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From Biden’s embrace of corporate tax hikes and reining in Big Tech, to Black Lives Matter activists pushing to redirect police funds and challenge qualified immunity, we are living through a turning point in Democratic Party politics. Neoliberal figures like Rahm Emmanuel and Larry Summers no longer hold the authority they once had. Left-wing legislators like Jamaal Bowman, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez continue to gain traction in mainstream politics.
But the old guard continues to wield significant power and will be hard pressed to admit defeat, as exemplified by political strategist Bradley Tusk’s continued success. Some might recall Tusk as New York Mayor Bill De Blasio’s biggest critic. Others know him best as Silicon Valley’s favorite political fixer. Teachers’ unions probably remember him comparing them to the NRA. Tusk’s particular brand of politics—lobbying against regulation on behalf of companies he then invests in—in some ways represents the last gasp of corporate control over government that has run rampant since the Reagan era.
Yet, despite his deep connections to the enemies of mainstream Democrats—Big Tech, Wall Street, police unions, and yes, even Rod Blagojevich—Tusk has remained a player in Democratic politics, even as the party has rejected its “free-market,” “law-and-order” proclivities of the past. In fact, far from being sidelined, Bradley Tusk, who ran Mike Bloomberg’s 2009 mayor campaign, now has a lobbying shop that is running Andrew Yang’s campaign and whose president just got a top job in the Biden administration.
Tusk’s political survival in the Democratic Party should serve as a warning to progressives. A man who has cultivated political power and success through disregard for the public interest and government ethics, and who uses political connections to line his own pockets should not be allowed to define the party’s future.
From Blagojevich to Lehman Brothers
Since the beginning of his career, Tusk has aligned himself with those seeking to exploit political office for personal gain. Tusk advised then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the early 2000s before leaving New York to become Deputy Governor of Illinois under none other than disgraced governor Rod Blagojevich. Before it was discovered that Blagojevich was attempting to sell Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder, Tusk worked inside his administration to privatize the Illinois state lottery.
When Blagojevich’s administration disintegrated, Tusk returned to New York and took a job at Lehman Brothers running a team dedicated to privatizing state lotteries. While critics, including labor groups, pointed out that privatizing state lotteries meant less oversight and regulation and could lead to aggressive targeting of low-income individuals, Tusk reasoned that government-run lotteries were inefficient and banks could do a much better job increasing sales. It also didn’t hurt that Wall Street stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars taking the government run programs private. Tusk and his allies succeeded: in 2010, Illinois was the first state to privatize their lottery. Just three years later, the project failed, losing nearly a half a billion dollars in the process.
After Lehman’s implosion, which triggered the greatest financial crisis in a century, Tusk turned back to politics, managing the 2009 mayoral campaign on which Bloomberg spent over $100 million. Despite the record breaking personal spending, Tusk only pulled off a victory by the slimmest of margins.
Turning Politics Into Profit
Despite his rocky record in both politics and business, Tusk opened up shop as a political consultant, initially taking care to avoid the lobbying moniker so he wouldn’t have to report the companies he worked for. Tusk Strategies engaged in much of the same work—using government connections to push their clients legislative agenda — but because they called themselves “consultants,” they avoided disclosing their clients and the issues they lobby on.
Yet Tusk bragged openly about his many corporate clients, including his first, Uber, which could only afford to pay Tusk in equity. In exchange, Tusk agreed to help bring Uber to major cities including NYC.That first deal turned out to be fortuitous: the Uber equity soon made Tusk a multi-millionaire, who sometimes boasts that electoral politics is just a hobby now. It also inspired Tusk to create, in addition to his political consulting firm, his own venture capital fund, where he replicated the Uber deal: market his political connections to tech startups, invest in said startups, and help them fight regulatory battles to set up shop in various municipalities.
This strategy has defined Tusk’s career, both during his time working for Bloomberg, who supported privatizing public programs, and in his years in Illinois pushing for privatization of state-run programs. In Tusk’s view, regulations limited private sector growth, and he has spent the past several years since leaving politics fighting against them. The difference now? He’s figured out how to monetize this approach not only for his clients, but for himself, as a tech investor-lobbyist hybrid, fighting regulation on behalf of firms like insurance company Lemonade, scooter startup Bird, cryptocurrency platform eToro, and payday lender Money Lion.
And, since 2018, his shop bucked the “consultant” pretext and formally lobbies for clients.
Tusk’s Perfect Candidate
In 2014, when Bill de Blasio won the NYC mayoral race and sought to rein in tech companies, particularly Uber, which had wreaked havoc on the yellow cab taxi industry, Tusk faced a challenge. Over was the Bloomberg era of business-friendly governing. Tusk’s rolodex quickly lost value..
In response, Tusk launched a full-scale attack on de Blasio, joining forces with the Police Benevolent Association, New York’s most powerful police union, to take him down. Tusk took to media outlets, calling de Blasio corrupt and lazy. He chastised de Blasio for allowing “vagrants” (read: New Yorkers experiencing homelessness) back into the city after Bloomberg removed them. On behalf of the NYPD, he fought against police accountability measures that were introduced after the murder of Saheed Vassell, an unarmed black man, by the NYPD. He challenged de Blasio’s efforts to put a cap on Uber drivers. Meanwhile, he began his search for a worthy heir to Bloomberg who could successfully challenge the city’s left wing.
While Tusk mulled tapping Facebook CFO Sheryl Sandberg to run, he was unsuccessful in his hunt for the perfect pro-business candidate. That is, until he found Andrew Yang. Fresh off his presidential primary loss, the tech entrepreneur was a perfect fit. Like Tusk, Yang was critical of teachers unions, opposed corporate tax increases, and was a literal businessman whose company accepted donations from Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. Tusk wasted no time, staffing up Yang’s campaign with his own employees, including his two campaign managers, press secretary, policy director, and multiple senior advisers.
Allies In The Biden Administration
Beyond New York City politics, Tusk also has ties to the Biden Administration. Amidst a nationwide student debt crisis, President Biden appointed the president of Tusk Strategies, Sheila Nix, as chief of staff for the Department of Education.
Like Tusk, Nix landed on her feet after working for Blagojevich. After the governor’s resignation, Nix joined Tusk’s consultancy to serve as the muscle lobbying on behalf of Tusk’s startup clients. Most recently she lobbied to block the passage of an NYC bill that would extend paid sick leave to workers in the midst of a global pandemic. Nix’s lobbying clients included Wapanda (a taxi startup), Bird, and Angi Homeservices, all of which rely on contract labor.
Nix’s close ties to Tusk should also raise alarms for supporters of teachers—Tusk is a vocal critic of teachers’ unions, claiming that they “set us back tremendously” by stifling innovation. In 2010, charter school advocate Joe Williams hired Tusk to help pass pro-charter school legislation opposed by teachers’ unions. Now, as chief of staff at the Department of Education, Nix will have a central role in deciding whether the Biden administration prioritizes teachers unions and students strapped with debt, or whether for-profits continue getting away with predatory tactics.
Since the 1980s, Democrats have embraced crony capitalism, deregulation, and austerity in an attempt to appeal to the voters they lost to the GOP after Reagan. One of the major lessons learned over the past several decades is catering to corporations over people does not work. It has led to staggering wealth inequality, corporate concentration at levels that haven’t been seen since the Gilded Age, increased policing and imprisonment of Black and brown people, and the rise of Donald Trump, who exploited these problems to take power and stoke hatred. If we are to truly transform into a party of the people and not of corporate interests, we must reject Tusk’s brand of politics and eradicate his influence on every level.
PHOTO: “TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2016 – Day 3” by TechCrunch is licensed under CC BY 2.0