Vice Squad Targets Williamsburgby Ari Paul
Sometimes the Vice Media honchos orchestrate a promotional stunt with former basketball star Dennis Rodman and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Sometimes they devote plenty of ink to sexual fetishes and new underground drugs. And sometimes they give large money to the campaign of Daniel Squadron.
Nothing if not conventional, Squadron, a candidate for public advocate, seems an unlikely choice for the main players at Vice—especially in a campaign season that features two brash and sexually adventurous characters named Weiner and Spitzer. And though Williamsburg is the capital of its empire, in both the magazine and the HBO series Vice seems far more interested in sending its tattooed correspondents to strike poses in war zones than messing around with the nitty-gritty of local politics.
Yet in early July, the company’s three leading players, Suroosh Alvi, Eddy Moretti, and Shane Smith, each contributed a cool $2,500 to Squadron’s campaign. Meanwhile, Vice’s public relations chief, Alex Detrick, kicked in an additional $1,000.
It’s not normal behavior for the group. Smith and Detrick gave to President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, although Smith’s contribution to Squadron’s campaign for public advocate was $1,000 more than his support for the president. Detrick also gave $250 to upstate Congresswoman Louise Slaughter last fall. But other than that, the company’s leaders have stayed away from electoral politics, including local races, and they did not contribute to Squadron’s three previous state senate campaigns.
For his part, Detrick insists that he decided to venture into local politics because he likes what Squadron has done as the state senator. According to Detrick, “As a resident living in Squadron’s district, I think it’s a tough task to improve the L train service, find green space, and build out parks in my neighborhood. I think Squadron’s doing a damn good job making improvements in these areas.”
Given that the office of the public advocate lacks the power to deliver goods to any neighborhood, Detrick’s explanation seems insufficient. And so it is important to note that both Vice and Squadron also share a connection to Jed Walentas, who heads up Two Trees Management, which owns most of DUMBO (which, like Williamsburg, is also in Squadron’s State Senate district). In mid-2012, Two Trees bought the 11-acre former Domino Sugar riverfront site beside the Williamsburg Bridge. Walentas is currently seeking approval from the Department of City Planning (D.C.P.) for a massive development plan that includes over 630,000 square feet of office space and a 600-foot condo tower.
Squadron and Walentas have established a strong working relationship. In early January, Walentas bundled $7,000 in contributions to Squadron’s public advocate campaign. And in May, the Real Deal reported Walentas’s praise for Squadron’s state senate legislation that would grant tax abatements for developments like his proposal for the Domino site, which would keep some of the open space accessible to the public.*
In order to win support from the D.C.P., Walentas is making the case that the sprawling development would alleviate crowding on the L train. That’s where Vice comes in. In late 2012, Vice participated in a Walentas-commissioned survey of the employees at its N. 11th Street headquarters about their commuting habits. Details of that survey were included in a consultant’s memo concerning the Two Trees proposal for Domino to the D.C.P. in May regarding how the project would affect subway traffic. Other businesses participated in this study, but all except one are based in DUMBO, at Walentas-owned buildings. Vice was the only employer in Williamsburg to partake in the study, and the findings there are an important part of Walentas’s case that the new office space at Domino would serve a significant number of employees who walk to work.
Walentas, who presents himself as a jeans-wearing hipster in the otherwise stodgy world of New York real estate, is also a part owner of the Wythe Hotel, which is a stone’s throw from Vice’s office, and just happens to be popular hang-out for the Vice crew (the company held a highly publicized party at the hotel in May of 2012). While Vice may seem entrenched in its current N. 11th Street location, it’s important to note that the company does not own its building. And so Vice—or a kindred entity—would seemingly make an ideal anchor tenant for the new Domino site.
Squadron, of course, scoffs at the suggestion that the Vice contributions come with any expectations that he will advocate on the company’s behalf. According to his campaign communications director, Amy Spitalnick, “Unlike his opponents, Daniel does not take money from corporate PACs. These are individual [donations]—and have nothing to do with anything other than individuals expressing their support for our campaign. Any suggestion to the contrary is fit for supermarket tabloids.”
That’s bracing stuff, yet when a company’s leading executives act in unison in support of a candidate, it certainly seems like a choice based on corporate interest. Squadron, it should be noted, has the solid support of most of the leading developers in Brooklyn (and elsewhere in the city). In addition to Walentas, Bruce Ratner and Joe Sitt (who made huge profits on both the Coney Island redevelopment and the Albee Square Mall site) also bundled money for Squadron, meaning that they did not give money to his campaign as individuals. Squadron seems to believe his own pious rhetoric, but rest assured that when developers and other leading corporate players back a candidate, they want something in return.
Two Trees is expected to begin its push to win final D.C.P. approval of the Domino plan later this summer, and whether the Vice guys will play any role in supporting that effort remains to be seen. In the meantime, this much is certain: these ballsy iconoclasts have cast their lot behind one of the predictable politicians in town.
*In June, Walentas’s mother, Jane, reportedly pulled her support from one of Squadron’s public advocate opponents, Letitia James, after the Brooklyn councilwoman kept the Pacific Street branch of the Brooklyn Public Library from moving into a new Two Trees development next to B.A.M.