Melissa Mark-Viverito Surveys the National Mall

The Speaker seems to be preoccupied with the Smithsonian Institution this month.  First, Councilmembers Laurie Cumbo and Ben Kallos introduced a resolution urging Congress to commission a National Women's Museum.  The resolution has momentum, and an initial hearing has already been held on the topic, indicating that it will likely be voted on (and passed) at one of the next few stated meetings.  The resolution, like virtually all such statements, will go straight from Chambers into the circular file, but clearly someone in the Speaker's office is interested in pushing it.

Next, the Speaker herself introduced a resolution yesterday, asking Congress to authorize the construction of an American Latino Museum.  In order to spare planners the trouble of figuring out where to put it, the proposed legislation offers to house the Latino Museum in the venerable Arts and Industries Building, one of the oldest buildings on the Mall.

Does all this concern with the Smithsonian betray the Speaker's ambitions for a move to Washington as the next step in her political career?  It makes sense: the two Congressmen who overlap her district have a combined age north of 150 years, and the Speaker will be out of a job on the first day of 2018.  It seems unlikely that she is planning an early retirement.

Fractures in the Monolith?

Isn’t it funny how the number of Council committees and subcommittees is always equal to the number of council members, minus whoever is being punished by the Speaker?

The Council resumes its 2014 session with a brand new committee on Courts and Legal Services, to be chaired by Rory Lancman. Somehow the city’s courts and legal system functioned for decades without a council committee to oversee them, but now it has been found necessary to establish council oversight. And fortuitously, it happened just at the same moment that CM Lancman had demonstrated his readiness to play ball on the Speaker’s team.

How Lancman gained the Speaker’s favor is not clear—perhaps his vow to introduce a bill outlawing police chokeholds was enough to bring him out of the outer darkness. What is really piquant however is the list of remaining (Democratic) council members who are still in the cold.

Ruben Wills needs little explanation—his indictment for fraud makes it hard to countenance giving him much in the way of oversight. Andy King might suffer from being from the Bronx, whose delegation opposed the Speaker’s candidacy until the bitter end. Councilmember King is making the best of things anyway, flaunting his bow ties and sherbet-colored outfits in tabloid features and at Bronx Fashion Week. At King’s Times Square presser this week to announce his proposal to regulate the beggars who dress like cartoon characters, one passerby shouted out, “Which character are you?”

The fate of Councilmembers Annabel Palma and Rosie Mendez is puzzling as well. One might assume that Latina unity would suffice to get these veteran legislators a committee chair, although maybe it works the other way, and the Speaker wants to demonstrate that she does not play ethnic favorites. Palma contested the Speaker for the job, but unlike some of the other candidates, she doesn’t have the political weight behind her to ensure that she picks up some spoils. Again, being from the Bronx doesn’t help. It is widely known that the Speaker had wanted the last redistricting to remove her Bronx constituency entirely, and put her squarely and solely in the Manhattan delegation.

Rosie Mendez may have annoyed the Speaker by going after de Blasio in the mayoral primary race last year, when she supported Christine Quinn. Councilmember Mendez filed a COIB complaint two weeks before the election, questioning whether Public Advocate de Blasio was using his “worst landlords” list as extortion for campaign donations, a move that the de Blasio camp saw as going too far.

Does it look good that the Dems without committee chairs are all people of color? I doubt that the Speaker is losing sleep over it.

The primary election Tuesday didn’t do a lot for the reputation of the Mayor or Speaker as powerbrokers. Mark-Viverito looked absurd praising the upstate conservative LG candidate Kathy Hochul’s “progressive values,” and de Blasio’s grotesque performance at the Labor Day parade, shielding Governor Cuomo from having to acknowledge Zephyr Teachout, was embarrassing.

De Blasio acting as Cuomo’s wingman is the emblem of the Progressive sellout to the mainstream Dems—or rather, it demonstrates that the WFP Progs were never that “progressive” to begin with. They were always just another faction of transactional politicians who were on a run, bludgeoning their opponents as the enemies of progress. Well, now that Governor Cuomo has the WFP line, where does that leave the WFP? Does anyone imagine that Cuomo’s presumed victory in November will be a blank check for the Progressives? Not bloody likely, especially after so many of them defected to the left, giving him barely 60% of the primary vote.

So Cuomo extracted a vague promise from Senator Jeff Klein to return to the Democratic fold…big deal. The IDC came out ahead Tuesday night, and with Cuomo and de Blasio bruised, there is little leverage on Klein to lift his hand from the seesaw. The Senate remains in his control, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. You count the Bronx out at your own hazard.

We may see some stirrings of revolt in the Council, which has marched almost monolithically behind the Mayor. But now that de Blasio is preparing to bring the horse carriage issue to a head, splits are forming that could potentially derail the Progressives’ momentum.

Councilmember Rafael Espinal, Chair of Consumer Affairs, has publically come out for the carriage industry and against the ban. Legislation on the carriage horses would normally have to go through his committee, so the Speaker is shopping around to find somewhere else to introduce it.

Espinal is showing some fortitude here, and is likely playing a long game. The Progressive leadership has been getting a pass on a lot of its early foolishness, but de Blasio’s honeymoon will only last so long. If in the next 18 months the city begins to sour on its new executive, the pols who stuck their necks out early will look like heroes with foresight. Rafael Espinal could be jockeying to look like one of the sensible ones if and when the Progressives take a serious fall.

Are Petition Challenges Voter Suppression?

Petition challenges are, in their current form at least, a mode of candidate suppression that favors establishment candidates over insurgents, and wealthier candidates over their poorer opponents.  The Queens political machine is exercising its muscle in Jamaica to keep a woman Navy veteran off the ballot and ensure that its party stalwart has a clear shot at Malcolm Smith’s senate seat.

The petitioning season is 37 days long and requires candidates for office to develop at least the semblance of a campaign organization--arguably a positive means of filtering out clowns and non-starters.  Acquiring the 1000 signatures necessary for a state senate campaign necessitates getting out a troop of either volunteers or paid canvassers.  The rule of thumb in petitioning is to aim for three times the minimum, in order to account for “bad” signatures: those of non-registrants, non-residents, or duplicates.  So getting on the ballot isn’t something that a non-serious candidate with few resources can consider doing.

The acts of challenging an opponent’s petitions adds an abusive layer to the process, because it costs a huge amount of money to mount a challenge.  Challenges are thus almost always brought against insurgent candidates, and are most often brought by party organizations that want to clear the field for their selected candidate.  Non-establishment candidates rarely have the resources to hire an elections lawyer to pore over hundreds of pages of signatures and cross-reference them with a voter file.

Governor Cuomo’s challenge to Zephyr Teachout’s candidacy is an obvious example.  By challenging her petitions he can force her lean campaign to spend tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend her access to the ballot.  If the challenge works and he gets her thrown off the ballot, so much the better for him, but if the challenge fails, there is no comeback for the Cuomo campaign, and Teachout has to divert campaign money to cover the cost.  The nature of the political system is that the public pays no attention to these squabbles, and accepts the ballot as it reaches the voter as democracy’s fresh slate.  Kicking someone off the ballot is just seen as fair application of the rules.

In Malcolm Smith’s District 14, covering Southeast Queens, a petition challenge is on against candidate Bernadette Semple that illustrates the twisted nature of the challenge process.  Senator Smith, involved in a major corruption trial, is ostensibly running for re-election, but hasn’t raised any money.  Also running are attorney Munir Avery and former councilmember and Queens County Democratic Party choice Leroy Comrie.

Comrie served in the Council as the chair of Land Use and as the head of the Queens delegation.  He ran briefly for Queens Borough President but his tepid campaign was called off early: the rumor was that Queens Dem boss Joe Crowley wanted Comrie to step aside so Melinda Katz could have a clear shot at the post, without having to worry about the large Queens black vote.  Comrie’s reward at this point appears to be total “County” support for his Senate run.

