Metropolitan Operatives

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No doubt they’ll be talking about this political season for a long time to come. Analysts will run out of adjectives to describe the free-for-all that is about to rip apart New York’s usually cozy political world in the coming months. Consider this. In the next election, there are 35 open City Council seats; the offices of mayor, city comptroller, public advocate and four borough presidents are up for grabs. Some observers expect that as many as 200 candidates will be fighting for these offices. A cloud of bees angrily buzzing around a hive of honey comes to mind.

This was also to be the year of opportunity for progressive candidates, the year when neighborhood activists–issue-driven and devoted to good government–would have a chance to take over City Hall. According to the idealists, this year will bring the twilight of the all-powerful party machines. After all, the onset of term limits will be forcing career politicians out of office. And the new campaign finance laws, which promise four public dollars to each dollar raised by a candidate, should bring new optimism to contenders who were once hopeless outsiders.

Sounds great. But what are the real chances for progressive candidates? Will access to money and the absence of incumbents alone launch an electoral revolution?

As the political season picks up speed and potential candidates begin jockeying for position, the doubts are already mounting. “There were great grandiose ideas last year about progressives winning seats in City Hall,” says one longtime political observer. But so far, he says, he’s not impressed by what he’s seen.

Because while eager reformers may know the issues and represent their communities better than anyone else, most of them don’t have the first idea how to master that most crucial political skill: winning an election.

For that, they turn to the experts. And so did we.

To assess the chances of a progressive triumph this election year, City Limits spoke with three Democratic consultants who know how to make the dark horses win. With more than three decades of political experience between them, they are realists above all. Two, Matin Brennan and Kevin Finnegan, are seasoned political veterans. And though the third, Micah Lasher, has managed or participated in field operations in some 20 Democratic races, he can’t even buy the dealmakers a drink. He’s 19 years old.

Martin Brennan

At 33, Brooklyn-born Martin Brennan already has an impressive résumé getting things done with a progressive agenda. As the organizing director of the New York Public Interest Group and the Straphangers Campaign, he helped defeat a mid-1990s city initiative to build six giant incinerators. He successfully campaigned for a $9.6 billion program to rebuild New York’s transit system, and helped implement the MetroCard. He was also the campaign director of the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition, where he was instrumental in salvaging the city’s rent protection laws. More recently, he managed Catherine Abate’s 1998 failed bid for state attorney general and served as political director for Chuck Schumer’s successful race for U.S. Senate.

Brennan won’t say which campaigns he may become involved in during the upcoming year. But with the horde of candidates rushing the doors of City Hall, he admits he’s in demand.

For Martin Brennan, this will be the year to remember for progressive candidates. And unlike some of his colleagues, he remains cautiously optimistic for them.

“Your fate is in your hands,” says Brennan to aspiring players. “If you have fundraising ability and a network of relationships; if you have the ability to motivate people to work for you, and as long as you roughly fit the demographic profile of your area, you stand a chance.”

There is another advantage for left-leaners, Brennan points out. Traditionally, party bosses beat down insurgents long before constituents have even had a chance to cast a vote. Take Bronx Democratic County leader Roberto Ramirez. His fearsome reputation was due in part to his ability to dispose of challengers to handpicked party candidates by successfully invalidating their nominating petitions in court. Insurgents couldn’t even get on the ballot. His acolytes–and his power–were unstoppable.

Recent laws, however, have made it more difficult to challenge candidates’ eligibility. Four of Ramirez’ candidates actually faced competition in last year’s primaries. Every one of them lost.

Still, cautions Brennan, that’s just a chink in the armor. Power is still concentrated in machine pols. For whole careers, they have lived and worked elections. They know the intricacies of the voting rolls–where to devote their energy, whom to ignore. They know the importance of wooing and marshaling the unpaid labor of political clubs and unions. And they know to tap into the loyalties of community-based organizations that depend on member item money, the dollars that councilmembers are allowed to dispense from the public trough.

Brennan also advises would-be insurgents to pick up the pace. In his view, only the candidates who started fundraising and vote-getting operations last year truly stand a chance against the party pick.

And remember, it’s not always about the issues. “Progressives tend to be involved in issue advocacy, as opposed to electoral organization,” Brennan remarks. “Community activism and issue advocacy don’t translate perfectly to electoral success.”

Brennan points to the razor-thin defeat suffered by activist Liz Krueger in her recent campaign to oust 11-term Republican State Senator Roy Goodman. Goodman won by merely 300 votes–all absentee ballots. “From an insider’s perspective, [the Krueger campaign] didn’t run as sophisticated an absentee ballot program as Goodman’s,” Brennan says. Years of experience paid off for Goodman; in what had promised to be a close race months before the polls opened, the Goodman camp made sure it targeted each and every voter.

Still, Brennan considers the Krueger candidacy to be a landmark in New York City politics. “She had a career in issue advocacy which she presented to the voters,” he says. And Krueger won’t make the same mistake twice, Brennan says; “she’s no longer a political virgin.”

Kevin Finnegan

Transplanted San Franciscan Kevin Finnegan began his career in activist politics when he helped Harvey Milk in 1977 become the first openly gay elected official in the country.

Finnegan, an attorney, moved to New York in the mid 1980s and specialized in environmental law, AIDS and civil rights litigation. Four years ago, he decided to cut down on his law practice and spend more time in public service. Most recently, Finnegan, 44, served as Hillary Clinton’s deputy political director on her successful bid for Senate.

Currently, Finnegan is the political and educational director of the labor union UNITE, where he organizes lobbying efforts for labor and clean-government initiatives. Given that Finnegan’s expertise seems to be in forming broad coalitions, he is well positioned to find that common ground on which a progressive candidate can build a platform. However, like Martin Brennan, Finnegan is cagey about his plans for this year. “I am talking to people,” he says.

