Author Archives: Paul DeBenedetto

My Ongoing Frustration With Gary Ackerman

1. A fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.
2. A rule or belief governing one’s personal behavior.

Is there anything more boring than a politician with principles?

The Arizona legislature passed a bill that would make it so that special Tea Party license plates could be purchased for an annual $25 fee and displayed proudly on your car. But according to the bill, of that $25, $17 would go directly to Tea Party organizations. Effectively, the state of Arizona would be fundraising for the Tea Party. Gov. Jan Brewer signed the bill into law two days ago.

Gary Ackerman has become the bills national opponent. In an op-ed for the Huffington Post, Ackerman wrote, “It’s an unabashed Tea Party political pay-off. Thanks for campaigning for us, here’s a wad of cash collected by the government just for you.

“So, the next political attack ad you see on TV questioning the President’s birth certificate could be funded from a generous grant from the State of Arizona.

So Gary Ackerman doesn’t want special interest money funneled through the states. That makes sense. But to play devil’s advocate: isn’t the state just acting like the middle man? The money is coming from people who would want to donate to the Tea Party anyway. What’s the difference between this and any other donations that sponsor candidates and affect legislation?

So I started thinking about Gary Ackerman’s donors. Here were the top 5 industries that donated to Gary Ackerman for the 2009/2010 campaign:

  1. Real Estate
  2. Lawyers/Law Firms
  3. Securities & Investment
  4. Pro-Israel
  5. Public Sector Unions

Of those five industries, Ackerman introduced legislation in the 111th Congress supporting only the pro-Israel lobby. In fact, he sponsored bills that negatively affected two of his biggest donors: real estate and securities/investment.

What gives Ackerman?! I’ve been trying to figure you out for months. Every time you say something, it’s like you actually believe what you’re saying. Whenever you vote for something or sponsor legislation, it’s like you actually care about the issue–despite some on-camera politicizing every now and then. You don’t even cash in favors for the people who donate to your campaign? You, sir, are a crappy politician.

One of these days I’m going to find some dirt on the congressman from New York’s fifth. I’ll keep digging. (Maybe he’s a lousy tipper, or something…)

The 5th District’s Changing Dynamic

Add Gary Ackerman to the list of New York politicians upset about the census.

According to last month’s census count, New York City only has 8,175,133 people, a growth of only 2.1 percent and far different from the initial projections of 8.3 million, and Queens, one of the most populous counties in the country, grew by only 0.1 percent. The release caused quite a stir in New York City, to say the least, and the Mayor has announced that the city is formally challenging the results.

“Everything we know about these neighborhoods tells a different story,” Mike Bloomberg said. “People who have tried to find apartments in these neighborhoods can confirm there just isn’t an abundance of vacancies.”

Ackerman’s district – New York’s 5th – gained only 44,782 people. According to Social Explorer’s Andrew Beveridge, the current district population of 699,143 is a 2.59 percent deviation of the ideal district population size of 717,707. What that means is Ackerman’s is one of many seats in New York City that could be in danger of going away.

The redistricting of New York after the latest census could come as quite a blow to New York Democrats in general, who make up the vast majority of the state’s congressional seats. And with his many years in Congress, the presumed undercount may be the only way that Ackerman has even a chance of being bumped from his seat.

But Ackerman isn’t the only politician facing redistricting problems. As a matter of fact, New York’s 5th ranks as one of the least affected in the city. Peter King and Greg Meeks appear to be hit hardest on that front, as their districts deviate close to 9 percent from the ideal population size.

What could affect Ackerman, however, are his district’s shifting demographics. Ackerman’s district has seen great growth in its Asian and Hispanic population. Overall, the 5th District has dropped from 44 percent non-Hispanic white to 36 percent white. Asians, meanwhile, make up 33 percent of the district, and Hispanics 26 percent. Even in parts of historically white Port Washington and Manorhaven, the Hispanic population has increased by between 15 and 30 percent. This change means that his largely white and Jewish base isn’t as prevalent as it once was, and it’s a change he’s already working to address directly. When asked about the census, Ackerman called the Queens results “bizarre,” and blamed them on a faulty count – particularly in the borough’s more diverse areas.

“I know of no neighborhood where there are fewer people than there were in the last census,” he said. “But I know of scores of neighborhoods where the population has increased in multiples, particularly within the ethnic and minority communities in Queens.”

These census results – accurate or not – indicate that Ackerman will have to start appealing to a broader base of New Yorkers going forward.

The Fight Against the Fight Against Spending

Wasteful spending is bad. Except maybe when it’s not.

