The last time Bradley Tusk ran a mayoral campaign, it was 2009, and Michael Bloomberg was seeking reelection. New York City muckraker Wayne Barrett raised an eyebrow, questioning why the mayor would entrust his political fate to a former Lehman Brothers lobbyist and deputy governor under the notoriously corrupt Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. But after winning Bloomberg’s $100 million campaign, Tusk quickly became “Silicon Valley’s favorite political fixer,” launching his namesake consulting and lobbying firm, Tusk Strategies, in early 2010 and a venture capital complement, Tusk Ventures, in 2015. Now Tusk is wrapped up in the New York City mayoral race once again, and his candidate this time around is a both a big star and a blank slate: Andrew Yang.
While political firms typically focus on a particular specialty — like lobbying, fundraising, or polling — the one running Yang’s campaign is fully integrated. Tusk Strategies has been retained by New York’s billionaire-backed charter school lobby, the New York Police Department’s largest cop union, the real estate industry, and gig-economy employers like Uber and Handy to spearhead issue-focused campaigns. (Yang’s stance on gig workers, for one, has already come into line with Tusk Strategies.)
“The most interesting type of role to me was running big, complex, multijurisdictional campaigns for people with a lot of money and a lot at stake,” Tusk wrote in his 2018 autobiography, “The Fixer: My Adventures Saving Startups From Death by Politics.”
With Chris Coffey, Tusk’s deputy and head of the firm’s New York office, as Yang’s co-campaign manager (and the other co-campaign manager, press secretary, policy director, and two senior advisers all employed by Tusk Strategies), Tusk has a direct line to the current front-runner for New York City mayor. And in fact, as Jeff Coltin of City & State recently reported, Tusk Strategies actively recruited Yang to run as soon as he dropped out of the presidential race in February 2020.
But as Coffey is quick to point out, lobbying makes up only a fraction of Tusk’s work.
Tusk Strategies actively recruited Yang to run as soon as he dropped out of the presidential race in February 2020.
“A very, very small part of our business, percentage wise, is actually lobbying,” Coffey told The Intercept. “Most of our business is communication and paid media and digital and other stuff.” In those cases, if the client isn’t lobbying a public official on specific legislation or a government contract, then Tusk Strategies isn’t obligated to disclose its relationship or advocacy efforts to the public.
One example of this is the firm’s work with the Blackstone Group, the private equity giant that hired Tusk Strategies to help with its acquisition of the largest apartment complex in New York City. Residents have fought for years to preserve the affordability of the 80-acre Stuyvesant Town, outlasting multiple owners that have sought to deregulate its more than 11,000 units and increase rents. Blackstone and its partner firm are the latest of four ownership groups over the past 15 years, and Stuy Town’s tenants remain in dispute with the equity giant over the legal rents (and future affordability) of thousands of units. The conflict is set to continue well into the next mayor’s administration.
Long before Blackstone bought Stuy Town, Tusk dazzled New York City power brokers by quarterbacking the efforts of the rising charter school movement. In 2010, Tusk Strategies teamed up with Joel Klein, Bloomberg’s education chancellor, and the billionaire-backed pro-charter advocacy organization Education Reform Now to lead a multimillion dollar campaign to raise the cap on charter schools in New York. They won, bringing in an additional $2 billion in earmarked funding for charters in the annual state budget.
“Because this was the first ed reform campaign run like a political campaign, we became the firm to call if you had an education-related problem,” Tusk explains in “The Fixer.“ Following the victory, Tusk Strategies helped create the pro-charter juggernaut StudentsFirst, a sister organization of Education Reform Now, with Michelle Rhee. And his pro-charter school advocacy efforts, bankrolled by Wall Street billionaires, served as a vehicle for funneling money to help reelect Gov. Andrew Cuomo and keep the Republican Party in control of the New York State Senate between 2012 and 2018.
In 2014, as the Independent Democratic Conference — a breakaway group of state Senate Democrats that caucused with Republicans, effectively giving the GOP a majority — pledged to rejoin the Democratic conference after Election Day, StudentsFirst launched the pro-GOP New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany political action committee. The PAC, which was funded by a roster of billionaires and retained Tusk’s services, was the largest spender in that election cycle and succeeded in helping the Republicans retake an outright majority. (Although it no longer turned the balance of power, the IDC reneged on its prior commitment to the Democrats.)
New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany worked with Tusk again in 2016, this time in collaboration with the powerful Real Estate Board of New York, or REBNY. They poured in $5.2 million to maintain GOP control.