Bernadette Semple threatens Comrie’s campaign because, as the only woman in a three or four-way race, she could make the election seriously competitive.  Semple is also a retired Navy Lieutenant Commander, and unlike Comrie, has no ties to the rats’ nest of corruption that characterizes SE Queens politics.  Comrie probably figures he can easily outgun Munir Avery, whose financing seems largely tapped out and whose support is mostly among the area’s substantial but limited Muslim community.  Running against a woman could pose other challenges.

Semple submitted approximately 2,900 petition signatures, most of which are considered solid, according to people in the know.  But in a startling parallel to what is going on in Brooklyn, where boss Frank Seddio is supporting a petition challenge against Dell Smitherman, who is opposing Senator Sampson’s re-election, the Queens County Dems are apparently organizing a petition challenge in order to secure Comrie a clear ballot.

Petition challenges get very granular, and often hinge on eliminating the signatures of people who live on the border of the district.  This technicality is a powerful yet understated effect of partisan districting.  Elected officials and the party apparatus get to draw the borders of their districts at redistricting time, and as a result many urban districts are totally jackstraw and segmented.  The borders may zig and zag back and forth from block to block, in order to capture or exclude certain segments of voters.  Good government groups have long pointed to partisan districting as a significant way that incumbent electeds protect themselves from challenges.

A side effect of this unfortunate wrinkle in local politics is that people often do not know precisely which district they live in.  If political borders do not fall on natural lines of division (e.g. “south of Union Turnpike”) then it is very hard for a campaign worker, even one who is knowledgeable and informed, to be able to tell a potential signatory who lives near a boundary exactly which district they should vote in.  District maps of sufficient detail are too unwieldy for petitioners to lug around. 

In the end, it seems that candidate suppression through petition challenges is another way for well-funded political machines to amass and retain power.  And in a one-party system, isn't candidate suppression ultimately the same thing as voter suppression?  

Espaillat and Rangel Still Wrong on Dominico-Haitian Crisis

Asked about their support for the Dominican Republic’s policy of denationalization of its native-born population of Haitian descent, Charles Rangel and Adriano Espaillat each spoke in defense last night of what is arguably the worst offense against human rights in the Americas today.

As City Council Watch reported, Espaillat travelled to DR last week in order to pose with President Danilo Medina and praise the Dominican government for restoring citizenship to some 25,000 people out of roughly 200,000 who had been retroactively declared non-citizens.  The government of DR had passed a 2013 law declaring that anyone born since 1929 to non-citizen parents was no longer a citizen, effectively reversing a longterm policy of jus solis, or “birthright citizenship” as we know it in the United States.

Adriano Espaillat had, to his credit, spoken out against the 2013 law, calling it inhumane, but then gave wholehearted support to the 2014 law, citing it as an exemplar of immigration reform.  The supposed rectification of the human rights disaster of last year, however, was only partial.  Twenty-four thousand people who had been registered according to a certain standard of correctness had their citizenship restored. 

The remaining 180,000, however, are now considered undocumented residents, and a pathway to legal residency is being designed to, supposedly, normalize their status.  In the meantime, however, these DR-born descendants of Haitians are in a highly vulnerable position, without the right to work, go to school, register births, or obtain travel documents.

Asked about his stance on the matter during the NY1 debate last night, Espaillat insisted that he had advocated for restitution of the rights of those affected by the 2013 ruling, and spoke of the 24,000 whose citizenship had been restored.  But then he made a most telling and damning statement, praising the Dominican government for “putting in place a road to citizenship for the rest of those immigrants.”  Even the staunchest worshipper of Trujillo would have to concede that Dominican-born Haitians, if not citizens, are nevertheless certainly not “immigrants.”  Espaillat’s Orwellian turn of phrase essentially rewrites the birth history of some 180,000 people, making them foreigners at home.

Charles Rangel wasn’t much better.  He also shook hands with President Medina and praised his humanity for having restored citizenship to those 24,000 Dominico-Haitians whose parents had registered them appropriately decades ago.  Regarding the others, Rangel spoke generally about how great it would be if all countries had such expansive citizenship opportunities as the United States, but unfortunately “a sovereign country determines its own citizenship laws.”

Rangel thus echoes the rhetoric of the most perfervid Dominican comment boards, where anti-Haitian Dominican exponents rave about the inviolability of their state sovereignty.  The question of the Dominico-Haitians, however, is not about violating Dominican sovereignty: it is just about not countenancing racial denationalization on a massive scale.    

City Council Watch doesn’t make endorsements, but the other candidate, Michael Walrond, at least spoke sensibly on the issue.

Espaillat Visits DR, Praises Ethnic Cleansing Law

Adriano Espaillat visited the Dominican Republic this week, where he met with the President and praised Dominican policies that have stripped hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship.

The Dominican Republic raised the ire and eyebrows of the world last September when it instituted a new law that retroactively denationalized approximately 210,000 people born in the country since 1929, on the grounds that their parents were not properly registered with the government.  The law primarily affects people of Haitian descent, and is the most recent manifestation of antihaitianismo, the racist ideology of Dominican supremacy that has a long, bloody history of murder and dispossession of the Haitian minority.

International tribunals and human rights organizations were aghast at the humanitarian implications of the new law, which would deprive children of the right to attend school, and deny civil rights to many thousands of people who had been born and raised in the Dominican Republic.  Kerry Kennedy, of the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights, called the Dominican high court’s affirmation of the law’s constitutionality “one of the most discriminatory rulings ever made by a superior tribunal.”  And the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights labeled the ruling “disastrous.”

Bowing to international pressure, the Dominican Republic this May passed a new Naturalization Law which restores citizenship to some 25,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent who had in fact been enrolled in the National Registry.  But the law still leaves many tens of thousands of people who were born in the Dominican Republic effectively stateless.  International observers universally regard the new Dominican law as a cynical ploy to regain standing in the eyes of the world.

Senator Espaillat is a willing puppet in the Dominican Republic’s PR charade.  Meeting on Monday, June 2 with President Danilo Medina, Espaillat praised the new law, saying that it had put a “human face” (una cara humana) on the original legislation.  Furthermore, Espaillat is reported to have said that official Dominican policy regarding denationalized Dominicans of Haitian descent “should serve as an example for many countries today discussing immigration reform (debería servir de ejemplo para muchos países que hoy discuten reformas migratorias.)"  Espaillat posted this article to his Twitter account, and appears not to have any problems with its accuracy.

The Dominican Republic dedicated this week to propounding its humanity.  Ambassador to the US Anibal de Castro penned an editorial praising the DR’s commitment to justice, and the Dominican representative to the Organization of American States staged a photo-op where he presented the OAS Secretary-General with a copy of the new law.  Senator Espaillat appears to have been part of the road show: his trip to Santo Domingo does not seem to have had any other purpose other than to give cover to the Dominican government’s legislative mockery of the rights of man.

Imagine if the United States decided to retroactively withdraw birthright citizenship from anyone whose parents were undocumented, back to 1929, and then regard such people as ineligible to attend school, obtain work authorization, get travel documents, or register the births of their children.  That is precisely the situation for as many as 180,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic today.  

It is grotesque that Adriano Espaillat, who has made a great deal of noise as a defender of the rights of undocumented immigrants to the United States, was happy to take time out of his run for Congress in order to heap praise on an egregious, racist law with untold human cost.

UPDATE: It is has been brought to my attention that Rep. Charles Rangel also supports DR Law 169-14, and took a picture with President Danilo Medina, smiling and congratulating him.  It has never been the position of City Council Watch that Congressman Rangel was a better choice than Adriano Espaillat...the two of them seem pretty odious.

