What I Meant to Say

In 2004, when I came up in the field of communications, I was privileged to be taught by some of the best – both LCA reporters and former colleagues. And while I took away different lessons from different people, there was one maxim that was universally held – “don’t lie!”

To be clear, “don’t lie,” didn’t mean offer the complete utter truth all the time. It didn’t mean return every press call or for that matter answer every question (God forbid). What it did mean, or what it used to mean, is that if you lied, your credibility would be lost, shot, kaput and your ability to be effective with the press would be over.

In the wake of what I have seen over the past few years, culminating in this year’s presidential election, that essential lesson seems like a quaint and outdated ideal. 

Over the past few weeks I can’t tell you the number of people, from the left and right, who have expressed their admiration for the job done by Kellyanne Conway, Jason Miller and much of the Trump press team. I have to admit their performance was intelligent, professional and stunningly effective – it also was often completely the opposite of what their candidate was saying. Everyday we were treated to the phrase “what he really means” as if somehow we were all profound idiots, unable to interpret the true meaning of a message usually less than 140 characters long.

Sadly the media, especially the television news ate it up allowing Conway and team to become the reassuring voice to the so-called establishment, while Trump continued to say whatever he wanted, when he wanted. It was a campaign waged in two different languages and by the end we were treated daily to two competing, yet strategically complimentary messages: the “what he said,” and then, the “what he really means.” If Dick Morris and Bill Clinton perfected the slick art of triangulation, Team Trump simplified it to a coarse duality.

To be clear, despite all the hand wringing, this phenomenon didn’t start with Donald Trump–he just took it to another level. The elected officials, the corporate mouthpieces, the NGO’s (who each year grow more brazen with their lies), and those in the fourth estate that invest credibility in the liars are all part and parcel of the problem.

Indeed, it seems voters have already grown immune to it. Having heard so much baloney over the years, they expect their politicians–including Trump–to lie. Much as Elena Gorokhova, wrote of her life growing up in the Soviet Union,“The rules are simple: they lie to us, we know they’re lying, they know we know they’re lying, but they keep lying to us, and we keep pretending to believe them.”

I don’t pretend to know the answer, but as the media soul searches for how to “cover President Trump,” they need to be looking a lot closer to home in the stories that get covered everyday.

The notion that we live in a #PostTruth world is disturbing. There are facts. There is in most things an objective reality and if we lose our hold on that, I fear for our politics and our society. More importantly and most troubling, it would come as no surprise that those who obtain great power, in-part through lies, are certainly capable of the perjury to sustain it.

Today, there are candidates and consultants, Democrats and Republicans alike emboldened by Trump’s victory asking the question: does the truth matter? I know one thing: once you abandon the truth your options are far greater and much easier. There is no need to be obtuse or clever, let alone endure – or worse, make others endure – the banality of being repetitive or mundane. Finally, there is no need to ask reporters to divine some measure of truth from what is carefully unspoken. There is no subtlety or nuance in the #PostTruth world  – there is simply an ends and a means.   


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Deep Breaths

Take a deep breath everyone, step awaaaaay from the Twitter – Donald Trump has been elected President and the world has not ended. While it’s fair to say this has been one of the most dispiriting campaigns in my lifetime – the truth is that his election is a watershed opportunity to reclaim our system. When I say reclaim, I don’t mean from the Democrats or liberals or for that matter from Republicans or conservatives – I mean from the incestuous cross-section of the financial, media and political establishment that has long been gaming this system for their own purposes.

To some degree the campaign was a microcosm of what ails our process. Today, much of the mainstream media is wringing their hands about the results – yet is was the media’s coverage of a reality TV star that set the train in motion. They breathlessly followed every twist and turn, minute by minute. Broadcasting, analyzing and pontificating on every Trumperance – ultimately delivering over $2 billion in free media coverage to the Trump campaign. To have some perspective, the next closest GOP candidate, Jeb Bush, received only $214 million in earned media – just over 10% of the amount. Quite a difference, especially when considering all these same news outlets over and over predicted Trump can’t win!

While Fox led the way in skewing coverage when it came to the GOP, aka the Fox primary, all the media left and right got in on the act. Morning Joe created this new low standard of the “Trump call in” with Joe twisting himself to legitimize Trump’s positions only later to find some faux outrage. Trump is great TV and ratings soared. CBS CEO Les Moonves said it himself, “Donald Trump might not be good for America, but he’s great for the bottom line,” as record advertising revenues were scored by the cable and network new divisions.

