Here is a lesson for every lowly City Council member and state senator who harbors dreams about higher office:
If you want to raise your profile, raise the state’s debt ceiling.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a
Democrat, is thinking about running for Governor next year. Getting word out about these deliberations, however, could prove a problem, as he is little known outside his district on the Lower East Side and exudes all the charisma of a corporate lawyer.
What to do? How about announcing that you intend to lead a crusade on behalf of safer and sturdier schools?
Ripping a page from Gov. George Pataki’s playbook, Mr. Silver told The Observer that he will soon begin a statewide campaign to pass a $2.4 billion bond act designed to repair and replace the state’s dilapidated public school buildings. The bond act, known formally as the School Facility Health and Safety Bond Act, will be on the ballot statewide on Election Day, Nov. 4.
Mr. Silver’s fledgling effort echoes Mr. Pataki’s successful campaign last year on behalf of an environmental bond act, a crusade that helped the Governor’s poll ratings and positioned him as a formidable candidate for re-election in 1998. But if Mr. Silver hopes to emulate Mr. Pataki’s success, his organizational and fund-raising efforts have a long way to go. By mid-September last year, the Governor’s counsel, Michael Finnegan, had taken a leave of absence to run the bond act campaign full-time. The Governor’s pollster, Kieran Mahoney, already had figured out how to sell the bond act. Senator Alfonse D’Amato had mounted television and radio ads in Long Island. Environmental groups were springing into action. And, most important, lots of money was being raised. “Every third businessman had been shaken down by now,” quipped one insider.
Mr. Silver’s would-be campaign certainly suffers by comparison. As of Sept. 22, no fund-raising committee had been formed, according to the State Board of Elections. Educational groups, including the New York chapter of the National Education Association and the New York State United Teachers, are vague about their plans. And in contrast to the more than $3 million spent to promote last year’s bond act, Mr. Silver said he plans to spend only several hundred thousand dollars to win over the state’s voters.
“I don’t think the thrust of this is to promote an individual, but rather the issue,” Mr. Silver insisted.
Where’s the Oversight?
Perhaps even more troubling for Mr. Silver, nonpartisan groups such as the League of Women Voters, which supported last year’s bond act, have chosen to sit out this year’s contest. “There are no provisions whatsoever that would govern how this money would be spent,” said Jackie Kennedy, the League’s legislative coordinator. “The League of Women Voters has had abiding support for access to quality public-education school facilities, so it is with regret we cannot support it.”
The lack of oversight over spending may prove to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the bond act’s passage. At a breakfast meeting at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers on Sept. 22, Mr. Silver was challenged by Greg David, editor of Crain’s New York Business : “Despite the assurances you’ve given us today, there are no rules or regulations in spending the money,” Mr. David asserted.
“I represent at least one-third of the members [of the Legislature], and nothing happens without us,” Mr. Silver parried.
Bond act supporters attribute the lack of oversight to Governor Pataki, who broke off negotiations on the bond act’s language the day before the legislative session concluded for the year. “People can draw their own conclusions,” grumbled Mr. Silver, about whether the Governor did this to sabotage the bill.
Bond act proponents are hoping that the city’s mayoral election will stimulate turnout in favor of the proposal, particularly because the condition of city schools figures to be a major issue in the fall campaign.
Mr. Silver said he will barnstorm around the state, meeting with editorial boards and mounting an advertising blitz that will include direct mail, radio advertising and television advertising. Salomon Brothers’ Harold Levy and Board of Regents member Merryl Tisch have begun putting together a coalition of educators, unions and business leaders on behalf of the bond act.
Still, educational advocates fear that the measure will fail. “We are very worried,” said Noreen Connell, executive director of the Educational Priorities Panel, a coalition of 25 New York City educational groups. “We don’t think it’s a given, and upstate folks are used to coming to the polls to vote down school budgets.” In New York City, where bond acts traditionally find their support, “people don’t know it’s on the ballot.”
Still, groups like the United Federation of Teachers, which expects to be a key player in the bond act campaign, have expressed optimism. “People won’t pay attention until the 10 days before the election,” said Thomas Murphy, the union’s director of legislation and political action. “There is time between now and Election Day to build towards that.”
Assembly member Steven Sanders, a Democrat from Stuyvesant Town who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, also was not concerned about the seeming tardiness of the campaign. “We were all focused on the [Democratic mayoral] primary,” Mr. Sanders said. “Now the primary is over, the
real campaign will begin.” And while Mr. Silver said the campaign would cost only several hundred thousand dollars, Mr. Sanders said there would be “a million-dollar campaign … to market the bond act in the areas we know are most important and to refute the scurrilous charges [made upstate] that all the money will go to New York City.”
It’s Lonely Out There
While some polls have shown support for the proposal, others have been less conclusive. The Observer has learned that a Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee poll conducted last spring found that 65 to 80 percent of voters said Yes when asked whether the state should borrow money to rehabilitate old or unsafe schools. But a Zogby International poll performed for the Gannett News Service at the end of August found that about 50 percent of respondents favored the bond act, while 35 percent said they opposed it.
Last fall, polls by Quinnipiac College found 2-to-1 support for the environmental bond act. Even with that degree of voter support, dozens of Democratic and Republican officials actively campaigned for the bond act’s passage. Few, however, have been so energetic on behalf of this year’s bond act. Mayor Giuliani has remained mum. City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, a Demo-crat who has long promoted school construction issues and who is considering a gubernatorial campaign next year, has no plans to campaign for the schools bond act, although “he would be happy to do so if a request was made of him,” an aide to Mr. Vallone told The Observer . Meanwhile, Mr. Silver said, he “had no idea” whether Mr. Pataki would be stumping for the schools bond act. “I haven’t discussed it with him, and I don’t intend to rely on the Governor, either,” he said.
While the pro-bond act forces have been relatively quiet, the anti-bond forces already have mobilized. The state Conservative Party has promised a “statewide campaign against [the] wasteful bond act,” and the party already has sent out one direct-mail piece to its party leadership. Conservative Party chairman Michael Long vowed to spend an unspecified amount to hire a media consultant and run a three-week media campaign against the bond act. “We’re doing an intensive campaign on this one,” he told The Observer .
And Thomas Carroll, president of Change-N.Y., an antitax group whose supporters spent $400,000 on a media campaign that nearly torpedoed last year’s bond act, has said it is “not outside the realm of possibility” that the group will mount a similar campaign this year.
Mr. Carroll doubted that a campaign of heavy opposition would be necessary. “I don’t anticipate D’Amato or Pataki spending millions on this,” he said in a telephone interview. “This is viewed as [Mr. Silver's] item. Last year … more than $3 million was spent in favor. But [Mr. Silver] does not have the fund-raising appeal of a sitting governor or the chair of the Senate Banking Committee.”
Mr. Silver is optimistic. There is such a need for new school facilities, Mr. Silver said, that “I would hope [the naysayers] are wrong. I hope we will be able to do it.”
He’ll need all the hope he can muster. For this year and the next.