Tensions Rising: Speaker's Race Mentioned in Chambers

There was an oddly tense moment at yesterday's executive budget hearing. David Greenfield had just finished a thunderous stemwinder on F express service to the MTA reps, and then Finance chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland turned the questioning over to Corey Johnson.

Johnson opened with a crack about Greenfield’s passion for speechifying about F train service and the plastic bag fee. The remark sounded harmless enough, given that CMs frequently tease each other in their clubby way. But Greenfield seemed annoyed: “Why don’t you talk about the Speaker’s race instead?” he retorted to Johnson (words to that effect; the video isn’t up yet.)

Usually CMs are pretty good about keeping up a solid front. Based on their public statements, for example, you would never know that the race to succeed Melissa Mark-Viverito is the primary obsessive question dominating their private conversations. So it is odd to hear someone as canny and careful as David Greenfield break the façade and reference the Speaker’s race on the public record, 19 months ahead of time, with the two leading candidates for the job (Johnson and Ferreras-Copeland) sitting right there.

So what’s happening? Basically one has to appreciate David Greenfield’s role in the Brooklyn delegation and his close relationship to Kings County boss Frank Seddio. Recall what happened in 2014: Seddio, encouraged by the new mayor, broke with Joe Crowley and Carl Heastie of Queens and the Bronx, and threw his votes with the Progressive Bloc. The Bloc, which was in theory supposed to have an internal vote to pick a candidate, was informed by Brad Lander that they had to coalesce behind MMV immediately or lose their chance to pick the speaker. The Bloc’s 16 or 17 votes plus Seddio’s 7 or 8 pushed MMV close enough to 26 to draw the unaligned CMs over, and that was it.

Greenfield got Land Use out of the deal; Gentile was given a committee at long last; and the new speaker made up some posts for the rest of the delegation. But really, what did Seddio’s organization get out of the deal? Not much. “Frank is not happy,” said one non-Brooklyn CM. “He was supposed to get City Hall jobs for some of his people, but the mayor gave all the Brooklyn jobs to Park Slope allies.”

So what does that mean for Greenfield? Let’s look at the candidacy of Julissa Ferreras-Copeland. She is the mayor’s choice for speaker. Melissa Mark-Viverito also wants JFC for the role. By all accounts Brad Lander is trying to get the Progressive Caucus to agree to remain united—which is weird because at least 4 members of the Caucus are at least nominally running for speaker—and he also wants JFC. JFC’s path to victory is a repeat of 2014. She is not close to the Queens Dems—her entire career from Hiram Monserrate until now has been based on being an insurgent WFP candidate. She will need de Blasio and the Progressives to convince Seddio to throw in with them, and then to pick up some stray undecided votes.

So what’s wrong with this picture? First of all, the members of the Progressive Caucus are resistant to Brad Lander’s demands for them to swear a death pact of loyalty that will essentially make him a kingmaker. (One non-Progressive CM even told me that Lander is hoping to become Speaker himself. “Look what happened to Brad when he helped Melissa,” the CM said. “She got annoyed when people started calling him the ‘shadow speaker,’ and pushed him to the side. So why would he do the same thing again, this time with Melissa’s close ally Julissa?” I find the logic here unassailable—if we were not talking about someone with the overweening pride of Brad Lander. I think Lander imagines that he has a better relationship with JFC than he did with MMV, and that he will take on a more significant leadership role in the next Council if she is speaker.) So it is not clear that the Progressives will be a bloc next time—indeed there are already indications that the Caucus, which was really formed to make MMV speaker and support de Blasio’s mayoral candidacy, has lost its motive force and is substantially weaker now.

But they aren’t the only ones who are weaker now. Mayor de Blasio has a great deal of trouble, and no longer is overflowing with excess political capital. Andrew Cuomo has waged a scorched earth policy against de Blasio and successfully wrong-footed him at every turn. De Blasio blew his endorsement of Hillary Clinton by trying to induce her to woo him. He could conceivably be indicted by mighty Preet. Powerful unions have deserted the WFP. So the chance that de Blasio will be able to call up a county boss and put the squeeze on to get his favorite councilmember the speakership grows increasingly less likely.

At the same time, Corey Johnson has become the Sammy Glick of the council—pushy, arrogant, thirsty and slick. “He is very aggressively courting voters,” grumbled one CM several months ago. “It is because of him that the race for speaker has become so heated this early.” Another CM told me that “Corey is rapidly becoming the most unpopular member of the council,” while nevertheless acknowledging that Johnson is certainly a serious candidate.

So on one side we see David Greenfield, whose faction controls between 7 and 9 votes, but whose authority to elect the speaker is diminished from last time. At stake for Greenfield is his powerful chairmanship, as well as goodies for the Brooklyn delegation. But his power—like that of Brad Lander—depends on quiet waters in the council. Similarly, Julissa Ferreras-Copeland has been playing a kind of Rose Garden strategy, and hasn’t been actively campaigning amongst her colleagues: her plan is to have de Blasio make her the speaker. Johnson has set the cat among the pigeons: by campaigning early and often he has forced the issue into the open well before it would have otherwise arisen.

So that explains why David Greenfield snapped at him today. He would prefer all this to be dealt with over a year from now.

But I don’t want you to think that this explanation above summarizes the entire race! There are at least two or three other candidates who have a plausible shot at becoming speaker. It is true that Julissa and Corey are the current frontrunners…but a lot can happen in a year and a half.


--What happens if Hillary wins and appoints MMV to run that office of immigrant affairs she mentioned? Then the existing Council will have to vote for an interim speaker!

--Who will fill the seats of the eight term-limited CMs? (Vacca, Palma, Mendez, Garodnick, Dickens [who may leave early anyway if Keith Wright wins], MMV, Mealy, Gentile) And how will that affect the Speaker’s race? (Also Ruben Wills, who hasn’t shown up for work in months.)

--Who’s in third place? We still have to talk about Mark Levine, Ydanis Rodriguez, Jimmy van Bramer, Vanessa Gibson, Robert Cornegy, Jumaane Williams…and maybe Donovan Richards?

Bill de Blasio's Slave Name

Having lost his fight to get rid of carriage horses, Mayor de Blasio has decided to join the winning side and embrace other 19th century modes of transportation: hence the city will spend billions on ferries and streetcars.

Both of these ideas appear to be aimed at satisfying the vision of the Walentas brothers (Two Trees), the Elghanayan brothers (TF Cornerstone), Toll Brothers (Toll Brothers), and any other donors—siblings or not--to his now defunct nonprofit who own real estate developments along the waterfront. 

Washington D.C.—admittedly not a city that anyone looks to as a model of municipal management—recently opened streetcar service ten years after having bought the cars and laid the tracks.  The streetcar line, which runs 2.2 miles, is apparently a disaster of sorts, and can be outpaced by a brisk pedestrian.

Atlanta, Dallas, and Kansas City are among other cities that have installed streetcars in the last ten years.  Most of these experiments are basically novelties: urban planners love streetcars and appear to have convinced local politicians that streetcar lines will invigorate ghastly downtowns. 

New York’s streetcar will ostensibly be funded by a TIF on all the future waterfront development, which is fine if it works out.  But what exactly do streetcars do that buses don’t?  Buses don’t require massive capital commitments for installing miles of tracks and the development of special rolling stock to run on them.  Buses can run flexible routes and go around stalled cars.

The problem with buses however is that they aren’t very attractive to the sort of people for whom all that luxury construction is meant.  Where streetcars have a nouveau-vintage appeal, buses smack of old people and poor people.  Shuffling, talkative types.  Cantankerous guys in plastic jackets that say METS.  No one wants to leave his or her 3 million dollar waterfront loft and say, “I hope the bus is on time.”

The ferry proposal is utterly nonsensical, however.  The city had an extensive ferry system for hundreds of years…and then they built the Brooklyn Bridge.  Ferries died for a reason: they are expensive and inefficient, and can’t run when there is ice in the water.  After Superstorm Sandy the city opened up ferry service from Rockaway to Manhattan, and had to cancel it after two years because the subsidies were ridiculous: the city was paying $30 per passenger per ride.

Also, ferries suffer from the perennial “last mile” problem with new transit solutions.  Most people don’t live or work right by the water, and there aren’t very many subway or bus stops right by the water, either.  So commuters wind up with lengthy pedestrian journeys at either end of the ferry trip.

The ferry system will be an expensive, heavily subsidized and underutilized boondoggle.