That’s what some members of Congress are saying now that the ban on earmarks is in place. In November of last year, Republicans made a vow to ban earmarks, a motion offered under unanimous consent by former Real World house member and current Republican House member Sean Duffy.

“Anyone who’s been listening to the American people can tell you that banning earmarks is a no-brainer,” Duffy said in an Op-Ed to Politico. “Throughout the year, Americans clamored for Washington to stop spending and start focusing on creating jobs. But Americans weren’t being heard.”

This came right around the time that Democrats proposed their own ban on earmarks for corporations.  In fact, President Obama famously said in his State of the Union address, “if a bill comes to my desk with earmarks in it, I will veto it.” The idea is that earmarks are wasteful spending, and in an economic downturn we should do everything we can to cut spending.

While the banning of earmarks is well underway, members of Congress have found other ways to get projects done: just straight up ask for it. Legislators have found a way around the earmark ban by going directly to the agencies involved in handing out the money.

Last Tuesday, an article ran in the Queens Courier about new funding for a YMCA program in Flushing. The $1.1 million grant was provided directly by the Department of Labor, via direct lobbying from Senator Chuck Schumer. And in January, Gary Ackerman petitioned another Queens project–a VA hospital in St. Albans– to the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Republicans are in on the game as well. Rep. Peter King, who is no stranger to earmarks himself, says the ability to reach out to these organizations is now very important now that the ban is in place.

“I will do everything I can to protect my district,” he told the Times.

While “earmark” can be a bad word when uttered by politicians in public, it makes sense that a lot of politicians would feel the way King does. For Gary Ackerman or Peter King to come out and say they’re against earmarks is like saying they’re against securing money for their districts.

Beyond just taking funds away from congressional districts, banning earmarks does little to reduce spending in the big picture, so the entire idea of banning earmarks in order to get tough on spending is no more than a game. And why should multi-term incumbents have to play?

Mr. Ackerman Goes to Washington

In January, Gary Ackerman made news by being openly critical about J Street, the liberal-minded non-profit organization whose purpose, they say, is to advocate for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ackerman’s critique was about the organization’s recommendation to the Obama administration to not veto a U.N. resolution condemning Israel.

In an emotional press release, Ackerman said that the organization’s “brains had fallen out.”

“America really does need a smart, credible, politically active organization that is as aggressively pro-peace as it is pro-Israel,” Ackerman said. “Unfortunately, J-Street ain’t it.”

There was another line in the press release that I thought was peculiar, but I didn’t pick up on it right away. Ackerman said that J-Street is “not an organization with which I wish to be associated.” At the time, I thought this was just a way to grab attention by putting himself in the middle of a situation he had nothing to do with.

Imagine my surprise while perusing Ackerman’s donor list. In the number two slot, by no more than a few hundred dollars, was the J Street PAC.

This struck me as an interesting turn, since on the surface Ackerman agrees with J Street’s main objective of a two-state solution. He even drafted a letter with Charles Boustany (R-LA) in 2007, urging former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to invest more in the Mideast peace process, a move praised by J Street and other pro-peace organizations.

So why the attack on a former donor?

A cynical person might say that Ackerman doesn’t really care so much about Israel, and that his concern only goes as far as his reelection chances. As the representative from New York’s 5th congressional district, Ackerman represents neighborhoods where the populations are a lot of older Jewish people, including Jamaica Estates in Queens, which has a large Orthodox population. Much as with his anger over Bernie Madoff, Ackerman could be playing to his base.

But a less cynical person might say Gary Ackerman just stands by his beliefs. I find myself coming back to this a lot. Ackerman is a tough guy to figure out: he’s been in congress since before I was born, so his seat seems pretty safe. I gather he could probably sit back and do nothing with his time in office, but he continually puts himself in the center of foreign policy issues, and not always in ways that would necessarily have immediate benefit to him. If he was pandering to a large older, Jewish base, why not take a more conservative stance on Israel? For that matter, why take a pro-revolutionary stance on Egypt? With a miniscule Arab population in his district, why take any stance at all?

And that’s just it: he doesn’t really have to, but he does anyway. We might have just stumbled across the rare politician without an ulterior motive.

Although, my friend Lily had another theory as to why the 68-year-old Ackerman might have criticized a former donor.

“Maybe he forgot,” she said.


Could the Budget Battle Stifle a “Wave of Freedom”?

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

In a press release last week, Gary Ackerman continued his unrelenting support of the uprisings taking place throughout the Middle East.

While speaking specifically about Moammar Gadhafi, whose actions the congressman called “inexcusable and criminal,” Ackerman also called for broader U.S. support throughout the region.