But after cashing all those advertising checks, the same media that skewed coverage one way, decided it was time to drag Hillary across the finish line. When it came it to trying to finally settle the outcome of the election it was NBC that suddenly, mysteriously unearthed “the lost” Access Hollywood tapes in an October surprise. Unfortunately for supporters of team Clinton, NBC released the tapes too early allowing Trump to weather the storm, stabilize and finally for Hillary to be outdone and ultimately undone by none other than Anthony Weiner.

When it comes to Comey – I might be wrong, but my sense was he was put between a rock and a hard place when investigators found Clinton emails on Weiners’ computer. What might, under normal circumstances, have been managed quietly was blown up because if Preet knew of the emails, there was no certainty of when the rest of the world might know. Facing this uncertainty and after promising Congress he would notify them of any new developments – Comey had basically no choice. Comey didn’t cost Clinton the election – if anything Huma and Anthony did.

For the press, reporting the objective truth was more elusive and yes more challenging than ever. Watching Trump say one thing and then his team scramble to calmly explain what “he really meant” in 180 degree fashion was both disturbing and amazing to watch at the same time. Kudos to Conway and Miller for interpreting Trump-speak into reasonable sound bites, even if the dissonance was often jarring, But sadly it reflects the world we live in today.

Double standards, double talk and hypocrisy have become the norm and they have taken their toll on the electorate. 10 years after the greatest economic calamity since the Great Depression not one person responsible has gone to jail. Just this year, Wells Fargo brazenly ripped of hundreds of thousands of account holders – yet the CEO walks away with a golden parachute. Many of our elected officials simply pick and choose which laws they choose to follow. Federal indictments are handed down in Nassau County mere weeks before an election. And the state’s top law enforcement office holds the Trump Foundation to one standard and the Clinton Foundation to another. Is it any surprise that voters are just a bit cynical when it comes to sorting out what’s important and what’s not? What’s the truth and what’s not?

Finally, when it came to the political establishment what a disaster. In a year when 16 rock ribbed establishment Republicans envisioned their own pathways to the White House all but one, George Pataki, hid for months while the 17th, Trump, built momentum toward the nomination. One after another, GOP candidates made the cynical miscalculation, much like the pundits, that the next misstep will take Trump down and their campaign would be there to pick up his voters. Jeb Bush’s PAC spent close to $100 million attacking Marco Rubio – not one campaign with resources focused on taking out Trump until it was too late.

For the Democrats, Wikileaks proved the conspiracy to undermine Bernie Sanders was real and was devastating to the Clinton effort. And as much as Trump was over reported by the media, Sanders, who was very much inspiring his own populist uprising, was largely dismissed and underreported. We can’t underestimate the impact of this disparity on the Democratic primary. Ironically, in many ways Clinton actually looked more like a Republican, certainly more establishment than Trump ever did. Her coziness with Wall Street, her experience voting for and overseeing two failed wars, her shifting support for free trade and her apparent wealth all could of easily landed her in a GOP primary. Is it any wonder she had a difficult time turning out the Obama coalition?

So now what? In the days after election I’ve heard of hispanic grade school students crying for fear that they might be deported, of mothers numb as to what it means for their daughters, a number of reporters genuinely concerned with rising anti-semitism and pundits one and all shocked that “this is not their America.” Their concerns, their fears are real and we must all be on guard for those elements of hate in our society that conflate an election result that acknowledges America’s tough problems with an acceptance of intolerance. But at the same time, this tendency to lump all Trump voters in with racists, homophobes or the general “basket of deplorables” is also unacceptable.

Finally, for those Democrats, liberals and independents who think it’s the end of the world, remember thrice married Donald Trump is not exactly a christian fundamentalist, he voted for John Kerry in 2004, was pro-choice long before he was pro-life and actually in the campaign set aside issues like gay marriage. Donald Trump is not a conservative and not an ideologue – he is real estate developer, a master marketer and ultimately a deal maker.  And while his temperament on the trail has left many of us concerned – only he knows how much of it was showmanship and how much of it was authentic. The truth is Trump seems equally as genuine denouncing Hillary as “crooked” as he does praising her as “lovely” and “tough.”

From repairing the promise of the American Dream for middle America, to reclaiming our inner cities to fixing our broken immigration system – there are tough challenges ahead. Challenges that have eluded establishment Democrats and Republicans alike, the professionals that have formulated their policies and the special interests that have funded them. For the past 18 months Trump has colored outside the lines. He did not campaign within the boundaries of what had been accepted practice – to fix America, he’s going to have to do the same thing.

