Forests and Trees

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who just won re-election in a landslide, has been dogged for much of his time in office by accusations that he has traded access for political contributions.

He has been the subject of a federal probe that ended without charges, according to the New York Times, though some of his fundraisers are now in court, facing bribery and corruption charges and generating “tabloid headlines have accused (de Blasio) of putting government up for sale.”

It’s an unseemly story, one not befitting a progressive icon, someone who, after being elected, was hailed by many on the left as a harbinger of future successes. The mayor has accomplished some laudable goals — on police practices, affordable housing, pre-K schooling and in other areas. But his fundraising practices should not be ignored, even without charges, and not only because of what it says about de Blasio. The money, as the Times reports, was not to be used in de Blasio’s re-election, but to help the mayor in his effort to swing the state Senate to the Democrats, which would in turn give the mayor leverage in his battles against fellow Democrat, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, with whom he has feuded over everything from infrastructure to taxes and schools.

This is not just a local issue. Bill de Blasio has not been operating in a vacuum. His fundraising efforts are no different than what we have seen elsewhere and might even be seen as tame when compared to what New York politicians are usually accused of. As we speak, New Jersey’s senior senator, Democrat Robert Menendez, faces charges that amount to influence peddling. And his trial, another unseemly spectacle, also is not unusual. Dozens of politicians and political money men have been investigated, charged, and convicted of charges that include fraud, defrauding taxpayers, money laundering, influence peddling, bribery, and so on.

Our coverage of political corruption tied to fundraising tends to be myopic. Each case is treated as a local issue, often as an outlier, even though he American people instinctively understand the depth of the rot that has weakened our system. Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump used the anger at elites and at the way influence is horse-traded in Washington as central pillars in their outsider campaigns. When Trump promised to “drain the swamp,” an illusory promise like all of his promises, he was feeding into a longstanding disgust with the way government works.

So, as I said, we need to stop looking at each individual case as distinct. It is a systemic issue, which means de Blasio cannot be judged in a vacuum. To focus solely on his alleged improprieties is to miss the forest for the trees. The de Blasio fundraising scandal is symptomatic of a much greater and deeper rot at the center of the American political system. So long as running for office is an expensive proposition, and so long as that money comes from private individuals, we will read headlines like today’s. Politicians, after all, need money to seek and retain office. You get that money by going to those who have it — i.e., the rich, the connected, those on corporate boards, etc. Perhaps those donors are being charitable. Perhaps they believe in the causes espoused by the politicians they fund. Or perhaps they see political contributions as a cost of doing business, a way to get government to do what these large businesses need to do to secure profits and escape potential liabilities.

I say “perhaps”because there is no way to be sure. And as long as these questions exist, trust in the political process will continue to wain.

We can continue as we have, targeting individual cases of corruption, promising vague cultural change, all the while winking and nodding as big money maintains its influence. Or we can treat elections as the public good that they are, fund them with public money and do as much as we can to limit the influence private cash has on not just our elections but on all areas of policy creation.

This will not be easy, and I do not have a magic bullet. But we can’t make change if we don’t start the conversation and keep it focused on what’s most important: ensuring that individuals without means have the same access and influence as those who write the big checks.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email,; blog,; Twitter, @newspoet41 and @kaletjournalism; Facebook,; Instagram, @kaletwrites.

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2017

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