In 2017, Mike Tolkin ran for New York City Mayor as a Democrat against incumbent Bill de Blasio. He poured his life savings – over $500,000 – and heart into the race, but was not allowed to participate in a number of crucial government-backed debates that would have given him the opportunity to face the incumbent.
Press reports described Tolkin as a: “Technology entrepreneur and the youngest candidate on the party’s ballot to challenge incumbent Bill de Blasio.” In a self-authored article, Tolkin described the New York City political establishment directly sabotaging his primary race against de Blasio by illegally barring him from government-sponsored debates.
Tolkin wrote regarding the “lack of fair media coverage and the arbitrary and unprecedented (i.e., discriminatory and illegal) exclusion of our campaign from the Official NYC Mandatory Debates.” He added that members of the legacy press had refused to cover his story.
The issues raised by Tolkin with regard to the integrity of the Mayoral Primary race are far from the first instance of corruption to have emerged in relation to New York City’s Mayor, Democrat Bill de Blasio. The New York Times reported in 2016 on the possibility of criminal charges against de Blasio, with the allegations against the Mayor relating to breaches of campaign finance law. The New York Times described the core of the allegations:
“The state investigation has focused on whether the Mayor, or those acting with him or on his behalf, violated state election law by raising hundreds of thousands of dollars through three upstate county committees and funneling it to Democratic candidates during the party’s unsuccessful 2014 bid to gain control of the State Senate.”
In December 2016, The New York Post went so far as to discuss names thrown into the hat to run as a replacement in the event that de Blasio would face indictment. Although such an indictment did not come to pass, the allegations of corruption with regard to de Blasio’s campaign dealings are far from over.
In a situation reminiscent of the open corruption seen in the 2016 Sanders-Clinton Primary, Tolkin points out that his campaign was in fact authorized by the government to participate in three of the debates, but that he was: “arbitrarily kept out by the TV networks and debate sponsors.” Tolkin specified: “We are the first and only campaign ever to be excluded. Ever, as in every citywide election for Mayor, Comptroller and Public Advocate in the entire 20-year history of the Official New York City Mandatory Debates. Unprecedented.”
Tolkin noted that this meant: “Sixteen sponsor organizations … kicked a government-qualified candidate out of the Official New York City Mandatory Debates.” Tolkin told Disobedient Media that there were four government-run debates during the primary. He made a strong distinction between these debates and those organized by the DNC or RNC on a national level.
Tolkin was barred from the government-backed debates three times over the course of the campaign. There were four government-sponsored debates through-ought the election period, which included two Democratic primary debates and two general debates. The first of the Primary debates was hosted by NY1, a local news outlet in New York City. The second Democratic primary debate was hosted by CBS. The two additional government-backed general debates were hosted by NY1 and CBS.
Tolkin explained to Disobedient Media: “While it appears that the media sponsors kept us out, we now know from emails and documentation obtained through a FOIL (Freedom of Information Act Law) request that it was actually the Campaign Finance Board who directed the media to keep us out.”
Tolkin related to this author that prior to the first debate, his campaign was qualified by the Campaign Finance Board to participate, and that local press was then directed by the Campaign Finance Board to exclude Tolkin’s campaign. Tolkin explained: “They published a single statement saying that they were not including us because I was not participating in public funding program.”
Prior to the second debate, Tolkin related that his campaign was once again qualified by the Campaign Finance Board, but that CBS was again directed by the Campaign Finance Board to exclude them. Tolkin stated: “They didn’t publish anything and refused to respond to us so our lawyer sent a note. CBS responded by saying that they didn’t need to include us and that they chose not to. No explanation.” Tolkin provided an email exchange to Disobedient Media which appears to reveal the Director of Public Relations at the New York City Campaign Finance Board coaching CBS on how to report on the situation, based on the angle used by other local press.
Tolkin’s fight to attend the third debate yielded similar results: “We were again qualified by the Campaign Finance Board. NY1 didn’t make any statement whatsoever. They refused to even acknowledge us. But they included Bo Dietl.” Tolkin explained to Disobedient Media that Bo Dietl, like Tolkin, was not a participant in the public funding program. However, Tolkin received more votes than Dietl on election day, and received 5% of the vote in the primary.
