Op-ed: Vito and his nonprofit are a modern political machine

for The Brooklyn Paper
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In the wake of a series of investigations into a nonprofit founded and controlled by Assemblyman Vito Lopez, we asked a Baruch College professor who has researched the charity to explain how it all works:

In the heyday of the political machine, close relationships between local elected officials and voters in their district were commonplace. These relationships were based on an exchange of valuable goods. Elected officials distributed food, coal, legal assistance, government jobs, and other resources to needy local residents. In return, residents gave one of the few resources they controlled: their votes on Election Day.

Tammany Hall, which ruled New York politics for 80 years, epitomized this model of governance in the 19th and early-20th centuries.

Today, the strong political party organizations that made the machine possible have mostly disappeared, the result of a dramatic decline in the resources they control. In contrast, community organizations have seen the resources under their control expand as public services have been increasingly privatized — that is, contracted out to private organizations rather than delivered directly by government agencies and employees.

When public funds flow to a particular community organization, it is able to offer resources to local residents. These include, in addition to the housing, day care, youth development, drug treatment, and other services that the organization has contracted to provide, jobs in the organization itself. Community organizations in poor urban neighborhoods like Bushwick are thus structurally positioned to reprise the role of the political machine — despite the consensus among most social scientists that the machine is dead. Like the machine, today’s community organizations can organize voters to affect the allocation of public resources (service contracts) and can direct those resources to specific person within neighborhoods (patronage).

The political machine organized voters by distributing patronage as part of a direct exchange between voter and party. Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizen Council, like other nonprofit organizations incorporated under 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, is legally prohibited from engaging in this kind of exchange (or in partisan politics generally); an organization that did so would jeopardize its nonprofit status and thus its eligibility for many of the contract awards it relies on.

My research shows, however, that community organizations engage in a more complicated, and technically legal, exchange of resources for votes — a three-way, indirect transaction involving not just the organization and the client/voter, but also the elected official.

In this triadic exchange, the organization serves as the fulcrum through which patronage resources are distributed and client/voters are organized. The organization thus becomes a necessary component of the primary exchange between the political entity — the elected official — and the individual client/voter.

Unlike their counterparts in the era of the political machine, today’s elected officials themselves no longer directly control patronage jobs or other significant divisible benefits. Instead, the community organization holds and distributes benefits to client/voters — but the elected official is the conduit through which these resources come to the organization. In essence, community-based organizations — offering as they do jobs in the organization and its related enterprises; preferential access to organization services; and other kinds of assistance, including help with navigating public service bureaucracies — are structurally positioned to replace political party organizations.

The idea that community organizations can be practitioners of a “new machine politics” must be understood in the context of a wider set of political and organizational practices: the systemic operation of the contracting regime, which transcends the boundaries of poor neighborhoods like Bushwick.

Ridgewood Bushwick relies on Assemblyman Vito Lopez to use his political clout to help secure government contracts and other forms of public financial support for the organization. In turn, Lopez taps into Ridgewood Bushwick’s staff and client networks to create and command a reliable voting constituency.

This constituency serves Lopez in two ways. First, it ensures his own reelection. Second, it provides him with a political resource to trade within the broader system of city, state, and national politics. Candidates for higher-level political office improve their chances when they accumulate blocs of voters organized and directed by others. Although today’s political wisdom argues that votes won correlate with campaign funds spent, campaign strategists increasingly recognize the power of grassroots organizing as an alternative (or additional) way to turn out votes.

As a representative of one of the poorest political districts in the country, Lopez has very limited access to campaign donations from his constituents. He concentrates instead on building and maintaining a reliable voting constituency: a (relatively) large core group of voters that turns out regularly to support selected higher-level candidates. By reliably delivering his constituency, Lopez gains increased access to the government resources that winning higher-level officials control. By organizing clients and staff into a reliable voting bock, Ridgewood Bushwick is thus able to pressure higher-level political actors to make favorable contract allocation decisions.

Nicole P. Marwell is author of “Bargaining for Brooklyn: Community Organizations in the Entrepreneurial City” (University Of Chicago Press, 2007), from which this is excerpted.

