New York Times De Blasio Tests Political Might in Pre-K Push by Javier Hernandez
Councilman Ben Kallos at a rally supporting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s prekindergarten proposal in Manhattan last month. Ángel Franco/The New York Times
He has phoned titans of finance and real estate to ask for donations. He has called on labor leaders to tap their war chests and lend their muscles. He has lined up endorsements from actors, musicians and movie producers.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, after climbing to the top of New York City’s political world by assailing the gap between rich and poor, is now seeking to revive the populist zeal of his mayoral bid for a new campaign: persuading state lawmakers to back a tax increase to pay for prekindergarten.
Mr. de Blasio has put in place much of the same machinery that was behind hisinsurgent candidacy for mayor, assembling a familiar arsenal of political operatives, activists and donors. He has also found new allies, including several labor unions that did not endorse him during the Democratic primary but are looking to get into his good graces as they negotiate contracts with City Hall.
With demands for a robust lobbying effort growing before the April 1 deadline for a state budget, Mr. de Blasio has started an advocacy group, which has moved swiftly and at times clumsily. It recently released a list of high-profile New Yorkers who were said to endorse his proposed tax increase; in interviews, three on the list said they were not, in fact, supporters.
He faces a formidable foe in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a political virtuoso who remains deeply opposed to the idea of new taxes. He has sought to block the mayor’s proposal at every turn, cornering lawmakers, union and business leaders, and has put forward a plan to pay for prekindergarten without a tax, depriving the mayor of momentum and would-be donors in the business community.
Mr. de Blasio faces other challenges. Increasingly, he is grappling with the reality that he must focus his efforts on a roomful of decision-makers in Albany, not crowds of New Yorkers who overwhelmingly back his plan in polls. A small group of liberal activists and union officials have grown dissatisfied with Mr. de Blasio’s desire to build a groundswell of popular support rather than attacking Mr. Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, directly.
Political analysts said the push for prekindergarten would be a major test of Mr. de Blasio’s power and would help set the tone for his term.
“He rode in on a wave of good feelings, but political capital can fade very quickly when you don’t have tangibles,” said Christina Greer, an assistant professor of political science at Fordham University. “He has to show he can bring something back to voters.”
The mayor has asked the state for permission to raises taxes on city residents earning more than $500,000 per year, but the governor, who is up for re-election this year, has offered instead to use state funds to expand prekindergarten programs at a slower pace.
Mr. de Blasio’s push for the tax increase bears many of the hallmarks of his mayoral bid. He has dispatched some of the architects of his campaign to lead the prekindergarten effort, including several aides in City Hall and a dozen organizers and consultants from two political firms he used in the race last year, BerlinRosen and Hilltop Public Solutions.
He is relying on the financial backing of donors to his campaign, as well as foundations and labor unions, with the hope of raising several million dollars. And he has amassed a long list of boldface names, including the film producer Harvey Weinstein and the fashion designer Nanette Lepore.
Mr. de Blasio’s organizers have employed the kinds of tactics that won him 73 percent of the vote in November. They have gathered over 10,000 signatures and are planning town hall meetings across the city and a large rally in Albany in March.
At a subway station on the Upper East Side of Manhattan recently, organizers shouted, “Pre-K for all!” Later, they told commuters that the tax increase would work out to the price of a small soy latte at Starbucks every day.
“People understand this is something that is good for the children of the city and state,” said Josh Gold, a labor organizer tapped by Mr. de Blasio to oversee the prekindergarten campaign. “We just need to make sure that voice is brought to Albany.”
But some advocates for the tax increase remain skeptical of Mr. de Blasio’s ability to master the capricious politics of the capital.
“They should be much farther along by now if they actually want to get something done,” said a labor leader who is assisting in the campaign, who insisted on anonymity lest he anger the mayor. “Where’s the urgency?”
Mr. Gold said the effort, which is likely to include television and radio advertisements, would soon escalate. “Three months ago the chattering class said pre-K was dead on arrival,” he said in a statement. “This grass-roots effort has totally transformed the conversation from whether or not there will be universal pre-K and after school to how we’re going to pay for it.” Fund-raising is in full swing. Lorna Brett Howard, a Democratic activist, will host a luncheon for prominent women this month. Chirlane McCray, the mayor’s wife, will be the featured guest.
Ms. Brett Howard dismissed concerns that the tax increase — a difference of $530 for every $100,000 in income over the threshold — was burdensome.
“That is one trip on your private plane to St. Bart’s,” she said.
Gina Argento, the owner of a Brooklyn film and television studio, said Mr. de Blasio and Ms. McCray personally pitched the idea of the prekindergarten campaign at a restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in October. Ms. Argento gave $50,000.
Some prominent business leaders, however, are reluctant to support Mr. de Blasio now that Mr. Cuomo has offered an alternative. “Of course, that’s going to be much more appealing to the people who are going to pay the tax,” said R. Donahue Peebles, a real estate executive who plans to give to the mayor’s prekindergarten effort and line up donations from other business leaders.
After Mr. de Blasio’s team released a list of endorsements from business and civic leaders recently, some on the list — including Victor and Sarah Kovner, longtime Democratic activists, and Richard I. Beattie, a corporate lawyer — said in interviews that they did not support the mayor’s proposal.
The prekindergarten campaign is commonly known as UPKNYC but was incorporated as Campaign for One New York under Section 501(c) 4 of the tax code, allowing it to accept donations of any size.
So-called 501(c) 4 groups have played an increasing role in American politics and have been derided for allowing donors to remain secret, though state law will require Campaign for One New York to disclose contributions of $5,000 or more.
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a good-government group, said she was concerned the mayor was allowing wealthy donors to influence policy. “This creates another opportunity for big-dollar donors to access City Hall in a way that is not available to the ordinary New Yorker,” she said.
Mr. de Blasio’s team said it would voluntarily release a list of donors in the coming weeks.
Mr. de Blasio has the support of several powerful unions, including the United Federation of Teachers, which did not endorse him in the primary and is now seeking $3.4 billion in retroactive pay. He also has the backing of 1199 S.E.I.U. United Healthcare Workers East, which supported Mr. de Blasio’s mayoral bid and is planning to give at least $100,000 to the effort. Labor leaders warned they might spend against lawmakers seeking re-election this fall if they stood in the way of Mr. de Blasio’s plan. Mr. de Blasio faces long odds in the State Senate, where Republicans have said they oppose tax increases.
He has an ally in Senator Jeffrey D. Klein of the Bronx, who leads a faction of independent Democrats and has promised to make passing Mr. de Blasio’s plan a priority. In an interview, Mr. Klein left open the possibility that lawmakers might find financing for the program in the state budget. “I would not be in favor of tax just for the sake of taxing,” he said.
With budget negotiations picking up, Mr. Cuomo and Mr. de Blasio are intensely lobbying lawmakers. The governor has said the state should pay for prekindergarten so that cities with fewer resources than New York City, like Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester, could also benefit from the program.
Mr. de Blasio, in turn, plans to make a pitch of his own to upstate and suburban lawmakers soon. He will argue that they should not have to subsidize the cost of New York City’s prekindergarten expansion, and that the city, with the tax, could afford to pay for its own programs.