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This One Doesn’t Go to 11: No Labels’ Quiet Launch

By Sarah Laskow
Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

There’s a sound you hear when political ideas take off. It’s a crescendo of applause that swells and lasts so long that the speaker has to quiet it down. It comes exactly at the lines in a speech that are intended to inspire, and sometimes at lines that weren’t.

That sound was absent yesterday at the launch of No Labels, the organization that advocates something like bipartisanship and that may or may not be building a base for Michael Bloomberg’s 2012 presidential run. The applause, when it came, was perfunctory, and often a beat late.

“I feel I need to do a Howard Dean yell to wake you all up,” Newark Mayor Cory Booker said to the audience, just after 2:30 in the afternoon.

Twenty minutes or so later, Rob McCord, Pennsylvania’s state treasurer, repeated Booker’s request to bring up the lights in the audience. “Maybe it’ll get people’s blood sugar up,” he said.

The idea behind No Labels is that politicians need to put country before party. In practice, that means they want more politicians to solicit cosponsors from opposing parties for legislation, to “use civil and respectful language,” and to vote against their party more often.

The organization claims not to be centrist and offers some information about issues like energy, election reform, and national security on its website. It does have at least one label: It’s organized under the 501(c)(4) section of the tax code, which means it’s an issue advocacy organization. (This is the same type of organization that attracted criticism this past election cycle for pumping money into electoral races without disclosing the source of the funding.) No Labels has been a little vague on what issues it will actually be advocating for, besides bipartisanship.

The problem is, good ideas aren’t necessarily the ones that everyone agrees on. Nor does a bipartisan piece of legislation necessarily contain agreed-upon ideas. Take the tax bill currently on tap in DC. It’s a bipartisan piece of legislation that cobbles together some ideas that Democrats like and some ideas that Republicans like — not a coherent set of policy provisions that everyone agrees are good.

The leaders of No Labels said yesterday they wanted to build a movement 1 million strong in the next year. If the level of enthusiasm at the launch event was any indication, it’ll be a tough slog.

If they do manage that feat, however, there is one politician who will be very interested: Mayor Bloomberg. No Labels’ campaign for members will serve, in a way, as a proof of concept for a Bloomberg for President campaign. I don’t think of Bloomberg supporters as the type of people willing to travel to Iowa, Ohio, and New Hampshire to spend hours door-knocking in the cold. I imagine that, like the No Labels audience, they’ll lose their enthusiasm around lunch time.

But if over time No Labels can gin up real support, so can Bloomberg. If the group actually gains momentum, if the applause at No Labels chapter meetings across the country starts reaching the fever pitch, the mayor could start being a little more forthcoming about his plans for the future.

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Four Loko: Not Your Daddy’s State-Approved Vice

Unlike big tobacco or beer, wine and liquor, the caffeinated alcoholic drink was undone by a lack of political clout
By Sarah Laskow
Friday, November 19th, 2010

Four Loko

There’s a reason why Sen. Chuck Schumer has succeeded in his campaign to ban Four Loko. Those who disapprove of the drink have political clout. Those who like it, don’t.

Schumer, Gov. David Paterson, and other lawmakers are ostensibly worried about the danger Four Loko and its ilk pose to society at large, and to youth in particular. But the government tolerates scores of vices detrimental to public health: cigarettes, Red Bull & vodka, and McDonald’s are arguably just as bad as Four Loko for the people who consume them. Schumer’s not exactly against the consumption of alcohol, either: He receives more money from the beer, wine and liquor industry than any other senator, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But while powerful interests back tobacco and beef products, the constituencies for caffeinated alcoholic beverages are less savvy.

To some extent, fans of Four Loko only have themselves to blame for the impending ban. Few voters of any age were stoked about voting in this past election. (New York came in dead last on voter turnout.) But across the country, young voters in particular failed to show up at the polls.

After 2008, it was an open question whether young people’s enthusiasm for politics would endure. Now we know the answer: However much they like Obama, young people can’t be depended on for votes in Senate or House races. And if you don’t vote, you don’t get political leaders who are concerned about pissing you off. Smart politicians like Chuck Schumer can ignore the interests of college kids and 20-somethings: It’s their parents who keep him in office.

The manufacturers of drinks like Four Loko aren’t the most politically powerful bunch, either. The big brewing companies, like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, caved early on caffeinated alcoholic drinks, agreeing in 2008 to forgo that line of business. And Phusion Products, which makes Four Loko, has only recently jumped into the lobbying business. The company hired a DC lobbyist in August and ponied up $50,000 in the last quarter for lobbying related to “FDA issues related to infusion of caffeinated alcoholic beverages.” (Anheuser-Busch also listed caffeinated alcoholic beverages as a concern in a recent lobbying report.)