Kevin Finnegan is no red-book waving, fist-in-the air kind of leftist. Much of what he says is canny and carefully thought out. This realist acknowledges that the day when progressive lawmakers will wield real power is still far off. “There is not going to be a fundamental change in the way the city is run,” Finnegan says over coffee and cigarettes at a downtown café. “There is a general satisfaction about the quality of life. The first order of business will be to stay the course.”

Yes, the schools could be better, rents are outrageous, and the cops need taming. But, Finnegan says, it was always this way in New York. He’s no fan of Rudolph Giuliani, but he dismisses the notion that there’s an evil ideological right wing roaming the corridors of City Hall, or, indeed, that there are any major divisions between local politicians. “Actually there is an overwhelming consensus,” Finnegan says. “It is delusional to think that there is a counter-ideology.”

But ultimately, Finnegan is upbeat about the possibilities for activists this election year. And riffing on the upcoming elections, he sometimes sounds positively old-school. “We are at the dawn of an era when progressive values are going to dominate,” he says.

In the long run, the sheer number of candidates will make the progressive agenda possible, Finnegan predicts. For the first time in recent memory, because all the candidates will be new, voters will be required to think before pulling the lever. And the thinking voter is the salvation of the issue-driven underdog.

“The higher level of participation means that in a majority of races at least, the voters will be given real choices,” Finnegan says. “This means the voters will be asked to critique and get to know the candidates.”

Like Brennan, Finnegan agrees that the keys to City Hall lie with professional campaigning. “You’ve got to be better at politics,” he says. That means reckoning with unpleasant political realities, like the certainty that the Democratic organization will do its best to run candidates with whom it can do business–and progressives won’t be first in line. And labor and special interest groups in Queens and the Bronx, where the party bosses exercise considerable power, will undoubtedly work for the party picks.

Finnegan thinks this election is likely to change the way the party machines will fight council and mayoral elections eight years from now, when term limits once again open up the seats. Soft money, the bane of insurgent candidates, is banned under current election laws. But don’t expect that to be the end of the story. “We have not learned what loopholes the city campaign finance laws have,” warns Finnegan. “But I am sure there are some good lawyers working on finding them.”

Micah Lasher

He may be only 19, but Micah Lasher’s got history. His mother, Stephanie Lasher, was a press secretary during the Lindsay administration, and his father, Albert, was campaign treasurer to former Democratic Comptroller Harrison Goldin. It seems to be in his blood–“but one of my sisters married a Republican,” he remarks.

One Democratic insider and veteran campaigner calls Lasher “the boy genius.” Another simply shakes his head, smiles and says, “incredible,” when Lasher’s name comes up. In 1997, when he was all of 15, Lasher was a field coordinator for Deborah Glick’s unsuccessful campaign for Manhattan borough president. Recently, he wrote all the campaign literature for Lorraine Koppel’s failed bid for Republican Guy Velella’s Bronx State Senate seat.

A sociology major at New York University, Lasher has already committed himself to a campaign. He’ll help manage New York City Housing Partnership lawyer Brad Hoylman’s City Council bid for the First District, which includes Chinatown and Battery Park. Lasher will be working out of his dorm room.

Micah Lasher is faced with a paradox: The crowded race for City Council could wind up hurting good contestants. “How can the progressive candidates separate themselves from the pack?” he asks. “How are we different?”

Lasher is trying to figure out how the differences between progressives and their opponents can be effectively and convincingly communicated to the average voter–without the issue-driven candidate coming across as too different.

Most voters out there are not really hankering for change, he points out. The message can’t be shrill–but it’s got to be loud enough to be heard over the cacophony of promises sure to be hurled at New Yorkers over the next several months.

Another hurdle is that it’s increasingly hard to define a progressive agenda. “The scale has shifted,” Lasher says. “When you look at the field of candidates running for City Hall, you can see that whoever wins, the new City Council will be far more progressive than the one leaving office.”

That may be good news for the reform-minded voter, but it also makes it hard for a candidate to shape his or her message. There just aren’t the right-wing candidates the progressives can point to and say “I am different.” Like men at a black tie event, everyone is dressed alike.

Lasher hones in on the issue of “getting the message across.” Candidates can only spend $137,000 in the primary, which in a one-party town like New York is where most races are decided. Assuming that in most City Council races there will not be much of a difference between candidates’ campaign coffers, spending money may turn out to be more important than raising it. How will candidates be able to get the most bang for their buck?

The question is known as “maximizing voter contact” in campaign jargon, and it’s a big one. “There is a big difference in spending money to pay the rent [on campaign offices] and paying for direct mail,” Lasher says. The key is putting as much of your cash as possible where it can effectively reach the voters.

Understanding the target audience and shaping direct mail are critical. Lasher points to lessons learned in Koppell’s State Senate campaign in the Bronx last November. Direct mail was Lasher’s domain, and voters were inundated with it. Nearly 22 mailings went out between mid September and early November to prospective Koppell supporters. “We kept up on Velella’s relationship with the insurance industry,” he says. (Velella came under a storm of criticism for influencing laws favorable to the state’s insurance companies, his biggest contributors.) But at the end of the day, the direct mail had no discernible influence. Vellella won by a comfortable margin. Apparently, voters didn’t care about the insurance connection, and the quality of literature is no substitute for careful marketing. “Sometimes it’s not all about the volume,” Lasher says.

“The trick is to tap into the mindset of the demographic,” he says. “How do I put the message in the language of the community?”