Inside the Hackworld: How a Do-Nothing Became a Lame Duck

Ed.’s note: The following is based on the writer’s experiences working as the press person for Norman Siegel in his recent campaign for Public Advocate.

It’s Primary Day, Tuesday, September 13th, and we’re feeling pretty good. Outside polling places in the Upper West Side, West Village and Park Slope, most everyone is happy to see Norman. People of all backgrounds give him high fives, smiles, thumbs up. It’s not often that voters get to pull the lever for a candidate who’s not driven by money or machines, but instead by principles. Still, we’re not starry-eyed: we’re up against an incumbent who’s got the machine, big bucks, and the city elite behind her. In addition to support, we encounter some mild hostility. A middle-aged woman on the Upper West Side looks at our pro-Norman sign and says, “Yuck!” A 40-something guy in an expensive suit walking down 7th Avenue in Park Slope sees Norman and grimaces. Norman’s politics, to be sure, are not for everyone.

Our argument for unseating the incumbent Public Advocate, Betsy Gotbaum, had been very simple: Norman had accomplished more in the last four years as a private advocate than she had while in office. Norman had been instrumental in winning the release of the 9/11 tapes and transcripts from a city that had acted like a Soviet bureaucracy in trying to conceal those records; he had helped win the release of the nearly 2,000 people illegally, and brazenly, detained by the Bloomberg administration during the RNC. He had fought for communities threatened by over-development, the closing of firehouses, and environmental injustice; and he was continuing to fight for the rights of Critical Mass bicyclists and activists of all stripes to maintain their basic rights to protest. Like Norman, nearly all of the candidates in the citywide races called themselves a “fighter for New Yorkers”—but Norman was the only one with the track record to back it up.

Betsy, however, did not see most of Norman’s efforts as falling under the Public Advocate’s job description. Her office made no meaningful efforts on 9/11 issues, and raised no meaningful objections to the Bloomberg administration’s many restrictions on protest. She joined the widespread opposition to the West Side stadium, but then wholeheartedly endorsed the downtown Brooklyn arena even though it conflicted with her own stated position on eminent domain. As Wayne Barrett documented in the Voice, her main campaign claim—that she made sure that seniors in the Bronx still get hot meals in the Meals on Wheels program—was at best a total distortion. Even when she called attention to issues affecting foster care, battered women and other vulnerable populations, she never proposed solutions. And her one concrete achievement—helping streamline the food stamp application process—wasn’t exactly a whole lot of work for a four-year term.

Like the rest of the campaign staff, I went to work for Norman not for the money, but because I like what he stands for, and think that the city urgently needs someone who fights for basic principles. People did ask me if I had any trouble with the fact we were trying to throw out the highest-ranking woman in city politics. But I never saw it as a matter of gender, and I don’t know anyone on our staff, male or female, who did. What we were really trying to do was replace a do-nothing incumbent with an activist. Besides, as a prominent person in city politics from recent decades confessed to me earlier this year, “Betsy has been terrible.” That this prominent figure is a female confirmed to me that we were on the right track. And Norman was not the only challenger, of course. Andrew Rasiej, a successful businessman, ran on his wi-fi platform; you’ve no doubt seen his posters, and they are indeed cool.

On Primary Day, Betsy, of course, handily prevailed both Norman and Rasiej, a.k.a. the Wi-Fi Guy. But the story is not that simple. In the days leading up to the primary, reliable sources in the press told us that insiders around town were forecasting that Norman would at least force a runoff, and maybe even win. On Primary Day, we heard a handful of reports that voters in the West Village had received anti-Norman recorded phone calls—a good sign that someone was scared. That night, a reporter who had just come from Gotbaum’s election headquarters told me that her staff was not predicting that they would get the 40% of the vote needed to avoid a runoff. So we know that we put up a pretty good fight, but alas, this is small consolation. We lost, and here a few reasons why.