“A wave of freedom is blowing through the Middle East,” Ackerman said in the release, “and the United States must stand with the people of the region who are demanding nothing more than the political and civil rights we Americans enjoy everyday: the right to free speech and assembly, equality before the law and a government accountable to the people who elect it.”

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on Wednesday, committee chair John Kerry and Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton echoed that sentiment.

“We have joined the Libyan people in demanding Gadhafi must go — now without further violence or bloodshed,” Clinton said.

This speaks to the broader point Clinton was getting at: promoting stronger foreign support in order to serve our strategic interests and protect the United States’ national security. Clinton notes, for example, that not supporting Afghanistan during the Cold War may have cost us in the long run by creating a less stable country.

But one avenue of that support Ackerman, Kerry and Clinton are calling for is coming under attack by the GOP: foreign aid spending. Last month, the House passed the Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act which the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition says will cut the International Affairs Budget by 19 percent for fiscal year 2011.

“There is something about these cuts that does violence to the Judeo-Christian ethic so many people claim to uphold,” Kerry said last week.

Ackerman, for his part, voted against the cuts in the House. According to CQ, the congressman sees this time of upheaval as a chance to support Democracy in the region.

“There’s an opportunity here that we’ve never sensed,” Ackerman was quoted as saying. “This is a new generation of people. . . . They have dreams, and they’re looking to us to help them.”

Ackerman Aims For Another SEC Lawyer

It could be round two for Gary Ackerman and the SEC.

In 2009, video of Ackerman scolding Securities Exchange Commission lawyer Andy Vollmer as Vollmer testified before the House Committee on Financial Services, of which Ackerman was a member, made the internet rounds. Vollmer was testifying about the SEC’s failure to investigate Bernie Madoff. In front of the committee, Vollmer claimed “executive privilege,” and refused to answer questions.

“Your value to the American people is worthless,” Ackerman said of Vollmer at the time. Days later, Vollmer was fired by the SEC.

Now, a new SEC lawyer with ties to Madoff is in the hot seat. David M. Becker, Vollmer’s replacement, was set to answer questions from Ackerman on Friday, the Daily News reported.

“Something has to be done,” Ackerman told the News. “We have to have some regulations in place where they have to publicly disclose this sort of thing. It was common sense.”

Becker is targeted as part of the “claw back” campaign being run by Irving H. Picard, a trustee in charge of recovering money from the net winners in Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. The SEC general counsel, along with his two brothers Daniel and William, is alleged to have liquidated his dead mother’s Madoff funds in order to see a profit—something Ackerman says the trio did not make public.

But while Ackerman’s actions may seem heroic in appearance, now—as before—his motives look to be at least partially politically motivated.

Ackerman’s district contains some of the most affluent parts of Queens and Long Island. Nassau County itself was one of the richest in the country at the time, and NY-5 made up a good chunk of the victims affected by Madoff, including 600 people in Great Neck alone, the Voice reported in 2009. (Who knows: maybe Nassau’s recent economic woes can be traced back to Bernie.)

Anyway, since we haven’t yet heard the details of Ackerman’s most recent condemnation—or whether it even happened—you’ll have to settle for this rerun.

Environmental Group Flunks Ackerman

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The League of Conservation Voters has given out its annual environmental scorecard, and New York House members scored fairly well, with an average of 88 percent. The national average, according to the LCV’s website, was 57 percent.

But of all New York House members, Gary Ackerman scored amongst the lowest: 60 percent, just three points higher than the national average.

Along with Bill Owens, Ackerman was the lowest scoring New York Democrat in the House of Representatives. 17 other New York House members scored 100 percent, as did the state’s senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. But unlike Owens, Ackerman never voted for what the LCV would call an “anti-environment action.” Owens voted negatively on four separate occasions.

“I voted for and supported 100 percent of their agenda,” Ackerman said in a statement. “I did not vote against anything they scored. (They scored several votes on the few times I was not on the floor, but supported).”

According to LCV representative Kate Geller, the League doesn’t count good intentions.

“When you miss a vote, it’s counted as not voting for the pro-environment vote,” Geller said. “Every vote is scored over whether you voted pro-environment or not.”

But with that criteria comes the question of how effective a measurement the scorecard actually is. A congressmen could be absent for any number of reasons–illness, personal issues–that would have no effect on how they feel about a particular cause. Conversely, a vote of “no” is just that.

“Obviously there are a lot of gray areas when it comes to scoring absences,” said Geller. “Our organization doesn’t try to figure out which are legitimate and which are not, so it’s just automatically a zero on that particular vote.”