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When it Comes to Campaign Finance Reform, It’s Time to Play Ball

Play Ball – no it’s not the start of the baseball season, that’s sadly still a few weeks away; it’s a different kind of game.  It’s a game of influence and perception at the heart of one of the more contentious issues in Albany, campaign finance reform.

It’s become increasingly clear that the staggering amounts of money in politics has distorted the electoral process, depressed voting and increased the power of special interest groups sometimes leading to the out-and-out corruption that has jaundiced the public’s view of their government.

But because of Citizens United and subsequent Supreme Court rulings, donating money, even incredibly large sums of it, as a means to express one’s views is protected by our Constitution.

Further, while there is no shortage of campaign donations, there is a decided shortage of voting. Record campaign spending has translated into record low turnout – with the last two major New York elections drawing abysmal voter participation rates.

The main thrust of the Democrat response to these issues is typical – spend more of someone else’s money. Most of their proposals involve taking taxpayer dollars and distributing them along the lines of the corrupt New York City (NYC) campaign finance model. The NYC system is a travesty which has been perverted into a tool for incumbents and cronyism. Worse, the board that administers the system is some kind of Star Chamber above the law and even routine media inquiries.

For their part, Republicans have been largely silent on this issue, holding their collective breath hoping that no one notices that they have no ideas, not even bad ones, to try to reshape the electoral playing field to foster more real competition. As fiscal conservatives they oppose more spending and as a minority party they fear the imposition of a NYC system that decidedly favors incumbents.

There is a solution that doesn’t require spending hundreds of millions in public funds and we need to look no further than the Bronx for inspiration. It’s time we placed a soft cap on campaign spending and get more voters in the game by establishing a refundable voter contribution tax credit. How would it work?

In 2003, in an effort to promote competitive balance and the overall health of the sport, Major League Baseball (MLB) instituted a soft cap on team spending.  It requires that when a team exceeds the cap a “luxury tax” or what the league calls a “Competitive Balance Tax” is levied on its payroll. The purpose of the luxury tax is to prevent teams with high incomes or wealthy owners from simply cornering the market on talented players and destroying the “competitive balance” of the league.

In MLB a team that exceeds the spending cap incurs a surcharge or a tax equal up to 50% for every dollar of payroll above the recommended level.  Those funds are redistributed for various league purposes including as support to other lower-income teams in an effort promote competitive balance.

A soft cap on statewide campaign spending can achieve the same result. Candidate campaigns, including the advocacy spending of outside groups, which cumulatively spend beyond established guidelines, would be subject to a luxury tax. Donors can still give as much as they want. Campaigns, like the teams, can still spend what they want, as much as they can raise, but at a price. Fifty cents of every dollar spent that exceeds the soft cap would be dedicated to enhanced enforcement and increasing voter turnout. Let’s face it; no one wants to fund someone else’s campaign – the effect of a soft cap on limiting deep pocketed donors and outside spending could be enormous.

To address abysmal voter participation, let us incentivize the behavior by establishing a $50 refundable tax credit for contributions to support the statewide candidates who best represent their interests on issues. The credit would benefit all New Yorkers and be available to statewide candidates up to the soft cap established for the race. It would encourage voter engagement in the democratic process which hopefully would extend beyond statewide elections.

Finally, to be effective this approach would require real-time disclosure of campaign donations and spending which is a critical reform whose time has come.

“Competitive balance” or a more even playing field – isn’t that the bottom of line what all New Yorkers want to see in our elections?

A more even playing field doesn’t guarantee winners and losers. The Yankees (aka incumbents, Democrats and self funders) will always have a better chance of winning. Just like the luxury tax doesn’t guarantee victory for the Mets (aka challengers and Republicans) – but it gets them in the game, and that is what voters deserve.