Politicians have nothing to lose by crusading against this new, fruit-flavored evil, then. But is a ban really the best way to solve the problem? In New York, the caffeinated version of Four Loko stops shipping today; by Dec. 10, distributors will have delivered their last loads to retailers. Those who love it most are surely stocking up as quickly as they can. (After MillerCoors took caffeine out of the recipe for Sparks, a similar, orange-flavored drink, one young man of my acquaintance hoarded so many cases of the stuff that he could still offer it to friends months after it went off the market.) Plus, it’s not so hard to concoct a home-made version of Four Loko. Apparently, all you need is a handful of jolly ranchers, a caffeine pill, malt liquor, a can of sprite and a can of Monster energy drink.

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Introducing Our New State Room Blogger: Sarah Laskow

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

Sarah Laskow

Starting this week, reporter Sarah Laskow will be THIRTEEN’s new State Room blogger. Sarah will write multiple posts per week in this space, covering New York state and local politics.

Sarah is a freelance writer and editor based in New York. Her work has appeared in Capital New York, Politico, The American Prospect, Newsweek.com, and other publications. Before coming to New York, she spent three years in DC reporting for the investigative journalism group The Center for Public Integrity.

Look for her first post tomorrow!

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New York City Liberals Stare Down Cuomo

By Avi Zenilman
Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

State Senator Eric Schneiderman

“I’m glad you all stayed up,” State Senator Eric Schneiderman told the cheering crowd at the Grand Hyatt. It was 1 a.m., the platters of cheese and curiously crunchy honeydew were no more, and all of his opponents in the five-way Democratic primary contest for Attorney General had finally conceded.

The ballroom was filled with some of the most powerful liberals in New York City. Naral Pro-Choice New York President Kelli Conklin introduced Schneiderman, Rep. Jerry Nadler and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn had been working the cameras for hours, and the crowd was filled with people wearing the purple t-shirts of SEIU 1199 — the most powerful union in the state. They all chanted “GUSTAVO! GUSTAVO! GUSTAVO!” when they found out that Gustavo Rivera had defeated State Senate Majority Leader, Pedro Espada, Jr.  They had all endorsed Schneiderman over Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, the former frontrunner and the presumed favorite of Andrew Cuomo. None of them were intimidated by the presumptive Governor, the so-called prince of darkness.

Schneiderman, however, had only praise for Cuomo, which he delivered after he complimented gay rights activists, the labor movement, reproductive rights organizations, the Dominicans in his district, Citizens Action, and a few other groups. The outspoken liberal said that “voters are looking for someone who will stand up to Wall Street,” and he pointed to Cuomo’s “unprecedent work” on that front. In the general election against Staten Island D.A. Dan Donovan, the promise to fight for the little guy — along with locking down the woman vote by painting him as anti-abortion as possible — will be much more salient than straightforward appeals to labor or gay rights.

It’s worth remembering, however, that Cuomo and Schneiderman are not close at all, and that Schneiderman built a incredibly potent progressive coalition that has pre-emptively expressed its disappointment with the soon-to-be Governor’s centrism and recent aversion to hard positions. The base is restless, and in the affable, savvy, Harvard-educated Schneiderman, they have their golden boy. Cuomo, obviously, knows how a press savvy Attorney General can use their subpeona power to push an agenda or hold rivals accountable, which is why he likely would have preferred Rice or trial lawyer Sean Coffey, moderates without their own power base in Albany.

Yet, as Schneiderman said, if he won the general election he would be ready to “step in on day one and continue the same aggressive progressive approach of Andrew Cuomo.”

It sounded like unequivocal support, but it was also a warning. “Everyone has to play by the same set of rules,” he said. No one, not even the governor, would be exempt from the long reach of the Attorney General’s office. In other words, Eric Scheiderman would continue the work of Attorney General Andrew Cuomo by making life difficult for Governor Andrew Cuomo.