Signs of the Times

For whatever reason, the endorsement of the New York Times editorial board carries enormous weight in local Democratic primaries. The best explanation I can think of is that there are many Times loyalists on the Upper East and West Sides, as well as in Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope, who are away during the summer and thus haven’t paid attention to the various campaigns slogged out in the dog days of August. When these faithful readers return from Burgundy or the Cape, or wherever they don’t get the Metro section, they rely on the Times to guide their decision-making.

We knew from the get-go that it would be a daunting task to steer the Times away from Betsy. The paper had glowingly endorsed her in 2001, and at the same time dissed Norman for supposedly being a bad administrator at the NYCLU. In a New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece in early July, which glaringly omitted Norman’s candidacy while puffing up the Wi-Fi Guy, the Wi-Fi Guy boldly predicted that Betsy had “the Times endorsement locked up.” The reason for the paper’s ongoing support had everything to do with Betsy’s friendship with the Times brass.

Still, as Labor Day approached, we were hopeful—not so much that the Times would endorse Norman, but that Betsy’s cartoonish behavior on the campaign trail had made it impossible for any rational observer to support her. Foremost among her many other ridiculous statements:

• After she made it clear that she would do only the number of debates (two) required by the Campaign Finance Board, both of which were slated to take place inside TV studios, we challenged her to five public debates, one in each borough. Betsy refused, telling the Times’ Jonathan Hicks that doing so “might bore people a little bit.” As it turned out, the two debates generated quite lively discussion of the issues, which apparently is something that the Public Advocate should only do when required by law.

• When the Wi-Fi Guy’s camp challenged her to release her public schedule, Betsy refused—on the grounds that she had a “stalker.” Now, many people in political and journalistic circles know the particular wingnut she was referring to, and, like the NYPD but unlike Betsy, consider him relentless yet harmless and by no stretch of the definition a stalker. Regardless, his presence was certainly not legitimate grounds for why Betsy would not release her past public schedule, which the Wi-Fi Guy smartly challenged her to do. She flatly refused, offering no real explanation, thus leaving it up to the public to determine what the Public Advocate had been doing for the past four years.

• In the debates and elsewhere, Betsy also said that random bag searches on the subway are okay simply because they make people “feel better,” their effectiveness not being an issue; she incorrectly accused Norman of not knowing the City Charter (note: of the many accusations that can be hurled at Norman, “not knowing the rules” is the most absurd); and she twice invoked a retarded Reaganism, eagerly saying “There you go again, Norman.” At least two out of these three positions were aimed at seniors.

• And last but certainly not least, Betsy tied herself up in knots—not slip knots, mind you, but double figure eights—in trying to explain her position on eminent domain. Granted, the intellectual contortions she performed were so complex that we had a hard time keeping pace with them. But in a nutshell, here’s what happened: In both debates, Norman challenged Betsy to explain how she could claim to be against eminent domain for private use but still call the Atlantic Yards/Nets arena project a “wonderful, wonderful example of what development should be all about.” Since its inception, the project has been supported by the proposed use of eminent domain to benefit Forest City Ratner. Betsy’s initial response was that she had been told that “eminent domain was not part of the project,” which she later “clarified” by saying that she had “spoken to the developer and he assures me that he will not use eminent domain.”

So many things can be said about this position. For one, it’s not up to the developer to use eminent domain—the local and state governments have to agree, making public officials culpable in the process. Second, as Robert George argued in a Post column, Ratner all along had been using the threat of eminent domain as a “carrot and stick” approach to negotiating buyouts with local property owners. And third, or perhaps first and foremost, no public official—let alone one with the title of Public Advocate—should rely solely on a private developer’s verbal assurances about any project. Lo and behold, less than one week after the primary, Forest City Ratner announced that it may ask the state to seize up to 74 homes so that it could build a basketball arena and 17 office towers.