Laurie Cumbo Stands up for Motorcycle Crews

Last time Councilmember Laurie Cumbo made the news, she was defending the hurt feelings of people of who beat up strangers on the street, on the grounds that they suffer justified “resentment” against “Jewish landlords.”

Now, CM Cumbo has found a new constituency to represent: motorcycle crews that stage drag races, rev their engines loudly and pointlessly, and otherwise perform dangerous stunts.

Yesterday the Council voted on a package of legislation in support of Mayor de Blasio’s “Vision Zero” plan, which is meant to eliminate traffic-related deaths in New York City.  Most of the bills passed with either near or total unanimity, and their scope, despite the revolutionary rhetoric of Council leadership, is fairly noncontroversial: establishing work zones on bridges, fifty dollar fines for failure to yield right-of-way to pedestrians, etc.

Intro 167, a law “in relation to prohibiting certain stunt behavior with vehicles,” expands existing rules forbidding drag racing to include obnoxious driving tricks such as pulling “donuts,” “burning out” after spinning the back wheels, and popping “wheelies”…all the stuff that fans of the “Fast and Furious” franchise think makes for a great weekend, but which doesn’t fit the “Vision Zero” image of the city as a place where no one gets hurt, ever.  The law prescribes a maximum punishment of sixty days in jail and a $600 fine for a first offense.

Laurie Cumbo nonplussed her colleagues when she voted against Intro 167 on the grounds that motorcycle “club culture” is popular in her Fort Greene neighborhood, and that the law would (unfairly?) criminalize an enjoyable activity.  

We may recall that the last time New York heard about motorcycle club culture, it was when a crew of several dozen bikers chased a SUV up the West Side Drive last September, beating up the driver near the GW Bridge bus terminal following his unsuccessful attempt to escape the gang after a minor fender-bender.  The biker club culture was held in such contempt after this incident that Councilmember Julissa Ferreras fired a member of her staff who commented, on her personal Facebook page, in support of one of the riders.

Well, maybe Laurie Cumbo likes bikers, or is a closet libertarian and hates helmet laws, etc.  But that doesn’t explain her bizarre reasoning that Intro 167 is racist.   “I would hate,” said CM Cumbo, “to see so many young people of color in prison for activities that are happening over the summer.”  Cumbo has thus taken the principle of disparate impact to a level of absurdity that possibly no one has ever imagined—or twisted it so much that it isn’t even a question of “disparate impact," just “any impact.”  Her argument appears to be, This law may be broken by people of color, therefore I cannot vote for it.  

Cumbo then noted that many of these bikers like to go to Jones Beach.  This may be true, but it is not clear how it pertains to the law in question, as Jones Beach is not in New York City.  Perhaps CM Cumbo is not aware of the geographical limits of the five boroughs, or perhaps she does not comprehend the jurisdictional reach of the Council, but Intro 167 will not cover any vehicular behavior in Nassau County.  It is worth noting, however, that there is a long history of illegal drag racing out by Jones Beach, and it remains a popular weekend destination for motorcyclists, if a general search of message boards is roughly accurate.

Knockout game aficionados, biker crews who can’t resist burning rubber preparatory to a fierce midnight drag race on a hot summer night…who knew that Laurie Cumbo, the founder of an art museum, would fight so vigorously on behalf of the demimonde?   I guess everyone needs an advocate!

Selling New York on a Marginally Useful ID Card

The Committee on Immigration yesterday held its first hearing on Intro 253, the bill to establish a municipal ID card for city residents, and Speaker Mark-Viverito kicked things off by sternly announcing, “let it be known, and let it be clear, that this is a priority for this New York City Council, and we will have municipal IDs in New York City.”

Well, so much for the new, more transparent legislative process. Municipal ID cards were proposed by the mayor in February, then advanced by the speaker, and the bill has been brought rapidly to committee, with swift passage assured. What is one to make of the fact that, in close to 4 hours of testimony, not one person spoke in opposition to the bill? Is all of New York chorusing in favor of ID cards for non-citizens, or is it that the Council operates in a kind of quasi-Stalinist bubble where legislation through acclamation is the norm?

In any case, all the arguments for the implementation of a municipal ID card were trotted out, virtually all of which I covered last week in my City & State piece on the topic. A number of people made the absurd claim that people who don’t drive are practically excluded from obtaining state ID, where in fact the DMV offers non-driver ID for only $10. Others claimed that undocumented parents can’t enter their children’s school buildings, while the DOE insists that the school safety agent at the front desk will call the principal’s office in such cases.

The primary anxiety that most of the bill’s advocates, including the councilmembers themselves, voiced is that the municipal ID card will carry a “stigma” as something that only illegal immigrants will acquire. “People told me,” related CM Peter Koo bluntly, “’Why would I want to apply for a card that will let everyone know I am undocumented?’” Again and again, witnesses and elected officials alike puzzled over the problem of the municipal ID card as a “scarlet letter.”

The answer, of course, is to get everyone in New York City invested in obtaining an ID card that would be totally redundant, and largely useless to those who already have state-issued ID. The idea of offering discounts to city cultural institutions has been raised, though it seems dubious that a residency-based discount could be tied to possession of a special card. Another suggestion is to get businesses or restaurants to offer discounts upon presentation of the card. San Francisco has a municipal ID card, and a couple of dozen small businesses appear to give 10 or 15% discounts to bearers. But with such thin offerings the card runs the risk of becoming, as The New York Times warns, “a glorified library or supermarket-discount card.”

Immigration chair Carlos Menchaca is sanguine about the future of the municipal ID card, tweeting “We are looking forward to discussing this benefit with our institutions,” and, “This is about partnership. Something we will continue to explore.” But the experience of other cities that have introduced municipal ID cards is not entirely promising in regard to establishing the card as something that is held universally, and not only by the vulnerable, undocumented groups for whom it is manifestly intended. New Haven, the first city to issue municipal ID cards to all residents in 2007, distributed 10,000 cards over the first five years of the program. Given that New Haven has a population of 130,000 people, the ID card has rather limited penetration into the community. Additionally, as cards reach their expiration date, some residents of New Haven who bear the cards are not bothering to renew them, because of their perceived lack of utility: the cards are not accepted by many businesses for writing checks, for instance, or for other purposes.

Oakland, California, also offers its residents municipal ID cards, which have the capacity to function as debit cards. Since its introduction in 2013 it appears that approximately 10,000 people have registered for the card: in a city of 390,000 those numbers are not promising. The debit card feature, incidentally, imposes very high per-use fees, which have received negative reviews from local advocates.

As far as New York’s program goes, clearly the biggest challenge is getting a critical mass of people who see value in obtaining a supplemental identification card that they will carry around and actually use. Otherwise, the only people who will get the cards will be the people for whom they are intended, which will indeed impose a stigma on their possession, which will then lead people to stop getting or using the cards at all. Sure, it will be great to have a identification card that all the progressive members of the City Council and various advocates for the undocumented carry around as a show piece to demonstrate their commitment to the principle of residence over citizenship. But it will look very silly if the Council pushes this through without establishing an actual utility for these cards.

On the lighter side: It was most amusing to hear Mindy Tarlow, the Mayor’s Director of Operations, testifying on the complexities of rolling out the municipal ID cards, say, “we don’t want to get ahead of our skis.” One could almost hear the chamber collectively chew that expression over a few times. Shades of the Bloomberg years? Someone didn’t send Ms. Tarlow the memo on the Tale of Two Cities! "Must not use elitist metaphors, must not use elitist metaphors."

Squadron Squashed by Lander over Parks Funding

The Parks Committee met yesterday to address the question of inequality amongst the city’s parks, and the City Hall audience was treated to the sight of Councilmember Brad Lander ridiculing Senator Dan Squadron’s proposal to tax the city’s richer parks to help their poorer brethren.  

