Q&A: The Man Behind the Talking Transition ‘Think Tent’ Spills His Secrets

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Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

For two weeks, ending Sunday, an enormous white tent at the corner of Canal and Varick Streets has been the site of a pioneering civic forum, “Talking Transition.” Ten civic-minded groups — from the New York Women’s Foundation to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund — have helped organize and pay for the project, but the tent was the brainchild of Christopher Stone, the president of the Open Society Foundations, the philanthropic empire funded by billionaire investor George Soros, who is a backer of Bill de Blasio. Stone took the mayor-elect on a tour of the tent Wednesday; next year he hopes all the talk turns into action at City Hall.

How did the idea for the tent come about?
It didn’t crystallize until this September, but I used to run an organization called the Vera Institute of Justice, and went through a number of transitions from Koch to Dinkins, Dinkins to Giuliani, Giuliani to Bloomberg. And they all work about the same way: There’s a big public campaign, public engagement; the voters go to the booths; and then the think tanks take over. The transitions tend to be relatively closed processes, inviting committees to put some policies together. Sometimes it results in policy papers or books being presented to the new mayor, and I’m not sure they delivered a lot of value, other than signaling to a few invitees that they’re invited into the tent, as it were. I’ve often thought it would be nice to have a more open process, a bigger tent, and a more public process. For the Open Society Foundations, it has a broader connection to the work we do, seeing how we can extend participation in democratic processes beyond the voting booth. The idea of a “think tent” instead of a think tank was appealing because the investment, even if large, would be time-limited. It’s an easier thing, if you’re raising money, to ask for.

Between the tent itself and all the free pizza, it’s got to be expensive. What’s the cost?
I haven’t totaled it up. In the single-digit millions, nowhere near double digits.

How are you evaluating whether investing all the money and effort has been a success?
We didn’t know if anybody would come, and we’ve engaged 50,000 people, in a jurisdiction of 8 million, in serious conversation in just a few weeks. It’s been beyond our hopes. The second question was, Would the future mayor engage, would the public advocate engage, the future speaker of the council? It’s been terrific to have the co-chairs of the transition, the mayor-elect himself, the borough presidents. [On Thursday there was] a debate at the tent with the speaker candidates — they’ve engaged. The next question is, Will the ideas and insights work their way into government? Only the future will tell.

Isn’t the project also about the sponsoring foundations increasing their influence with the De Blasio administration?
I don’t think so. Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, was named to the transition committee yesterday, but that had nothing to do with this. In New York, the inside, elite conversations have always run in their own way, often behind closed doors and through various networks. You don’t need to engage 50,000 people to advance that conversation.

You’ve said Talking Transition is non-partisan, but given the themes of the De Blasio campaign and the left-of-center programming in the tent, isn’t this boosting his agenda?
I’ve been very pleased to see how De Blasio himself, his wife, the transition co-chairs, have actually embraced this, but it didn’t have to work out that way. I don’t think it’s about endorsing anyone. I don’t think it’s about ideology. I think it’s about confidence in an official willing to open up to this kind of public conversation and debate.

Why was there such secrecy about the purpose of the tent when it was being built?
Because it was important to us to engage whoever won; we didn’t want them feeling like we were doing something that was competing with the attention on the election itself.

You thought Joe Lhota had a chance to win?
Call me naïve.

You’ve said elsewhere that this transition is "a signal moment in the city’s fortunes." Why?
This particular transition, after twenty years without a Democratic mayor, in a city that’s often described as a Democratic city, is a really testing moment, not just for an individual mayor but for the party. There are a lot of constituencies that feel they haven’t had the reception they might have wanted from the Bloomberg administration or the Giuliani administration. They are hoping that they will have it here.

There are thousands of suggestions written on stickers in the tent. Your background is in criminal justice — what’s one idea you care about in the next four years?
Getting the community into community policing has been the challenge for three decades. New York has come close, and it’s also had versions that have been as distant from the community as could be. Figuring out how to get the community into community policing in a robust and meaningful way would be a top priority for me.

George Soros has given thousands of dollars to De Blasio’s campaign and causes, and he is a major sponsor of Talking Transition. Has Soros visited the tent?
No. George Soros leaves these things to the foundation. He’s also been in Europe most of this period. But he and I talk about it frequently.