Thank you for an amazing campaign
Updated: Apr 19, 2019
It’s time for the best part of any campaign - thinking about all the amazing things everyone did and giving thanks for the incredible effort put in! I also wanted to give a real rundown of the campaign, especially aspects folks might not have seen. Not just the good, but the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful.
But first, foremost, and most importantly, thank you. Thank you for all of your support. This campaign was outstanding in every regard. What we achieved, the wonderfulness of the experience and, more than anything, the people.
The people are what made it work, kept it positive and kept it true to its core. It’s repeated a few times in the email, but this was the only campaign with 95% or more of it’s money coming from New Yorkers and small donors (nobody else came close). It may sound like a talking point, but after a decade in politics (and in particular working to overcome money in politics) I want to say just how incredible this feat is. It is the place where EVERYONE cuts corners and EVERYONE starts selling out. Not us! Thank you so much.
P.S. I had to jump back in the saddle to bring the energy of our campaign to the last Democratic State Committee meeting yesterday. For the recap of that head here.
What an incredible campaign this was! In every way, what we accomplished defied expectation. Nobody believed a grassroots candidate could be competitive in a two-month long, citywide special election. Instead, we were ignored by the media and establishment as they focused on incumbent politicians and big money raisers. Nobody thought for a second that there could be a legitimate campaign powered by people.
And yet, despite being shut out of both pay-to-play debates, we placed in the top ten of 17 candidates - beating prodigious fundraisers and placing mere tenths of percentage points away from many elected officials (see the graphic later). A District Leader from Brooklyn said it best: “When I heard you were running I thought, I like Ben but what the hell is he doing? But you proved me wrong.”
That was no small feat. Nor was winning election districts in 3 of 5 boroughs (where’s the love Bronx and Staten Island?). Nor was meeting the matching funds threshold. Nor was building a 100% NYC Grassroots operation. And at the end of the day, we proved that our small band of reformers was just as powerful as any of the county party operations.
And we did it in a way nobody else could:
We had ZERO big money from outside NYC
We had the FEWEST large dollar donors
We had 95% of our donations from inside NYC and 96% in grassroots contributions (the only campaign with matching funds to score above 90% in either metric)
We were never endorsed or supported by a large, national PAC, just the people of NYC
We didn’t hire any big consulting firms, everyone on the campaign was from a local organizing connection
We never went negative or tried to tear anyone down - just offered a positive and realistic view of how the Public Advocate could help New Yorkers.
Our campaign was focused on empowering New Yorkers and raising the level of debate by advocating for real, transformative ideas. That positive mission showed. I certainly noticed in the numerous forums and debates that the other candidates slowly started to adopt some familiar sounding platforms - and shaping the debate is certainly a victory!
This was an extraordinary and successful campaign for all the reasons mentioned. The worst we can say is that, in one way, it’s also a little normal. Like many campaigns, there are some unaccounted expenses. There’s a 10-month audit which requires staff time and possible attorney fees, and there’s some debt.
Unlike normal campaigns, though, I remain committed to being grassroots funded - even after the campaign, when it would be easy to slip in $1K contributions from out of state. This was the only campaign funded 95% by small dollar donors and 96% NYC residents. No other campaign came close and they’re not going to.
As a result, though, I still need your help to close the gap. Luckily, matching funds stays in effect for a little while longer! If you haven’t reached $250, a $35 contribution would be a tremendous help!
Politics as usual may be dirty, but I saw some truly underhanded and cynical maneuvers in this race - and those are just the ones leveled against me!
The Fake Website
For example, now that the campaign’s over, I don’t have to worry about directing you to the fake benyee[dot]org (as opposed to benjaminyee.com). From the end of December 2018, this website masqueraded as our campaign, looking to make it appear illegitimate and lure people away from learning about, or supporting, our efforts. (I haven’t set a link because I don’t want to aid their Google ranking - we fought an ever present battle for top slot during the campaign).
We do have an active investigation into this matter, but given the compressed timeline of the campaign it was impossible to get to the bottom of anything before election day.
Lies & Rumors
Probably the surest sign of the success of our campaign was the force with which establishment opponents tried to tear it apart with outright lies and rumors. I honestly couldn't believe it. Several were started in an attempt to dissuade people from supporting this campaign. Thanks to real friends who share real trust, we were able to track many of them down to their sources.
While it doesn’t pay to do the job of the rumor mill by repeating them, I will say without reservation: if you ever hear something that gives you pause about this campaign or about me, please feel free to get in touch. I’ve been part of the open government, open data and transparent politics movement for a decade and firmly believe sunlight is the best disinfectant.
Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call/text 929-430-6692. Or just hit me up to chat, either way.
Finally, I was sad to encounter bald-faced racism. I was told, more than once, I was not Asian or not Asian enough. This cut a lot less deeply over time as the Yee Family Association was constantly at my side, making me feel welcome and supplying a steady stream of Chinese pastries and tea whenever I visited.
However, there was no remediation for the antisemitism I encountered. Once we started making waves on Facebook, and our text message campaign took off, I was extremely disheartened to see antisemitic comments and responses pop up. The vitriol I encountered, though, only made me more dedicated to the idea of implementing ideas like Power for Communities. Ideas to bridge gaps between communities so that we have a governmental structure which encourages unity in city decision making instead of feeding off of division.
I want to end, though, by saying that far more often the response to my mixed heritage was “that’s a great combination” - be it from Asian, White, Black, Latino or Jewish residents; at our heart, we are all New Yorkers.
Words cannot express how incredibly inspired I am by what we accomplished together. In a decade of organizing, I have seen it taken for granted that it’s impossible to succeed on message of good government, it’s impossible to succeed without going negative, it’s impossible to succeed without institutional backing, and it’s impossible to succeed by asking voters to participate more.