But even as she continues to vociferously support the Atlantic Yards project, Betsy continues to see herself as a staunch opponent of the use of eminent domain—and not just to benefit private development. Insistently—and in her mind, consistently—she told the Staten Island Advance shortly after the debates that she opposes eminent domain even for public use, and thus cannot support the creation of new parkland in Staten Island. So, to sum things up, the Public Advocate boldly claims to oppose all eminent domain, even for public use, but mounts no criticism when it’s openly deployed for private gain. Charitably put, this is a preposterous position.

That Betsy made all these missteps in the last two weeks in August meant that, to our detriment, many voters weren’t around to pay attention. But I for one thought, or maybe hoped, that the absurdity of Betsy’s positions might make it impossible for any of the major papers to endorse her. When the Times ran its extraordinarily lukewarm endorsement of Freddy Ferrer in the Democratic primary on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, we became even more hopeful; it seemed unusual that the paper would make an endorsement for the city’s second-highest office after its endorsement for the first. Our best hope— that the Times would sit out the race—started to seem plausible.

Each night thereafter, while normal people were trying to enjoy the last weekend of summer, many fellow staffers and I sat at our various home computers from 11-12 at night and kept refreshing the Times website, waiting for the next day’s editorials to be posted. And I knew we were not alone, as someone from the Wi-Fi Guy’s staff told me that they were doing the same thing. Such is the quiet desperation of local political campaigns.

On the Tuesday after Labor Day, the onslaught began. The Daily News, whose publisher travels in the same social circle as Betsy, endorsed Betsy, even though the paper’s editorial admitted that she “hasn’t made much of the office.” Still, by contrast, Norman was a “loony” who “promises nonstop protests on the City Hall steps, regardless of how nutty the message.” The favor for a friend then even borrowed an even more insipid line from Betsy herself, saying that Norman “would be public adversary rather than public advocate.” Other than readers who don’t like “loony” politicians, I’m not sure who could be persuaded by such flat-out nonsense.

Later that Tuesday, a Wi-Fi Guy staffer told me that his camp had “a feeling” that the Times endorsement would come out the following day, and that they thought we had a “good shot” at it. I feared the first half of that statement, and doubted the second half. We had actually worried that if the Times board steered away from Betsy, they’d go with the Wi-Fi Guy. Tom Friedman, after all, had sung Rasiej’s praises in the Times this summer, treating him as a continuation of the Deaniacs, or at least their techno-strain—for Friedman, though not for most Deaniacs I know, the medium is more important than the (antiwar) message. In any case, as it turned out, the Wi-Fi Guy’s staffer was right about the timing of Times, but wrong about the paper’s message as well.

Amidst the aftermath of Katrina, the confirmation hearings of John Roberts, and other issues of crucial national concern, the Times editorial page that Wednesday devoted a fair amount of editorial column inches to its support of Betsy. Its timing, in the middle of the week after Labor Day, was a statement in and of itself—no holiday weekend throwaway endorsement here. Friends of mine not overly interested in the campaign, and who don’t ordinarily read editorial pages, said they saw it, which was a bad sign, indeed: readers looking for insight into national crises were spoon-fed drivel about a friend of the paper.

The endorsement started on a decidedly lukewarm note, saying that Betsy has been both “diligent and disappointing.” After that, a page not known for its lively prose suddenly read like a young adult biography of Joan of Arc. We hear of the “battles she has waged behind closed doors with Mayor Michael Bloomberg,” and how Betsy “has chosen to use her limited resources to serve as the voice—and, yes, as the advocate—for the city’s most vulnerable, underserved and invisible residents: poor families, battered women and schoolchildren.” Unbeknownst to most observers, and maybe even to Betsy herself, over the past four years she has “fought,” “marshaled,” “railed,” “took on,” and even “cu[t] through the red tape and the bureaucracies to help thousands.” That same week in the Voice, Mayor Bloomberg’s communications director told Wayne Barrett that contrary to her repeated claims, Gotbaum had made no difference in the fate of the Bronx Meals on Wheels program.

