Mayor de Blasio Ought to Be Encouraged Not Scolded for Seeking Out Strategic Counsel

Even Politicians Are Entitled to Private Advisors

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio speaks to the press in front of Trump Tower after his meeting with president-elect Donald Trump, November 16, 2016 in New York City.

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio speaks to the press in front of Trump Tower after his meeting with president-elect Donald Trump, November 16, 2016 in New York City. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Observer has seldom shied away from criticizing Mayor De Blasio. Far too often, he makes it way too easy. Bad decisions, wrong priorities, and foolish pandering to extreme constituencies make our job easier if not more satisfying.

That is why it is important to stand with the Mayor when he sometimes gets it right. And he is right in believing he is entitled to private advisors. Even when they advise him on public matters.

The latest contretemps involves Jonathan Rosen, the head of BerlinRosen, one of the city’s top public relations firms – and a private, unofficial, unpaid advisor to the Mayor. Last Wednesday, after fighting Freedom of Information Act requests for almost two years, the Mayor’s office finally released 1550 pages of emails. The timing of the release — the night before Thanksgiving — was a nifty bit of legerdemain clearly designed to hit the public when even journalists were on their way to family and friends. It didn’t work. Since the release, the local media—led by WNYC and NY1, which sued to get the emails, has been dissecting them for conflicts of interest, perceived and real. The Observer has read all of the emails. And we don’t see anything wrong with any of them.

Many of the emails involved BerlinRosen, high-ranking members of the De Blasio administration, and the Mayor himself. For policy junkies and political wonks, this trove is truly wonderful stuff—a new administration is revealed at that moment where it finds its sea legs for a wildly complicated job. For conspiracy theorists, Woodward-Bernstein wannabees, or critics looking for a smoking gun – aimed at either the Mayor or his advisor – they will be sorely disappointed.

Now, to be sure, the Mayor relies heavily on Rosen and his team of spinmeisters. And BerlinRosen, for its part is not shy about parlaying its connection to the administration. (BerlinRosen’s website features a giant headline “Electing the Mayor of New York” on its home page; along with the boast that the firm ranks fourth on the Observer’s 2015 list of Power PR Firms.) The Observer itself has been on the receiving end of BerlinRosen’s wrath when writing something its clients don’t like and to be sure the firm has a way of getting its point across.

But it is the Mayor’s privilege and prerogative to choose his own advisors.

Every leader – in public life as well as private – deserves the right to rely on people whose judgment he trusts. The “kitchen cabinet” has been a fixture in American political life since the presidency of Andrew Jackson – and it was vehemently objected to by his political opponents. Most modern presidents, from JFK through Ronald Reagan, made no secret of their desire to listen to – and if they chose to rely on – people outside of government – even regarding public policy and governmental decisions.

It is true that BerlinRosen has many private business clients seeking beneficial decisions from all levels of government. That is why for-profit companies and non-profit organizations alike hire lobbyists and strategic PR firms. And it is incumbent upon the Mayor and his advisor to avoid actual conflicts of interest. From the email dump, we didn’t see a single example of an egregious mistake. The closest we detected to a gray area was when the Mayor openly pondered whether he should honor a Berlin Rosen client: Nets player Jason Collins, who is gay and had just signed with the Nets.  Whether De Blasio and co. are any good at avoiding appearances of conflicts will be left up to the voters next year.

The Mayor chose to refer to his friend and advisor as an “agent of the city” – largely to avoid complying with the FOIA request. That backfired.

Jonathan Rosen is a smart, savvy advisor. And he is a powerful advocate of the Mayor. We don’t begrudge either of them their relationship or their privacy. In fact, we think all of our leaders will do well to seek, welcome and sometimes heed the counsel of skilled professionals in and out of government.