NYC Firm Helps De Blasio Go From Obscurity to FrontrunnerEsmé E. Deprez and Henry Goldman
As Bill de Blasio weighed a longshot run for New York City mayor, he needed help from people who shared his self-described activist-progressive views. He found it in a political consulting firm, hatched in a Manhattan sublet, where many on the staff are closer in age to his children than to him.
BerlinRosen Public Affairs, the eight-year-old firm founded by Valerie Berlin and Jonathan Rosen, has built a reputation working behind the scenes for Democratic candidates and causes such as paid sick leave, limiting police stop-and-frisk tactics and universal preschool -- issues that dominated de Blasio’s message and helped take the 52-year-old from underdog to frontrunner.
With polls showing de Blasio 40 percentage points ahead of Joseph Lhota a week before the election, and with Lhota’s fellow Republicans outnumbered 6-to-1 in the most populous U.S. city, de Blasio is likely to be the first Democrat to run New York since 1993. That leaves BerlinRosen poised to extend its influence and access to power.
“They are of the long-term vision that you really need to have with progressive politics, but they’re also completely grounded in the reality of getting votes and sowing messages,” said Eric Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general. BerlinRosen helped him win election in 2010 by a margin of almost 450,000 votes.
The company provides help with public relations, strategic advice, political consulting and advertising. “We specialize in bringing field and media strategy together to help our clients engage, organize and mobilize key constituencies,” according to its website.
Clients include New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver of Manhattan, the top Democratic lawmaker in Albany since 1994; 16 current and aspiring New York City Council members, Greenpeace, Cornell University and several unions. Rosen, 35, and Berlin, 46, said they began giving campaign advice to de Blasio as early as 2010.
Other, more established, strategic communications firms have seen their fortunes rise after advising a winning candidate for mayor. Howard Rubenstein, the 81-year-old founder and president of Rubenstein Associates Inc., had been in business 19 years before advising Abraham Beame, a former city comptroller he helped get to City Hall in 1973. Rubenstein, whom former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani called “the dean of damage control,” has worked with mayors and expanded his business ever since.
Rosen and Berlin met in 2001. He was an intern at a law firm assigned to help a union save the jobs of subway token-booth clerks. Schneiderman, then a state senator, got involved. Berlin was his chief of staff.
Rosen had been a political junkie since childhood. While still in high school, he ran a field operation out of his parents’ living room to help re-elect the mayor of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Berlin came to New York from Michigan in 1989 to be an organizer for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN.
In 2005, the pair set up shop in the Murray Hill, Manhattan, apartment that Rosen sublet from his sister-in-law.
“We thought, ‘We work well together. We share the same values,’” Berlin said in an interview. “Let’s see what we can do.”
They call it a mission-driven company and said they turn away potential clients who don’t share their ideals and values. Some organizations they represent advocate raising the minimum wage, protecting voting rights and providing more services for poor children and families.
“Our goal is to take on interesting work that we all feel good about,” Rosen said.
Interviews with a dozen clients and peers elicited descriptions of BerlinRosen’s staff as smart, hard-working and good listeners. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation magazine, called it “a powerhouse firm of strong progressive credentials.” Assembly speaker Silver said he relies on Rosen as a “trusted adviser.”
The firm has also reached beyond its political roots to attract nonpartisan, institutional clients such as the Brooklyn Public Library and the MacArthur Foundation, known for its “genius” grants.
They’ve also represented Brookfield Office Properties, a subsidiary of the owner of Zuccotti Park, from which Occupy Wall Street was ousted in 2011, and Bruce Ratner, founder and chairman of Forest City Ratner Cos., developer of Brooklyn’s 22-acre Atlantic Yards, which includes Barclays Center with plans for thousands of market-rate and discount apartments.
BerlinRosen’s staff has doubled since 2011 to 34, with offices in lower Manhattan and Washington. Most employees have worked in government, nonprofits, community organizing or unions. Dan Levitan, a company vice president who is de Blasio’s campaign spokesman, was previously communications director for the Working Families Party.
Its founders say one of the company’s most important victories came when Cornell University was an underdog in competition with Stanford University to build an engineering campus in New York City. Rosen led the campaign.
He pitched Cornell’s cause as if it were in a political campaign, Rosen said, “enlisting the faculty and a wide array of alumni in the tech world to go out as ambassadors” to news organizations “to create buzz, to create excitement” and to catch the attention of public officials. It worked.
BerlinRosen sold de Blasio the same way it sold Cornell, said Stu Loeser, a strategic communications consultant and former press secretary to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“Slow and steady,” Loeser said. “They set their themes and their goals and remained flexible if circumstances changed.”
Berlin said she met de Blasio when he ran Hillary Clinton’s successful 2000 campaign for U.S. Senate in New York. Rosen met the candidate when he was a city councilman from Brooklyn and worked with him to stop the sale of Starrett City, a 140-acre subsidized middle-class housing complex, to a private developer.
Berlin and Rosen live two blocks apart in Park Slope, Brooklyn. They are neighbors of de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, who was a speech writer for New York’s last Democratic mayor, David Dinkins. Berlin’s spouse, Amy Rutkin, is chief of staff for U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Rosen’s wife, Debbie, is Silver’s deputy chief of staff.
The early days of de Blasio’s campaign were a tough slog for the company. Their candidate was viewed as a longshot, out of sync with the conventional wisdom that voters wanted continuity with the Bloomberg administration -- not the changes de Blasio advocated.
Bloomberg, the 71-year-old founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, is legally barred from running for a fourth term.
De Blasio, after declaring his candidacy in January, drew support at about 10 percent for months. That began to change in August, when he emerged as the leading critic of the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy. That month, the issue reached a turning point when a federal judge ruled the tactics unfairly targeted minority men. She appointed a monitor over the department.
The firm’s ability to place de Blasio at the center of news coverage of the issue was important because campaign spending limits made it impractical to buy television advertising until closer to election day, said Emma Wolfe, the deputy campaign manager, who’s not a BerlinRosen employee.
De Blasio’s poll numbers began to rise and on Sept. 10, he won the Democratic nomination with almost 41 percent of the vote in a seven-way race.
“New York’s a small town run by 1,000 decision-makers and BerlinRosen is about to join the club,” said Hank Sheinkopf, who’s been a strategic communications consultant for more than 40 years.
Although Berlin and Rosen say their firm will remain the same in the event de Blasio is elected mayor, that may prove difficult, Sheinkopf said.
“There’s a potential issue as they get bigger: reconciling the contradiction between their ideals and the interests of people who hire them for their influence,” Sheinkopf said. Such clients, he said, “may not share the progressive ideology upon which the firm was founded.”