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Bloomberg’s Worst Enemy

By Avi Zenilman
Monday, August 30th, 2010

State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver

The fight over Park51 has, for the most part, divided along partisan lines. Republicans have almost unanimously lined up against the plan, while most of the plan’s supporters are Democrats. But the endless media scrum doesn’t capture the ideological split at the heart of the mess: ward politics versus technocratic planning, expedience versus idealism, defensive pride versus elite aspiration. In other words, the best way to look at fight over the “Ground Zero Mosque” is to see it as another clash in the worldviews of State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Silver is a career politician, the personification of Albany. He has served in the Assembly since 1976, and his openly parochial concerns have stymied Mayor Bloomberg’s grander designs. The congestion tax, a wonky and high-minded attempt by Bloomberg to use the cutting-edge logic of urban systems to reduce emissions and traffic, was killed by Silver. He drew a line in the sand, framing Bloomberg as an opponent of commuters and a lackey for snobby cosmopolitan hipsters before letting the bill die in the legislature. Mayoral control? He looked askance at that, too, until he realized that Bloomberg, while still an anti-politician, had harnessed economic concerns and anti-teachers’ union sentiment into a viable coalition.

Unlike Paterson, unlike Sarah Palin, Silver controls both pursestrings and votes in Albany, and he still has the strength of a political boss; he can easily make sure that the construction of the center is bogged down by red tape.

Now there’s the mosque. Silver, who lives downtown and represents a district that covers a wide swath of lower Manhattan, is on the side of the grumbling populists. “In the spirit of living with others, they should be cognizant of the feelings of others and try to find a location that doesn’t engender the deep feelings the currently exist about this site,” he said last week, at a press conference with Governor Paterson. “I think the sponsors should take into very serious consideration the kind of turmoil that’s been created and look to compromise.”

The anodyne, incremental suggestions do not resemble Bloomberg’s stirring rhetoric — on Tuesday he called the fight over the cultural center a “test of our commitment to American values” — but that’s besides the point. Unlike Paterson, unlike Sarah Palin, Silver controls both purse strings and votes in Albany, and he still has the strength of a political boss; he can easily make sure that the construction of the center is bogged down by red tape. All politics is local, and it’s now clear that Bloomberg is operating on Silver’s turf.

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The Farce of Charlie Rangel’s Last Hurrah Continues… and Continues

By Avi Zenilman
Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Rep. Charlie Rangel

When Charlie Rangel said he wouldn’t back down from ethics violations charges and calls to step down from his seat in Congress, he really meant it.

At a debate on Monday night with his primary opponents, all of them a couple decades younger than him,  he mocked President Obama for saying that the 20-term Democrat from Harlem should “retire with dignity.”

“Frankly, he has not been around long enough to determine what my dignity is,” Rangel said about the president. “For the next two years, I will be more likely to protect his dignity.”

The fall of a leader may be a tragedy for Harlem, but national (and local) Democrats have reduced Charlie to a footnote — at open, empty war with the president, he does not sound like a threat to any Democrats’ electoral hopes except for his opponents. Despite the pro forma celebration of his birthday a few weeks back — attended by Senator Schumer, Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Paterson — his decision to fight for his political life seems more of a nuisance than an obstacle in the way of national Democratic hopes. (For obstacles, turn to Fox News and wait five minutes or less for the next mention of the words “Ground Zero Mosque.”)

But oh, what a nuisance. His strongest opponent, Adam Clayton Powell IV, has now taken off whatever gloves he was wearing beforehand, last week holding a big press conference on the street named after his father (who was himself an aging congressman stumbling in a fog of corruption when Rangel defeated him in 1971). He was supported by Assemblyman Jose Rivera, and drove home the point that Rangel was too corrupt to do well by Harlem.

However, Powell IV may not be the best man to call for a restoration of dignity, given his drunk driving record and other legal troubles. He’s aware of that problem now. “My mistake was one night of having maybe one too many, if you will, so to speak. His mistake has been a pattern of years and years and years of abuse of disrespect for the laws, of thinking that he’s above it all,” he said at the press conference. It’s a sign of the absurdity of this race that the reformist candidate’s strongest card is the one where he points out that his crime was less problematic.

Powell has added in a wrinkle to his attacks in recent days, saying that Rangel intends to actually step down upon re-election, which would open up the race to a hand-picked heir apparent like Assemblyman Keith Wright. While Rangel dismisses these accusations as crazy-talk, it also is becoming clear that Harlem voters might really need it to be true. Despite what Powell says, the only way they can really have a choice, after all, is if Charlie gives them one.

But he probably won’t. And the slow march until the September 14 continues, sounding like a circus, feeling like a tragedy. The morning after the election, no matter what happens, there is little chance it will feel any different.

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Paterson’s Last Grab for Relevance

By Avi Zenilman
Friday, August 13th, 2010

Gov. David Paterson

David Paterson is back! Kind of.