It’s impossible to note all beautiful moments on the campaign, but here's a few.
1. What We Proved
In my Organizing 101 classes I always show these two slides:
The first slide represents the myopic view of modern political experts. That campaigns are won or lost during the campaign. One of the greatest advantages Jumaane Williams had in this race was his extended campaign - first for City Council Speaker, then for Lt. Governor and finally for the Public Advocate. The outreach to voters and continuous identification of supporters gave him a commanding head start.
The second slide represents the idea that politics can and should be better. That the cynical "slicing and dicing" of the electorate, and the emphasis on “name recognition” could be augmented or completely usurped by long-term community engagement. That is what this campaign proved.
All the other major candidates followed the traditional model, banking on their preexisting status to raise the money necessary to run the slickest marketing campaign possible. Our campaign didn’t. Of the major candidates, we raised the least amount of money, hit matching funds at the last possible deadline (which was an incredible singular feat!) and spent the least amount of money before the last week of the election. But because of over a decade of ENGAGEMENT - of being in communities, of being an earnest partner - we performed as well as most elected officials and many who out-raised us. Out of NOWHERE!
We did all this while sticking to our principles. No negative campaigning. No selling out. We ran this the way a campaign should be run, and we showed it was competitive!
2. Old Friends and New
The core of this campaign was, without a doubt, the friendships.
Many times on the campaign I told the story of how I got involved in local politics. Eleven years ago, my friend convinced me to get involved in the Manhattan Young Democrats after the 2008 Obama campaign. To revamp it with him.
We took that club from thirty members and a debt, to over a hundred members and $10K surplus in a year. And, for the first time, we ran the Open Seat Project which elected nearly 100 young democrats to Manhattan County Committee. I spent the next ten years growing MYD and expanding to engage new people in our civic life across all five boroughs. It earned me a lot of enemies in the County Parties and the old guard Young Dems. So much agita.
Who was that person? Al Benninghoff. My campaign manager. (Wow, ten years ago!)
It was amazing to get the band back together. But this wouldn’t have been anything without a whole new band. It was immensely gratifying to receive the endorsements of local clubs I’d worked with for years - Village Independent Democrats and Downtown Independent Democrats.
Just as gratifying was the incredible and almost unexpected support of clubs from around the city. Grand Street Democrats, One Queens Indivisible, NYC Indivisible, the Asian American Democratic Club, Southeast Brooklyn Chinese Association, two giant post-carding groups in Manhattan, it was incredible! Everywhere I went, people had heard about, benefited from, and were excited to support the civic education/activation I’d been doing for so long.
One night, on a particularly multi-borough evening, I ran into this guy on the subway. He just came up to me and said “Mr. Yee? I was at a politics talk you did a few weeks ago.” And that’s why you take public transit.
It is the individuals that made this campaign. From start to finish, this was built person-by-person. Connection-by-connection. House parties led to new connections and new supporters. Like the postcarders!
People did the most incredible amount of work, plastering entire neighborhoods in posters. Jackson Heights and Chinatown were notable locations from which I received many texts like this:
A lucky few in the early days got to stay up until 3am a few Sunday nights helping to answer questionnaires and craft policy ideas. Questionnaires which regularly received comments like “your questionnaire was the most comprehensive by far” and “Your questionnaire was exceptional. Really outstanding.” If you’ve got 12-18 hours to kill, you can read them all here.
So many people invested so much, and all of them were amazing people. No negativity, just positive, build-a-better-world, folks. I truly cannot thank you all enough, nor share enough photos and names to do everyone justice. It it impossible to express beauty of camaraderie and energy on this campaign.
Though parties played a minor feature in this non-partisan race, the campaign team had a long and exhausting debate over what our logo should be. We had many odd looking attempts at capturing “Community Empowerment” (later changed to Community Strong by the Board of Elections) as we gradually lost our bearings in a late night meeting.
Like these hands:
And these hands:
And this house, which is going somewhere:
Eventually, we threw up our literal hands and decided to go with the mascot of the civics classes I’d been teaching for two years:
This image of people working together to overcome a problem greater than any individual appeared on the ballot next to the Party name. All the better that a group of fish is called a school - a subtle reference to the civics education that was a seminal part of the platform and a major winning idea with voters.
Once we settled on that image, it came up constantly. Here’s the picture that greeted me when I first met with the Organization of Staff Analysts - whose office would eventually become our campaign headquarters:
No surprise right?
One of the most beautiful moments of the campaign by far was at our incredibly successful Chinatown/shabbat fundraiser. The members of One Queens Indivisible, who had endorsed me because of the civic workshops I gave to empower organizers in Queens, presented me with a copy of Swimmy the Fish; replete with inscription.
They told me at the beginning they had a gift for me. I thought it was a scented candle, or some chocolate, or something. Look at that face. I almost cried. Especially as I flipped through the book giving a 15 minute recap (it would have been faster to just read it aloud) about how Swimmy represents more than just what we accomplish by working together, but that it teaches how diversity is the source of our collective strength.
But I didn’t cry. That had to wait until the night before election day. The person writing my emails called me up and said “I have an idea you’re going to hate, you should write about your mom. You should dedicate the election to her.” As we worked through edit after edit I put her on mute more than a few times. This was the end result:
I am honestly incredibly glad that I had the opportunity to share my mother with everyone on this campaign. She is my inspiration for everything I do. So many people told me they wished they could meet her, that is exactly how I want it and a testament to her lasting memory.
Thank you all for being a part of this. I don’t know exactly what comes next, but I won’t keep you in the dark for long. And I know, whatever it is, it will be stronger because of what we did this year.
What a way to start 2019!