In March, Caroline Cutlip and some of her friends started a mutual aid group on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to connect the needy to food banks and go shopping for the elderly and the immunocompromised.
“There are about 50 people on the ground making deliveries and 50 people doing some type of remote work,” Cutlip said.
All that sounds normal enough, but the group’s name, Not Me, UES, is strikingly similar to one of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign slogans — “Not Me, Us — and for a reason. Cutlip and her friends were volunteering for his campaign when they started it, and originally thought they would use the fund as a means to help spread Sanders’ message. Cutlip is even a pledged delegate for Sanders.
But after an internal debate, they decided against using the fund to actively campaign.
“Some people were against putting any Bernie literature or any absentee ballot information in the bags because they didn't want people to feel like it was tit for tat,” Cutlip said.
While "Not Me, UES" ultimately decided not to distribute campaign material, they kept the name and still identify themselves as "former Bernie volunteers" on their Facebook page. There are several other political organizations across the city that have spun off mutual aid groups as well: members of the left-wing Democratic Socialists of America have started D.S.A.-branded funds across the five boroughs, as well as on Long Island.
But Nassau County D.S.A. co-chair Anne Flomenhaft says there’s nothing nefarious going on; it's simply in keeping with their organization’s tenets to share resources and reduce inequality.
“We're trying to fill a need,” Flomenhaft said. “And we didn't go in with any expectations of, ‘Oh, we're going to go around and ask for your vote.’”
While serving constituents is a large part of the job of being an elected official, this kind of direct aid can raise comparisons to the infamous Tammany Hall. For more than a century, the Democratic Tammany machine held huge sway in New York City politics, winning support among immigrant communities by handing out food, jobs, and other services.
“Tammany had a very clear-eyed, unsentimental, unromantic view of what it took to get people to the ballot box and then to get people to choose you as their representative,” said journalist and historian Terry Golway. “And part of that was constituent service, which is what the turkey at Christmas and the coal during the winter was all about.”
The recent coronavirus pandemic has given politicians a lot of reason — and cover — to give constituents direct aid while getting their names out there, too. New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has distributed hand sanitizer while staffers passed out promotional fliers. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been distributing face masks and handed out food while running for re-election. New York City Councilman the Rev. Ruben Diaz, Sr., is giving out free groceries while chasing a seat in Congress.
For some government watchdogs, like Daniel Weiner, the deputy director of the Brennan Center Election Reform Program, this type of behavior by officials could be problematic.
“The major danger, one, is an appearance of shady behavior, but the other is really coercion,” said Weiner. “And second, is using these sort of benefits, not just to build general goodwill, but specifically to induce people to support him.”
But for others, like political scientist Christina Greer, the fact that we are in an emergency situation changes everything about the ethical conversation.
“I think if you had asked me this question last year, I would say that seems like it could be some campaign practices that are unsavory,” said Greer, an associate professor at Fordham University. “However, this isn't last year, right?”
In Greer’s opinion, politics is just another part of the world that is becoming different because of the pandemic, and voting for someone who is giving out masks and gloves in neighborhoods that have been wracked by the pandemic isn't such a bad thing.
“If you're giving out hand sanitizer when we know that people can't seem to find it anywhere,” she said. “I don't really have as much of a problem with that.”
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