Park funding inequity was a major feature of the Public Advocate campaign last year, when Squadron proposed, and Bill de Blasio supported, levying a 20% tax on all park conservancies that have operating budgets above $5 million.  The proceeds of this tax would then be distributed to the rest of the city’s parks through a “Neighborhood Parks Alliance.”  Squadron’s bill sits in the Senate Committee on Cities, where Chair and former Councilmember Andrew Lanza of Staten Island is making sure it rests comfortably.

When Squadron first announced his bill, large parks conservancies naturally were aghast at the idea that they would suffer, effectively, a 20% cut to their budgets.  Even while the Central Park Conservancy is figuring out how to spend the $100 million it got in 2012 from hedge fund billionaire John Paulson, regular parks around the city make do with whatever their local councilmembers scrounge up in capital funding on a year-by-year basis.

Yesterday’s Parks hearing, chaired by CM Mark Levine, started out with thunderous rhetoric about the stark inequity between the rich parks and the poor parks, directed at Deputy Commissioner Liam Kavanagh.  Demanding to know why certain richer neighborhoods make the most 311 parks-related calls, Levine appeared to be setting the stage for a classic de Blasio-style “tale of two cities” confrontation.

Yet when Senator Squadron stepped up to discuss his bill, the tone changed, became practically soporific.  A number of councilmembers quietly left, including Ruben Wills and Darlene Mealy.  Chair Levine said a few words about how the hearing was a general discussion about inequality, and wasn’t addressing any bill in particular.  

Then CM Lander, who isn’t even on the Parks Committee, yet who was allowed to speak ahead of committee members, began slicing into Squadron’s proposal.  “Why not 50%?” he asked, deadpan.  Why let the richer parks keep any of their money?  Squadron fumbled for answers while Lander, channeling his inner Milton Friedman, mocked the revenue-sharing proposal as something that would result in “more equitability, and fewer resources,” as donors stop contributing to their favorite parks.  

Squadron, alone at the witness desk, was then essentially dismissed and replaced by representatives of the white-shoe conservancies, who explained that they were more than happy to extend professional courtesy to the city’s poorer parks by way of all forms of assistance short of financial.  Noblesse oblige, naturally.

Brad Lander, of course, is an ex-officio member of the Prospect Park Alliance, which is one of the conservancies that would take a hit from the passage of Squadron’s bill.  He is also the recipient of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from major donors to Prospect Park, including members of its board of directors.  For example, Steve Hindy, the CEO of Brooklyn Brewery, which gave the PPA between $10,000 and $25,000, personally contributed $1,300 to Lander’s 2013 run, and bundled an additional $10,300 for Lander as an intermediate: most of that money came from other PPA donors.  Libby Ryan, a prominent real estate agent in “brownstone Brooklyn” and a Prospect Park donor in the 5-digit range, gave Lander $1,000 towards his re-election.

Clearly CM Lander’s fellow PPA board members wouldn’t want to see their donations diluted by a 20% luxury tax, nor should they.  Prospect Park is an enormous, beautiful park that legitimately serves more of the city than just its immediate neighbors, and Squadron’s bill would surely have a chilling effect on large contributions to the city’s biggest parks.

Brad Lander’s performance wasn’t just about Prospect Park, however, even though he clearly has a strong interest in maintaining the status quo regarding financing.  Lander was flexing his muscle as a shadow Speaker--the one who pulls the strings.  Consider the fact that, like Sheldon Silver, Brad Lander sits on precisely one committee: Rules, which he chairs.  Lander's willingness to ridicule the type of progressive legislation that he would normally favor indicates his confidence in his own power, which is crescent.  

Corey Johnson's Ties to Corrupt Hotelier

Councilmember Corey Johnson took Transition and Inauguration contributions from a hotel magnate who pled guilty yesterday to violations of federal campaign finance law.

Sant Singh Chatwal, who owns and/or manages a number of luxury Manhattan hotels, including Chelsea’s hip Dream Hotel, gave Corey Johnson’s TIE committee $2,500.  Councilmember Johnson, who lives one block from the Dream, is the only Council candidate or member ever to receive a contribution from the billionaire.  Bill de Blasio, however, accepted a contribution from a relative of Chatwal in his 2003 Council run.

Chatwal admitted in District Court to having solicited money from “straw donors” in order to circumvent federal limits on individual campaign contributions.  According to the federal complaint, the hotelier “used his employees, business associates, and contractors who performed work on his hotels … to solicit campaign contributions on Chatwal’s behalf in support of various candidates for federal office and PACs, collect these contributions, and pay reimbursements for these contributions, in violation of the Election Act.”  Chatwal faces a $1 million fine and a possible 25 years in prison.

As I reported in City & State last month, developers associated with the Dream Hotel (including Sant Chatwal) gave Corey Johnson $15,000 towards his transition expenses; the latest revelations beg the question of whether Sant Chatwal was perpetrating a similar scheme on the local level, inducing his associates to make contributions for which they were reimbursed.

Sant Chatwal was recorded by the government explaining the need to make large monetary contributions to politicians in order to capture their attention.  "Without that nobody will even talk to you...That's the only way to buy them, get into the system."

I must note that there is no evidence that any of the beneficiaries of Chatwal’s machinations knew about his illegal efforts on their behalf, and one must assume the same ignorance on the part of Councilmember Johnson.  Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that during his campaign Corey Johnson assiduously steered clear of associations with real estate interests, only to accept large donations from that sector once he was elected.

Mark-Viverito, Ferreras, Espaillat and Herbalife

The New York Times’ piece on Herbalife yesterday, which details how billionaire hedge fund manager William Ackman is waging a PR campaign to destroy the supplement company for his own profit, buries the role of three of the city’s most prominent Latino politicians in a massive campaign to cast Herbalife as a pyramid scheme targeting minorities.

Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Finance Chair Julissa Ferreras and State Senator Adriano Espaillat each wrote letters urging Federal Trade Commissioner Edith Ramirez to investigate Herbalife for its allegedly fraudulent trade practices.  Speaker Mark-Viverito’s letter even includes key phrases (“complex and abusive”) that the Times identifies, in other letters to the FTC, as indications that the letters were composed by someone else. 

The Times article leaves discovery of this connection only to the most intrepid readers of its website, because the letters in question are deep within a stack of documents provided as an annex to the main story.  But the story within the story is of great interest to anyone who wants to understand how money and influence flow through consulting firms to politicians and supposedly grassroots activist organizations.

William Ackman bet against Herbalife by shorting the company.  He then gave money to a number of ostensible civil rights organizations to lobby against Herbalife on the grounds that the company tricks blacks and Latinos into becoming distributors.  Ackman hired prominent uptown fixer Luis Miranda of the Mirram Group to work the project locally.  Ackman’s company Pershing Square Capital hired Global Strategy Group, which shares offices with Mirram at 895 Broadway, as the consultant of record.  Miranda, with close ties to Mark-Viverito, Ferreras and Espaillat (Mirram has consulted on the campaigns of all three officials) likely orchestrated their letter-writing.  

The Hispanic Federation, a think-tank with major institutional funding and a significant relationship with Coca-Cola in particular, was founded by Luis Miranda, and the Mirram Group is currently a registered lobbyist for the Federation.  According to the Times, Ackman gave the Hispanic Federation $130,000 to push the anti-Herbalife campaign. 

Other groups with very close ties to Ferreras, Mark-Viverito and Espaillat were paid by Ackman or his surrogates to support the campaign, including the Dominico-American Society of Queens (DAS), which has received tens of thousands of discretionary dollars from Ferreras, and Make the Road New York, which has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from both CM Ferreras and Speaker Mark-Viverito.