But Tusk would not have become a Silicon Valley favorite if his influence only entrenched establishment dynamics. In 2011, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick retained Tusk Strategies for navigating the politics of municipal taxi and labor regulation, offering Tusk an equity stake as payment. Four years later, when Mayor Bill de Blasio sought to pass legislation that would have imposed a temporary cap on the number of Uber vehicles introduced in the city, Tusk spearheaded a multimillion dollar campaign against it, blanketing airwaves and lobbying public officials. City hall backed down at the eleventh hour.
In addition to his enormously profitable stake, which Crain’s New York Business estimated to be worth $100 million even before Uber’s initial public offering, the victory was a boon for Tusk. It established him as a force who was willing to fight, and able to defeat, city hall. As de Blasio’s 2013 campaign manager told the New York Daily News, “His business model is, I’m going to be against de Blasio, and I’m going to advertise myself as, ‘If you want to beat him up, hire me.’”
This reputation sparked a close partnership between Tusk Strategies and the Police Benevolent Association, the city’s powerful union of roughly 24,000 NYPD officers. While Coffey stressed to The Intercept that Tusk Strategies worked with the PBA on only pension and payment issues, the union’s 2017 and 2019 disclosures with the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the New York City Lobbying Bureau tell a different story.
As Coffey acknowledged, Tusk Strategies ran a 2016 campaign to pressure the mayor into negotiating a new contract. The campaign, which cost millions of dollars, won NYPD officers a 12 percent pay increase. In 2019, the firm advocated for a state legislative resolution passed in the New York City Council (and later in Albany) expanding eligibility for NYPD pension benefits.
In 2016, the PBA worked with Tusk Strategies to recruit a challenger against de Blasio for mayor.
But according to the disclosures, the union had hired Tusk Strategies to lobby the city and state on the gamut of police reform and accountability legislation, including “legislation on sharing information with CCRB [the Civilian Complaint Review Board],” a “police information bill,” and a “police accountability bill.” In 2016, the PBA worked with Tusk Strategies to recruit a challenger against de Blasio for mayor.
Tusk Strategies’s contract with the PBA was terminated in late 2019, incidentally less than a week after Bloomberg announced his presidential campaign, which Tusk was advising, and shortly after the former mayor publicly apologized for his enforcement of the NYPD’s racist stop-and-frisk policy. Coffey denied that the termination of Tusk Strategies’s contract with the PBA was over any particular incident.
The PBA wasn’t the only business that Tusk’s triumph in the Uber cap fight brought in. As he explains in “The Fixer,” “all of the attention around the fight helped other startups realize that they had to start taking politics seriously. Their newly realized challenge was our opportunity. And we took it.”
That opportunity was in launching Tusk Ventures, a venture capital firm that would continue to offer political consulting — and, if necessary, fight political battles — on behalf of startup clients in exchange for equity. The firm has had stakes in companies across various industries, from real estate startups like Latch, Lyric, and Lemonade to transportation ventures Bird, Zendrive, and Kodiak. Tusk Ventures also has a significant footprint in the burgeoning cryptocurrency sector, including Ripple, Coinbase, and Circle, and in gambling, with sports betting company FanDuel.
Especially relevant to New York City policy is the firm’s investment in Handy, the “Uber of home services” that was recently acquired by Angi Homeservices. According to Tusk, Handy’s CEO developed the idea of giving workers using Handy’s platform “portable benefits,” an industry-favored model that companies like Uber offer as a compromise for some of the rights to which gig workers would be legally entitled if they were recognized as employees. Tusk Strategies allied itself with the founder of the Independent Drivers Guild, an Uber-funded group that poses as a union but does not seek employment status for its drivers. (Uber’s funding of the group would be illegal if the drivers were classified as employees.)
As detailed in a report by the National Employment Law Project, Tusk, along with Handy and Uber, led a multijurisdictional campaign to author and pass state laws that would stifle gig workers’ chances of being formally recognized as employees. The most prominent case of this conflict recently played out in California, where gig companies prevailed after a $200 million campaign that won passage of the Proposition 22 referendum.
Tusk, along with Handy and Uber, led a multijurisdictional campaign to author and pass state laws that would stifle gig workers’ chances of being formally recognized as employees.