So can this score be considered a reasonable assessment of Ackerman’s friendliness toward the environment? Even by the LCV’s own reckoning Ackerman hasn’t had a history of environmentally irresponsible actions–since 1999 the congressman hasn’t scored below an 80 on their exams–and he’s right when he says all of the votes he was present for were in support of LCV causes. The score probably says less about Ackerman’s position on environmental issues, and more on the poor methodology of the LCV’s scorecard.

The Authority on Egypt?

Gary Ackerman: your newest celebrity congressman!

OK, maybe that’s a stretch. But Ackerman has once again made the cable news rounds. On Fox Business, Ackerman spoke to Neil Cavuto about supporting the Egyptian people’s right to freedom, a message he’s been driving home for weeks. And on February 10, when Hosni Mubarak was about to deliver an announcement to the Egyptian people and the world, Ackerman was in the studio with live with Dylan Ratigan for some expert analysis. The assumption was that Mubarak would be stepping down from his presidency. Of course, it didn’t work out that way, and Ackerman characterized Mubarak’s misdirection as “sadistic.”

“Wow,” he said on the show. “We were ready for one historic announcement and instead we got a different one.”

In a statement released last week, after Mubarak’s official resignation, Ackerman congratulated the Egyptian people.

“The Egyptian revolution was accomplished by Egyptians, for Egyptians,” Ackerman said in the statement. “The victory is theirs and the whole world stands in awe of their achievement.”

As I mentioned last week, Ackerman has taken on the Egyptian revolution as his own personal cause, challenging the president and the conventional wisdom of many pro-Israel politicians. “If I was advising the U.S. president it would be to very, very assertively claim that he is on the side of the people,” Ackerman said in the Ratigan interview. Given his background as the former chairman and current ranking member of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, he’s been a “go-to” politician on Egypt in the press, even more so than current Chairman Steve Chabot.

But while his stance may be admirable, it might not jive with the rest of his years in congress. In statements made after a 2008 meeting with Mubarak, Ackerman called the former president “gracious” and “forthright.” At the time, the Bush Administration looked at Mubarak as a key ally in their War on Terror, and Ackerman commented on “Egypt’s leadership that it has traditionally exhibited within the region.” Additionally, in his time as subcommittee chairman, Ackerman didn’t sponsor any legislation targeted toward Egypt or Egyptian foreign policy, nor was he particularly vocal about Hosni Mubarak before the revolution began.

Of course, this is true of most — if not all — American politicians. Mubarak was considered an important ally of the United States, and at a time when we seem to have few in the Muslim world, this was seen as an overall good thing. But seeing as Ackerman has been most vocal about his role against Mubarak’s regime, it’s interesting that his background doesn’t seem to reflect his current rhetoric.

Ackerman to Mubarak: Get Out, Now.

Gary Ackerman released a statement this week in support of the Egyptian people, stating that Hosni Mubarak should transfer power to a transitional government immediately. According to Ackerman, that includes the halting of aid money being sent to the country. Strong words from the Congressman—stronger, even, than the initial response from President Obama himself, who has been hesitant to directly call for Mubarak’s departure from office.

There seems to be a definite contingent of congressmen taking a hard line against Mubarak in the press that doesn’t particularly jive with the administration’s official stance. This is an interesting position for Obama to be in: having members of Congress like Gary Ackerman , Keith Ellison or Ron Paul say Mubarak should step down immediately could lead people to ask why the president won’t say it outright himself, calling his credibility into question. He’s called for an “orderly transition,” but what Ackerman and others seem to think, and what the Egyptian people know all too well, is that the country seems to have moved past the point of “orderly.”

Ackerman, the former chairman of the subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, also made his way to the Parker/Spitzer blog (which is a thing that exists) in order to reinforce that opinion. On the surface, this seems like an interesting break for Ackerman with the Israeli government. Ackerman has been a supporter of Israel in the House for some time, and according to a Feb. 1st New York Times op-ed by Yossi Klein Halevi, many in Israel have trepidations, believing that the only outcome of collapse of the Mubarak regime is the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ackerman’s stance on Egypt, as well as that of a number of neoconservatives, seems to indicate a sort of cognitive dissonance between American politicians and the Israeli government.

(Related: The Atlantic has this list of politicians who spent time with Egyptian military officials last year. Not sure what to say about it, exactly, but as long as we’re talking about Ackerman and Egypt, it might be worth noting that the Queens and Long Island representative “accompanied [an] Egyptian military delegation to their appointments.”)