By the way, the mayor reached a new low in sanctimonious, pandering bullshit this weekend in Harlem.  Speaking about why he changed his name, de Blasio cited “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” as an inspiration.  Malcolm X rejected his birth name as “not really his name,” and similarly de Blasio decided that his slave name “Warren Wilhelm, Jr.” wasn’t right for him either.  His new name “was [his] true self.”

The fact that he changed his name 25 years after he first read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” while in the middle of his first run for elected office, shouldn’t make you think that there were any political implications to his choice.

Incidentally, why does the mayor constantly throw his father under the proverbial streetcar wheels?  “I honor my father for all he did for his country and all the good in him, but I only unfortunately got to see the bad,” he said at the First Corinthian Baptist Church.  A few years ago he told the Times that from his father, "I learned what not to do."

Obviously de Blasio must resent his father for killing himself, but he should save it for his therapist’s office, just for the sake of manners.  The guy fought in World War Two and lost a leg, and his son grows up and just constantly heaps scorn on his memory.  With that kind of gratitude, it isn’t surprising that de Blasio hemmed and hawed about endorsing his former boss Hillary Clinton.  




Ethno-lunacy at the City Council

At the pre-stated press conference yesterday Speaker Mark-Viverito was asked about Donald Trump’s recent successes, particularly his strong showing among Hispanics in Nevada’s GOP primary. Mark-Viverito corrected the questioner: “Don’t you mean Bernie Sanders’ support among Latinos?”

No, the reporter averred: Trump did well specifically among Latinos. MMV dismissed the idea as ludicrous, saying that at most “150” Latinos voted for him. “There are barely any Latino Republicans in Nevada anyway.”

Maybe if the speaker were more on top of Nevada’s political realities she wouldn’t have been removed last September from the fundraising committee of the state’s US Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto, who wants to replace Harry Reid. You may recall that Cortez Masto cut ties with MMV because of her avowed support for Puerto Rican terrorist Oscar Lopez Rivera.

The fact is that about 9% of the GOP Nevada caucus turnout was Hispanic, and about 40% of Hispanic voters went for Trump. Given GOP turnout was around 75,000, that leaves us with at least 2,700 Latino Trump supporters out of 6,750: not millions, but not 150 either. Given that the Speaker won her 2013 primary with less than 36% of the vote, it isn't really her place to minimize other people's electoral margins.

The secret about Latino voters in the United States is that immigration reform is not actually of great importance to them. To listen to Melissa Mark-Viverito and her cronies, one would think that the nation’s Hispanics are united in one voice demanding amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants, but it isn’t true. In this Gallup poll, immigration reform is 5th out of 6 in importance; this Pew Research study shows immigration is last in issues of “extreme importance” to registered Latino voters.

If the Speaker were to emerge from her bubble of Puerto Rican nationalism and Vasconcelosista-style supremacism, maybe she would discover that Latinos in America are more closely aligned with the political mainstream than she is.

Inez Barron gave one of her mini-lectures to the Council yesterday, on the topic of Black History Month. African-American history, according to CM Barron (no relation to your correspondent) “predates Columbus.” As a source, she recommended Ivan van Sertima’s notoriously unscholarly and tendentious work, They Came before Columbus.

This book, which has been thoroughly debunked (when it isn’t being ignored) by actual scholars of pre-Columbian history, posits (basically) that Mesoamerican civilization was built by Mandinka and Nubian émigrés to America about 30 centuries ago. Key evidences—cited by CM Barron—are the giant Olmec heads of Mexico, of which, she told the Council, “the features are distinctly African.”

If looking at ancient statues and imputing to them racial physiometrics sounds a little recherché to you, well you are not alone. As a historiographical tool, it is useless. The entire thesis of African diffusionism to America has no basis in reality. They Came before Columbus belongs to a genre of wacky Cold War-era pseudoscience that includes Holy Blood, Holy Grail; In Search of Noah’s Ark; Worlds in Collision; and The Late, Great Planet Earth, to name a few exemplars.

This isn’t the first time Inez Barron has taken time during a stated Council meeting to go off on one of her weird tangents: recall two years ago when she sang a hymn to the African “bloodline.” One supposes this is her hobby-horse, the way some people are train enthusiasts, or keep canaries. Couldn’t she save it for the weekends, though?

I asked CM Carlos Menchaca, who is Mexican-American, what he thought of Barron’s revisionist version of pre-Columbian history. After all, many critics have pointed out that van Sertima’s thesis is just another form of racist cultural appropriation, this time erasing native Mesoamerican accomplishment in favor of a narrative of African dominance. Menchaca looked at me like I was an unspeakable asshole, and condescendingly said, “I support all histories here at the City Council.” All “histories,” including pseudo-history, are welcome at the circus, I guess.

Salary Follies

It was a bad week for Bill de Blasio and Melissa Mark-Viverito.  The mayor’s trip to Iowa appears to have been a depressing waste of time…the images of him and Chirlane walking down empty streets in their jeans while consulting voter lists could be a 21st century “American Gothic.”  The Iowans have just gone through months of exposure to all sorts of political celebrities, so what made de Blasio imagine that he was going to heat up the scene?  His supposedly brilliant handlers seem to have a tenuous grip on political realities and their boss's hinterland appeal.

Speaker Mark-Viverito is trying to cram the ridiculous horse carriage bill and salary increase into one hugger-mugger Friday session, the classic time to release bad news.  She is coming off as a complete tool of the mayor, and the rest of the council is being played as a bunch of pawns given a milksop to stifle their cries.

Regarding the pay increase: I’ve sat through hundreds of hours of Council hearings but nothing I’ve ever seen rivaled yesterday’s hearing for pure comedy.  The combination of self-pity, fulsome praise, and absurd justifications made for a true circus. 

I’m not going to rehearse all the politics and arguments behind the raise, because everyone knows them, and it is all but done.  Here is a link to an article I wrote for City Journal if you want to see my opinion.

I just want to relate some of the high points of the hearing…the choicest parts.  I wanted to include time-stamps so you could fast-forward to the most hilarious moments, but the Council hasn’t gotten the video up yet, so I am just going to cite from my notes.  The quotes aren’t verbatim, but they definitely express the gist.

--Ydanis Rodriguez, during the first round of questions, took up his entire allotment yelling at Fritz Schwartz, who headed the Pay Commission.  He explained that he loves his job, that he supports the 99%, but that he has to work so hard.  He works 60 hours a week!  He has to go to community meetings.  People talk to him in restaurants.  He believes that CMs deserve at least $175,000 per year.

Rodriguez kept coming back to the question of half-time versus full-time.  He demanded to know what constitutes full-time, because he puts in so many more hours than that.

It became sadly clear that Ydanis Rodriguez thinks that “full-time” means you work 40 hours and then you go home.  If you work more than that, then you deserve overtime.  Could it be that he doesn’t understand the difference between an hourly and a salaried employee?  Also, does he think that 60 hours a week is an unusual amount of work for a well-paid professional in New York?  I know plenty of people who put in those kinds of hours…including Council staffers who make like $30k.

As a former staffer for a council member and a longtime Watcher, I have a pretty good idea of what members do.  I am curious if Rodriguez counts the following activities when he adds up his hours: attending press conferences for civic groups, or to “save” El Diario; going to meetings of the Progressive Caucus; going to meetings of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus; going to meetings of the Democratic Caucus; going to meetings of the Manhattan delegation; getting plaques from local organizations; going to ribbon-cutting ceremonies; talking to other electeds; running for Speaker; sending out weather bulletins or press releases condemning a vicious criminal, etc. etc.

Rodriguez also claimed that some CMs “have Ph.Ds.”  Is this true?  I’ve never heard that.  Unless he is thinking about Eva Moskowitz.

--Inez Dickens was mad that no one is taking into account all the groceries and funerals she pays for, for her needy constituents.  She said that unlike other elected officials, CMs “are on the streets!”  

--Ben Kallos also said that CMs never have time off.  “If it is Christmas Eve and you are locking up your district office, and a resident comes by because he is being evicted, well there is no Christmas Eve dinner for you.”  He contrasted this to citywide elected officials who supposedly don’t have to deal with constituents’ needs.  Somehow he insinuated that he works harder than Michael Bloomberg ever did, which seems like a weird thing to say given Bloomberg’s reputation for total workaholicism.  (Bloomberg once said, "I have nothing in common with people who stand on escalators.")  Fritz Schwartz said that, when he was Corporation Counsel, he saw Bloomberg work quite a bit.  Kallos sneered, “Um, I don’t weekend in Bermuda.”

