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Orchestrating the grassroots: "agents of the city" document dump shows fevered response to my #DNC2016 op-ed

A pre-Thanksgiving document dump in response to a lawsuit from media outlets shows the consultant BerlinRosen and its co-leader Jonathan Rosen intimately involved with its client Mayor Bill de Blasio, which raises questions because the firm also represents firms doing business with the city, like Forest City Ratner, which then owned a majority share in the Barclays Center operating company.

Notably, the documents (posted in full by NY1) show BerlinRosen and mayoral advisors, in January 2015, feverishly responding to my online op-ed in the New York Times arguing against having the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Brooklyn, drafting op-eds, letters, and tweets from supportive public officials and business people.

"How many immediately surrounding local businesses can we get lte's [Letters to the Editor] in today?" wrote Rosen to colleagues and de Blasio advisors on 1/21/15, the day of my essay. "How many do we have ready to pitch a counter story to ny1 or another outlet - we need to isolate Norman and these groups?" (H/t Seth Barron.)

The term "these groups" surely refers to the newly formed Barclays Center Impact Zone Alliance (BCIZA), which expressed concern about the convention's local impact.

Interestingly, as with the letters that the Times did publish (in print), none of the responses directly responded to my point that "The convention would ripple farther than boosters admit." (Here's my take on those Times letters.) In the end, as I wrote last July, for NY Slant, de Blasio was probably glad the DNC didn't come to Brooklyn, given the protests and logistical challenges in Philadelphia.

Orchestrating the grassroots

BerlinRosen, as noted by the Post, "was being paid by the mayor’s nonprofit, Campaign for One New York to promote the city to the Democratic National Committee." It also represented the Barclays Center, the proposed venue, and developer Forest City Ratner.

As shown in the email string at left, BerlinRosen's Dan Levitan wrote, "Preference on our end to start for now with grassroots effort - letters to Times and comments to Dana Rubinstein at Capital -- a few tweets at her would be great too."

A little later, mayoral Chief of Staff Laura Santucci wrote, "Mayor just said he wants a counter op-ed too. Any reason not to do both?"

BerlinRosen's Andrew Friedman even suggested, "Is a joint Op-Ed from [Brooklyn Borough President] Eric Adams and [former BP] Marty Markowitz feasible? have them say that events of this magnitude are no problem for Brooklyn."

BerlinRosen worked fast. Later that day, as Levitan wrote to colleagues and mayoral advisors, the firm had drafted letters to the Times from several people, and were asking for "supportive tweets," gaining at least one quickly from the Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District in Park Slope.

An op-ed signed by Adams and local businessperson Francine Stephens (of Franny's and BKLN Larder) was circulated, apparently rejected by the Times, and eventually published in the Daily News. Just as Midtown stays open for business during the week-long United Nations General Assembly every year, so too will Brooklyn during the four-day convention."

The fact was/is, no event of that magnitude had occurred successfully, and City Hall had not explained how many streets would have to shut down while Brooklyn stayed "open for business."

The Cumbo effect

The document dump reveals that Council Member Laurie Cumbo didn't quite deliver what City Hall wanted. "Can we get her to draft a LTE that we can give to the Times focusing on the community benefits?" Mayoral aide Chandan Sharma wrote.

Meanwhile, she was drafting an overblown 1,076-word op-ed, which somehow claimed, "Not selecting Brooklyn to host the Democratic National Convention would be a loss of insurmountable and epic proportions," a prediction that didn't exactly come true.

She also brought up an issue surely way off topic to City Hall: "Tragically, the brutal murder of NYPD Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, by a man who has a long history with mental illness, has brought the City of New York to a level of deep morning [sic] and reflection."

That got whittled down to a shorter letter claiming, "But since the arena opened, the Barclay’s Center [SIC] and the NYPD have done a tremendous job listening to and addressing community concerns. We have hosted some of the biggest events of the last few years with minimal disruption." Again, that avoided the question of the much larger ripple effect of such a convention. 

"We should be very sensitive to her version," wrote mayoral advisor Michael DeLoach at one point. "She has worked on it for a while and sent to many council members to edit/review. Fine with changes but we should try to be respectful -- she has great pride in authorship."

The mayor and Jason Collins

Another document shows de Blasio in March 2014 bringing up the optics of honoring Jason Collins, the Net who was the first (openly) gay player in the NBA. "Nets are back in bklyn tmrw -- first time since he signed. Do we want to do anything to honor him?" wrote de Blasio. "Cc'ing Rosen since he represents Barclay's Center."

Indeed, Rosen was wearing a couple of hats there. He suggested that de Blasio and son Dante "buying cheap regular guy tix up in the stands to watch and he tweets" during the first  etc. Big schedule commit obviously. Checking with Nets if they have anything else planned."

That apparently didn't happen, though de Blasio did welcome Collins in a tweet.

(Update: the New York Post. in De Blasio consultant reportedly used City Hall to promote clients, cited the above episode, among others, getting the deflective response from Rosen: aid, “Like all PR firms we regularly deal with the press offices of elected officials to coordinate scheduling, event logistics and to respond to information requests." Rosen did more than that, but rather suggested strategy.)