Politicians send out letters all the time.  In this case, they probably agreed to sign their names to the campaign after their friend and consultant Luis Miranda or one of their contacts at Make the Road or the Hispanic Federation asked them to do it.  It certainly did not occur to them that they were becoming dupes of a billionaire investor who was using a civil rights-based argument as a decoy to drive Herbalife into bankruptcy because he had a massive open short against it.

What is odd—or maybe not so odd—is that the Times chose not to even attach a sidebar explaining the local aspect of the story.  They just stuck that part of the report in the footnotes.  

De Blasio's Debt to UFT's Mulgrew Comes Due

Councilmember Daniel Dromm, Chair of the Council’s Committee on Education, appeared this week on MSNBC’s “Ed Show” to lend support to the administration’s war on charter schools, as personified in the figure of Eva Moskowitz.  Dromm corrected the host’s assertion that Moskowitz’ Success Academy is a for-profit enterprise, but stressed that charter schools nevertheless foster “inequality” through the “corporatization and privatization of our schools.”  The councilmember added that he is not opposed to charter schools per se.  In fact, Dromm asserted that he is in favor of “unionized” charter schools, including one in his district.

Councilmember Dromm thus cuts right to the heart of Progressive opposition to the charter school system, which is that their teachers are typically non-union.  He acknowledges in his interview that charter schools perform at least as well as standard public schools, but claims that the three Success Academy schools marked for extinction have “problems,” though their metrics are substantially higher than average, according to Department of Education data.  Dromm, painting a bleak picture of co-location, claims that sharing building space highlights “inequities” between charter and standard public schools, though a recent study by Marcus Winters for the Manhattan Institute shows no correlation between test scores and co-location.  Furthermore, many of the unionized charter schools are substandard, in particular one called “The UFT Charter School,” which ranks in the bottom percent of all city schools.

Indeed, while there are legitimate concerns that can be expressed about the charter school system, the Progressives currently running the city haven’t bothered to make a strong case against them.  Rather, much of the debate has been driven by either vituperations about Eva Moskowitz personally, or fear-mongering about the supposed “privatization” of the public school system, although all of the city’s charter schools are, as a rule, non-profit entities.  The real reasons for opposing charter schools, hinted at by Councilmember Dromm, can be found on the UFT website, which says that “the ideological goals” of the charter school movement are “privatizing public education and breaking the power of teacher unions.”

Why is the de Blasio administration, aided by his cats’ paws in the Council and Public Advocate’s office, putting so much political capital into this fight?  After all, unlike the UPK tax hike battle, the only people who will be negatively affected by his policy are his ostensible base: primarily black and Latino working-class people who are committed to getting their kids the best education possible.  The “optics” of the faceoff cannot be good for the Mayor, who no doubt is gnashing his teeth over Governor Cuomo’s skillful triangulation of the issue at the pro-charter rally in Albany on Wednesday.  Cuomo, praising Republican Senator Skelos, standing in front of a crowd of cheering minority parents, is using de Blasio as a pivot to cast himself as a moderate on the national stage, preparatory to a 2016 run for President.

It is hard not to conclude that the charter school battle is another step in de Blasio’s massive program of payback to labor.  Recall that in the Mayor’s first appearance before the legislature, to ask for UPK money, he admitted that the city has $2.5 billion in surplus, but that he is essentially holding it in reserve for contract talks with the unions.  It is prudent to reserve a surplus, but telegraphing how much one is willing to give away prior to negotiations is the height of foolishness. 

Following the disbursement of retroactive raises to 200 Environmental Protection officers, UFT boss Michael Mulgrew made it clear that he is expecting the same for his 200,000 members.  The teachers, who have famously not had a “raise” since 2009, have nevertheless had cost of living increases that have substantially outpaced inflation.  Mayor de Blasio has been preparing a counter-narrative of the Bloomberg years, in which what many mistook for managerial efficiency was in fact gross mismanagement and deferred maintenance.  “There will be a cost to pay,” de Blasio told the legislators in Albany.  “A cost that should have been handled over years is now going to be handled in many ways in the here and now. So that challenge makes clear to us we are in a troubled fiscal environment.”  In this retelling of the last twelve years, Bloomberg feasted on money that rightfully belonged to the workers, and which de Blasio is now going to restore to its proper owners.

One could argue that de Blasio in fact owes little to the UFT, which after all supported Bill Thompson with millions of dollars.  But consider the immediate timeline post-primary.  On the Saturday after the election, when de Blasio’s 40% threshold was tenuous, with tens of thousands of paper ballots yet to be counted, Thompson and de Blasio met with Michael Mulgrew.  Mulgrew characterized the meeting as “refreshing.”  Monday morning, Thompson announced his decision to drop out of the race, sparing Democrats a bloody runoff.  Two days later the UFT voted to endorse de Blasio, and Mulgrew revealed his part in the negotiations, saying Thompson’s withdrawal was “a result” of his intercession.

The current full-press, two-front effort--to pass UPK and simultaneously go after the most prominent anti-union charter school proponent--is likely part of de Blasio’s end of his bargain with Mulgrew.  In striking a deal to avoid an electoral runoff the Mayor signed another series of debits to add to his hefty stack.  It is richly ironic that the ones who have to pay these Progressive accounts are working people desperate to enhance their children’s life chances.

Inez Barron on the Primacy of the African "Bloodline"

At Wednesday’s meeting of the Council, Councilmember Inez Barron entertained the Chamber with a lively sing-song recitation of a black supremacist poem which, she explained, she had originally composed to “keep my students engaged.”

The poem describes the glories of “African people,” who “have a common bloodline,” and were “the first to walk the earth.” CM Barron describes the “African by heritage” as “black, red, tan and gold” and “the first of human birth.”

Barron’s poem goes on to resurrect the widely discredited “Black Athena” hypothesis, which stirred up a minor academic controversy in the late 80’s when the argument, which stresses an Egyptian and Phoenician foundation to Greek civilization, was put forth by Martin Bernal. Inez Barron roughly summarizes the Black Athena thesis in the following quatrain:

The Greeks came to African universities

We taught them how to diagnose and do brain surgery

We taught them math, geometry and then we taught them trig,

Physics and astronomy oh yes oh yes we did!

The poem also posits a “link” between ancient African and Mexican civilizations, established by cross-Atlantic African seafarers. Certain 19th century pre-Columbian scholars, impressed by supposed facial resemblances between monumental Olmec heads and African people, had made assumptions about the possibility of such a connection; later, Mormon archeologists drew similar conclusions based on the appearance of pyramids on both continents. Mainstream academic research remains skeptical regarding the “link.”

Councilmember Barron, who chairs the Committee on Higher Education, concluded her poem by assuring us that “this is just a tidbit of ancient Africa/She civilized the whole world, we owe it all to her.” It is not a diminishment of Africa and its people to suggest that perhaps “the whole world” was not in fact “civilized” by it. One could only imagine the sentiment on the floor of the Council if a hymn to Europa and its “civilizing” influence upon the world were to be proclaimed aloud.

CM Barron’s spoken word performance has received odd coverage. The Times’ Kate Taylor notes incorrectly that Barron “asked her colleagues to snap along as she recited a poem in honor of Black History Month.” Perhaps if Barron had in fact said anything about Black History Month before her recitation the whole thing would have been slightly less bizarre, although only slightly, because Black History Month typically covers the actual history of African-Americans: pseudohistorical and tendentious arguments about the race of Cleopatra or hyperdiffusionist theories regarding the spread of copper are not usually included in Black History Month syllabi, at least in NYC public schools.

Inez Barron made some other strange remarks Wednesday. Mourning the death of Mayor Chokwe Lumumba of Jackson, Mississippi, CM Barron noted that Lumumba (who once served as the second Vice-President, and later Minister of Justice, of the short-lived Republic of New Afrika, provisional capital: Hinds County, Miss.) had participated in the legal defense of the Scott sisters, “who were sentenced to an inordinate time for a minor crime.” The “minor crime” of the Scott sisters was armed robbery with a shotgun.

