Want to Be a City Commissioner? It Helps to Be Friendly With the Mayor.
Faced with half a dozen major vacancies during his eighth and final year in office, Mayor Bill de Blasio had what appeared to be a simple choice …
Faced with half a dozen major vacancies during his eighth and final year in office, Mayor Bill de Blasio had what appeared to be a simple choice: promote an experienced hand from within, or persuade an outsider to sign on for what was likely to be a very temporary job.
But in three of those instances, Mr. de Blasio chose a third option: He hired a loyalist.
For parks commissioner, who oversees 14 percent of New York City’s landmass, the mayor last month chose Gabrielle Fialkoff, the finance chairwoman of his 2013 mayoral campaign and a former vice chairwoman of the Mayor’s Fund to Advance the City of New York, a city-run nonprofit. She appears to have spent the bulk of her career helping run a costume jewelry company founded by her parents.
Henry Gutman, who spent his career as a high-profile intellectual property lawyer, was appointed in February to be the city’s transportation commissioner, putting him in control of a street network that, if assembled contiguously, would stretch to Iran. He had served as a treasurer of the mayor’s 2017 re-election campaign.
Peter Hatch was appointed last month to become commissioner of the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, which licenses 59,000 city businesses and enforces workplace rules and consumer protections. He worked as a political operative and then spent years in City Hall as an all-purpose utility player for Mr. de Blasio.
Each of the three has demonstrated long-term loyalty to the outgoing mayor, and he has reciprocated by putting them atop agencies of which they have varying levels of subject-matter expertise.
“The mayor makes appointments based on merit and experience — nothing more,” said his spokeswoman, Danielle Filson. “Commissioners Gutman, Hatch and Fialkoff were the right people for the job, and civic leaders around the city have applauded their appointments.”
In making these appointments, Mr. de Blasio keeps his allies close as he considers a run next year for governor.
He also opted to not promote three acting city commissioners with a cumulative 40 years of experience at the agencies they serve. Mr. de Blasio’s unwillingness to make those acting commissioners permanent seems to reflect his disdain for longtime government officials, as evinced in his battles with them over vaccine mandates and return-to-office policies — and in the “kill the bureaucrats” tattoo his longest-serving press secretary had inked on the inside of his right arm in 2019.
“I shared his mind-set when I was in City Hall,” said Eric Phillips, the former press secretary. “I think more often than not the bureaucracy is the problem in city government, and not the answer.”
All three of the newly minted commissioners have longstanding ties to the mayor.
Ms. Fialkoff has been writing checks to Mr. de Blasio’s campaigns since 2000, when he was running for City Council, according to public records. Before she joined her family’s jewelry company, Haskell Jewels, Ms. Fialkoff handled fund-raising for Hillary Clinton’s 2000 bid for the United States Senate. Mr. de Blasio managed Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.
Ms. Fialkoff went on to serve as finance chair for Mr. de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign, after which she chaired his 2014 inauguration committee.
Once Mr. de Blasio became mayor, he appointed her to run the Office of Strategic Partnerships, where she worked with the private sector to help achieve administration initiatives, including helping thousands of New York City youth get internships and summer jobs with private-sector employers.
The woman she replaced, acting commissioner Margaret Nelson, started at the Parks Department in 2014, working as chief of staff to the commissioner and as the deputy commissioner overseeing the city’s park rangers, 36 recreation centers and its Parks Enforcement Patrol.
When Mr. de Blasio appointed Ms. Nelson acting commissioner in August, he described her as a “leader with experience, vision and passion.” Ms. Nelson was well regarded within the agency, according to two agency staff members, and the appointment of Ms. Fialkoff surprised them.
Ms. Fialkoff has no apparent experience with parks, aside from her work raising money to help fund programs run by the department, including free exercise classes in parks and recreation centers. She did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Gutman, the transportation commissioner, also lacked relevant professional experience when he was chosen in February. A retired intellectual property lawyer, Mr. Gutman, known as Hank, has been a regular donor to Mr. de Blasio since his 2007 campaign, and was appointed chair of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 2014.