The coverage

From NY1's Grace Rauh, Mayor's Office Releases Hundreds of Pages of Emails Between de Blasio and 'Agent of the City' (which includes links to the document dump):
Jonathan Rosen's influence extends deep inside City Hall in ways more extensive than previously known.
New emails released by the mayor show Rosen is invited to major policy meetings and included in high-level internal discussions.
But while he may be treated like a top City Hall advisor, he is far from an official one. He runs an influential private consulting firm, BerlinRosen, with clients who have business before the city, including powerful real estate firms. And the state now considers some of the work he does to be lobbying.
From the Wall Street Journal, Mayor Bill de Blasio Releases Some Email Correspondence With Political Consultant:
The emails showed close ties between Mr. Rosen’s firm, BerlinRosen, and a number of city efforts, like a failed push to have the city host the Democratic National Convention and an unsuccessful effort to secure a tax increase for universal prekindergarten. Mr. Rosen frequently had access to top City Hall aides, including the budget director, the mayor’s top political aide, the mayor’s scheduler and a number of his top communications officials. His firm often corresponded with City Hall about clients or scheduling events.
In one email, Mr. de Blasio himself emails aides about Barclays Center, a Brooklyn basketball arena, and adds Mr. Rosen, telling his staff that Mr. Rosen represents the facility.
It showed BerlinRosen helping an effort to criticize other cities competing for the Democratic National Convention, particularly Philadelphia, which eventually won the bid.
From the New York Times, Emails Released by Mayor de Blasio’s Office Detail Reliance on Outside ‘Agents’:
While the emails do not provide new information related to the state and federal investigations into Mr. de Blasio’s fund-raising, they shed light on the details of assembling favorable commentary from those who are aligned with the mayor’s causes or have donated money to him. One email contained a list of hundreds of official “validators” — people who could be counted on for a good quote.
“Here’s who I am shooting for,” Ross Offinger, a fund-raiser for the mayor, wrote on January 2014 about providing a list of prominent real estate and business leaders. The list included donors and bundlers for Mr. de Blasio whom the mayor was going to contact in connection with the his universal prekindergarten program. The email went to the first deputy mayor, Anthony E. Shorris; two top aides; and Mr. Rosen.
“Can we take this off official thread please,” one of the aides, Peter Ragone, replied. (Mr. Phillips said that Mr. Ragone had been acting cautiously but that the conversation was “entirely appropriate for government email.”)
The New York Post's article, Lobbyist acted as member of de Blasio admin, email dump shows, shows the prominence of Bruce Ratner, who was listed as one of the four developers already on-board:
A high-powered lobbyist was treated as a member of the administration and included in discussions with senior mayoral aides...
...Other email strings reflect the blurred lines between de Blasio’s fundraising operation and governing. In one string from Jan. 21, 2014, campaign aide Ross Offinger forwards a list of “real estate and business leaders “I am shooting for” to Wolfe, Shorris, Rosen and Ragone.
The list includes developers Bruce Ratner and Jed Walentas, as well as Gina and Tony Argento, whose company Broadway Stages is now being probed by the feds. Offinger was approaching them to raise money for de Blasio’s political non-profit Campaign for One New York, which is also under federal investigation.
After Offinger sent a list of more than a dozen potential donors to hit up, Ragone suggests that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to communicate over official channels.
“Can we take this off official thread please,” he wrote.
From Politico NY, City Hall releases hundreds of pages of emails with top political consultant:
Rosen's staff consulted at length with City Hall over planning press conferences in which BerlinRosen clients were participating. Rosen also was involved in two of the mayor's early priorities: the successful effort to expand pre-kindergarten and the failed attempt to host the Democratic National Convention. In those cases, Rosen was also working for the mayor's now-defunct political organization, Campaign for One New York, which is under federal investigation.
More details

Preparing for a 1/30/15 visit to New York and Brooklyn by DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, mayoral advisors and BerlinRosen staff discussed "flacking Celeste," or giving Daily News columnist Celeste Katz details on the visit, as she sought "anything like something she'll eat, whether barclays will be lit up with anything special on the jumbotron, anything like that -- story really needs a little more color."

According to the itinerary, when Schultz's "motorcade leaves Penn Station, Dan Gross will call [the Barclays Center's Terence] Kelly to turn on DNC sign at [the arena] oculus." After the Barclays Center tour, a community meeting at the Cubana Cafe in Park Slope was to include an o
verview of community outreach, including "acknowledgement and explanation of community opposition / concerns."

"Other major points to hit by TBD: ability to handle large scale events on a regular
basis, community experience in proximity to Barclay’s center," the memo said.

In another email, Rosen circulated the transcript of a Ratner interview on Bloomberg TV, in which the mogul defended the mayor's plan, as stated by the anchor, to "tax the rich."

"I don’t mind it – I can afford it," Ratner said. (My coverage of other aspects of the interview.)