It is really a testament to the form-without-content nature of so much of our municipal politics that Inez Barron received a loud and cheerful ovation from her council colleagues for her poetic performance. Perhaps nobody bothered to pay attention to what she was actually saying, or just gave her a pass and decided simply to applaud the effort.

The Latest Civil Rights Issue of Our Day

Tuesday morning, at an appearance with her husband the Mayor, and Al Sharpton, First Lady Chirlane McCray decried Senator Skelos’ refusal to allow a vote on the tax increase that is intended to fund universal pre-Kindergarten for all New York City schoolchildren.  “Make no mistake,” proclaimed McCray, “this is the defining civil rights issue of our day!”

It is hard to keep up with our day’s defining civil rights issues.  Here is a brief list of some of them, announced by a variety of politicians, billionaires, and activists:

“[Marriage equality] is the civil rights of our day.  It’s the issue of our day.”—Vice President Joe Biden

“[School choice] is the civil rights issue of our day.”—Condoleezza Rice

“[Stop and frisk] is the urban civil rights issue of our time.”—Al Sharpton

“[Fighting against voter ID laws] is the sit-in of our day.”—Michelle Obama

“[High speed internet access] is the civil rights issue of our time.”—Antonio Villaraigosa

“Transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time.”—Joe Biden (again)

“[Comprehensive immigration reform] is one of the biggest civil rights issues of our time.”—Mark Zuckerberg

“Eliminating poverty in America is the civil rights issue of our day.”—Diane Ravitch

“Human trafficking [is] one of the foremost civil rights issues of our day.”—Bush Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzalez

Etc., etc.

Anyway, Mayor de Blasio, President Obama, and the rest of the smart money appear to agree that education is the latest real civil rights issue of our day, so let’s just stick with that one for now.  

Universal pre-K is considered a hot civil rights issue because it is believed to be a solution to the persistence of the racial “achievement gap.”  The gap, which represents approximately one standard deviation in test scores between white students and black and Hispanic students, has proven remarkably resistant to closure.  One problem with closing the gap is that instituting pedagogical change impacts everyone: in a case of the rising tide that lifts all boats, how does one target only the under-performers without helping the ones who are doing well already?

A study from 2004 that is now getting a lot of attention, and which was cited by Speaker Mark-Viverito at the Council hearing on UPK yesterday, claims that low-income children hear 30 million fewer words than the wealthier members of their cohort by the time they are 3 years old.  Closing this “word gap,” it is believed, could be the key to improving poorer children’s cognitive development and engagement with learning.  Of course, by the time these kids start pre-K, it is too late, and their word deficiency has already hobbled them to some degree.

Still, starting at age 4 is better than nothing, so the reasoning goes.  Hence the drive for UPK.  As the Speaker yesterday noted, “low-income children of color benefit the most from participation in high-quality pre-school,” though the data are mixed on exactly what those benefits are.  Head Start, a federal program targeting low-income children under 5 years old, has been a going concern for almost 50 years, has an annual budget of $8 billion, and more than 22 million children have participated.  The Department of Health and Human Services however, in a 2011 study, determined that gains, while real, tended to fade by 3rd grade.  Most studies have also confirmed the “word gap” hypothesis that age 4 is too late to make any important gains.

Better late than never, one imagines.  Not clear why it is worth it to the Mayor to stake his political capital on a showdown with Albany on how to fund it, though.

De Blasio Traffics in Fantasy

The de Blasio administration has set itself a broad mandate for change.  According to the Mayor’s inauguration speech, he is “called to put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love.”  The first step taken by the Mayor is to find space for all 4-year olds to attend pre-Kindergarten.  The second step?  To abolish traffic accidents.

As absurd as this sounds, Mayor de Blasio presented his “Vision Zero” proposal with a straight face at his Woodside press conference yesterday.  Surrounded by parents of children who have been killed in traffic accidents, the Mayor announced his intention “literally to reduce fatalities on our roadways to zero.”

No one is going to argue against tighter enforcement of traffic laws: indeed, more speed cameras and police officers monitoring the city’s highways are definitely needed.  More DWI-checkpoints along Roosevelt Avenue and other drunk-driving hot zones would be great too.

The utopian promise to eliminate all traffic deaths, however, reminds us of a meeting of communists in the 1930s where extravagant claims were made about the wonders of a planned, engineered society.  The French writer Andre Malraux asked, “What about a child who falls off a trolley?”  The speaker replied, “Under socialism there will be no traffic accidents.”

The problem with the Progressive approach to society’s problems, as we see embodied in the Mayor’s fantastical goal, is the assumption that everything can be fixed, usually and preferably by an expert.  If accidents happen, it is because the smart people haven’t been given the authority and resources to mitigate underlying risks.  The role of government, in this mindset, is to protect the people from all the slings and arrows that fortune may throw against us.

Life, however, always has risks, and Mayor de Blasio knows full well that he will be lucky if Vision Zero reduces traffic fatalities by ten or fifteen percent over four years.  Indeed, that would be a phenomenal success.  Grandstanding about traffic accidents is a cheap form of political theater, and smacks of late-term or lame-duck desperation.  Given that he is only two weeks into his term, that he has attained the national stage and appears to be steering the Democratic midterm agenda, why is he bathing himself in the tears of distraught parents and pandering on such a demotic issue?

Oddly, despite the insistence of the de Blasio team of a serious break from the Bloomberg years, Vision Zero sounds a lot like the kinds of nanny-state policies that Bloomberg advocated, and a lot like the kinds of law enforcement tactics that Mayor Giuliani introduced.  What Vision Zero doesn’t really offer is any solution to the economic inequality that de Blasio promised he would address in his “Tale of Two Cities” campaign.

Which brings us to the real reason the Mayor is talking about traffic fatalities in one of his first major policy pronouncements: because it is a lot easier to talk about reducing traffic accidents than it is to reduce income inequality.  Fixing broad social ills is well beyond the scope of the Mayor’s powers, even if he has the Council there to rubber-stamp his agenda.  Even if he could convince Albany to sign off on his entire wish list, it isn’t clear that Mayor de Blasio could actually end poverty in New York City.  So like any good demagogue, he goes for the easy target—reckless drivers—and kicks his promises down the road.

Buying the Speakership

Here on the morning of the Council’s vote for Speaker, we thought it might be amusing to take a look at some of the money that was spent in pursuit of winning that office…or, in the event, losing it.

It is perfectly legal and standard practice for campaign committees to make direct campaign contributions.  A number of better-funded councilmembers contributed money to their colleagues throughout the 2013 cycle, for a variety of reasons, one supposes.  Perhaps not coincidentally, most of such intra-Council donations were made by candidates for Speaker: one couldn’t call these transactions bribes per se, but it is probably fair to think of them as a means of buying some goodwill in advance of the vote.

The sums given by individual councilmembers, through their campaign committees to other councilmembers’ campaign committees, while miniscule in the context of total campaign spending, nonetheless provide some insight into the machinations of the Speaker’s race.

The largest contributor to other Council candidates was Daniel Garodnick’s committee Garodnick 2013.  CM Garodnick entered the season with a huge war chest, accrued while he was mulling a run for Comptroller, and his committee could well afford the $21,825 he doled out to 14 individual Council candidates.  But what good did it do him?  Not a lot.  Garodnick gave his fellow Manhattanites Ydanis Rodriguez $1750 and Mark Levine $2750, and both of them were early and vocal advocates of Melissa Mark-Viverito.  He gave Chaim Deutsch and Antonio Reynoso each $2750, and Rafael Espinal $1000, but all three Kings County councilmembers played follow the leader when boss Frank Seddio cut his notorious deal with the Mayor.  Julissa Ferreras of Queens got $1000 from Garodnick 2013, but it wasn’t enough to keep her breaking with boss Joe Crowley when the time came.