A similar battle is now in play in New York, where Handy (doing business as Angi Homeservices) has retained Tusk Strategies to lobby against the New York state version of California’s A.B. 5, a bill to reclassify many gig workers as employees. They’re also fighting against similar legislation in the City Council, introduced at the height of the pandemic by Council Member Brad Lander, which would extend paid sick leave benefits to gig workers. (The bill has been held up in committee by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who retained Tusk Strategies in his 2017 bid for speaker. Johnson and Lander are both running for city comptroller.)
During his presidential campaign, Yang spoke in favor of A.B. 5, tweeting, “The California bill to reclassify contract workers for companies like Uber as employees not contractors is a positive step. In many cases the companies have as much or more control than traditional employers.” But in his campaign for mayor, Yang has shifted his position, falling in line with the industry-favored aim to keep gig workers as independent contractors while offering the “portable” alternative to the full benefits that legally classified employees get.
The gig worker question is not the only instance in which Yang has adopted Tusk’s position. During his presidential campaign, Yang advocated for a capital gains and carried interest tax as well as a financial transaction tax, but he’s recently distanced himself from those positions. The New York Daily News reported on a February meeting Yang held with the Partnership for New York City, the prestigious nonprofit whose members include the city’s leading Wall Street and corporate executives, in which, according to one attendee, “he was clear that he didn’t favor new taxes on New Yorkers, period.” Over the summer, before Yang announced his mayoral campaign, Tusk Strategies assembled the Campaign for New York’s Future, a coalition reportedly bankrolled by vulture investor Paul Singer to fight tax increases on the wealthy. (The campaign denied Singer’s funding role and fizzled out shortly after its launch amid public backlash, which Tusk likened to “cancel culture” on his podcast, “Firewall.”)
Given Yang’s inexperience and relative unfamiliarity with New York City politics, he’s the perfect candidate for Tusk, who likened the mayoral hopeful to an “empty vessel” to the New York Times’ Ben Smith. When Smith presented this characterization to Yang, the candidate apparently “took no offense,” telling the Times: “A lot of New Yorkers are excited about someone who will come in and just try to figure out, like what the best approach to a particular problem is, like free of a series of obligations to existing special interests.”
But whether Tusk’s special interests might affect Yang remains to be seen. According to Coffey, the candidate supports the repeal of the Hecht-Calandra Act, the state law that codifies the role of the standardized test that determines admission to the city’s elite public high schools. The test, called the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, or SHSAT, has been blamed for the vast underrepresentation of Black and Latino students in the city’s top schools, which de Blasio sought to address by scrapping it in 2018. But Tusk teamed up with billionaire cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder and former chair of Citigroup and Time Warner Richard Parsons to launch the Education Equity Campaign, and they successfully fought de Blasio’s efforts.
Whether Tusk’s special interests might affect Yang remains to be seen.
Yang plans to keep the SHSAT, but he has called for an expansion of the criteria for high school admissions. His plan would still require the Hecht-Calandra repeal.
“If Andrew wins, Andrew’s going to do what he believes is right,” Coffey told The Intercept when asked if that position would conflict with the goals of the Education Equity Campaign. “Anytime anything even close to a client comes up vis-a-vis the Yang campaign, we immediately wall it off. Andrew’s going to do what Andrew believes is best. He has been very, very clear on this particular position and lots of other positions, and it has nothing to do with clients or issues that Tusk has.”
If Coffey is true to his word, Yang will also have to stand up to Tusk’s clientele on housing policy.
In April, a coalition promoting a legislative package called “Compassionate New York” formed to pass the top progressive legislative goals statewide, including the so-called good cause eviction bill, which Coffey says would have Yang’s support if he were elected mayor. (Disclosure: the author worked for Julia Salazar, who sponsored the Hecht-Calandra repeal and the good-cause eviction bill, during the 2019 legislative session.)
The bill — which seeks to prevent landlords from evicting tenants without “good cause,” a legal standard that includes “unreasonable” increases in rent — has been a fierce point of contention between landlord and tenant groups since it was scratched at the last minute from the sweeping housing reforms the state Legislature passed in 2019.
For its part, the Community Housing Improvement Program, the landlord group fighting against the progressive housing reforms, hired a lobbying firm known for its formidability: Tusk Strategies.
Correction: May 6, 2021
This story said that Tusk allied himself with the head of the Independent Drivers Guild, but it was employees of his firm, Tusk Strategies, who collaborated with the IDG. The text said that the IDG does not seek collective bargaining for its members, but it does seek a form of collective bargaining without employment status. The text has been corrected.