--Jumaane Williams is insulted that lowly commissioners and deputy commissioners often make more than he does.  Why should a staffperson make more money than an exalted elected official?  It was pointed out that some deputy commissioners run billion dollar departments and have hundreds of people reporting to them; Williams was nonplussed at this, and seemed to want to say, “So do I!”  But of course, he doesn’t.  

--Brad Lander repeated his glib refrain that “It is easy to be cynical” about council members’ pay.  It is especially easy to be cynical about it when one is given so much material for cynicism.

Amazingly enough, Lander will not even be present on Friday to vote on the bill.  How come?  He is going on vacation that day.  Sure, just taking off a few days in February when he thought the hearing calendar was clear, two weeks before the whole Council goes on its unofficial mid-Winter break.  Doesn’t everybody do that?

What f---ing gall.

I really believe that what the Council needs to do instead of forbidding outside employment, is to require its members to get outside employment, even if it is just ten hours a week bagging groceries or babysitting someone else's child.  It would teach them the value of a dollar and instill a good work ethic.  I'm no hypocrite: I tell the same thing to my teenaged daughters. 

On the bright side, Inez Barron came off as genuinely concerned for the fact that council staffers never or rarely get raises.  She came back to this point several times, and did not say one thing about how backbreakingly hard her job is.  

Ben Kallos' Self-Righteous Charade at Health Hearing

The Health Committee held a hearing the other day to discuss a bill that would regulate the nutritional content of kids’ meals that come with an “incentive.” Basically, McDonald’s Happy Meals are the target, though the law would apply to all restaurants.

Ben Kallos is the sponsor of the bill, and Corey Johnson (chair of Health) is a co-sponsor. The administration testified in opposition to the measure, and said it would be impossible to carry out, because most restaurants in the city are not chains, and don’t have to track their specific caloric and fat content. Also, what constitutes an incentive? How about a placemat for kids to color on while they wait for their meals?

Things got fun when a representative from McDonald’s testified. Dr. Cynthia Goody is the chief nutritionist for McDonald’s, and naturally enough, also testified against the measure. She explained that McDonald’s has changed its advertising practices and no longer promotes soda as a choice for its kids’ meals, though it is still available. She detailed additions to the menu that McDonald’s has made, in order to offer children better alternatives in the way of fruit and fat-free milk, etc. The basic takeaway if you read between the lines was that if they made Happy Meals any healthier (low fat, low sugar, whole-grains) then no one would get them, and people would just order for their kids from the regular menu. Pretty much what you expect: no one is forced to go to McDonald’s, and no one who goes there is under the illusion that they are eating health food.

Corey Johnson asked Dr. Goody some basic questions and pushed back on her statements in a normal way. Then he turned the questioning over to Ben Kallos, who instantly began grilling the panel (which also included some small business C-of-C types) in the most excruciatingly hostile terms imaginable.

“Do you receive money from McDonald’s or its franchisees?” he asked. “Do you support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour?”

Dr. Goody was nonplussed, and said that as a nutritionist she didn’t have any expertise on the question of wages. Kallos pressed her: “As a nutritionist do you think people who make $15 an hour instead of eight, nine or ten dollars an hour will have more money to spend on healthy food?”

Kallos ripped into Goody’s use of an anodyne motto: “What about health programming? There was specific testimony on point saying…’if you eat, move your feet,’ so what is McDonald’s doing in local communities to help give local children a place other than McDonald’s to congregate?” As though, in addition to having a monopoly on food service in New York City, McDonald’s also owns the Parks Department.

He then asked about McDonald’s lobbying efforts and expenditures, and demanded that someone explain why McDonald’s had spent more than $500,000 over five years lobbying the city. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” replied Goody. “I’m a nutritionist and I am here to talk about the bill.”

Kallos was undeterred, and insisted that he needed to know why McDonald’s was lobbying against the bill when Burger King and Wendy’s aren’t. He needed to know why McDonald’s spends so much on lobbying generally, and also demanded to know how much McDonald’s spends on advertising in the New York City market. Again, the nutritionist said she didn’t know anything about that.

Kallos asked, “Who else is here from McDonald’s?” He ordered Dr. Goody to tell him the names and titles of her colleagues, and then asked one of them to come forward to answer specific questions about McDonald’s ad budget and marketing strategies. The man brushed it off, stating that he isn’t authorized to speak publically on such matters. Kallos pompously announced, “so let the record show” that McDonald’s was not answering his questions.

The questioning went on like this for another ten minutes, with Kallos asking a wide range of answerless questions of a private corporate witness who was giving voluntary testimony. He was relentlessly sarcastic, and hectored the nutritionist about some program called “Kids LiveWell” that Wendy’s has signed onto, until Johnson whispered to him to move on.

Sorry for belaboring the point here: the Council has no oversight over McDonald’s. The witnesses were taking the same position as the administration in opposing the bill. None of the McDonald’s witnesses had been sworn in. Ben Kallos does not have subpoena power over McDonald’s, and had not summoned its representatives before him while he conducted a wide-ranging plenary investigation of the restaurant’s activities. He was just abusing a nutritionist and pointlessly grandstanding, as though he were Robert F. Kennedy yelling at Jimmy Hoffa at the McClellan Senate hearings. At one point he even said, “the whole world is watching.”

We see this kind of grandiosity in hearings on occasion. Sometimes councilmembers get confused or carried away and forget that they are only allowed to berate and insult members of the administration. Even that is embarrassing when it happens, but when councilmembers start harassing members of the public, it is like watching a dog chase a car: it wouldn’t know what to do if it caught it.

What Really Matters: Who's Running for Speaker?

As the Council gets into the second half of its current term, debate is heating up among the Members.  So what is the big issue now?  Is it decriminalization of petty crime?  Is it economic inequality?  The schools?  Affordable housing?  Banning carbon emissions?

If you imagine that any of these matters is foremost on councilmembers’ minds, you haven’t been paying attention to the low level of backbiting and petty squabbling that defines our (almost) one-party unicameral legislative body.  The primary focus and main gossip of the city council now is: Who will be elected Speaker in January 2018?

When Mayor-elect de Blasio shoehorned Melissa Mark-Viverito into the Speakership, he did so fully cognizant that she would serve as a lame duck.  Term-limited, MMV was handicapped from the start from wielding total fear-inducing authority over the Council in the style of Archduke Chris Quinn.  In promoting his loyal comrade and ally Mark-Viverito, de Blasio ensured that he would have a consistent rubber-stamp at his disposal, and that he would still be able to put the squeeze on individual councilmembers who knew that he would almost certainly be around longer than she would.

So while MMV still has the power of the Speaker’s pot of discretionary money to spread around, her authority over the Council remains largely as the Mayor’s cat’s paw.  No one has yet adduced any significant moment of difference or conflict between Mark-Viverito and de Blasio, and I do not accept that the 1300 extra cops was anything but a bit of theater.  She wants to write an amicus brief in support of building a mall in Queens, after he's moved on from that fight?  Please. 

Everyone, then, is looking to the future.  Who are the players in the next race for the Speakership?

Here is a list of candidates, in geographical order: Vanessa Gibson, Ydanis Rodriguez, Mark Levine, Corey Johnson, Jimmy van Bramer, Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, Donovan Richards, Jumaane Williams and Robert Cornegy.  If you think I have erred, please say so.

By all accounts, the Mayor (along with MMV) favors Julissa Ferreras, who is an old-time loyalist and partner from the 2009 WFP/DFS days.  She was made the chair of Finance because it was known that she would fit pliably into the Mark-Viverito/de Blasio sphere as a good soldier and ally.  Brad Lander is keeping himself busy these days trying to shore up support for JFC, and is tinkering with the engine of the Progressive Caucus, getting it tuned up for another run.  The PC was originated as a vehicle to bring MMV into power, so why not go for a repeat?

The hitch this time is that the bloom is off the de Blasio rose, at least somewhat and so far.  In 2013/14 the Mayor was fresh off his big win, and he was able to reach out to individual Brooklyn members to persuade them to get on board with his plan for a unified City Hall.  Between the Progressive Bloc and a few Kings County defectors, de Blasio was able to shift the balance enough for boss Frank Seddio to see where things were heading and to leave Queens Dem chief Joe Crowley in the lurch.