Mr. Gutman’s sole apparent transportation experience was in a volunteer capacity, and came by way of the mayor, who named him to a panel charged with determining the fate of the deteriorating cantilever that supports the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Brooklyn Heights Promenade — both in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood that Mr. Gutman has long called home.
The acting commissioner whom he replaced, Margaret Forgione, joined the city’s transportation department in 1994 and later served as its chief operations officer and Manhattan borough commissioner.
“Margaret Forgione has the experience and vision to build on the agency’s extraordinary reimagining of public space throughout our fight against Covid-19,” Mr. de Blasio said when he appointed her acting commissioner last December.
The tenure of Mr. Gutman, who declined a request for comment, has overlapped with the worst year for traffic deaths since Mr. de Blasio took office — a phenomenon that the mayor attributes to the pandemic and a related surge in car ownership.
Even so, Danny Pearlstein, the policy director at Riders Alliance, a group that advocates for better transit, credited Mr. Gutman for continuing the expansion of bus lanes begun under the prior transportation commissioner.
“The city is continuing its stepped-up pace of bus lane installations that began last year during the pandemic,” Mr. Pearlstein said. “That has been maintained under him.”
Mr. Hatch’s work experience seems to align more neatly with his new job than either Ms. Fialkoff’s or Mr. Gutman’s, and gives him the sort of cross-agency knowledge that could aid his delivery of services in his new position.
At the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, Mr. Hatch, who has worked as an employment lawyer, will be spearheading a campaign to raise awareness of and enrollment in the federal child tax credit program. He replaces acting commissioner Sandra Abeles, who joined the agency in 2014, and oversaw its enforcement and technology divisions.
Mr. Hatch met Mr. de Blasio on John Edwards’s first presidential campaign, in 2004; Mr. Hatch was deputy state director for New York, while Mr. de Blasio was co-chair of the New York campaign. Mr. Hatch went on to work as chief of staff to Mr. de Blasio when he was a councilman, before charting a peripatetic career through New York and national politics, with stints at the Working Families Party and as state director for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
Upon joining the de Blasio administration in 2014, Mr. Hatch hopped from one position to the next, whenever a competent, hardworking set of hands was needed. In his most recent position, he worked as “Covid-19 public-private partnership czar,” helping to raise $100 million worth of donations toward the city’s fight against the pandemic.
Mr. Hatch declined to comment for this story.
The three appointments contrast with Mr. de Blasio’s other major personnel moves this year. He named Meisha Porter, a longtime city education official, to become schools chancellor in February; for New York City Emergency Management, he hired John Scrivani, an accomplished emergency management professional; and at the Department of Correction, he chose Vincent Schiraldi, who had worked inside correction systems as an operator and outside of them as a reformer.
Yet appointing political allies to key government positions is not a new practice in city government, or for Mr. de Blasio, who in 2014 appointed one of his taxi industry fund-raisers to an assistant commissioner position at the agency that regulates the industry, the Taxi and Limousine Commission. He also appointed his 2013 campaign treasurer to run the city’s Department of Investigation. The Daily News reported that in 2014, Mr. de Blasio’s team assembled a spreadsheet of donors and lobbyists to use when making appointments to various boards.
Appointing a trusted ally to become a commissioner can also work to that agency’s benefit by elevating its profile and enhancing its pull with the mayor.
Nor is an appointee’s subject-matter inexperience necessarily an indication that the appointee will perform poorly, according to Betsy Gotbaum, whom Mayor David Dinkins appointed parks commissioner in 1990.
Like Ms. Fialkoff, Ms. Gotbaum served as a top campaign fund-raiser for Mr. Dinkins and inaugural committee chair.
“I had no experience in parks either,” said Ms. Gotbaum, who is now the executive director of Citizens Union, a good-government group. “I think what you have to do is you have to know the city and you have to be a pretty good manager.”
“I think she is,” Ms. Gotbaum said of Ms. Fialkoff, “and I think she knows the city extremely well.”