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Citizens of the Week

Good Citizen of the Week: Mo Vaughn

Maurice "Mo" Vaughn had an illustrious career with the Boston Red Sox, winning an MVP title and thrilling a generation of Fenway faithful with laser shots out of the park. But he injured his knee when he tumbled down the dugout steps, while fielding a pop-up in foul territory. He was never the same and, after two lackluster seasons with the Mets, he retired.

Vaughn, who idolized Jackie Robinson and wore #42 to honor him, said he wanted to give back to society after retirement. Unlike most pro athletes, he meant it. In the last few years, he's become a major developer of affordable housing in New York, taking over some of the city's most distressed properties. A profile in the Times this week described his work:

In a city obsessed with the gilded cocoons of the rich, the company has forged a reputation for turning around properties once deemed untouchable in the caste system of New York real estate--like the Plaza, where drug dealers once openly sold their own brand of heroin, guarded by pit bulls whose food was laced with gunpowder.
Mr. Vaughn, both teddy-bearish and intimidating, is the leader of an unlikely triumvirate. His Omni partners are a Russian expatriate named Eugene Schneur, 38, his lawyer and friend since baseball days, and Robert Bennett, 46, who has years of experience financing low-income housing. The firm began buying in 2004, focusing on so-called acquisition rehabs — older properties in various stages of decrepitude, often with absentee landlords and teetering finances.
Since then, it has bought and rehabilitated 23 sites in New York, Massachusetts and Wyoming for a total of $503 million. Other deals worth $205 million for 1,000 units, most in the Bronx, are scheduled to close in September. ...
Other professional athletes have become developers in retirement--Tate George, a former guard for the Nets, has spearheaded projects including affordable housing in places like Newark and Bridgeport, N.J. But many more have gravitated toward flashier, more commercial ventures, like movie theaters and restaurants (Magic Johnson); grilling devices (George Foreman); barbeque sauce (William Perry, “the Refrigerator”); and bars or nightclubs (too many players to count).

Previous profiles in Crain's New York Business and the Boston Globe provide more details about Vaughn's career--or, more accurately, his second career. To be clear, Vaughn's is a for-profit company, one that uses government subsidies for financing. But that's the whole point of the government subsidies: To spur private development. And while I can't independently vouch for the virtues of Vaughn's work, the National Alliance To End Homeless can: Earlier this year, the group awarded Vaughn a lifetime achievement award.

Bad Citizen(s) of the Week: Organizing for America

In case you hadn't heard, this week Barack Obama turned 49. I'm happy for him and hope that he got a chance to celebrate. But did Organizing for America, Obama's old campaign organization, really have to organize an email petition to give Obama an electronic birthday card?

I always thought the talk of a cult of personality around Obama was overblown or, at least, misplaced: Political movements need leaders, after all. But the birthday pitch seems indicative of a broader problem with OFA, one my former colleague Lydia DePillis described in 2009: Instead of becoming a bottom-up, grassroots movement that pushes an agenda, OFA has become a more traditional, top-down organization dedicated to electing a president and his party:

The morning after the election, some 10,000 organizers dialed into a conference call with President-elect Obama, who told them that they would be needed for fights to come. But within the Obama camp, there was disagreement about how, exactly, their services ought to be used. OFA could become a freestanding organization that would advocate independently for the president's agenda. Or it could be folded--along with its formidable fundraising potential--into the Democratic National Committee. Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign manager, favored the independent option: It would allow the group to "pressure anybody who we would need to build a coalition of votes in the House and Senate," he told the Los Angeles Times in mid-November. David Plouffe, the campaign's mastermind, disagreed. He had won the election through a precisely directed field operation combined with iron message discipline, and wasn't about to give it up.
A few days before the inauguration, Obama announced, in effect, that Plouffe's view had prevailed: Organizing for America would be securely housed within the DNC.

To be sure, the birthday card petition was hardly the most destructive act of bad citizenship this week. (For starters, there's the senator or senators stalling Peter Diamond's nomination to the Fed.) But it's among the more dispiriting.