for an interview. The campaign also did not respond to prior inquiries about his view on a pending matter of religion and law: The Human Rights Commission’s efforts to rein in Orthodox shops in Williamsburg who post modesty rules for customers. Lhota says the rules infringe on religious practice. As mayor, de Blasio might be pressed for a stance on the matter.
De Blasio has formed close ties with Orthodox communities in Brooklyn, during his two terms in the City Council representing a district that includes part of Borough Park.
Although he is outspoken in support of Israel, he may be less likely to speak out on foreign policy as mayor than some of his predecessors.
“He’s not going to be involved in international affairs in the way the late Ed Koch was involved,” says former state Sen. Seymour Lachman, who served alongside de Blasio in a district that overlapped with his Council district. Lachman said a preoccupation with overseas issues, even when they don’t impact an official’s job, was more of an older generation thing.
One exception, however, might be Iran. As public advocate de Blasio was an activist in pressuring American companies not to do business with that country because of its nuclear program and antipathy toward Israel.
Lachman said de Blasio will “be fair and square in issues affecting the Jewish community, like Sabbath observance.”
Prominent Jewish staff members in de Blasio’s campaign, who stand to move to City Hall, include his deputy chief of staff at the office of the public advocate, Avi Fink, who has served as an aide to several local politicians in the past, including Anthony Weiner when he was a congressman in Queens. Fink is the son of a prominent Orthodox rabbi, Reuven Fink of the young Israel of New Rochelle in Westchester and a Queens College graduate.
Also on de Blasio’s current staff is Pinny Ringel, who is a community liaison and previously worked for David Storobin of Brooklyn during his brief tenure in the state Senate, and for Simcha Felder when he was a Councilman.
Other prominent Jews known to be close to de Blasio include Leon Goldenberg, a real estate mogul in Brooklyn who was an early supporter of his mayoral campaign; Yeruchim Silber, a former de Blasio Council aide and currently director of the Borough Park Jewish Community Council and Rabbi Yitzchak Fleischer, a Bobover chasid and founder of the sect’s Bikur Cholim organization.
In a recent interview with Tablet, a Jewish web magazine, Rabbi Fleisher spoke of his early support for de Blasio’s Council aspirations. “He owes me everything,” Fleischer told Tablet. “Without me he wouldn’t be anyplace.”
Others who have de Blasio’s ear include Jonathan Greenspun, the former head of the Community Assistance Unit under Michael Bloomberg who is now a consultant with Mercury Public Affairs. Although Greenspun gave $400 to Lhota in March, he later hosted a fundraiser for de Blasio.
So did Mathew Hiltzik, a former spokesman for the state Democratic Party who now has his own public relations firm (and is a board member of The Jewish Week.)
Bronx businessman and philanthropist Jack Bendheim, a top contributor to Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaigns, is also a major de Blasio backer, having contributed the maximum $4,950 in 2012.
De Blasio also has a good relationship with Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind dating back to the 2000 Clinton campaign when, as campaign manager, de Blasio tried to persuade Hikind to back the then-first lady. Although Hikind’s district was too anti-Hillary for that to happen, de Blasio scored a victory of sorts by convincing the Orthodox politician not to back Republican Rick Lazio.
A recent column on the website Politico detailed the key role in the campaign of three top strategists: Emma Wolfe, Anna Greenberg and Rebecca Kirszner Katz.
One de Blasio confidante, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the presumptive mayor’s closest allies while in the Council were Yvette Clarke and Tish James of Brooklyn and Gale Brewer of Manhattan.
“All of them progressive, labor-backed allies,” said the source. Clarke has now moved on to the House of Representatives, while Brewer is poised to be the next Manhattan borough president and James is running unopposed for public advocate.
With the City Council certain to retain a Democratic majority, and Scott Stringer favored to become comptroller, the next election should give that party a level of power it hasn’t experienced in decades, providing ample allies and few obstacles for de Blasio’s agenda if he is elected.
But Lachman, who is director of Wagner College’s Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform on Staten Island, said it won’t necessarily be a cakewalk.
“He’s becoming mayor in a very difficult period, and I think he will try to meet the challenges of the times,” said Lachman. “But it’s going to be very difficult because he has progressive principles and at the same time New York City and the state are facing very difficult financial times in the near future.”
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