The story provides yet another glimpse into the notoriously corrupt dealings that keep incumbents in power despite being largely disliked by the public. It seems likely that the strongest motivating factor in Tolkin’s conflict with New York City’s Campaign Finance Board stemmed from the fact that he had the potential to perform well with New York’s progressive left, becoming a potential hurdle for de Blasio to re-take office.
By the fourth government-backed debate, Tolkin says that his campaign was not included in polls and therefore was unable to qualify. Tolkin emphasized that while there were other candidate debates and forums, these four debates in particular were government-run. Tolkin described the crucial difference to this author: “These weren’t party-run debates like those between Clinton/Sanders. The media partners were simply partners, but did not control the debates. They were chosen by the government and directed by the government.”
Tolkin’s allegation of sabotage by the New York City Law Department is an additional key point, as the Department reports to Mayor de Blasio. Tolkin summed up the situation: “Mayor de Blasio is directly responsible… He used his law Department to order the “independent, non-partisan” campaign finance board to keep us out of the debates. We have reason to believe that this was a result of my sexual orientation, but the government has refused to comply with new FOIL requests, without explanation.”
Tolkin stated that the importance of the debates was not only due to their value in allowing opposing participants to express their views to the public: it also represented an opportunity for ‘career politicians’ like de Blasio to face criticism from opposition candidates.
Tolkin stipulated that the rules surrounding the debates were put in place to ensure that large-name politicians do not take public funds without making themselves available to public scrutiny. So, it seems that instead of skirting the rule requiring de Blasio to appear, the New York City Debates squashed those who may have proved oppositional to de Blasio from participation, clearing the way for an incumbent victory.
In addition to all of this, Tolkin claimed to Disobedient Media that: “Joe Gallagher, the Associate General Counsel of the Campaign Finance Board, admitted that the Campaign Finance Board had never, in its entire history, allowed the media to kick qualified candidates out.”
Tolkin also points out that in the entire history of the New York City Mandatory Debates law: “it has never before been interpreted to allow arbitrary exclusion of a qualifying candidate at all, let alone by a Debate Sponsor. He added: “Nowhere in the Law does it remotely state or imply that a sponsor “may not,” or “may, at its discretion” invite any candidate. Common sense dictates that the “non-partisan, objective, and non-discriminatory criteria” would apply to all candidates equally.
Tolkin discussed his unfair exclusion from debates with Disobedient Media, and showed this author documentation of email correspondence between himself and the New York City officials, which showed a bizarre inability on their part to respond to Tolkin’s reasonable queries regarding the legality of his campaign’s exclusion from the debates. Tolkin alluded to his sexual orientation as having been a possible reason for his exclusion from the primary debates, not because of a homophobic bias within the Blasio campaign, but because: “They were concerned that it wouldn’t look good for De Blasio.”
Strikingly, Tolkin spoke of his motivation to run for New York City Mayor in the first place with Alisha Smith in the midst of the election season. He described his inspiration to run for Mayor stemming from steeply escalating financial inequality. He said: “We are facing enormous challenges in our country right now, and I feel that it’s time to step up… Economic inequality is a huge deal, and it’s getting worse. With the advent of robotics, there is about to be a huge loss of jobs. If we don’t do something, there are going to be huge companies like Amazon and Google, and they will have everything and everyone else will have nothing, and I mean NOTHING. There will be NO jobs.”
Additionally, Tolkin spent a week living homeless on the streets of New York, in order to raise awareness regarding the problem of homelessness. He told Metro that his primary goal was to encourage people to understand the “emotional devastation” endured by the unhoused. Disobedient Media previously discussed the homeless crisis in the United States, including the conditions that, specifically in New York City, have forced some city employees to live out of their cars.
Tolkin’s compassion for the disadvantaged and his focus on wealth inequality made him a perfect foil for the establishment-backed de Blasio. One might conclude that the incumbent’s campaign was not looking forward to being forced to defend itself against a thoroughly progressive platform.
The possibly illegal exclusion of Tolkin’s campaign from Mandatory New York City debates is significant not only because of its effect on one campaign in one election season: it is also symptomatic of structural corruption within New York’s political establishment.
The issue mirrors third party and independent candidates being barred from debates during National election cycles. Tolkin’s experience also echoes DNC efforts to sabotage the campaign of Bernie Sanders in 2016, in order to make way for the establishment-backed candidate, Hillary Clinton.