Opinion: The politics of giving

By former Assemblymember Steven Sanders

Several weeks ago, I wrote a column describing the utter futility of Bill de Blasio’s flirtation with a race for president and his frequent trips out of town in pursuit of that office. An avid Town & Village reader emailed us this week to ask why persons would contribute to such a campaign with little or no hope of victory. The answers are varied.

Yes, there are some political donors who truly believe in a particular candidate come hell or high water or ones who are close friends or relatives. Some candidates run for higher office thinking like those who play the lottery. Even though the probability of success is near zero, as the Power Ball slogan exclaims, “Hey, you never know” or “You can’t win it if you are not in it.” The chances of winning the jackpot and the odds of a nondescript candidate winning the presidency is about the same.

In the case of Donald Trump, he at least had a celebrity following from his business ventures, tabloid exposure, and his television show “The Apprentice.” None of those experiences qualified him to be president, but it did give him universal name recognition and political momentum as a candidate.

But back to Bill de Blasio and other office seekers who are not counted amongst the rich and the famous.

Win or lose, de Blasio can gain a degree of notoriety by merely running for president. In a way he has nothing to lose. His campaign swings in the midwest and elsewhere cannot hurt him politically with voters in New York City since based on term limits he cannot run for mayor again. He might derive some stature for a future political or governmental office just by having stepped onto the national stage. But why give money to a prospective candidate who is almost certain to abstain from the race sooner than later?

Remember Bill de Blasio is mayor of the largest and arguably the most important city in the nation. There are hundreds of important companies and industries that do business in New York City and even more that may want to. For private enterprises and lobbyists who wish to curry favor with City Hall for their own purposes, ingratiating yourself with the mayor by contributing to his campaign committee is politics 101.

Of course the mayor says that receiving a political contribution has no bearing on who receives favored treatment when it comes to contracts or other goodies that the city has to offer. That may be so. But its not what the mega donor class believes. Most people and corporations do not shell out tens of thousands of dollars merely because they think someone is a good person. Most expect something in return. Maybe just access to senior staff or a returned phone call. But usually it is something of much greater value.

Sadly, this mayor gave every indication that such hopes might be realized. During his first term in office, he barely escaped prosecution after allegations were leveled that political contributions led to special favors dispensed by City Hall. Politicians such as Mayor de Blasio who present themselves as “progressives” need to do more than just talk a good game. They need to lead by example.

Steven Sanders is a former New York State Assembly who represented the 74th District for 28 years.

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