New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio was in Washington, D.C., this week to unveil his “Progressive Agenda to Combat Inequality” and to continue his climb from new guy in City Hall to national political figure.
The progressive policy proposals put a spotlight on de Blasio’s ambitions outside New York but back in his home city, veterans’ advocates were calling foul, noting that, once again, they’d been left out of his sweeping proposals.
“He’s talking about a progressive platform all across America. But I guess it doesn’t include veterans,” said Paul Rieckhoff, who heads the New York-based Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), a veterans’ service organization with around 400,000 members nationally and 10,000 in New York City.*
“He’s a progressive who talks about health care and housing all the time—two of the biggest issues facing veterans—but for some reason he never mentions veterans by name,” Rieckhoff said. In de Blasio’s silence toward veterans, Rieckhoff suspects there’s a discomfort that’s partly ideological. “There’s a legacy of progressive politics having a problem with veterans,” he said.
New York City Councilman Eric Ulrich, who chairs the council’s committee on veterans, expressed a view similar to Reickhoff’s.
“I don’t think veterans fit into the equation anywhere in the mayor’s progressive agenda,” Ulrich told The Daily Beast. “And that’s a shame because veterans issues aren’t partisan, they are American issues that cut across all divides.”
De Blasio, whose father was a World War II veteran, has not met with a single veterans’ service organization since taking office 16 months ago. (Author’s note: The author of this article is a veteran and a resident of New York City.)
As Rieckhoff wrote in an editorial last month, “[Mayor de Blasio] met with advocates for horse carriage drivers. He met with the Russian band Pussy Riot. This week, he even met with voters in Iowa. He hasn’t even met with his own veteran’s advisory board.”
Rieckhoff is a former member of the advisory board under New York’s previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg. He stayed in the job until last month, well after de Blasio entered City Hall, until the mayor named his new appointments to the board after making no moves for more than a year.
It’s those kinds of delays, Rieckhoff and other activists say, that suggest to veterans that they fall somewhere near the bottom of de Blasio’s list of priorities.
“The mayor doesn’t even pay lip service to veterans,” said Army veteran Kristen Rouse, who heads the NYC Veterans Alliance. “The only thing he brought up in his state of the city was the homelessness initiative,” Rouse said, “and that’s a federal program, totally run on federal money.”
There are around 230,000 veterans in New York, one of the largest concentrations in the country. Yet to serve that group, the city allocated only $600,000 in the executive budge for fiscal year 2015 year out of more than $75 billion.
“That’s just $2.50 per veteran in the city—to say nothing of military families,” IAVA spokesman Jason Hansman said last week in testimony before the New York City Council Committee on Veterans. Less money goes to veterans in New York than to the Mayor’s Office of Film, Television and Broadcasting, Hansman pointed out. And it’s far less than is being spent in other cities, like Boston, which budgets $5.5 million for veteran’s services.
“The fact that we spend such a minuscule amount of money helping veterans navigate the city’s massive bureaucracy and all the services available to them is just shameful,” said Ulrich. He cited employment as an example of an issue facing veterans in the city, where the Mayor’s Office of Veteran’s Affairs (MOVA) budget and staffing are too small for the office to make an impact. Unemployment is higher among veterans in New York City, and particularly among younger veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, than in the non-veteran population, a trend seen across the country.
“Vets are being offered low-paying, minimum-wage jobs that are not commensurate with their military experience and there’s no strategy to connect them with good-paying jobs,” Ulrich said. “MOVA could play an important role in helping them navigate that, but not when you have three or four people in an office trying to help more than 200,000 people.”
Ulrich doesn’t see the mayor’s office moving to address the gaps he and others see in its veterans’ services. “The city is on autopilot,” he said, “and the mayor seems to be just fine with that.”
Despite the mayor’s perceived lack of interest there were raised hopes among New York’s veterans’ service organizations last year when de Blasio appointed retired Army General Loree Sutton as commissioner of MOVA.
The money New York sets aside for veterans is controlled by MOVA but almost none of that money actually leaves the office. The budget this year included a $20,000 bump over 2014 to cover MOVA’s administrative costs but even with that, nearly all of its $600,000 will go to cover the salaries of its six staffers. Run on a shoestring, MOVA doesn’t have the funds to run its own programs and coordinate services provided by other agencies. The problem with that model, according to Rouse, is that without any real authority or emphasis from the mayor’s office MOVA “doesn’t even have any oversight power.”
Rieckhoff originally endorsed de Blasio’s appointment of Sutton, calling it a “huge home run.” He’s lost faith since Sutton actually took office, however. “Bringing in a retired general who’s passionate and not giving her any resources in worse than doing nothing,” Rieckhoff said. “We have no plan, no leadership and no resources. What we’ve got is window dressing.”
Sutton argues that she has what she needs for now and expects to get more. “I have the resources that I need in building this foundation,” she told The Daily Beast. “As we continue to build,” she added, “I have no doubt whatsoever that I will be able to get whatever resources I need going forward.”
But that’s no so clear even to people who express admiration for Sutton like Coucilman Ulrich.
“Sutton is a phenomenal, patriotic individual,” he said. “I have tremendous respect for her personally, but she is not getting the support she needs from the mayor’s office to do a good job. She’s a victim of Mayor de Blasio’s inability to fully understand vets issues.”
With the budget she does have, much of Sutton’s time has been taken up with hundreds of meetings with different veterans-related groups across the city.
“Commissioner Sutton is busting her ass showing up to all these meetings,” Rouse said. “But that’s all she’s doing—going to meetings. There’s none of the program management that other agencies have.”
Last week Sutton shot back at critics of de Blasio’s approach to veteran’s issues, saying, “Let’s be very clear: I was appointed by Mayor de Blasio, and if you or anyone else has a problem with the mayor, you’ve got a problem with me.” She’s also familiar with criticisms directed at her own office. “I came into this position knowing that there would always be the risk of it being—as the advocates have talked about—a ‘only a ceremonial position.’” She also defended the meetings that Rouse suggests have failed to produce results, telling the Beast, “All of these things that I’m doing are also accomplishing actions.”
Rieckhoff and Rouse both concede that the problem in New York City’s approach to veteran’s services didn’t begin with de Blasio. “There have been a lot of years of frustration frankly,” Sutton said, adding that the strain between the city’s veterans and political leaders has been building for decades. But while Sutton says she accepted the position in the mayor’s office because “we’re at a point now where things can be very, very different,” advocates like Rouse and Rieckhoff say they have yet to see the proof.
Last month IAVA, along with representatives from several other national veterans groups and members of the mayor’s own advisory board, gathered on the steps of City Hall to call attention to the mayor’s mishandling of veterans’ issues. “When [we] were outside his office at City Hall holding a rally,” Rieckhoff said, “he was in Iowa.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this article reported incorrectly that the veterans service organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) has 2.8 million members nationally. The article has been corrected to reflect the organization’s actual membership, which is around 400,000 veterans nationally.