Politics has a new Jedi mind trick - From Crain's


Published on Crain’s

Sometimes the best stories are when dog bites man and then man bites back. That happened this month, when Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council tussled over the next municipal budget.

Breaking from the traditional negotiation process, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson presented a counterproposal that was a lot more ambitious than restoring some funding for libraries and parks. It included half-fare MetroCards for the poor, adding $212 million to taxpayers’ tab. Johnson saw a governor and a mayor feuding over who’s to blame for a mass-transit system in disarray and stepped in to make the commute for 800,000 low-income New Yorkers less expensive.

De Blasio shot down the idea, claiming that the city can’t afford it. But while the mayor has wildly increased taxpayer spending and promised a fairer city, this may not have been the best moment to tell council members to be happy with the crumbs they were given.

So the council objected, with 27 members penning a letter criticizing de Blasio’s budget. The mayor’s oRce then got on the phone, reportedly threatening members to get in line if they wanted future support from the administration. That’s the dog-bites- man part. It’s what every executive branch does.

The council’s response is where things got interesting. Rather than arguing privately with City Hall or pressing the case on its merits, the council Tipped the script, going public with the mayor’s threats.

Normally the inside game stays on the inside. Not anymore. Councilman Ritchie Torres went after de Blasio directly, saying the mayor is “not the messiah.” Other members followed suit.

That changed the game. Having been called out, the mayor could not continue to threaten the council with the loss of pork projects. His negotiating leverage has just gone way down. If Johnson and his members stick to their guns, they’ll get the budget they want.

A West Coast candidate took the idea even further. San Francisco mayoral contender Jane Kim used the same Jedi mind trick to brilliant effect. Everyone running for oRce has skeletons in their closet, and every good campaign exposes the opponent’s vulnerabilities. But when Kim’s campaign was given a list of accusations by the San Francisco Chronicle, instead of spinning or denying everything, she answered every

question—publicly. This is not how campaigns handle opposition. The idea of doing so is revolutionary.

Kim’s response completely neutered the story. Instead of making her look out of touch and hypocritical, her novel approach came off as clever, transparent and honest. She managed to boomerang the research back onto her opponents, just like the New York City Council did by exposing de Blasio’s heavy-handed tactics.

We’re now consistently seeing voters demand authenticity. They want to connect with the candidate, see who the real person is. That’s why some upstart candidates are ^nding success. And it’s why the usual methods of political coercion may no longer work: People are less likely to threaten someone if it will be broadcast on social media.

Sure, de Blasio could hold his ground. And if Kim’s opponents believe the opposition will resonate with voters, they can press the issue. But campaigns and politicians tend to be skittish, and approbation on Twitter is usually more than enough to lead them to change course. That’s likely what will happen here too. And if others start following Johnson’s and Kim’s lead, the way deals get done and the way campaigns are run could change—for the better.

Bradley Tusk is a venture capitalist and political consultant. His 6rst book, The Fixer: Saving Startups From Death by Politics, is due out in September.