New York City’s Seinfeld Campaign

After most every election there is the ritual hand ringing and soul searching, recriminations and denunciations — I hope that is kept to a minimum this cycle. There is always room for a better campaign and yes the Tea Party and national GOP can create a challenging environment for New York Republicans, but none of those factors were central to the outcome of this year’s Mayoral election.
If there was ever a Seinfeld campaign, a campaign about nothing, this was it. Nothing – meaning there was no one issue animating the electorate, just the singular nagging feeling that it was time to shake things up. Kind of like Yankee fans felt with Joe Torre, four championships simply weren’t enough – the truth is we are a greedy, demanding, impatient and fickle bunch. After 20 years of near miraculous GOP leadership of City Hall, the time had come for a change.
That’s not to discredit the de Blasio campaign, which was, in a word, inspired. Bill de Blasio presented New Yorkers with an aspirational vision of how they want to see their city and how the bulk of the people that “do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this” town, want to see themselves –  tolerant, optimistic, family-oriented, fair, fun and solidly middle class.
And moreover, de Blasio’s  policy prescriptions appealed to our better angels if not always our common sense. 
While we support the safer streets that come from Stop and Frisk, we don’t want innocent young black men up against a wall. While we want lower taxes, we all deep down in our heart of hearts, feel the rich can probably chip in a few more bucks. And while we still cling to the promise of the American Dream, we all fear it may be slipping out of reach for our kids. The de Blasio campaign, through one of the singular most effective ads ever, tapped into all that and more.  “Morning in America” had been updated, made a lot more hip (as if I know what that is) and relocated to Park Slope.  Joe Lhota simply never had a chance.
When apprising this election. the phrase, with all due respect to Mayor Bloomberg’s public health efforts, “fat, dumb and happy” comes to mind. Problems that once seemed supersized, today appear bite-sized. Despite New York City’s real challenges, it is in the midst of a renaissance. Crime is the lowest in a generation and for all the talk of inequality, opportunity still exists. Thanks to a succession of great to good leadership, New York City is an unrivaled urban success – envied around the world.
Two terms are enough, three terms are too much and five terms is officially overstaying your welcome. Like the brother in-law who moved into your basement or your kid who moved back in his bedroom after college – they get on your nerves. The GOP – Bloomberg years provided a continuum of responsible leadership that will be hard to match – but it was just time to go, time to get the hell out. 
The campaign is over and New Yorkers are a demanding bunch. Congratulations Mayor-elect de Blasio and set your alarm clock because turning those aspirations from compelling ads and populist ideas to a positive reality is a tough task.

Show Me the Money

Conventional wisdom holds that no Republican can win statewide without the endorsement of the Conservative Party. The truth is that the Conservative Party has been the tail wagging the dog of New York State politics for the better part of the last 30 years.  This has caused many of my fellow Republicans to long for (no pun intended) GOP political hegemony and a withering of the Conservative Party.

It’s sheer folly to suggest that the Conservative Party is solely responsible for the string of losses we have suffered with statewide candidates (we have more than enough blame to spread around). Notably and most recently, Conservative Party favorite 2010 gubernatorial nominee Rick Lazio would have certainly performed well enough to help Harry Wilson over the finish line as opposed to Carl Paladino’s explosive candidacy.

But while the Conservative Party retains outsized leverage as a king-maker in the nominating process, the operational question is who is going to fund the socially conservative candidates that the party advances?

Donors give for a passel of reasons but most of them can be boiled down to the following three categories.

Money follows incumbents: A well trod maxim of politics, no need to say more.

Money follows winners:  There is a whole class of Democrat and Republican donors who simply chase the polls; they give to who they expect will win.  They donate predominantly on the basis of their self-interest and in an increasingly blue state like New York – theses donor aren’t apt to see socially conservative candidates as a good bet. They are typically socially agnostic or content to not let their personal views dictate their political decisions. As such, no matter how good the Republican candidate or how weak the Democrat – fund raising will be an uphill battle for the GOP.

Money follows ideology:  There are many deep pocketed Republican donors and some still do give on issues such as abortion and opposition to same-sex marriage. Yet despite the heightened conversation on the religious exemption in Obamacare, with New York’s own Cardinal Dolan a prominent voice, it would be hard to identify a spike in Catholic donors?  The reality is that New York is not the best battleground for these issues and often times even these funders will play “follow the winner” and seek more hospitable enrollment environs to advance their agenda.

Further, and perhaps more troubling for conservatives is that, much like New York at large, the Republican donor base has become more tolerant (or libertarian) and in some cases are even proponents of a moderate social agenda. Some of the Republicans biggest and best-known donors like David Koch, and Sheldon Adelson are social moderates while others such as Paul Singer are out-and-out advocates.

Who is left to fund socially conservative candidates in New York?

Doubters will say that I’m drawing the wrong conclusion based on the huge sucking sound that was the Presidential race money machine.  That in an off-year, national conservative money would be more apt to make its way to statewide candidates in New York. But with Citizens United, there has never been more money in play and more access to funding for every kind of candidate and ideology. Citizens United didn’t necessarily change the rules of what candidates get funding, it just changed the overall amounts spent.

I still believe that the right socially conservative candidate, in the right year, against the right opponent can win in New York – but you are going to have a hard time convincing the donor community of that reality.  So the next time the Conservative Party comes knocking with a social conservative we need to ask the question how do they compete, where do they raise money?