It helped that MMV was from Manhattan.  The Brooklyn machine doesn’t want a Bronx or Queens Speaker, and vice-versa.  Manhattan has served as the compromise borough for the Speakership for twenty years, and this arrangement has provided checks and balances on the power of the county machinery.

The issue with Julissa Ferreras-Copeland is less that she is from Queens, however, than that she is at odds with the Queens County machine.  She and her onetime mentor Hiram Monserrate ran as insurgents, and she has never really played along with Crowley or the party organization.  Rumors abound that she is seeking a primary challenger to her onetime Council opponent and Queens County Dem regular Assemblyman Francisco Moya, which if true will not salve many open wounds in Corona.

Maybe de Blasio will do the same thing he did last time, and use his Brooklyn influence to install his chosen Speaker.  Brad Lander is trying to get the members of the Progressive Caucus to vow to align themselves as a Spartan bloc, so with those votes and Brooklyn, the rest of Queens and the Bronx could be again discounted entirely.

Except one thing is very, very different in New York politics now: Carl Heastie is in charge of the State Assembly.  When Sheldon Silver was Assembly Speaker, he made a point of not involving himself in the internal politics of the Council.  But with Heastie as Speaker and de facto Bronx County boss, de Blasio will be less able to ignore the close team of Heastie/Crowley and get his own way in the Council.  With Cuomo and de Blasio still in a blood feud, the mayor desperately needs a friend in Albany if he wants to get anything done in Term Two.  And that could include letting the Queens and Bronx machines pick the Council Speaker.

Next time: the other candidates.

Pay Hikes, Puerto Rico, Some Blind Items

The Quadrennial Pay Commission is releasing its recommendations for salary raises for elected officials this morning, and we can only guess that councilmembers will be in line for at least a 25% raise, and probably more.  In return, perhaps their outside income will be capped: a compromise that means very little, since most members don’t have any outside income.  In fact, a great many of them have never earned any money outside of their work as council staffers and now members.

A better idea might be that elected officials should be required to have outside income, at a real job, for at least 10 hours a week, outside their districts.  Might keep them honest, and in any event teach them some job skills.  Suppose councilmembers are required to give up their outside income? So would Peter Koo, who actually has shown some grit in his life, have to divest himself of his drugstores?

Anyway, here is a powerful argument for a Council pay raise that was written by a now-former councilmember.  It first appeared in Gotham Gazette.  Can you guess whose it is?


We want and expect our City Council members to be the best and brightest our city has to offer, but it is becoming harder and harder to expect top-of-the-line professionals to choose public service. A recent Gotham Gazette article reported that many City Council members earn outside income, with some making substantial amounts. This suggests that New York City's council members should be full-time city employees. Such a change would go a long way to truly reforming our city government.


 Millions of New Yorkers no doubt pay their bills while earning less than their council member makes. Even though council members do have to disclose their incomes, the salary ranges they report have enormous variation -- sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars. You could throw a dart at a board with random salaries on it and make a better guess at what your council member earns moonlighting.

 A Council Member's Job

Rather than have all this vague disclosure, the city should mandate that council members put in 40-hour weeks to enable them to provide true, full-time constituent services. Along with that, the city should increase the pay for the position. We should have to fill out time sheets just as our subordinates do and account for our time. Of course, some of the members already devote far in excess of a 40-hour week to their districts and the city, and for that, I am grateful.

 We need to make an investment in our city's legislative body that will ultimately make the council stronger and more responsive to the people. I consider myself a full-time council member, working over 60 hours a week for District XX. I come to my council office every day and go to every council meeting and attend meetings for six different committees. I meet with community leaders and constituents throughout the morning, deal with office matters and travel around my district and the city to events in the late afternoons and evenings, including weekends. My district office is open on weekends and has a late night each week to better serve the varied schedules of my constituents, and we also are available on the web; I even update my major events and happenings on Facebook and Twitter to keep people informed.

The Full-time Advantage

Making the job full-time would give New Yorkers the complete attention from their elected officials that they deserve, and constituents would notice the difference. Council members would be more active in the community and be more hands-on in addressing their constituents' concerns. Leaders in business, law and other fields would be more inclined to run for public office and the entire city would benefit from the dedication.

 Dozens of city department heads make over $200,000 per year, as well they should. They are top-shelf leaders and professionals who run complex agencies, supervising hundreds or thousands of personnel. Executive-level talent will earn at least twice this much, if not far more, in the private sector. And running New York City's bureaucratic, heavily regulated and sometimes archaic government is as challenging as any job you’ll find in the courtroom or on Wall Street.

 We've seen the conflicts of interest that occur when elected officials run businesses on the side. For example, former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno was taken down by the blurring of the lines between outside income and political influence. It is not even the actual scandal or wrongdoing that will happen no matter how careful we are; a move toward full-time legislators would provide an atmosphere where even the very appearance of impropriety could not survive because influence peddling would have been largely stamped out.

 Our public servants would be fully invested in one thing: public service. The time has come to ask our elected officials to make a full time commitment to the city and in turn, have the city make a full time commitment to them. It's about good government, it's about focused leaders -- it's about time.


Hint: the writer is now serving a ten-year sentence in the federal penitentiary.  Yes, Dan Halloran, the erstwhile Whitestone Wotan, could reasonably be counted as a prime theorist behind the Commission’s recommendations.  Who better to take advice from than a man whose elaborate electoral-theft schemes briefly netted him a few thousand dollars in a paper bag?


Last week’s stated meeting was very emotional.  First, Speaker Mark-Viverito almost melted down regarding the failure of the Congress to pass legislation letting Puerto Rico default on its debts.  As her colleagues sat staring at their cell phones, the Speaker launched into recondite arguments about Puerto Rico’s territorial status: “I want to be clear about something that some may consider controversial.  The current territorial status of the island was not of our doing….It is unconscionable.”

Yes, it is true that the current status of Puerto Rico was not of “our” doing, if by “our” Mark-Viverito means New York City and New Yorkers, or the New York City Council that she ostensibly leads. 

Has the Council or its Speaker ever so preoccupied itself with a matter that has patently nothing to do with the city?  The Council has passed three resolutions just this year regarding Puerto Rico’s debt crisis.  We have a mayor who jets off to Rome, Paris, Israel and the Midwest to advance his various agendas, and a Council speaker whose greatest preoccupation is Puerto Rico.  How about these two spend the second half of their terms focused on New York City?

Next everyone saluted departing councilmember Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who was almost not allowed to run in 2013, you will recall, because her petitions were signed by the Yankees lineup, Mickey Mouse, etc etc., all giving the same home address and using the same handwriting.  Her nephew went to prison for stealing from a Bronx non-profit, and then after he got out he got a job with another Bronx non-profit.

Maria del Carmen Arroyo gave a speech in which she said that her son had asked her to cite Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler,” about knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, etc.

The Councilmember did not mention the apposite nature of the lyrics to her own fairly constant activities at the Yonkers Raceway casino, where she and her assemblymember mother reported tens of thousands of dollars of winnings.

She also didn’t mention that her son, Ricardo Aguirre, Jr., was paid about $60,000 for campaign work on her 2013 campaign—more than a third of her total expenditures.


Elsewhere in the Bronx, we hear that two current councilmembers, each of whom has been touched by scandal in the last two years, are said to be wearing wires.  No one will talk to them for fear of winding up on Preet Bharara’s playlist.

Also, one has to wonder what is going on with Ruben Wills?  He was indicted 18 months ago.  When is his trial supposed to start?  Unless, as with his colleagues in the Bronx, he is a walking microphone with orders to get dirt.         


Council Follies, Again

City Council Watch is relaunching today with a new format: from now on we will be publishing more frequently, with shorter, punchier items.  You can look for our longer analyses at City Journal or various other venues.


The Council voted yesterday on David Greenfield’s school security bill, which allots $20 million to pay for unarmed guards at all private and religious schools.  The bill passed 47-4.

The “No” votes were interesting.  Half the LGBT caucus voted no: CMs Dromm, Mendez and Johnson.  Danny Dromm and Rosie Mendez expressed concern about subsidizing schools that supposedly discriminate or propagandize against sexual minorities.  Corey Johnson made no comment, but indicated that he agreed with his colleague Dromm.

Inez Barron also opposed the measure, claiming that “profit, hedge-fund operated and other entities that choose to establish private educational institutions” should pay all their own costs.

CM Barron did not identify which NYC schools are “operated” by hedge funds.  But she did aver that providing the security guards would directly hurt the city’s public school students by taking away funds from school construction, repairs, etc.

