The Tropical Conclave Where Politicians and Lobbyists Go to Make Deals – The New York Times

SAN JUAN, P.R. — It was 11 p.m. on the Friday after Election Day, and two likely candidates to be New York City’s next mayor — Corey Johnson, the Council speaker, and Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president — were deep in conversation under purple-lit palms outside a beachfront hotel.

Inside, the New York attorney general, Letitia James, danced atop a platform in a roped-off club at an exclusive party hosted by a New York City public employee union. Lobbyists for various clients swayed to the beat, mingling near the State Assembly speaker and Brooklyn’s district attorney.

It is perhaps the most unusual gathering in New York politics, held 1,600 miles away: the annual exodus of the state’s political class to Puerto Rico.

The vibe is something like a spring break pilgrimage for public officials and the lobbyists who woo them, where mojitos accompany talk of prevailing wages and the traditional “talk to my staff” culture melts away.

The event is staged by a nonprofit known as Somos, whose stated purpose, according to tax filings, is to “address problems of the Hispanic community” through grants and scholarships. But the San Juan conference and another in Albany are the main endeavors of the group, whose chair is appointed by the Assembly speaker, Carl E. Heastie.

This year’s top sponsors, listed as paying between $5,000 and $40,000, were a who’s who of companies and groups with pending struggles in Albany.

There was Airbnb, embroiled in a bitter fight with a powerful hotel workers’ union, and the cigarette company Altria, which is battling bans on flavored e-cigarettes. Education Equity, a group opposed to changing New York City’s standardized test for high school, had at least two representatives stalking the main hotel bar.

“It’s basically Albany transplanted to San Juan except with, remarkably, more lobbyists,” said Julia Salazar, a first-term state senator from Brooklyn. “The experience for me was just being bombarded by lobbyists and feeling pressure to party with them, which I wasn’t thrilled to do.”

Making the trip this year were Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, at least 13 state senators, 28 Assembly members, about half of the New York City Council, both the city and the state comptrollers, Mr. Cuomo’s budget director, union officials, and scores and scores of lobbyists.

Some elected officials who attend Somos use campaign funds to pay for the conference, including airfare, hotel and event registration; others pay their own way. And some, including Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Johnson, used taxpayer money for the trip.

Unions sponsored events at the conference, as did the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Elected officials could accept one free drink from a lobbyist, but no more: The state’s limit on gifts is $15. (That was, coincidentally, the cost of the hotel’s “handcrafted cocktails.”)

For both officials and the lobbyists that followed them around, the appeal of the conference was the easy access to decision makers.

“You’re not being handled and there is no staff,” said David Greenfield, chief executive of a Jewish charity called the Met Council and a former City Council member from Brooklyn. “Around here, it’s 10 o’clock at night and you’re like, ‘Look senator, what’s the deal? You want to get this done or not?’ And they’ll say yes or no.”

Wearing a suit near the pool, Mr. Greenfield added that the flowing alcohol and the dress code that can turn quickly to cabana wear and shorts helps almost everyone feel relaxed.

“I would say probably more business happens here in one weekend than in three months in City Hall or in Albany,” he said. “That’s how significant it is.”

The relaxed atmosphere can begin on the way to the island: On one Thursday flight, more than a dozen top officials and a handful of lobbyists piled into the same plane, including Ms. James; the State Senate leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins; and the New York City comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, another likely mayoral candidate. Officials visited one another in the aisles or turned around in their seats for conversation, like children on a field trip.

The conference included workshops on serious topics, such as the Puerto Rican debt crisis and the post-Hurricane Maria education system. “We’re there to generate revenue for Puerto Rico, and to learn,” said Assemblywoman Maritza Davila of Brooklyn, who helped lead the event this year.

She said that she did not handle the sponsorships and could not provide the cost of the conference this year. “I don’t get involved in the money piece,” she said, adding that contributions to the event do not have any effect on legislation.

Larry Fernandez, chair of the Somos board, declined to say how much had been raised or spent at this year’s conference. He said in an email that the conferences in San Juan and Albany were the “sole purpose” of the nonprofit.

The nonprofit, formed in 1987 by members of the State Assembly’s Puerto Rican and Hispanic task force, has reported contributions of about $1 million a year in recent years, and put an average of 6 percent of the contributions to grants or scholarships from 2004 to 2016. (In 2017, Hurricane Maria forced the cancellation of the conference in San Juan, and the nonprofit reported $337,000 in grants.)

The scheduled events at the conference in Puerto Rico, which began the day after Election Day and ended Sunday morning, were mostly an afterthought for the elected officials who attended. They opted instead for a string of meetings, meals and extracurricular activities.

“There’s a whole conference here and nobody goes,” said one Council member. “They come for this,” he added, indicating the crowded main bar of the El San Juan Hotel, where the conference was based.

Most of the more than 30 lobbyists, union officials and elected leaders interviewed for this article did so in various stages of inebriation and on the condition of anonymity. Two lobbyists threatened a reporter with murder — jokingly, it seemed — should their gossipy bar talk make it into print.

Other allowances are made: With cellphone cameras all around, legislators mostly avoid swimwear. One said she could not imagine putting on a bathing suit. A councilman said he made it a practice of never taking off his shirt.

Those who flew down on Thursday, including Mr. Cuomo, missed the “day of service” that included tree planting and coastal cleaning. The governor’s speech at a dinner that evening lasted less than 12 minutes.

The usual dynamics of New York politics traveled down as well: Mr. de Blasio skipped the dinner where Mr. Cuomo, his frequent political rival, made his remarks. (Mr. de Blasio held his own events and meetings in Puerto Rico over several days.)

After the governor’s speech, a crush of people attempted to talk with Mr. Cuomo as he exited. New York City’s schools chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, was among those pushing valiantly through the crowd, but he failed to get the governor’s attention. Mr. Cuomo flew home that night.

For lobbyists, the conference offered a chance to make a direct case on policies — like single-payer health care or casinos or charter schools — that are likely to be taken up in Albany next year.

Several health care officials, including those from the powerful Greater New York Hospital Association, could be seen milling around, as could the chair of the State Senate health committee, Gustavo Rivera of the Bronx, who is sponsoring a bill to create a single-payer health care plan for the state.

American Israel Public Affairs Committee had a presence, as did the real estate lobby. Representative Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn showed up at the bar one night, joining Mr. Johnson, the speaker, and Mr. Diaz, the Bronx borough president.

Tough political questions — such as Puerto Rican statehood, a divisive topic on the island — did not come up in public discussions. Nor did Israeli internal politics, even as the conference honored Dani Dayan, the consul general of Israel in New York whose support for settlements has made him a complicated figure.

Most people were content to gather a little intelligence on the next legislative session, get a window on how various political players are thinking, and — crucially — use the atmosphere to establish relationships and advance agendas.

“Somos is where I get my work done,” said Assemblyman Michael Blake, who is running for Congress in the Bronx, as he grabbed a quick bite on a hotel patio.

Nearby, Councilman Antonio Reynoso of Brooklyn passed by wearing a T-shirt with his name on it, white against a red background.

“You get way more people coming up to you,” he said of his shirt. “People are like, ‘Is that Antonio Reynoso?’ Yup!”

Keith Powers, a Manhattan councilman, stopped to admire the shirt. “Can I take a picture?” he asked, and then he did.

“Everyone is in the same place,” said Mr. Blake, finishing his meal. “The question is, what do you do when you leave from here?”