We need to say “Show Me the Money.”

If they can’t, New York Republicans should resolve now that we will be better off putting to the test the conventional wisdom.

Spontaneous Human Combustion

My dad loved science fiction, UFO’s and all things one might consider X-Files like. He was no Richard Dreyfus building mountains out of mashed potatoes at the kitchen table but we watched Star Trek, read Bradbury, Asimov and weird eclectic titles such as “Arigo Surgeon of the Rusty Knife.”  It amused him greatly and we would talk a lot about what was possible in the world or universe. There was one book I remember that discussed a phenomena known as spontaneous human combustion, basically a living person just unexpectedly bursting into flames. As a child I was not convinced this was possible — but I was forced to reconsider my belief while considering Ambassador Rice’s performance as she explained the attacks on our embassies over the past few weeks.

The sheer nonsense Rice spewed, attributing the attacks on our embassies in the Middle East to a “spontaneous” response to some cult web video was insulting to the commonsense and the intelligence of even the most gullible.  Even more outrageous, in my view was the larger media establishment, particularly those in the media that lived and breathed 9/11, that gave credence to this inane explanation and failed by any legitimate measure to hold the Obama administration accountable.  (Ironically. Ambassador Rice’s appearance eerily reminded me of the performance Colin Powell put on when making the case for WMD’s in Iraq.  In Powell’s case I wasn’t sure he believed it, in Rice’s case I was sure I didn’t.)

The President, as Commander and Chief should be held accountable for our lack of preparation in securing American embassies and the safety of our foreign dignitaries. After all, you don’t have to be J. Edgar Hoover to surmise that our embassies in the Middle East might be a target of attack of all days on the anniversary of 9/11.   Moreover he should be held accountable for the idiotic half-baked justifications that his administration and Ambassador Rice rushed to sell the American public. And above all the President should be held responsible for a policy that from Day One proclaimed that the phrase “War on Terror” would be struck from our lexicon.

Yesterday, the New York Times finally covered what Fox News and other conservative outlets have been reporting for weeks, what the Libyan President has said on the Today Show and what rational thinking told anyone with a shred of curiosity — the attack on Ambassador Stevens was not spontaneous; it was planned and executed by terrorists. U.S. officials investigating the attack say that their preliminary investigation indicates that members of Ansar al-Sharia, a fundamentalist group with deep roots in Benghazi, carried out the attack with the help of a few militants linked to al-Qaeda’s offshoot in Africa.  Yes, the same al-Qaeda that regularly has its heads lifted to the heavens, not in prayer, but in hope of evading their own date with a not so spontaneous form of human combustion.

Senator Kerry  in defending Ambassador Rice and the Obama administration today said, “Everyone who cares about the four fallen Americans in Benghazi would do well to take a deep breath about what happened and allow Secretary Clinton’s proactive, independent investigation to proceed.”  Really? That advice is about two weeks too late and directed at the wrong parties.

The President is not omnipotent, he can’t prevent every attack and I’m not one who believes he needs to have every national security briefing drilled into him over his morning corn flakes by the NSA — but he should at least have the commonsense to stand down when he doesn’t know the facts.  We saw this same rush to the microphone after the killing of Osama Bin Laden, flubbing detail after detail spiking the Bin Laden ball. But honestly, did anyone care if Bin Laden was armed or not – did it matter?

But what does matter, is that on the 11th of 9/11 anniversary Americans were attacked by al Qaeda again.  What does matter is that more brave American’s are dead at the hands of people who despise everything that we cherish about our country. What does matter is that  in the words of the Director of National Intelligence the event was a “deliberate and carefully planned terrorist attack.”

Where was the security? What are our goals in the Middle East? Hopefully there are more answers to come and it doesn’t include some youtube video.

Notwithstanding the efforts of Ambassador Rice, thirty-five years later I remain unconvinced  that spontaneous human combustion exists. But self-immolation, now that is an entirely different matter – it can take the shape of a drone missile or misleading statements on sunday talk shows.

Personal Foul: Spiking the Football and Unnecessary Roughness

It’s Sunday and I should be obsessed about my Dallas Cowboys – (will they go 2-0?)  instead I find myself fulminating over the cowboys running for the highest office in the land.

Bin Laden is Dead, GM is Alive,” Vice President Biden’s bumper sticker rationale for reelecting President Obama always struck me as crass and insulting but never more so than over the past few days. Killing Bin Laden is not a foreign policy.