But facts be damned, said the Times editorial board. No ridicule of public debates, no need for a public schedule, no need to know the City Charter—and no need to say anything coherent about eminent domain, especially since the Times and Forest City Ratner had teamed up for an eminent domain-based private project of their own. Buried beneath the hype about Betsy was the paper’s view of Norman—“[h]e has been an earnest and often effective advocate in the courts for a wide range of groups. But his combative approach is better suited to litigating than to holding public office.”—which wasn’t exactly stinging criticism. It was simply a variation on another one of Betsy’s stated positions about Norman. Then, either that same day or the next day (for whatever reason, the paper is not archived), the Post editorialized against the public advocate position itself. A few weeks prior, the paper had said that Gotbaum had turned the office from a “public nuisance” into “a public joke.” Now, the tabloid’s acerbic, very darkly comedic editorial page went after Norman, using the red herring scenario of the public advocate taking the helm (for 60 days) in case of the mayor’s death. “Hizzoner Norman Siegel, esq.” presiding over the city was not something the Post could stomach.

Why had Norman’s candidacy clearly rallied the city’s power elite into action? Perhaps because as the Post had said in its earlier editorial, Norman would be “more focused on principles than practicalities”—a threatening perspective to those in power, since in their mind “principles” is a synonym for “lawsuits.” Norman’s stated goal of becoming the “people’s lawyer” meant that the public advocate’s office would be a roadblock towards “practicalities,” like building stadiums and Wal-Mart’s all over town or imposing a top-down corporate hierarchy in all public services. On these and many other issues, Betsy may not always side with Bloomberg, but her preferred method of opposition—calling attention to a problem, but not offering any concrete solution of how to fix it—is not a threat, especially when compared to Norman’s readiness to go to court.

It was by no means a lopsided campaign in the press, though. Plenty of solid papers—including El Diario, Gay City News, and The Villager—came out strong for Norman. And we got good coverage of the campaign in the non-editorial pages of the Daily News (especially by Juan Gonzalez), the Post, and particularly the Times, where the Metro section’s Jonathan Hicks spotlighted the race and Robin Shulman wrote an excellent “Public Lives” profile of Norman on the Friday before primary day. We knew the profile was a consolation prize for the paper’s endorsement of Betsy, but in it, Norman came across as a “fighter with a soft side,” which is as good a sketch as we could have hoped for.

But come primary day, Betsy’s signs posted around the Upper West Side, Upper East Side, Park Slope and elsewhere carried the New York Times logo (the Daily News logo was less meaningful in those areas, but certainly didn’t hurt). As for why the Times endorsed Betsy so strongly, I’m by no means certain. Two things come immediately to mind: the Ratner connection, and the paper’s notoriously strong preference for politicians to be technocrats, not activists. But it’s the personal connections between Gotbaum and the Times (and the Daily News) ownership that really stand out, and make me wonder why anyone should ever take seriously any endorsement made by the media elite. In August, I told a Times veteran that we feared that the paper would support Betsy simply “because she’s good friends with the Sulzbergers.” With a smile and a raised eyebrow, he said, “That’s probably enough.”

By Any Other Name…

In the end, it wasn’t just the endorsement of the Times and various large unions including the UFT, or the support of all of the county Democratic machines, or her overflowing campaign coffers, that won it for Betsy—it was her strategy. And for this hats must go off to her consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who himself sported a Panama brim this summer. A clever wordsmith, Sheinkopf had brought “nutty Norman” and “negative Norman” into popular usage. On the Politicker, Ben Smith’s political insider’s blog, someone had briefly taken to calling him “Hack” Sheinkopf, but that was promptly “zapped” (deleted) by Smith. No matter what you call him, Sheinkopf is a formidable consultant, as well as a rather ubiquitous source of political wisdom for the local press.