(Incidentally, we note that the statue of Thomas Jefferson that CM Barron promised to destroy in her inaugural comments still lurks over the Chamber, haunting the Council with his evil, pedophiliac aura. When will she fell the great slavemaster?)

David Greenfield struck back, pointing out that the city already provides transportation, nurses, and crossing guards to private schools, and called out the “factually inaccurate” statement regarding funding.  Greenfield pointed out that the city has recently announced expanded funding for HIV positive people, for mental illness treatment, and for supportive housing, and nobody was complaining then that the money was being taken away from anyone else.

“The city of New York, quite frankly,” said Greenfield, “we’re flush with cash.”

Well that’s good to know.  Does the Council imagine that the good times will roll on and on?  When a downturn hits, it will be interesting to hear the cries of pain when these social service programs are forced to scale down.


Your Watcher was fascinated last February by the tremendous effort and resources that the Speaker’s office poured into her egregious “State of the City” address.  As you may (or probably don’t) recall, she built an extremely elaborate website to livestream her speech, which was branded with a special “Lift Every Voice” theme, very much like a political campaign.

As I wrote then, there is no reason for the Speaker of the Council to give a “State of the City” speech.  The mayor is supposed to give one, according to the Charter, but there is no such obligation for the speaker.  Think about it: does Carl Heastie give a “State of the State” address?  No.  Did John Boehner give a “State of the Nation” speech?  How absurd.

In any case I FOILed the Council to get information on the cost and planning of Melissa Mark-Viverito’s speech.  Building fancy websites is not cheap, and livestreaming an event costs a lot too.  The Council’s FOIL officer took nine months to answer my request, and what she gave me makes the release of Hillary Clinton’s emails seem like the epitome of transparent, open government.  I received scores of pages of emails that were entirely redacted except for the “From” line.  About twenty pages were totally black: it was only just possible to see that these pages were nothing more than screenshots of the website.  So why were they blacked from view?

So much for the openness Mark-Viverito promised upon her election.  Her office’s answer to my simple request to see emails pertaining to the production of the exercise in vanity that was her “State of the City” speech is an embarrassment.


Regarding the Speaker’s testimony to the quadrennial pay commission, did anyone else have a laugh when they got to the part where she talked about how much more productive the Council is now than it used to be?  She asserted, ostensibly straight-faced:

From a legislative perspective, the current Council has been even more active than in prior sessions. Council Members have already made 105% more bill and resolution drafting requests, introduced 41% more bills and enacted 32% more Local Laws than through the same time period in the immediately preceding session.

Drafting a bill request takes about ten minutes: the councilmember jots down an idea on a piece of paper and submits it to the office.  It is the job of the Legislative Staff to actually figure out how to turn the member’s brainstorm into something resembling a legal proposal. 

“The Council has not had a raise in ten years….”  Actually that isn’t true.  The current Council hasn’t had a raise in two years, when it was elected.  No one promised the 2013 candidates that they would get paid according to a COLA retroactive to 2005.

In any case the spirit of the 27th Amendment to the Constitution ought to prevail here:  “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”  That is to say, you can’t vote yourself a raise.  Any salary increase should wait until January 1, 2018, after the voters have had a say.


Spitzer Revises History, But Why?

Eliot Spitzer is rewriting his failed 2007 push to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, telling David Axelrod that he pulled the proposal because of pressure from Hillary Clinton during her Presidential campaign.  Spitzer said he is "ashamed" of his decision.

Eliot Spitzer has plenty to be ashamed about, but most of it has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton.  Those of us with even the slightest historical memory will recall that Spitzer's proposal to award illegal aliens in New York State with driver's licenses was met with howls of disapproval from politicians across the political spectrum, as well as, more importantly, significant anger from the electorate.

In the weeks following his announcement in October, 2007, Spitzer's favorability ratings dropped from 54 to 41 percent, and only 25 percent of voters said they would vote for his reelection. 

The poll numbers at the time directly reflected popular dissatisfaction with Spitzer's proposal. Two-thirds of voters said that driver's licenses were a privilege that unlawfully present non-citizens should not have.

Siena pollster Steven Greenberg remarked at the time that "Eliot Spitzer's standing with voters has fallen faster and further than any politician in recent New York history....The governor's fall is directly tied to his license proposal."

The pressure to rescind the illegal alien driver's license offer came not from above, but from below: popular outrage forced Spitzer to back down.  

Why is Spitzer revising history on this point?  Why do sociopaths do anything?  Other people who know more about the man can probably venture better guesses than I.  But it is revealing that Spitzer shapes the narrative to disguise the fact that illegal immigration remains deeply unpopular among Americans, who by and large oppose the elite consensus that illegal aliens must receive expedited normalization of their status.

Why else is Donald Trump so popular, except that he has foregrounded illegal immigration as the core issue of his campaign? Trump has pretended to run before, and nobody paid any attention to him at all. His poll numbers do not reflect the Kardashianization of the electorate so much as the voters' hunger for serious issues dealt with directly. Any candidate, in either party, who embraced a firm anti-illegal immigration position would have polled just as well.  

Eliot Spitzer, imagining that the political winds have changed, is blaming Hillary Clinton for his sensible political calculation of 8 years ago.  Should be interesting to see if this weird revisionism bears any fruit in his efforts at political self-rehabilitation. 



Recap of CD 23; What about Make the Road?

City Council Watch called the race in the 23rd CD for Bob Friedrich, and we were wrong, though he came in a close second.  It remains hard to take on the Queens County machinery, which retains the resources, local endorsements, and organization to mount an effective ground campaign and GOTV.  As one councilmember noted, “Queens Borough Hall essentially became Grodenchik central the last few weeks.”

So Barry Grodenchik, kind of the obvious choice anyway, wins.  Bob Friedrich can resume absolute rule of his demesne at Glen Oaks Village, which to be frank is probably a better fit for him, as his personality apparently tends more towards the autocratic than the legislative.

Rebecca Lynch’s 3rd place finish has to sting, and not just for her.  Organized labor poured tens of thousands of dollars into her campaign, and even in the last week an additional $12,000 dropped in as news spread that her ground game was weak.  One prominent politician in the area who was watching closely commented before the election that Lynch was nowhere to be seen, and that her candidacy lacked buzz.

Even $30,000 in independent expenditures from New Yorkers for Progress, a de Blasio/labor front group, weren’t any help.  Hiring the esteemed Progressive consultants Berlin Rosen didn’t help.  And, most importantly, the WFP didn’t help.

In the run-up to the election, many people assumed that the WFP and its legendary ground game were Rebecca Lynch’s magic bullet.  Noted Republican consultants begrudgingly conceded that she had a good shot at winning.  Brad Lander was making lunch bets with his colleagues that she would win, and Jimmy van Bramer enlisted volunteers in a big last-week push, hoping to lock in Lynch as a vote for his next bid to be Speaker.

But the bloom is off the WFP rose. The three to five point advantage that superior field operations gave to WFP candidates seems to have evened out as opponents have learned the lessons of the importance of a strong ground game.

The other—or should we say, the major-- disaster in the race belonged to Ali Najmi, who came in a dismal fifth place out of six candidates.  That’s what a New York Times endorsement and having Zephyr Teachout on board will do for you, it appears. 

Najmi, otherwise a perfectly reasonable fellow,  inexplicably yoked himself to the questionable “Make the Road by Walking,” a group of rabble-rousers for hire who bully local politicians into funding their dubious social service projects.  These Make the Road literacy or training programs are always folded into a larger project of “worker organizing” or “empowerment,” which require recipients to attend political meetings as an implicit condition of getting services that are, in fact, city-funded.  The whole operation gives off a creepy, People's Temple-type of vibe, to be honest.

Make the Road claims to have 16,000 “member-clients,” though even a brief observation of a few of their rallies reveals that the same 50 to 100 participants consistently show up, banging on empty paint buckets and desultorily chanting “la gente, unida, jamas sera' vencida.”  Make the Road recently spun off a 501(c)(4) organization called “Make the Road Action Fund,” which is technically allowed to campaign actively for candidates for political office.  The two groups are theoretically separate, and the “Action Fund” lists an address in Brooklyn, though IRS tax forms filed in 2014 by “Make the Road” detail a $193,703 grant to the Action Fund, which is listed at the same Jackson Heights address as Make the Road.  The grant is made for the purpose of “non-partisan electoral organizing.”

