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City worker refuses to play political games

I heard the story years ago, from a public worker beholden to an elected official for his job. The guy had dutifully shown up at the politician’s annual fundraiser, ponying up for a ticket as dues to be paid to stay in the boss’ good graces.

He made sure to greet the official (whom I won’t name, since he’s no longer in politics), to make sure his presence and contribution were noted. He figured his obligation was fulfilled, until he shook hands.

“What, your wife isn’t here as well?” the elected official observed,

The next year, the guy brought his wife to the fundraiser. The price of job security, he now understood, was two tickets, not one.

The story sprung to mind last week, when a federal judge ruled that Bill George’s case against Byron Brown’s administration can go to trial. George is the seasonal sanitation worker who, by unofficial count, was passed over more than 30 times for a permanent job – and the higher pay, sick leave and vacation time it brings. The problem wasn’t his work, which supervisors praised. The problem was political. George’s claim is that he was repeatedly overlooked in retribution for not donating to the mayor’s campaigns. Nearly as bad, George refused to change his enrollment to Democrat – making him ineligible to carry the mayor’s qualifying petitions.

In the world of political patronage, those are mortal sins.

Most people in George’s place grit their teeth and write the check. George was – his attorney, Dean Drew, told me – too principled and bull-headed to play that game. Which makes the 52-year-old, married-with-kid, seasonal sanitation worker my new hero.

“He just feels it’s wrong,” said Drew, who’s handling interviews for his client. “For him, it’s a matter of principle.”

George’s case, filed in 2009, came on the heels of mayoral appointee Tonya Perrin-Johnson’s notorious email instructing staffers to “volunteer” at least eight hours a week on Brown’s campaign. If the mayor’s people twisted arms at City Hall any harder, they’d need a staff physician to pop the bones back into place.

In fairness to Brown – and to the bigger picture – political coercion is the rule, not the exception. This stuff has been going on since Boss Tweed pressed his boot heel on meritocracy’s neck. From town halls to the state capital, staffers and “discretionary” hires understand there is a price to pay for job security. District Attorney Frank Sedita III raked in $70,000 in donations from staffers at a fundraiser last year. And on and on.

Once in a while, a Bill George shows us what happens when you don’t ante up.

Aside from anything else, George’s tale is another argument for public financing of campaigns. Elected officials have a built-in cadre of donors. It is partly how Brown amassed a $1 million campaign fund a year before Election Day. Squeezing donations from employees gives an incumbent a huge – and hugely unfair – campaign edge, discourages challengers and sabotages democracy.

I hope this case gets to a jury, where the behind-closed-doors act would get the bigger stage it deserves.

Meanwhile, thanks to Bill George for standing up and fighting back. His public service goes way beyond hauling trash.