The strategy that Hank and Betsy concocted was simple: Throughout the summer, Betsy’s office would suddenly spring into action, and issue attention-getting, if factually suspect, “reports” about the racial biases of MetroCard machines, “dangerous” conditions in city pools, and a variety of other “overlooked” issues. It didn’t matter that Betsy never offered a solution to these “crises”—these were problems that no one else was addressing, and that no one could oppose her on. Gotbaum’s campaign war chest then enabled her to loudly remind voters of this groundbreaking work; her most notable mailing was a handsome, oversized “MetroScam” card, which listed all the ways she “took on”—i.e. criticized, but did not meaningfully challenge—the MTA, nobody’s favorite outfit. No less than 400,000 Democratic households were told that “Betsy Gotbaum won’t let the MTA take you for a ride,” which, if literally true, would be highly problematic.

Gotbaum’s significant fundraising advantage also enabled her to launch a million-dollar “air war” (TV commercials) in the last two weeks of the campaign. True to form, Norman had wrestled mightily with every last factual detail of the commercial that Sally Regenhard and other 9/11 families had made for our campaign. (Compare our initial ad buy of $8,000 on cable to Betsy’s $1 million on network TV, and you see what we were up against). Our ad featured raw emotion backed by verifiable truth, namely that Norman had fought for 9/11 families while Betsy hadn’t. Betsy’s main spot conversely featured raw emotion backed by pure sympathy. In it, a pair of elderly women at Co-Op City in the Bronx say “Thank you, Betsy” for “preserving” their hot meals. Again, what Betsy actually did on this issue is altogether unclear, and many seniors at Co-Op City still get frozen meals. But why quibble about facts? A 30-second spot only allows for a deeper, more lasting truth to be conveyed—and in this case, it’s that Betsy is friendly to seniors.

Quibbles aside, the bottom line is that Betsy and Hank’s strategy worked. Sure, it cost a lot of money, but Betsy has long prided herself on being a great fundraiser. Sheinkopf, meanwhile, fulfilled his mission of helping a do-nothing become a lame duck, and in political campaigns winning is all that really matters. Yet before I close this chapter on the campaign, I’d like to share one anecdote that I think sums it all up.

The second televised debate was initially slated to be aired at 6 a.m. on Sunday, August 28, a further sign of the prominence accorded the city’s second-highest office. But when it was taped on the Friday beforehand, at the WNBC studios at Rockefeller Center, it ended up producing such lively sparring that it would be aired that Sunday afternoon. Inside the studio afterwards, the press rushed in to follow-up on Rasiej’s challenge regarding Betsy’s past public schedule, Norman’s continued attack on her eminent domain position, and various other flare-ups. Throughout the campaign, Betsy’s spontaneous answers to reporters’ questions had been useful for us—public debates “might bore people,” our 9/11 families commercial was “tacky,” etc.—and so I sought to listen to her answers to what reporters from the various dailies were asking her. It may have been a minor violation of press protocol for me to stand there eavesdropping, but Norman didn’t exactly need my help fielding questions.

Sheinkopf, however, clearly didn’t want me or anyone else from our campaign in the mix. I suppose that since he couldn’t control Betsy’s off-the-cuff comments, there was too much risk of me hearing something that we could use against her. So did he try to distract me with conversation, or simply try to box me out? Nope. Instead, standing beside me, he then and there launched the most absurd strategy for shooing someone away imaginable: he summoned the liquid in his throat, and let out an extremely wet cough—his mouth uncovered—aimed in my general direction.

My response to this major violation of human protocol was to snicker and hold my ground. A short while later, as I walked away from Rockefeller Center, I told Fran, our campaign’s communications director, what the proper reply to Sheinkopf’s ridiculous gesture would have been. And as I think about it now, it sums up not just our opponent and her handler, but, unfortunately, what so many people get from their city politicians. In a word, or perhaps three, here it is:

What a Hack!

Contributor

Theodore Hamm

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