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Tom Allon

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For New York Mayor: How About a Campaign of Ideas?

Posted: 02/27/2012 4:08 pm

As a New York voter and as a candidate for mayor I don't know whether to laugh or cry at how the so-called "frontrunners" for mayor are competing with each other to see who can best spend our taxpayer dollars outside of New York City. The candidates are eagerly planting articles revealing which national political consultants they have hired. They are, however, spending far too little effort projecting ideas on how to move New York City forward in the 21st Century.

It began with Christine Quinn bragging that she had hired Obama's pollster Joel Benenson to join her stable of consultants. Then Bill DeBlasio announced that Harold Ickes and Patrick Gaspard would be working on his race for mayor. Scott Stringer, not to be outdone, generated attention saying that his campaign would be advised by Mark Mellman and the Anson Kaye firm. But then DeBlasio upped the ante in this game of campaign consultant poker by using his chips to hire Anna Greenberg and her father Stan as well as David Axelrod's protege John Del Cecato.

Full employment for political consultants is probably not a bad thing because they spend lavishly as a guild. But I am more interested in promoting full employment for New Yorkers.

I put forward an op-ed in the Daily News on Feb. 22 suggesting an idea for a two-tiered minimum wage to help the working poor without hurting student employment. My idea was aimed at breaking the deadlock in Albany between Assembly Democrats committed to an increase in the minimum wage and Senate Republicans resisting it due to a fear of losing jobs and hurting small business owners.

In this campaign thus far, I have also advanced ideas for finally ending the corruption in city council member items. My proposals were rebuffed by Speaker Quinn as being unnecessary because her reforms had solved the problem, but she admitted she would do nothing to stop the funds directed to Councilman Larry Seabrook, who is facing retrial on corruption charges involving member items. By the way, my idea for a signed and sworn attestation that no one on the councilmember's staff or family would benefit financially from member item funds would have blocked Seabrook from the next round of funding. A jury has yet to find him guilty, but it is clear he would have violated my attestation requirement and the violation of that would mean no new funding directed by that member.

I have also written two op-eds in the Daily News exposing the shameful decrease in African-American and Latino students at New York's two finest public high schools: Stuyvesant (my alma mater) and Bronx Science. These op-eds were followed by a New York Times article this weekend which reported there are only 40 African-American students at Stuyvesant now out of almost 3,300, and the number is dropping each year. Because of my calling attention to this shame in our schools, Brooklyn Assemblymember Karim Camara and State Senator Adriano Espaillat will co-sponsor legislation that calls for changing the admissions criteria at these two elite public high schools.

I have a suggestion to my fellow mayoral contenders: Let's make this campaign about ideas tied to issues that can have a positive impact on the lives of New Yorkers. Let's not allow political consultants to transform this race into a mud fight irrelevant to the very real problems facing New Yorkers or about the irrelevant sideshow of fundraising and name recognition.

I challenge all of the mayoral candidates to generate a serious issue proposal on the first Monday of every month. Then let's ask the media to pick the idea which they feel has the most merit. Each major publication can assign one editor or reporter to the task. Let their consensus govern. But let's not end it there. Instead, let's have a joint debate on that policy idea in the second or third week of every month. The goal will not be gotcha TV debates but refinements on the idea. The media can track down the value and accuracy of our proposals.

Under this proposal, we measure candidates on several criteria: How they generate creative new ideas. How they advance these ideas. How they explain their ideas. And then, their ability to forge a consensus to get their ideas executed. If this sounds like a decent set of criteria to determine who will make the most effective mayor, it is meant to.

This way, every candidate also stays in a focused discussion on policy. This proposal must surely look better than the endless and mind-numbing series of debates that have occurred in the GOP's presidential primaries.

The media could cover not just the original ideas but the refinements. That would enable the public to gauge the candidates stamina on substance.

If we begin the process in March 2012, this running debate and discussion will benefit New Yorkers because 20 issues or policy determinations can be fully vetted before New Yorkers vote for their next mayor in November of 2013.

Two books lead me to this proposal. Joe Klein's Politics Lost, which examines how consultants have drained campaigns of authenticity and substance. And Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum's That Used to Be Us, which argues that America's political process needs to get serious and practical if the American Dream is to sustain itself in the the face of globalization, the IT revolution, our chronic deficits and the energy crisis exacerbated by climate change. Both books should serve as a sharp wake up call to all of us, citizens and elected leaders.

My idea for March is my two-tiered approach toward an increase in minimum wage. This would effect far more jobs than the living wage suggestion that is causing much political turmoil but will affect only about 500 jobs.

My challenge is not just to my fellow candidates but also to the media that covers this mayoral race. We have a chance to make this campaign about substance and rip it away from political orthodoxy. Will both the media and the candidates seize the day at this hour of peril? Given the profound economic, educational and social justice challenges standing in our path over the remainder of this decade and beyond, I say carpe diem.

Tom Allon, a Democrat and liberal candidate for mayor of New York in 2013, is the president and CEO of Manhattan Media.

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