Equally unsettling was Governor Romney’s rush to exploit the crisis in Egypt and Libya, behaving more like Chuck Schumer, than well – Chuck Schumer.

What is wrong with American politics where we spike the ball on meting out revenge and can’t take a break from the 24-7 news cycle long enough to respect America’s real interests, America’s real heroes?

Are our leaders that intemperate?

The unspeakable killing this past week in Libya of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans reminded me of the uncomfortable feeling that creeped in when celebrations and self congratulations political and otherwise broke out over the killings of Bin Laden and Qaddafi.

It’s impossible to mourn the death of these two truly evil maniacs under any circumstance – and yet it’s also difficult to celebrate.

Bin Laden’s death was just and long overdue. We followed him to “the gates of hell” for closure (or at least an attempt at it) and to demonstrate to other would be murderers that if you kill Americans we will find you and bring you to justice. But revenge, while often just, is not an attractive thing – it doesn’t make us feel better about ourselves. Furthermore revenge is not an emotion we expect our leaders to celebrate, we expect more temperance.

Qadaffi’s death would seem to be long over due as well, although it remains unclear, even more so today, what American interests were served in its pursuit.  Since his death, the Vice President has held up Qadaffi’s overthrow as “model for how America should work in the world” and boasted, “we spent only $2 billion without losing a single life, and he’s (Qaddafi) dead.”

The sick truth is Qaddafi was hunted down and killed by the same kind of murderous thugs that he was in life. Qaddafi was tortured, sodomized and later used as a photo prop for the killers who proudly posed with his corpse.  The juxtaposition of the images of Ambassador Stevens dead body and that of Qaddafi’s both being dragged through the chaos of Libya is haunting.

Is this new “model” something to boast about?

As for Governor Romney, notwithstanding some of the conservative glitterati that were just giddy to see him engage the President forcefully, the timing of his criticism was sad and unfortunate. There are more important things than campaigning, even when this is the most important election of our lifetime. The death of the Ambassador and his colleagues demands more respect, restraint and temperance. We especially demand it of those who would be President.

Ironically, Governor Romney’s failure was also one of commonsense.  While Romney is absolutely right to criticize the President’s feckless foreign policy, timing matters. There is an old axiom in politics, when events are unfolding that hurt your opponent, shut-up, step back and let them unfold.  Instability, tragedy and attacks on unprepared embassies, on the anniversary of September 11th of all days, in and of itself are an indictment of Obama’s disengaged, disinterested foreign policy.

We are only in the third quarter of  this game, there is still a long way to go in the 2012 Presidential election and it’s hard to predict that a more temperate approach to our politics will emerge – but we can hope.

The Limits of “Open for Business”

The State’s “Open for Business” ad campaign is eye candy for economic development junkies and is part of a broader effort to rebrand and reinvigorate the state’s business climate.

Unfortunately, there is always a lag between programs and their impact as  evidenced last week by U.S. Department of Labor release of disappointing unemployment statistics that have thus far passed with nary a notice from the media at large. While the rest of the nation is enjoying an anemic but stubbornly persistent jobs recovery, New York State is actually moving backward with higher unemployment.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor – only 32 of 372 metropolitan areas in the United States reported year-over-year higher unemployment from June 2011 to June 2012, but all 12 of NY’s reporting areas are among them. Not one or two – every single one of our metro areas are faring worse than they did last year. Only five metro areas in the country reported unemployment increases of over one percent and three of those were in New York, with Elmira, just across the border from Pennsylvania’s shale boom, leading the way with 1.4% increase.

Yogurt summits aside, the administration’s scorecard on jobs and the economy is incomplete with important decisions yet to be made on a host of issues most notably the Tappan Zee Bridge and hydrofracking. But Governor Cuomo has done the most important thing necessary for the business community and that is restoring a sense of confidence that government can play an active, productive and most importantly consistent role in shaping economic conditions.

Wild uncertainty is the greatest enemy of business planning and it’s impacts reverberate today.

The chaos of the four years between Pataki and Cuomo, coupled with the two years in the desert spent by the Senate Republicans, while entertaining political theater and a lobbyists nocturnal fantasy, was an unmitigated disaster for the business climate. It was Hurricane Katrina style government most everyday – thankfully without the hurricane. Governor Cuomo’s partnership with Senate Republicans has substantially righted a ship that was foundering but a battleship doesn’t turn on a dime and there are other forces beyond the state’s control at work that are undermining New York’s recovery.

While New York  is “Open for Business,” Washington is out to lunch.

