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Tom Allon

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Anything But a Politician: What I've Learned Thus Far

Posted: 07/12/2012 4:44 pm

Almost a year ago I surprised many people -- including close family, business colleagues and friends -- when I decided to toss my hat in the ring and run for mayor of New York City in 2013.

"Why are you announcing so early?" asked one of my relatives. "Shouldn't you formulate your platform and ideas before you announce?"

A fair comment and a very good question. But my gut instinct, announcing more than two years before the primary election in September 2013, was right, one of the many lessons I have learned in the last year.

Running for elected office in New York City is not for the faint of heart, as I suspected. Not only are you putting your whole life on public display, but every word you utter is parsed and even inadvertent comments or actions can be misinterpreted. One activist, who held a leadership conference in early 2012, chewed me out when I showed up to his meeting because he never allowed "politicians" to attend. I don't consider myself a politician, but an aspiring public servant, and I thought that people like it when you show up to their meetings. But his vituperative response taught me a valuable lesson.

Sometimes in life, showing up is not the right thing to do.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I've learned thus far is how corrosive money is in politics and how it can lead those seeking power to cut corners and do unethical things. I guess this should come as no surprise considering what we're seeing on the national level with super PACs and the unfair power of special interest money, but experiencing it first-hand has been a real eye opener for this 25-year media executive whose publications have covered numerous campaigns.

I sat down with one strategist recently who said he would like to donate the maximum allowed to my campaign, which is now limited to $400 because he is a lobbyist. But he said he feels it's unfair that one of the other candidates, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, got $4,950 from him in 2007 and is now able to use that in her race against me. She and the rest of the New York City Council changed the rules back in 2007 in the worthy pursuit of reforming campaign donations from those doing business with the city, but conveniently forgot to make it retroactive, which would have kept her own coffers clean of what he called "tainted money."

The campaign of John Liu, another potential candidate for mayor, has been under investigation by the U.S. Attorney's office and both his former campaign treasurer and one of his bundlers have been indicted. It's possible they will be exonerated and that the candidate had nothing to do with the alleged questionable fundraising practices, but that would also mean that the candidate was so disengaged from an important part of his campaign that he did not recognize that those working for him were possibly cutting ethical corners to receive public matching funds. Complicity or cluelessness, neither is an acceptable quality in a potential future chief executive of New York City.

While I have been earnestly trying to raise money slowly and carefully, I have had countless conversations with friends, acquaintances and people I know in the government industry who say they want to support me financially, but they fear reprisal from one of my opponents who are now in power and can hurt their businesses. One person said he could not donate to my campaign until he received a real estate zoning variance that needed the approval of two of my potential competitors. This same conversation was repeated with at least a dozen other people who said they feared donating to me would anger those in power now who could hurt them in the coming year before the next election.

Are we living in the Soviet Union or the cradle of democracy?

Nonetheless, I have put my head down and charged ahead and approximately 600 people have donated to my campaign, with a big surge coming in the last month. I am getting much better at picking up the phone each day and asking people for small amounts of money to support me. Because New York has a generous campaign finance program, with a six to one matching of all donations from city residents up to $175, outsiders like me have an easier time entering the political fray. But it takes lots of $175 donors to catch up to the $4,950 donors who support those currently in office.

I am eager to prove that money is not the most important thing in politics. That ideas, vision and management abilities can trump fundraising and quid pro quo politics. We have witnessed the corrosive power of money on Congress (think Jack Abramoff and the current 10 percent Congressional approval ratings), the super PACs allowed by Citizens United that are polluting our presidential campaigns and the scandals that have arisen by unscrupulous campaign fundraising techniques.

I know that by Primary Day in September 2013, every dollar I will raise will be clean, untethered to any special interest and there will be no one who thinks they are owed favors by me because they have supported my campaign.

I have learned a lot in the past year and I expect I will learn even more in the coming year as Election 2013 approaches.

Tom Allon is a 2013 liberal and Democratic candidate for mayor of New York City.

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