Updated 5:20 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

williamsburgh from williamsburg says:
How much did aaron short and the brooklyn paper pay you to write this crap?
Sept. 30, 2010, 2:51 am
Sam from Park Slope says:
Thank god that Bushwick has had Vito Lopez and RBSCC working to improve the lives of thousands of its residents for over twenty five years.

In many ways, this editorial seems to support this model, in as much as it doesn't pass critical judgment or offer an alternative for poor and working class citizens that have to fight for government resources.
Sept. 30, 2010, 7:02 am
john from midwood says:
It seems to me that this particular way of doing business would qualify it to be in the RICO statutes.
Vito is getting away with a corrupt way of doing business. He's the poster guy for everything that is "Pay for Play." This is how they maintain their power.
Sept. 30, 2010, 8:41 am
john from midwood says:
It seems to me that this particular way of doing business would qualify it to be in the RICO statutes.
Vito is getting away with a corrupt way of doing business. He's the poster guy for everything that is "Pay for Play." This is how they maintain their power.
Sept. 30, 2010, 8:41 am
Sam from Park Slope says:
John, nonsense. Not only is this not illegal, it is one of the few ways that poor neighborhoods can get the resources they need. Notice the author made a point of saying this was legal?
Sept. 30, 2010, 10:04 am
K. from ArKady says:
Yup, it's _so_ annoying when the Poors vote in their own self interest.

That was the most complimentary hit piece I have ever read. Now I like the guy. Was that the intent?
Sept. 30, 2010, 12:11 pm
john from midwood says:
Sam : A much more equitable way of distributing the tax payers monies to poor, or middle class neighborhoods of NY is to have a lottery type of distribution. There are many good organizations that get nada from the politicians because they don't kiss the politicans behinds.
In addition , the Community Boards , are just puppets of the politicians. They only rubber stamp what the Councilman's policies are or the Borough President's policies are.
The non-profits who are represented by many CB members, who are appointed by the Councilmen , & Borouigh Presidents get the taxpayers monies. The other good non-profits have no voice & are left to fend for themselves.
Sam : The people are not stupid, they just don't have the clout.
Sept. 30, 2010, 1:58 pm
K. from ArKady says:
A random distribution of money resolves the problem of corruption; I'll hand you that. But our whole system of representative governance is based on the premise that voters elect politicians who then, to stay in office, serve their needs. They "buy" the politician with their vote, and the politician "buys" their vote with his ability to secure money and services for his district. This is supposed to results in the best distribution of public monies as the most vocal citizens in greatest need of government service should get it by being the most politically active.

In fact, the random distribution is a good metric for how good a job your government is doing. If more people who need services aren't served by the current system than the random system, that's a (net) corrupt system. Likewise, if more people who need service do get it than the random, thats a net ethical system. I am not advocating a return to machine politics as practiced at the turn of the century, but I'm having a hard time grasping why what Mr. Lopez is doing is so outside what any politician should be doing, excepting the nepotism as described in earlier stories here.
Sept. 30, 2010, 4:56 pm
K. from ArKady says:
Bonus points for the poster who ties the recent citizens united decision by the supreme court, ruling on corporate influence over the political process. I'll kick it off with a quote from Justice Kennedy, for the majority.

"It is well understood that a substantial and legitimate reason, if not the only reason, to cast a vote for, or to make a contribution to, one candidate over another, is that the candidate will respond by producing those political outcomes the supporter favors. Democracy is premised on responsiveness"

BTW, what's with the comment lengh limit here?
Sept. 30, 2010, 4:57 pm
anywho says:
Hubris, plain and simple.
Sept. 30, 2010, 7:54 pm
Moshe Aron Kestenbaum from Williamsburg says:
For some, fighting is fire that keeps them alive. Wishing everyone a good new year, Sincerly
מו"ה משה אהרן קעסטענבוים נ"י בן מו"ה הערשל וחתן מו"ה יחזקאל שרגא פריעדמאן.
Oct. 4, 2010, 7:21 am

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