The federal government continues to use New York as a piggy bank with state taxpayers sending billions more to Washington than we get back.  According to the NYS Division of Budget, in 2008 alone, New York sent $55.6 billion more to the federal government in taxes than we received back in aid.  Between 2000 and 2010, the balance of payments deficit totaled more than $600 billion on a cumulative basis. Ironically, these funds are overwhelmingly sent to red states like Mississippi and even Sarah Palin’s Alaska,  you would think that would get the goat of every liberal New York Democrat in Washington.

Further, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts will only exacerbate the problem and have a devastating impact on New York, which has a greater percentage of “relatively wealthy” taxpayers than the rest of the nation. “Relatively wealthy” of course because higher wages are reflective of the high cost of living in downstate New York.

Even Senator Schumer has the good sense to recognize that $250,000 a year is a two income working middle class family in Long Island or Westchester, while the President and Senator Gillibrand are happy to further tap New York’s tax base. Millionaire taxes on the state and federal level poll great — the federal version also costs New York more than almost every other state in America.

Even more pernicious and devastating to New York’s economic climate is Dodd-Frank.  In Dodd-Frank, Washington has managed to do to Wall Street what the Great Depression and suicide lunatics couldn’t, causing it to decentralize and shrink, eliminating entry and mid-level jobs. They have done this at the expense of smaller banks and lending while not adequately addressing the central threat of too big to fail. Most importantly though, Dodd-Frank has fundamentally altered Wall Street’s compensation system gutting New York’s most robust revenue stream. Or in other words, smaller bonuses for traders and investment bankers equals less revenue for the state.

All politics and most businesses are still local.

Finally, the lack of resources, the paucity of professional capacity and the pure hijinks that exists with too many local governments is a real detriment to economic growth. Take the story of Nick Wallenda who ignited international interest by risking his life walking over Niagara Falls on a cable. Wallenda, who agreed to end his walk on the U.S. side, the side that needs the most help, might be regretting his decision now that the city is going after him to pay for public safety overtime costs.

In the dispute between Wallenda and Niagara Falls who is right? Does it matter?  Either way the loser is the already lackluster reputation of the City of Niagara Falls and by association New York State. The public squabbling sends a ridiculous message to the business community and would be investors about partnering with government in New York State. After all, if risking your life on prime time doesn’t buy some good will and cooperation, what will?

New York is on a better course, but sometimes “Open for Business,” is only as open as your partners will allow.

Aurora – The Insensitive, Inane, Idiotic and an Occasional Stroke of Commonsense

The tragic shootings in Aurora are not even a week old and the devastation wrought upon the families and the community is yet to be fully realized. And while there are many facts yet to be learned, here are a few observations worth making from the response by media and some of our elected officials.

Mayor Bloomberg has never been known for his sentimentality, once famously suggesting that there was no need for a September 11th memorial because of his own preference to be buried in a plain pine box. And while often times his anti-PC candor is refreshing, other times he crosses the line to blowhard billionaire. Within hours of the shooting, while victims were fighting for their lives, while law enforcement officials were still working to dismantle a lunatic’s booby-trapped psycho ward/apartment the Mayor was running off at the mouth about gun control sounding as oblivious to the world as Thurston Howell the 3rd.

Most every other serious politician in America paused that morning to pray, console and appropriately consider their response – but not the Mayor and it was sad. Gun control is a very serious topic and the Mayor’s actions to ratchet up attention on the topic might well be effective. But timing matters and ultimately he should have grabbed a big gulp, took a deep breath and waited till the emergency room cleared before diving in.

In an odd case of life imitating art, imitating life – Brian Ross and ABC News appeared to be trying out for a Tea Party bashing cameo on HBO’s Newsroom. If ever there was an indicator of the conservative prejudices of the mainstream media it was on display in ABC News inane and misguided pronouncement that Holmes was a Tea Party member. By the way, I’m not even sure what it would mean if Holmes was a Tea Party member because last I checked no political party requires a psych exam as a prerequisite to membership.

You might have thought that given the recent fiasco around reporting on the Supreme Court decision on Obamacare that Ross and ABC would exercise a measure of caution before speculating about the political ties of a mass murderer. It was a ridiculous news decision, which shouldn’t just fall on Ross, it should fall on the rush to report paradigm that sacrifices due diligence for breathless sound bites and allows slander to reach the airwaves.

Speaking of ridiculous news decisions, idiotic and insulting is how one can describe RNN’s Richard French Live. On the morning of the shooting RNN’s Richard French Live had scheduled an interview with US Senate candidate Wendy Long (in full disclosure my client) to profile her run for US Senate against Kirsten Gillibrand. In the wake of events overnight, the producer had decided, as is within their judgement, that in addition to the profile they wanted to talk about the shooting in a separate segment. Respecting the need to discuss such an important issue and the need to cover breaking news we assented to their request.

