Pollsters push Ratner arena

The Brooklyn Paper
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An advocacy telephone poll promoting Brooklyn’s biggest potential development project collided with the project’s fiercest opponent while canvassing the borough’s telephone lines this week.

Patti Hagan, an outspoken opponent of developer Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards plan, said she received a phone call on Sunday at 6:30 pm from a pollster asking about her political inclinations and thoughts on the project and its supporters.

[Hagan taped the call; read excerpts from the transcript.]

Hagan, who has had the same phone number at her St. Mark’s Avenue brownstone for 26 years, gave the pollster an earful.

“He started laughing at a certain point,” she said, after she repeated her strong opposition following long, explanatory and leading questions.

Forest City Ratner Companies, when asked if they commissioned Pacific Crest Research to perform the study regarding their plans to build a 19,000-seat Nets basketball arena and 17 high-rises with more than 4,500 new units of housing and office space to Prospect Heights, declined to answer the question.

“We don’t discuss our internal research,” said spokesman Barry Baum.

Pacific Crest Research was not listed in the area code or city provided by the pollster to Hagan, however, searches on the Internet found the firm to be connected with political and investment research.

Hagan, who has spoken out against Atlantic Yards since she first heard of Ratner’s plans for the mega-development just blocks from her home, said several of the questions featured “leading” or inaccurate and biased language, a key feature of “push polling.” Push polling attempts to influence — rather than measure — public opinion — by using questions worded in a manner intended to spread information that is often incorrect about people and positions that run counter to the position of the poll’s client.

“Supporters of this project say [it] will bring great benefit to Brooklyn. The project will create thousands of jobs and provide some badly needed housing space for people from all different income levels in Brooklyn. It will bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in extra tax revenue each year that could be used for schools and other vital services,” the pollster read to Hagan from what she perceived to be a prepared script.

“The new arena would serve as the centerpiece of a revitalized Brooklyn. It would be a striking symbol of the borough’s re-emergence,” said the questioner, before stating that “opponents say [it] will cost as much as $200 million in taxpayers’ money,” using a reference to funds publicly committed by the mayor and governor two weeks ago.

On March 4, city and state officials signed an agreement with each promising — from taxpayer funds — $100 million towards the developer’s infrastructure and acquisition costs.

Since its inception last year, the Atlantic Yards project has been harshly criticized by area residents and some elected officials for its reliance on the state’s condemnation of up to 10 acres of private residential and commercial property, which would be turned over to Ratner.

Additionally, opponents including Develop-Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), of which Hagan is a member, have said the project could cost taxpayers as much as $1.3 billion. DDDB and Hagan’s own group, the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, as well as local Councilwoman Letitia James and state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, believe the Metropolitan Transportation Authority should solicit competitive bids for development rights over the roughly 11 acres of rail yards it owns that Ratner needs for his project.

In this week’s poll, after the introductory information, Hagan was asked if she was “much more likely” to support the project, “more likely” or felt the same about her support for the project.

“From the way the whole thing is structured it’s obvious they are hoping to appeal to people by [making them feel] educated: ‘Supporters say this … knowing this information, does that change your opinion?’” Hagan said.

This format, according to the book, “The Polling and The Public,” by Herbert Asher, is “a telemarketing technique in which telephone calls are used to canvas potential voters, feeding them false or misleading ‘information’ about a candidate under the pretense of taking a poll to see how this ‘information’ affects voter preferences.

“The intent is to disseminate campaign propaganda under the guise of conducting a legitimate public opinion poll,” wrote Asher.

The National Council on Public Polls warns that such push polls are used not to collect information, but to “spread rumors and even outright lies about opponents.

“These efforts are not polls, but political manipulation trying to hide behind the smokescreen of a public opinion survey.”

“‘Push polls’ are unethical and have been condemned by professional polling organizati­ons,” states the council on its Web site.

The emergence of push polls came to national political consciousness during George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign, when references to challenger John McCain as a “cheat” and “liar” came to light in such surveys.

Though the survey started and ended with questions regarding Hagan’s feelings about her favored candidates for the positions of mayor, City Council speaker, Brooklyn district attorney and public advocate in next November’s election, what suggested to Hagan, a former reporter and fact-checker, that the survey had to have been paid for by Ratner was the mention of one conspicuously non-elected public figure.

Sandwiched between questions gauging her opinion from “very favorable” to “very unfavorable” of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and District Attorney Charles Hynes was a question about the Rev. Herbert Daughtry.

Daughtry, as outspoken in favor of the project as Hagan is against it, is pastor of the House of the Lord Church on Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill, a few blocks from the potential arena site.

“I thought it was bizarre that of all the public figures you’re going to have an opinion of — the Rev. Herbert Daughtry? That really tips it off,” said Hagan, who had to correct the pollster’s mispronunciation of the minister’s name.

“He’s not running for any office that I know of,” she said. “He’s the only black person in that whole poll, and he has given his allegiance 110 percent to Ratner’s project.

“Could it be they were trying to gauge if they had a black reverend supporting them it helped them?” she asked rhetorically, and pointed out, “Rev. Herbert Daughtry is not an elected official, he’s not running for office and he lives in New Jersey.”

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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