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Wall Street Makes Unprecedented Push to Get Out the Vote

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After years of dealing with a mayor hostile to business, New York’s corporate leaders had hoped that the city’s next mayor would be different.

Yet several of the leading Democratic candidates have backed positions unpopular to many in the business sector: raising taxes on the wealthy, cutting the police budget, a targeted guaranteed income program.

So in January, some 100,000 employees at major corporations across New York City got a message from their bosses: If they wanted a say in who runs the city after Mayor Bill de Blasio leaves office, they had best hop to it.

The emails used slightly different language, but the theme was the same: With term-limits law guaranteeing a new mayor next year, the business community should participate in helping New York City, the economic and cultural capital of the country, choose who leads its recovery efforts.

“February 14 is the last day when registered voters can declare or change their party affiliation before the primary on June 22,” William E. Ford, the chairman and chief executive of the investment firm General Atlantic, wrote in a Jan. 21 email. “You can do this online HERE,” he added.

Mr. Ford is co-chairman of the Partnership for New York City, a business-backed civic group that is urging its 320 members to send similar emails to all 700,000 of their employees based in New York City in the next couple of weeks.

The emails, which have been sent at firms as varied as Goldman Sachs, Neuberger Berman, Hearst and Interpublic, were carefully nonpartisan. But given that Democrats far outnumber Republicans among registered voters, the Democratic primary is likely to decide the race.

This is the first time the partnership has engaged in this sort of effort. Kathryn Wylde, who runs the partnership, said that since rules prohibit many bankers and private equity managers from making local campaign contributions, “getting out the vote is the only way that the private sector can have a voice in public policy decisions.”

“This is all about broadening the primary voter base — remember 80 percent of Queens residents supported Amazon HQ, but the handful of zealots drove them out of town,” she said, referring to a poll commissioned by Amazon. “If more New Yorkers get to the polls, we will have a far more balanced political scene.”

The move may be a subtle example of corporate leaders again trying to influence the Democratic mayoral primary. Already, Stephen M. Ross, the developer of Hudson Yards, and James Dolan, the head of Madison Square Garden, have seeded independent expenditure groups intended to influence the 2021 elections.

“The partnership has never been shy about their political advocacy on behalf of the wealthiest New Yorkers — so any attempt to say this is innocent voter education is laughable,” said Monica Klein, a progressive political consultant.

In late 2019 and early 2020 — just months before the pandemic descended on New York City, killing more than 27,000 people and upending the economy — the Partnership for New York City surveyed nearly 14,000 of its members’ employees, nearly 70 percent of whom lived in the five boroughs.

A plurality believed the city was headed in the wrong direction under Mayor de Blasio. They listed mass transit, homelessness and poverty as top concerns. More than 60 percent reported regularly voting in local and statewide elections — far higher than the roughly 22 percent of registered New York City Democrats — nearly 700,000 in total — who voted in the 2013 mayoral primary, the most recent with no incumbent running.

Even so, business leaders believe their employees can do better.

On Jan. 25, David Solomon, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs and a resident of the Soho neighborhood of Manhattan, emailed his New York City employees to alert them of the June 22 primary, the Feb. 14 deadline to declare party affiliation, and the May 28 deadline to register to vote in a primary election.

ImageDavid Solomon, chief executive of Goldman Sachs, wrote that this was a “crucial time for the city,” and that his employees’ voices should be heard.
David Solomon, chief executive of Goldman Sachs, wrote that this was a “crucial time for the city,” and that his employees’ voices should be heard.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Under New York’s closed primary system, voters must register with a political party by Valentine’s Day to be eligible to participate in that party’s primary.

“This is a crucial time for the city: New Yorkers all want to see the vibrant community they call home thrive once again, and I know that many of our people feel passionately, as you did last November, about ensuring that your voice is heard as part of the democratic process,” Mr. Solomon wrote to his company’s nearly 5,200 employees in New York City.

Mr. Solomon, who has contributed to both Republican and Democratic candidates on the federal level, declined further comment.

But his refrain was echoed by business leaders across the city. Many offered their employees paid time off to vote.

“We can all agree, now is a crucial moment for New York City, and we need to elect a strong leader,” Michael Roth, the chairman of Interpublic, the marketing firm, wrote in a Jan. 14 email.

Kenneth Sherrill, a professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College, argued that the business leaders’ effort, if successful, could help swing both the Democratic and Republican mayoral primaries toward the center. In recent years, the city’s once-moderate Republican Party has become dominated by supporters of Donald Trump, the former president.

“Many of the policies of the Trump administration and of the Freedom Caucus and the extreme right of the Republican Party are bad for business, bad for the financial industry,” Professor Sherrill said. “And they should be interested in making sure that the Republican nominee is not a Trumpite.”

George Walker, the chief executive of Neuberger Berman and a lifelong Republican, supported the Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in the Georgia Senate races, but said he had also raised money for President Biden.

A Greenwich Village resident, Mr. Walker said this was the first time his firm had engaged in a get-out-the-vote effort for a mayoral election, and that it was driven by the crises facing New York City. He spoke by phone from his Midtown office, above a Sixth Avenue that was almost entirely free of traffic. His children are attending school remotely. Several of his employees are working from their second homes in Florida and want to permanently relocate there.

He said the company was being “super careful” to be nonpartisan in its voter outreach efforts, but that people would still see “ghosts” where they did not exist.

“People will see this as big business trying to play the role that corporate C.E.O.s may have played 50 years ago, but this is about supporting our troops,” Mr. Walker said. “That’s where it begins and ends.”

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