Like ABC and the Mayor the show’s interviewer Andrew Whitman was desperate to use the tragedy to advance his own agenda – in this case to create a gotcha moment on gun policy with Long. Whitman, with the horror still unfolding in Aurora, worked overtime to bait Long into some declaratory statements on the tragedy and gun control. Out of respect for the victims, not knowing all the facts, Long an unabashed supporter of the 2nd Amendment refused to take the bait and get into a full on policy debate.

The result – none of the interview was aired or to date none of the subsequent profile piece. Instead, not getting the gotcha moment they wanted from Long, they invited her back for another interview. As my friends in the press contemplate why politicians work so desperately to control their message please consider experiences such as these.

Finally, in most tragedies there are the stories of personal heroism, loss and too often scapegoating. Sometimes it is just refreshing to hear stories that reinforce good old-fashioned commonsense. It seems Holmes had applied online to the Lead Valley Range (a gun club/shooting range) for membership. The owner of the club, Glenn Rotkovich, having called Holmes for a mandatory orientation decided that after listening to his answering machine message that he sounded too nuts too even consider. Rotkovich even went as far as to put his staff on notice, to keep their eyes open for Holmes and to not to let him in the club.

For all the pictures that are often painted by the media of a callous, idiotic gun culture in America, Rotkovich’s story is simple proof that commonsense can still prevail. I wonder whether Holmes psychiatrist or professors, who dealt with him on a regular basis, should have seen what Rotkovich saw?

“the most important election of our lifetime”

In the business of politics and elections we regularly engage in supercharged hyperbole…throwing around freely adjectives such as “historic,” “transformational” and handy catch phrases like “this is the most important election of our lifetime.” I will admit that as time goes by it’s easier and easier to bandy about these phrases, often necessary in a hyper-desensitized – resource starved media environment that reacts to little less than conflict, scandal or full on attack.

So when we hear warnings “that the next generation of Americans are doomed to do worse than their parents,” our initial reaction is muted by our cynical experience telling us that it’s just another rhetorical prelude to a partisan political attack. But increasingly I have had this nagging feeling that it’s not hyperbole. That the very nature of American optimism is fundamentally at risk. Too many of my peers have experienced dramatic changes of fortune, darkened outlooks and do legitimately believe that their children will have fewer opportunities, less secure careers and worse they have lost the capacity to dream big dreams for themselves or their kids.

It’s a hard thing to think that your children won’t have a better life — no matter how good your own is – we always want better for them. It’s a worse thing to be forced accept that as the truth and internalize the conclusions that flow from it.

The truth, as always, is somewhere in between.

I was lucky enough to make three new friends last weekend that taught me that my pessimism, my friend’s pessimism is unfounded. They were literally strangers to me at 5, 8 and 11 years old and perhaps an unlikely group to draw inspiration. But individually and collectively, they were wiser, more confident, smarter, funnier, kinder, sweeter – yet more savvy, inquisitive and ready for the world than I was at 17. They are special. (They also got me caught up on pop music, yes  “Call me Baby” is still number one and a ‘kiddie size’ ice cream at the amazing Marthas in Queensbury is like a large anywhere else.) But most importantly, they demonstrated a capacity for empathy for those they knew and loved, those they just met and the world around them.  They are a tribute to their parents who I barely know but also a telling example of the kind of young individuals American freedoms can still nurture.

There are no small dreams, just small ice creams among this crew.

Our human tendency is to look back and to romanticize the past.  We bemoan the loss of the “Greatest Generation,” yet I’m convinced more than ever that the greatest generation is in our midst. These kids are uniquely equipped to deal with the challenges of the modern economy while maintaining the moral compass to lead.

Our job is critical, we  just need to not bollocks things up on them so much that they can’t fix them. So yes, this is the most important election of our lifetime — because we shouldn’t make their challenges harder than they have to be. Because they deserve better, because the Greatest Generation of Americans aren’t fading into history — they are among us.

So please excuse a little hyperbole over the next few months, because the stakes are truly high. And thank you so much ladies for restoring my optimism and reminding me why we fight these campaigns so hard.

Updated:  My partner Ryan Moses, the proud father of four little girls, most recently Samantha informs me that it’s not “Call Me  Baby,” it’s “Call Me Maybe.”  You can’t be any more uncool then getting that wrong.