Councilmember Mark Weprin also ponied up from his campaign coffer, dispensing $11,250 to seven individual council campaigns, all to little avail.  Mark Levine got $2750, to which CM Weprin got a hat tip but nothing else.  Brooklyn’s Chaim Deutsch also got the maximum amount, and his fellows Vincent Gentile and Alan Maisel got $1000 apiece, but no one came to their donor’s aid when the call went out.

Crowley for Congress gave Danny Dromm’s campaign $2000: given Dromm’s apparent defection from his boss’s camp, one imagines that will be the last contribution flowing from that particular source.  Friends of James Vacca gave Vacca protégé Ritchie Torres $2750, but that doesn’t seem to have kept CM Torres from being the lone Bronx councilmember to side with the Mark-Viverito faction.

But let’s be real here: we are talking about chump change, and nobody is actually going to sell themselves so cheaply.  Especially when we look at what the other side is offering.  In addition to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that 1199 (the prime mover behind the Mark-Viverito candidacy) and allied unions poured into council campaigns, we saw a massive, quite unprecedented expenditure of political capital by the new Mayor.  

At first it seemed surprising that de Blasio was voicing tacit support for a particular Speaker candidate.  Next, eyebrows were raised amidst reports that the Mayor was calling up individual councilmembers to press for his choice.  Then it emerged that he had personally orchestrated a deal with Frank Seddio, even before his inauguration, thereby traducing his entire campaign’s ethos of transparency and honest process.  This last week we have witnessed de Blasio’s stable of pet celebrities demanding the coronation of Melissa Mark-Viverito, in what is turning into a black mass of political theater, with various ethnic leaders and feminist paragons all chorusing that she, and she alone, must be the Speaker.  

Yesterday’s press conference was almost Orwellian, with the Mayor insisting that any comparison of his relationship with Mark-Viverito to the Bloomberg-Quinn nexus was not only inaccurate, but represented a complete failure of logic or congruency.  They are very closely aligned, but she will be independent.  He expressed his preference, but the councilmembers vote their conscience.  

The Mayor is feeling rich right now and assumes he has a popular mandate.  He is getting the Speaker he wants: let’s see if he wants the Speaker he gets.

Eric Ulrich's Come-to-Melissa Moment

I wrote a few weeks ago in City & State about Republican Councilmember Eric Ulrich of Queens, and remarked that, though he is young, talented and likable, his political career seems somewhat limited.  Where, I asked, can a Republican in New York City hope to go after he is term-limited out of his seat?

CM Ulrich responded to my column on Twitter: 

This sentiment of impending doom on Eric Ulrich’s part probably goes a long way towards explaining his break with party (and county!) discipline to sign-on as a supporter of Melissa Mark-Viverito for Speaker: just a month after vowing that her refusal to say the Pledge of Allegiance cost her his vote.  Judging the political winds, CM Ulrich appears to have concluded that he had best trim his sails and tack hard left.  It is entirely possible—indeed, doesn’t it seem like a matter of time?--that he will leave the GOP and become a Democrat.

And why not?  As a Democrat and a Mark-Viverito loyalist he could possibly get a committee chairmanship.  Ulrich is already at odds with the Queens Republican Party leadership, and has called for the resignation of longtime boss Phil Ragusa.  He is already friendly with labor, and is known to get along well with the rest of his colleagues from Queens.  He co-sponsored the paid sick leave bill.  It isn’t like he is from Staten Island and can hope to get some County position later on.  Ulrich’s district is slowly turning Democratic anyway, so why not get ahead of the change now?  

De Blasio Seeks a Centrist Pivot in Melissa Mark-Viverito

Bill de Blasio forced a showdown between the City Council’s Progressive Caucus and the chairs of the major County Democratic Parties this week when he embarked on open advocacy of Melissa Mark-Viverito as Speaker.

Latest news details a fracture among the bosses, as Kings County’s Frank Seddio has agreed to throw his weight behind the Progressive Caucus Co-chair.  It is unclear how many of Brooklyn’s 16 votes (besides the 6 committed progs) will necessarily follow Seddio, but his defection from the Garodnick camp changes the calculus.

Both sides are playing a momentum game, trying to create the impression of inevitability for their candidate.  The PC, which has no teeth in the way of jobs or ballot lines in the way that the county chairs do, must promote itself as moving inexorably forward: get on board or be on the losing side of history.

Power plays like what the PC is attempting either succeed completely or fail utterly.  That is why Melissa Mark-Viverito will either become Speaker, or leave the Council entirely.  If she loses her bid, she will be shut out of leadership and have to be a powerless backbencher; probably de Blasio would invent a place for her in his administration to give her a graceful exit.

Similarly, if the current power play works, then the PC will be ascendant in city politics.  Joe Crowley will still control Queens County, and could punish wayward members of the delegation who broke party discipline, but in the context of a Prog mayor and speaker, his authority would be diminished.  But if the power play sputters out, then the PC will no longer have coherence as a political force, and will go back to being a club of union-backed liberal council members.

One has to wonder why de Blasio is pushing so hard to get Mark-Viverito elected speaker.  It isn’t as though any of the other candidates would seriously oppose his agenda.  On one hand, it would be helpful for de Blasio to have a functional deputy-mayor running the Council on his behalf: that way he wouldn’t even have to negotiate about policy.

Also, it could be useful for de Blasio to have Melissa Mark-Viverito in as Speaker in order to give himself room to pivot.  Right now Bill de Blasio is being depicted as a kind of Bolivarian radical set on total revolution: Park Slope's answer to the Shining Path.  The only way for him to cut right is to have someone even leftier than him as a foil.  If Mark-Viverito is running the Council, then de Blasio can deflect blame if any particularly loony leftwing policy implementations go awry.  His appointments already reflect a moderation of his demotic campaign rhetoric, and demonstrate that his actual governing style will likely be measured and cautious.  Having an unapologetic radical as Speaker will allow the Mayor to seem like the grown-up in the room. 

Laurie Cumbo's Jewish Problem...And Ours? Not Really.

Laurie Cumbo, Councilmember-elect for the 35th CD (Fort Greene, Crown Heights), threw herself into a cauldron of foolishness this week with her idiotic commentary playing share-the-blame for the recent spate of black-on-Jew “knockout game” attacks in Brooklyn.  

In case you missed it, Cumbo mused in a lengthy, ungrammatical open letter that black residents fear that “they would be pushed out by their Jewish landlords or by Jewish families looking to purchase homes.”  She also “recognized” that “the accomplishments of the Jewish community triggers (sic) feelings of resentment, and a sense that Jewish success is not also their success.”

Indeed…typically when one person accomplishes something, it is to them and not someone else that the credit belongs.  Laurie Cumbo appears to have gone beyond equality of opportunity and equality of outcome into equality of satisfaction. 

In any case, this isn’t the first time that the future councilmember has made invidious comparisons between what Jews and blacks have.  In a 2010 interview Cumbo complained to the Times that racism was preventing her from expanding her Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art (MoCADA), though in 2006 she was given $500,000 in public money to relocate from Bed-Stuy to Fort Greene.  She continued, 

I’m trying to figure out new ways to do what I want to do to grow the museum.  Because, it’s like black and white both in power won’t allow me. You have a Jewish children’s museum, but you don’t feel that there should be a black-centered museum? How do you think black children are going to feel compared to Jewish children when they grow up?