Perhaps the two groups will have their paperwork straight by the time their 2015 tax info is available, but the story is pretty clear to anyone who has paid attention to the cute games that the Working Families Party played with Data & Field Services.  Establishing a phantom firewall in order to pretend that one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing is an old trick, but one that is pretty easy to see through.  It seems fairly obvious that Make the Road, which receives millions of dollars from local and state government to provide social services, is siphoning some of that money to an ostensibly independent “Action Fund” in order to campaign for elected officials who will, lo and behold, allocate money to Make the Road.

Anyway, for an organization that is supposedly so great at grassroots organizing, Make the Road did a pretty terrible job organizing for Ali Najmi, who got 650 votes.


Council District 23 Election: Why Everyone Has it Wrong

The Council race to replace Mark Weprin in the easternmost reaches of Queens has attracted sparse, puzzled coverage in the mainstream, non-local media. With six candidates running for the Democratic nomination it is not surprising that Manhattan has sought a familiar, comprehensible narrative to explain the race in the distant 23rd District.

Thus the race has been boiled down by a naïve press to a proxy battle between the two competing wings of the city Democratic Party. On one side, Barry Grodenchik, former one-term assemblyman, long-term habitué of Queens Borough Hall, purse-carrier for yentas from Claire Shulman to Helen Marshall to Nettie Mayersohn to current avatar Melinda Katz, represents the traditional Queens County Dems, who have all lined up behind him. Grodenchik is the archetypal time-server, ready for his long-awaited reward.

On the other side, according to this narrative, representing the self-described Progressive wing of the Democratic Party, stands Rebecca Lynch, princess of labor steeped in union politics from the cradle, a labor lobbyist from the age of 22, and recent de Blasio staffer. Backed by the Progressive Caucus and an impressive roster of trade unions, Lynch has raised copious cash and hopes to join the ranks of the Council as a WFP-approved regular.

One could make the mistake of assuming that the battle lines are indeed so drawn. Of course, the press has also taken notice of upstart Ali Najmi, a lawyer and former Mark Weprin staffer who appears to have had a falling out with his old boss. Najmi, of Pakistani descent, seeks to be the first South Asian elected to the Council. The 23rd CD has a substantial number of Asians, though the percentage of Asian voters is substantially lower than their share of the overall population. Najmi won the endorsement of the New York Times and of left darling Zephyr Teachout, though some wags have noted that those two endorsements and fifty cents will still leave Najmi fifty cents short of getting a cup of coffee in the 23rd CD.

The problem with looking at this election as a calculus of endorsements and backers is that the voters of eastern Queens aren’t particularly attached either to Joe Crowley’s machine, or to the de Blasio/WFP left, and both Grodenchik and Lynch are perceived as outsiders. The blog Queens Crap has done a fantastic job detailing the candidates’ campaign contributions, and demonstrated that neither of them has raised a significant amount of money from inside the district. Grodenchik has received more than ten thousand dollars from other politicians’ campaign committees, for example, and Lynch has taken close to $50,000—more than half of her contributions—from labor unions.

The dark horse in the race, and the one that City Council Watch believes to have the inside track to victory, is Bob Friedrich. Friedrich, who has run previously in the district, is the only candidate currently running for whom voters in the 23rd District have pulled the lever, and in fairly large numbers at that. For instance, in 2009 Friedrich ran against Mark Weprin for the Democratic nomination for the council seat that David Weprin was vacating. Friedrich polled about 2,300 votes versus Weprin’s 4,400. But then, running as a Republican in the general election, Friedrich got 7,300 votes out of a total of almost 25,000, in a district where Democratic registration runs 5-to-1 against the GOP. In a race with no Weprins, Friedrich’s odds only improve.

Why does Bob Friedrich have a base in the district, where Grodenchik and Lynch have none? The key to comprehending the 23rd CD is to understand that about 50% of the district’s voters live in garden apartment co-ops, which are middle-income housing units mostly owned by the occupants. The people who live in these co-ops are fiercely committed to preserving the middle-class, suburban lifestyle they have worked to achieve. The area has more in common with Nassau County than it does with Sunnyside. The co-op denizens are unimpressed with the county political machine, and distrust the de Blasio administration.

The largest of these co-ops is Glen Oaks Village, which has almost 3,000 units and about 10,000 people. Bob Friedrich has been the president of Glen Oaks Village since 1991, and is well-known throughout the district as a civic leader, particularly on co-op related matters. His fundraising consists largely of smaller-sized donations from individuals inside the district, with no union or campaign war chest grants. Friedrich received a surprise endorsement yesterday from the Queens Tribune, which has typically been known as a mouthpiece for the Democratic machine. Also, Mark Weprin, who is officially supporting Grodenchik, has apparently let it be known that he thinks Friedrich is likely to win.

The election will be very close. It will be held on a Thursday, which is rather unusual, and the council vote will be the top of the ballot. Turnout is expected to be about 10%, with perhaps 6000 people casting ballots. Friedrich, according to a councilmember who has been following the race, is estimated to be starting with 1500 votes, which is a solid leg up. Obviously it will be tight, and probably decided by a margin of hundreds at most, but remember that you heard it here first: Bob Friedrich, who has never been a staffer or a lobbyist, and is thus unknown to the City Hall cognoscenti, will win.

NB: An interesting twist in the race concerning Ali Najmi is his relationship with Mark Weprin. Apparently annoyed by his former staffer, Weprin supposedly leaned on Satnam Panhar (a Sikh), and Celia Dosamentes (a Hindu) to enter the race in an effort to split the Asian vote and wreck the Muslim Najmi’s chance to get a lock on it. Both Panhar and Dosamentes have long-established ties to the Weprin family, so whether this is just conspiracy bluster or not, it does have the ring of truth.

Vanessa Gibson Demands Bratton Clean House; Ignores Own Backyard

Councilmember Vanessa Gibson, chair of the Public Safety Committee, has announced her plans to probe the finances and activities of the New York City Police Foundation.  This foundation, which is funded by private donations, hires consultants to study the operations of the NYPD and make recommendations; in some cases, these consultants have been hired by the police department. 

Longtime associates of NYPD Commissioner Bratton have apparently been among the people who have received consulting awards from the NYCPF, and several of these individuals were later hired as NYPD staff.

Councilmember Gibson told the Post that she is launching an investigation into Bratton’s relationship with the non-profit foundation, because she has “concerns about the levels of the consultants, the contracts and who’s coming in.”  She explains, “You don’t want there to be any relationships that can prevent or disrupt your relationship in terms of the work you’re doing as a member or as a city agency.”

The councilmember’s concern about favoritism and perceived conflicts of interests is rather rich.  Though she has been in the Council for only 18 months, she has already managed to blur the lines between her election donors and the organizations she personally allocates hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to through her discretionary “member items.”

For example, in her 2013 campaign for office, Gibson (who was at that time a member of the state Assembly) accepted contributions from 26 individual donors employed by SCAN New York.  SCAN is a service provider in the South Bronx that targets at-risk youth and helps through mentoring and various programs.  The 26 donors collectively gave Gibson $2,125, which doesn’t sound like much until you consider that her entire campaign raised only $110,000, most of which came from unions or other political committees.  Small donations from individuals are subject to city matching funds, which multiply their effect by a factor of six.

In the FY 2015 budget Councilmember Gibson allocated $20,000 to SCAN as part of the Council’s Anti-Poverty Initiative.

Eleven employees of the 1332 Fulton Avenue Day Care Corporation contributed to the 2013 Gibson Council campaign.  Gibson later awarded the non-profit organization $50,000 to provide social services to children in the district.

Four directors of the Garifuna Coalition contributed to the Gibson campaign: the organization was later given $10,000 as part of the Anti-Poverty Initiative.

The executive director of Southeast Bronx Neighborhood Centers wrote the Gibson campaign contribution checks on three separate occasions.  Gibson later allocated $10,000 to Southeast Bronx Neighborhood Centers out of her pot of discretionary funds.

Are any of these organizations corrupt?  Not to my knowledge. Is there anything  untoward about politicians creating the perception of a quid pro quo by accepting donations from individuals associated with organizations that they later help fund?  Not by the standards of the New York City Council, where that kind of thing is considered normal, even laudatory.  Give the woman some credit: at least she doesn’t appear to have established a non-profit that she gives money to and then proceeds to loot, unlike some of her former and current colleagues.