As Governor-in-waiting Andrew Cuomo enters what must be the middle stretch of his endless inauguration, the current governor has been trying to stay relevant, in his own way. But, with Paterson, it seems like steps forward must always be matched with a step or two backward.

The state legislature finally passed a budget early last week, just in time for State Senators and Assemblymen to hit the campaign trail and brag about their productivity. It was only 125 days too late.

Then, on Wednesday, Paterson made a bid to solidify his legacy, at least in his backyard of Harlem, by playing MC at Charlie Rangel’s birthday party. This was good for the governor; compared to the embattled Congressman, he’s getting relatively good press these days.

But Paterson’s main stake to the news these days has been his attempt at playing peacemaker, floating a plan to move the proposed “Ground Zero mosque” (which is not exactly a mosque, and not exactly at Ground Zero) to unspecified state land nearby. The compromising— some would say compromised — tone drew a distinction with Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to stand by the plan, but then again, it doesn’t seem as if Paterson has any legal ability to change anything, nor would he be able to loosen up state land for use.

Now, Paterson is on the defensive. In an interview with WOR, he said the opponents of the mosque are merely neighbors, tired of being “badgered.” He added, “How much more foresighted would it be if you were promoting cultural and ethnic understanding if you don’t wait until you build the building to do it and do it right now?”

Paterson, like most of the other participants in the great mosque gabfest, doesn’t live downtown; the badgering seems to exist on a two-way street. However, the content of Paterson’s argument doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we’re talking about his views on something, and not the fact that his former top aide David Johnston was formally charged with assault in the case that basically ended Paterson’s bid for re-election. (Paterson will not be facing charges.)

At least he’s still the governor. For a few more months.

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If Ground Zero Was No Longer a Hole in the Ground, Would Anyone Care About a Mosque?

By Avi Zenilman
Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Sally Regenhard at the Landmarks Commission hearing in July.

Depending on where you stand, in both senses of the word, the debate is either about the “Ground Zero Mosque,” or the Islamic cultural center named the Cordoba House slated for development on Park Place. (Yes, it’s not actually at Ground Zero, but the Imam behind the center picked the location, about two blocks away, deliberately.)

When Michael Bloomberg addressed it last week, after a near unanimous Community Board vote approving the plan, he was applauded for straightforwardly demanding religious tolerance, it seemed like a New York development story with strong political undertones. As the days have gone by, as Newsweek puts it on its cover, and as every prospective 2012 Republican presidential candidate — from Minnesota, Alaska, Arkansas, and other outer boroughs — comes out against the building, it has taken on a stranger hue. Everyone who is not a prominent Democratic politician seems to have a formal opinion, including John McCain and the two other Senators who publicly called the location of the building an “insult.”

Democrats in the city have been essentially quiet — the best example is Rep. Anthony Weiner, who sent a letter to Bloomberg that was nearly indecipherable: he praised the speech, but used bureaucratic language to hedge what seemed like support, writing, “I feel strongly that the constitutional protection of religion from the overreach of government means that elected officials should endeavor to stay out of the business of deciding where houses of worship may or may not be.’’ 

The reason the words ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ have so much resonance is because Ground Zero is still a place, a hole in the ground somehow approaching its ninth year of emptiness.

The swirling feuds have led to a whole range of public spokesmen and intellectuals staking positions like votes, like Senators in a new legislative body known as the news cycle. Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (the organization behind the Museum of Tolerance) said it would be too offensive to victims of 9/11 to build the center in the shadow of the twin towers. That, in part, echoed the concerns of the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish civil rights organization. Most Jewish groups did not agree with the ADL’s stance. And Fareed Zakaria disapproved so much that he returned an ADL award he received in 2005. And so on.

The situation, overly fraught to the point of dark comedy, is no longer about New York, and especially not downtown development; it’s about what you think about how America sees itself, or how you can get some attention to your cause. Barely anyone complaining has the ability to do anything — and, according to a recent news report, it’s no guarantee that the center would be able to get the necessary financing.

But this confusing, loud argument strikes a nerve that hits harder than Sarah Palin’s twitter feed: The reason the words “Ground Zero Mosque” have so much resonance is because Ground Zero is still a place, a hole in the ground somehow approaching its ninth year of emptiness. (It’s hard to see people caring about “Freedom Tower Mosque,” even if it was actually located in the building itself.) The hope of a higher principle that could trump parochial interests seems sillier by the day — why would a mosque be able to fix things where the Port Authority couldn’t?

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