Posters and Politics

The Daily News had an article yesterday about the big money owed by former (and future) Mayoral candidates Bill Thompson, John Liu and Bill de Blasio for campaign infractions four years ago. “Putting signs on public property is a campaign no-no, and each citation carries a $75 fine” according to the News. Well yes that is the law, and always has been. But to understand what this city used to be, and still is under the surface, and might be going back to, you have to consider the way it used to be enforced.

Against challengers who were not a part of the political machine, but not against incumbents. The fines for the incumbents would be waved as long as they eventually took the signs down. Now just imagine that you are an ordinary citizen, an outsider, upset about the way things are going, and decide to run for a public office, as I did in 2004. But you did not know about this little tradition. You see other candidates putting up signs, so you put up signs, say 500 little photocopies. And then they come after you not for $37,500, but for $187,500, because they issue a new ticket every day. They can go after your house, if you have one. They can go after your paycheck, if haven’t had to leave your job because you were a candidate. The judges, all put on the bench by the local pols, might reach an accommodation if you had leaned your lesson. And not about putting signs on public property.

You think this is hyperbole? While running for office in 2004, and going around to talk to people, I met a young woman who told me her father had once decided to run for judge without permission. She went around collecting signatures for him, but she was only 17, so doing so was “illegal.” Attorneys told the father than unless he agreed to drop out of the race and not run again she would be arrested, and good luck getting into college with that on her record. So he did.

Did I believe the young woman? Yes. Because while I was handing out flyers in the subway, with the MTA’s policy on doing so in my back pocket, people called the police on me more than once. Then there is the John O’Hara saga, concerning whether he voted in the right place based on his residency. Whether or not he did something wrong is not for me to say; that he did something those in on the deal are permitted to do with impunity is beyond dispute. Of course the incumbent pols have employees of “non-profits” owned and operated by their supporters, and staff members, to collect their signatures for them, which they do in order to keep their funding/jobs.

Bottom line, there is the de jure law on the books, and the de facto law off the books due to enforcement or lack thereof.

Everyone has their blind spots. Mayor Bloomberg seems to believe that the one percent is actually earning its pay as determined by free market transactions, rather than grabbing it in a massive mutual back-scratching de facto union even as dividend yields are puny. Or at least he has to say he thinks so, because the one percent are the customers who have allowed him to build his business.

But he has, in many cases, cut back on the culture of insider privileges that the political class has provided for itself but not others. The ability of those with connections to get the good teacher rather than the time-server, and the good school rather than the play-out-the-string school. The distribution of money by school based on ancient political deals and connections rather than need. And the ability of incumbents to put up their signs on public property, and violate 1,000 other political rules with impunity, while those same rules are used to go after any challenger, perhaps ignorant of the 1,000 rules, who would violate the one law that mattered. The de facto law against running against an incumbent.

This conflict over fines isn’t about a boo boo, a mistake, or “persecution” of former rivals. It is about a culture of insider entitlement, of inequality under law in enforcement. As I read about the fines and those fighting them, I can’t help but think “here we go again.”