The council’s discretionary funding system is premised as a way for elected officials to funnel money to local political allies who provide services to the community.  This system allows the local councilmember to take credit for whatever projects or programs the city funds within the district, and thus expand his or her political base and stave off challenges.

In the case of Vanessa Gibson, the number of players in any given district is limited, and it makes sense that she would be acquainted or even friends with the same people whose groups she funds.  By the same token, is it so surprising that William Bratton would have long relationships with like-minded associates in the field of criminology, whom he would recommend for grants, and perhaps hire to serve on his staff?

Cronyism is never appealing to anyone with reformist tendencies.  But if Councilmember Gibson is really eager to root out favoritism in the awarding of contracts, she has ample opportunities to find it at City Hall, even in her own offices.   

Bertha Lewis Sees Reflection; Shrieks

Bertha Lewis, the last CEO and “Chief Organizer” of ACORN before that group’s descent into ignominy, wrote last week that while New York State political corruption is unfortunate, the real problem in New York is MWBE fraud.  Companies seeking preferential government contracts put minorities or women forward in order to get bids or tax credits, says Lewis, but these “fronts” deprive real minority businesses of opportunities.

The case Lewis cites involves Skanska, which in 2011 was fined because the construction giant gave $5.6 million to a minority-run business to pretend it was a subcontractor on the Dey Street entrance to the Fulton subway station.  The business, which was run by an Indian-American gentleman named Balu Kamat, was not capable of doing the work, though it did in fact get the money.  Skanska wound up doing the work itself.  In other countries they have different names for this sort of arrangement.  Balu Kamat pled guilty to fraud and served two years of probation, including six months under home confinement.

Bertha Lewis, the founder and president of The Black Institute, which operates out of the offices of well-known political consultancy The Advance Group, insists that this sort of fraud is “not a victimless crime,” and that minority “fronts,” or “men-in-skirts” as she calls them, have “blocked the creation of new jobs in communities of color.”

May I remind my readers of a speech that Bertha Lewis gave in 2004, when she stood in front of Brooklyn Community Board 2, and praised Bruce Ratner and his Atlantic Yards development, saying

we have negotiated what we believe is the real jewel in this crown: not an arena, but a 50/50 housing program, the only program of its type in this country.  No other developer has ever committed to 50% of their housing, as of right, which they could do, they could do all market housing.

As Norman Oder of Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report has pointed out, this claim was entirely false.  A large portion of the site was zoned for manufacturing, and required extensive rezoning to allow for any housing, much less the massive towers that Ratner wanted.  Bertha Lewis’ job was to provide Forest City Ratner with political cover so he could push ahead with the development, which in any case has scantily delivered on its promises.  In fact, by some counts, the current wave of development in downtown Brooklyn has had the effect of destroying far more affordable units than it will ever create.

Bertha Lewis’ whole career has consisted of serving as a front of one sort or another.  In her article she demands the creation of an official New York City "Chief Diversity Officer." Surely she has someone close at hand in mind for the job...maybe, Bertha Lewis herself? Certainly, given her PR work for Forest City Ratner, nobody can say she is not well-qualified for the position. 

NYCHA to End Parking Subsidies?

According to The New York Times, the de Blasio administration and NYCHA chief Shola Olatoye are planning to stare down the city's estimated 400,000 public housing residents over one of their chief perks: $10 reserved parking spots.

As I wrote in City & State last November: 

Public housing parking lots occupy some of the city’s most valuable real estate, but when it comes to addressing the city’s housing crisis, preserving $5 monthly parking spots for NYCHA residents is considered sacred....

After all, while parking spaces for NYCHA tenants are a great amenity for the residents, it is hard to argue that these parking lots are the most efficient use of space for cash-poor NYCHA. Renting the spots certainly doesn’t bring a lot of revenue: NYCHA residents pay as little as $60 for unreserved parking spots—per year....

Public housing denizens are highly protective of their subsidized apartments, which are often handed down through the generations. Even attempts to reallocate underutilized apartments, where a senior citizen may live alone in a three-bedroom unit, are met with suspicion and hostility from the tenants and the elected officials who depend on the votes of these well organized blocs....

Check out the transcripts of the April 2013 Public Housing Committee hearings if you are interested in the highly paranoid contemporary discourse around urban housing and displacement.

Council members, including the present Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and the current public advocate, Letitia James, filed suit to prevent the Infill plan from going forward. Then Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, calling the plan “counterproductive,” indicated he would put the brakes on any NYCHA land leasing, and the project was basically killed.

At the hearing last week the role of NYCHA in the expansion of affordable housing was addressed obliquely and wistfully. Council members clearly understand that some form of infill would be a wise use of the “asset management matrix,” as Speaker Mark-Viverito referred to it, but politically it is a third rail. Too bad, because at the rate it is going,  the administration is a long way from attaining 200,000 affordable units.

The Mayor took heat last week for his plan to let DYCD and DFTA take over the management of some five dozen NYCHA-based community centers.  Public Housing Committee Chair Ritchie Torres was joined by several colleagues and union officials in complaining about the supposed "privatization" of services that the mayor's plan would entail.

As Will Bredderman reported in The Observer

“There’s uncertainty about what the state of those centers is going to be,” said Mr. Torres, a native of public housing, claiming many public housing residents have complained of their dealings with private contractors. “When you privatize services, you’re undercutting the municipal labor force, and then something is lost and you can’t measure it in dollars and cents.”

Whenever elected officials complain about "privatization" their words bear close scrutiny.  The implication is that "private" means "for-profit," whereas it is nearly certain that any group that assumes direct management of the community centers will be a not-for-profit social services organization, most likely with existing roots in the community.

As far as the intangibles that Torres refers to, surely he isn't suggesting that the existing municipal workers provide such astounding services in the community centers that they are truly irreplaceable.  Every time a municipal union worker is threatened with replacement, we are warned of imminent disaster.  It is Reagan firing PATCO all over again, only this time, instead of a spike in air disasters, the senior center lunches will no longer offer a choice of dessert, and the new managers will provide cost-cutting pingpong balls for the Foosball table.

If de Blasio and Olatoye are serious about facing down NYCHA's enormous bloc of rent-seeking residents, then more power to them.  But they better be expecting significant blowback, because it will surely be fierce.  

Mark Weprin Moves on -- Reshma Saujani to the Rescue!

The resignation of Mark Weprin has created an unexpected opportunity for aspiring elected officials in eastern Queens.  Weprin, an assemblyman who swapped seats with his brother David in 2009, was entitled to a third term if he wanted it.  But having lost his campaign for the Speakership, and given the dim prospects of a white man ever again attaining that post, Weprin has decided to pack it in. 

The county organization has unsurprisingly gelled around ex-assemblyman Barry Grodenchik as the anointed successor to Weprin.  A longtime party regular and former Parkside executive, Grodenchik is tight with Boss Crowley and the insiders, dating back to the days when he carried around Clare Shulman’s pocketbook.  He also knows how to go along and when to take one for the team, as when he backed out of the 2013 race for Queens Borough President, letting Melinda Katz firm up the county’s substantial Jewish vote. 

The most amusing news to come out of the current shuffle comes from an odd source not typically associated with Utopia Parkway.  Reshma Saujani, 2013 third-place finisher for Public Advocate and longtime resident of Chelsea, has reportedly been making calls to Joe Crowley advancing herself as the person to replace Weprin!

Reshma Saujani (who did not respond to phone messages) is notoriously tone-deaf when it comes to retail politics.  Her 2010 vanity run for Congress against Carolyn Maloney was a total disaster.  She outspent Tish James by about 30% in 2013 and got 15% of the primary vote.  Her “Girls Who Code” organization is a massive marketing campaign that gained media accolades and support from prominent corporations before any girl had so much as turned on a computer.  “Girls Who Code” is nakedly a platform for the future political career of its founder, who does not know how to code in the first place, and which tapped into the STEM-gender gap obsession of Times readers and steel-jawed Hillary Clinton supporters everywhere.

There is a class of entitled do-gooder types who are convinced that they should be elected to something, and are driven crazy by the failure of the electorate to recognize what all their venture capital friends and marketing guru dinner-party companions have already agreed upon.  Reshma Saujani is apparently so certain that she needs to hold elected office that she is pushing herself ahead of the many qualified candidates in eastern Queens—including, one may add, several South Asians—to attain her goal.  Not by moving there—just by making some well-placed phone calls.  How presumptuous, and what disrespect she shows to the people of CD 23.  As though they could do no better than to usher Reshma Saujani into office, in time for her to prepare to be the first Indian-American woman President by 2028.  Come on Douglaston, we are counting on you!