Cumbo never clarifies who it is that is trying to destroy her black-centered and publicly-funded museum in favor of the Jewish Children’s Museum, which actually runs programs for public school children (presumably black) from underserved areas, according to Council documents.  Moreover, there is an entirely separate Brooklyn Children’s Museum in Crown Heights, which has a multicultural, community-oriented curriculum.  The absurdity of imagining black children feeling shut out of the Jewish Children’s Museum (“Mommy, why isn’t MoCADA running more children’s programs?”) is Cumbo’s self-pity and resentment apotheosized.  

Laurie Cumbo likes to talk about gentrification, and her latest comments make clear that Jewish real-estate speculators are a prime enemy in her anti-gentrification outlook.  “Gentrification” is a term of art that essentially refers to white people moving into a neighborhood without many white people already.  Don’t believe that’s what it means?  How often does one read articles about the gentrification of Greenpoint versus the gentrification of Harlem or Bed-Stuy?  Gentrification equals bad diversity, and is basically a cudgel to aim at whites who live, like everyone else, where they can afford to.  

A common thread in anti-gentrification commentary is that the new residents aren’t friendly.  “They don’t say hello”: this comes up in every documentary or survey of residents “concerned” about gentrification.  To my mind, if that is the worst of it, then the longterm residents are getting a pretty good deal.  But not to CM-elect Cumbo, for whom such reticence means, literally, the end of the world.  In the comments section alongside a Times review of an exhibit at MoCADA critiquing gentrification in Brooklyn, Cumbo complains,

I think for many African/Caribbean Americans who often felt rejected in the workplace, our communities were a place where people felt “at home”, comfortable, welcomed or a place where you would be greeted walking down the block. I think the most immediate challenge that I have with the changes in the community is that the new people don’t even speak to you or look away as you say good morning or how are you. I mean how can you come into a new community and ignore the people that are there. I really don’t understand the thought process behind that. The act of ignoring the people in the community makes the idea of creating a community and working together impossible. My other larger concern is that the greed of others is going to destroy the entire earth.

Right...from people not saying hello to the destruction of the earth in one step.  Ah yes, the “greed of others”—always the greed or racism or lack of regard of “others,” which will destroy the earth.  Never one’s own.

Just to keep it going, here’s another lengthy comment from Laurie Cumbo in the Times:

I feel so challenged because I feel that those in positions of power to create change have not taken into consideration the importance of maintaining diversity. I went to the Brooklyn Flee at 1 Hanson Place on Saturday and I was amazed at how many of the vendors were white. Maybe about 90% probably more! The audience was about 95% white except for the security staff. I wondered as I walked through was this the new “ideal” look for Fort Greene. I wondered why would someone want such a monolithic feel to a shopping center when New York City is known for its diversity? When people of power recognize that true diversity on an economic, racial, gender, age etc. is what makes a community dynamic then we will really live out the benefits of what this country should be based on. Until then, we will continue to implode.

Is the Brooklyn Flea actually pursuing a program of racial exclusion?  Are they in fact screening their vendors by race?  If so, someone should call the Human Rights Commission and the Department of Justice.  Otherwise, what is she talking about?  

Let’s see how Laurie Cumbo’s colleagues in the Progressive Caucus respond to her blatantly anti-Semitic comments…should be an interesting test of where the Council is heading and what kind of leeway they will grant to stupidity disguised as social justice.

Ydanis Rodriguez Rejoining Progressive Caucus; Backs MMV for Speaker

Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez (CD 10, Washington Heights), a former member of the Council’s Progressive Caucus, announced his plan to rejoin the Caucus as a “full member” beginning with the new term in January.

The councilmember, who affirmed his long-time “alignment with the value and vision of the progressive members of the Progressive Caucus,” also proclaimed his total support for the candidacy of CM Melissa Mark-Viverito for the speakership.

Councilmember Rodriguez said that the PC is committed to voting as a bloc for whoever the caucus chooses as the favored speaker candidate, but conceded that the time and method of that election have not yet been determined.  

Asked about the role of the Democratic party leaders in choosing the speaker, the CM said, “at the end of this process the Progressive Caucus will coordinate with the county organizations to elect Melissa Mark-Viverito as the speaker.”

Melissa Mark-Viverito's Own Eminent Domain

East Harlem Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito, a candidate for Speaker, has long-standing ties to a radical homeless-advocacy group that had its Council funding pulled for teaching its followers how to break into buildings in order to establish squatter’s rights.

CM Mark-Viverito raised eyebrows last week at a Speaker candidate panel when she suggested that “seizing” bank-owned property in order to prevent foreclosure was a “creative” and “innovative” idea. Other council members pointed out that such an expansive use of eminent domain would likely crater the housing market when banks stopped extending mortgages in the city, and AG Schneiderman batted down the proposal as unrealistic and probably illegal.

It is worth noting at this redistributive juncture that Mark-Viverito has a deep political and legislative connection to a group called Picture the Homeless, an advocacy organization that has rankled the nerves and sensibilities of Council members with its raucous and impolitic agitation on behalf of a piece of favored legislation. Intro 48, the primary sponsor of which is CM Mark-Viverito, would mandate a citywide census of unoccupied residential units. Picture the Homeless, frustrated that the bill was stuck in committee, disrupted Council hearings in 2010 and embarrassed its sponsor, who threatened to pull the bill entirely if the group didn’t behave itself.

Why such tension over a proposal that sounds so banal? The real point of Intro 48, as one can gather quickly from a review of Picture the Homeless communications (“You Say Gentrify, We Say Occupy!”), is to develop a list of properties that are available for seizure and occupation. It is actually hard to think of any other reason for insisting that there be an official documentation of unoccupied residential units other than to establish a basis for removing underutilized resources from private hands and putting them to supposedly better public use. The bill even specifies that the list of unoccupied properties “shall be made available to the public in print and on the city's website,” the easier to locate choice units, presumably.

The scarcely-disguised motives of Picture the Homeless, whose logo shows a fist clenching a crowbar, were made transparent when a board member and trustee of the organization, Andres Perez, was found to be conducting “homesteading” lessons in East New York, encouraging his pupils to break into empty apartments and file change-of-address forms. The Council froze its HPD funding for Picture the Homeless, citing “alleged wrongdoing” pertaining to “unlawful squatting on private property." It is not clear whether the existing funding was ever released, but Council documents show that no further funding was allocated to the group in the following fiscal years.

Melissa Mark-Viverito has a long history of affiliation with Picture the Homeless, dating at least to her first term in the Council. In addition to twice sponsoring the organization’s pet legislation, the CM has routinely appeared at the group’s press conferences and demonstrations, and has received campaign contributions from Lynn Lewis, the Executive Director of Picture the Homeless.

There is a housing crisis in New York City, though it is hardly new. Recall that the Lower East Side of Manhattan circa 1900 was the most densely-populated area ever, in the history of the world, before or since, when approximately 250,000 people were crammed into a square mile. The idea that there are apartments available to be lived in when people have nowhere to live is discomfiting, to be sure. But so is the idea that there are single retired people living in 2- or 3-bedroom apartments, in co-ops as well as NYCHA buildings. Wouldn’t it make sense to conduct a census of these inequities as well, in order to effect more rational use of residential space?

CM Melissa Mark-Viverito appears to incline towards radical approaches to the redistribution of private property, based on past and recent comments she has made, and bills she has sponsored. Some may find it ironic that the CM, who grew up a child of privilege, and whose father owned a 6-passenger airplane, herself owns a number of properties, some of which are currently unoccupied, including an unimproved lot on Puerto Rico's lovely eastern coast. Of course there is a long history of wealthy youth embracing radical causes, including the CM’s beloved Che, and it may be unfair to impugn the motives of these revolutionaries. However, it seems sensible to at least call things by their real name. If Melissa Mark-Viverito believes in the expropriation of private property it would serve the city’s current discourse of progressivity well to come out and say it.