The other interesting question surrounding Mark Weprin’s departure is the matter of his chairmanship of the Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee.  This key Land Use subcommittee is one of a handful of non-frivolous Council committees that require a certain amount of actual knowledge of the rules and the capacity to be judicious.  In other words, it can’t go to just anybody. 

One could wonder if Rosie Mendez has served out her time in the Speaker’s outer darkness for her crime of supporting Christine Quinn for mayor and Dan Garodnick for speaker.  As an attorney and former chair of the Public Housing Committee she could manage Zoning capably.  Or perhaps, assuming the Speaker cares to mend fences with her neighbors to the west, she could slot Inez Dickens to the post—though given her apparent reluctance to run for Congress in 2016, there may not be enough reason for her to bother currying favor with Harlem’s fading black political elite.

We are willing to venture a bold guess: Vincent Gentile, having volunteered to subject himself to a pummeling in Staten Island during the special congressional election, will get a consolation prize in being elevated to the chair of Zoning.              

A Simple Solution: Break All the Windows

Everyone in New York now understands that “Broken Windows” policing is a blight on our city.  All kinds of normal behavior have been criminalized, to the point that average citizens are constantly being harassed by the police for engaging in harmless behavior.  Even the Mayor's son walks in terror of being victimized by his father's security detail.

A striking example occurred earlier this week when Councilman Corey Johnson was stopped by three plainclothesmen when he was walking between subway cars.  Apparently it is a “violation of the law” to walk from car to car, because the police gave Johnson a $75 ticket.  The hapless cops, it seems, were unaware that they were harassing an elected official, not just a nobody, and that their reckless abuse of authority was going to make the pages of the city’s dailies. 

New Yorkers throughout the five boroughs were rocked by the news that Councilman Johnson himself was swept up in a “broken windows” sweep, but were relieved by news that he has initiated a formal complaint against his persecutors.

Councilman Rafael Espinal came out on Twitter in support of his colleague, announcing that he is “with Corey all the way.”  Espinal added, “as a NY'er I've walked through doors many times in my lifetime. 1. For convenience 2. Most importantly for safety reasons.”

Indeed, who could argue with the councilman’s logic?  “Convenience,” as everyone knows, is always its own justification.  Nothing else need be said—except that the wise and prudent Councilman Espinal points out that “safety” is an even more compelling reason to walk between the cars on a moving train.

We are reminded of a bill, Resolution 91, that Councilman Jumaane Williams proposed last year that would have asked the NYPD and the MTA to stop arresting people who commit "minor" crimes, because arrests can cause “significant stress” and “financial hardship” to the arrestees.  It is sobering to think that, if people of conscience had responded to Williams’ call, then Corey Johnson might never have been dragged into the fine procedural net that the NYPD has cast in pursuit of “Broken Windows” policing.

Rafael Espinal and Jumaane Williams have their hearts in the right place, encouraging people to act out of a sense of their own convenience or safety, and asking the police to stop arresting people “committing” “crimes,” whatever that means.  But the time has come for a bolder step: one that will not just end unjust arrests, but will cut the crime rate by 90% or more.

We need to eliminate laws.

Think about it: without laws, there would be no lawbreakers.  It’s so simple, that I don’t know why no one has thought of this before.  Without laws, a free people could go about their business without constant fear of arrest by police looking for broken windows in order to meet their quotas.

Corey Johnson would never again be molested for walking between subway cars, because the absurd rule against doing so would not exist.

“Showtime” dancers would be free to express themselves through dance.  Hardworking men and women on their way home would be allowed to relax and kick back with a beer or a smoke on the subway.  A youth encumbered with a candy wrapper would be entitled to drop it wherever he stands. 

Squeegeemen would be once again allowed to ply their trade at busy intersections, ensuring that we have clean windshields, and helping to realize the Mayor’s vision of zero traffic accidents.

Vendors of loose cigarettes such as Eric Garner would no longer be constantly harassed by policemen doing the bidding of local shopkeepers angry about his competition.  The abolition of petty legislation would mean that crime would plummet.  No one would fear arrest, and therefore, no one would fear, period.

As Riker’s Island became empty of criminals, we could repurpose it as a sanctuary for homeless families or undocumented immigrant children.  Where turnstile jumpers and sidewalk spitters were once incarcerated for cruel terms of solitary confinement, literacy classes could flourish.

The arrest of Corey Johnson will mark a revolution in human understanding.  The problem isn’t crime: the problem, my friends, is the law.  Once all the windows are broken, there will no longer be any windows to break.  And then, with the fresh air of freedom blowing freely through the empty sashes, we will have achieved true liberty.

Fiscal Follies at the Budget Hearings

Budget hearings began yesterday in Chambers, and really dedicated Council watchers got to catch some truly fantastic moments of irrelevance and idiocy.

Commissioner of Finance Jacques Jiha did a nimble job of answering questions and concerns about the city’s tax structure, revenue collection, deeds, etc.  Then Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez launched into his now-familiar prologue to virtually any public comment he makes:

We know that you and many other commissioners…we know that you inherit some mess from previous leaders, and that it is now our responsibility to continue working, cleaning whatever could be done better, and at the same time to continue with the vision of this administration, which is to close the gap that divides our city between the 1% and the 99%.

Few councilmembers appear to have accepted so completely, and are as willing to cough up so frequently, this founding myth of the de Blasio administration as Ydanis Rodriguez.  He cherishes it as death row inmates may cherish a vision of the Gates of Heaven. 

Rodriguez asked a few questions about the money that the city keeps on deposit in various banks, insinuating that the funds, which the city uses to pay for ongoing expenses, should be rightfully “reinvested” in local communities.  The councilmember, among others, appears to believe that the bulk of New York’s tax revenue is ripped from the piggy banks and mattresses of the city’s poorest communities.  “Our big brothers and big sisters on Wall Street have done very well from us,” Rodriguez said knowingly.

Saving his best question for last, Councilmember Rodriguez opened his arms and declaimed,

We need you, we need the Department of Finance, to collect the money…that we are able to save the firehouses, invest in afterschool programs.  But, it breaks my heart sometimes when I see a single mother, who parked the car in a non-parking area on 93rd Street and Riverside Drive, and somebody is waiting to tow the car for the purpose that we will be able to collect the money.  So there is now a ticket given to that individual because she parked the car during the time she was able to go and pick up her daughter or son from school.  Is someone waiting to tow the car and collect the money?  How can we change that approach?

Commissioner Jiha pointed out that parking regulations are out of his scope, and that the question might be better directed to the NYPD or Department of Transportation.

Then Councilmember Laurie Cumbo had her turn.  Property taxes are a constant concern for local elected officials, but Cumbo had a unique twist on the old question of rising rates:

I have a question about property taxes and not-for-profit organizations.  [My district] is gentrifying rapidly, and property values are going up very quickly.  So I am finding situations in my district where not-for-profit organizations and their landlords, the way they structured their leases was that the landlords would pass off the property taxes to the not-for-profit organizations, and as taxes are going up…many of these not-for-profit organizations are finding that they can’t keep pace, and some are seeing increases of ten, fifteen, twenty thousand dollars a year.  Have you seen cases like this, where property taxes of private landlords were passed off to not-for-profit organizations?

Commissioner Jiha said he would look into the question, and Councilmember Cumbo followed up by asking,

Is there some type of tax forgiveness program, or some way where some not-for-profit organizations can become exempt, who cannot afford to pay taxes? …. They are exempt from paying property taxes, but if they signed into their lease that they would assume the responsibility for it at a time when the community was very different, now they are held liable for paying those expenses.

Laurie Cumbo founded and ran a not-for-profit museum in Fort Greene, and has close ties with members of the Brooklyn arts community.  It is pretty clear that some of her associates probably signed weird leases that require them to cover their landlord’s property taxes, and are annoyed that increasing property values, which they as renters are not even seeing the upside of, are making their effective rent go up.  So Councilmember Cumbo is, basically, trying to figure out if there is way to make the city pay their rent.

Single mothers who got towed on the Upper West Side, or not-for-profit administrators with dodgy leases—do not fear!  Your advocates are hard at work in City Hall. 

Playing at Protest: Lander and Menchaca Smile at the Nice Policeman

Councilmembers Brad Lander and Carlos Menchaca got themselves arrested yesterday as part of a demonstration against a car wash in Park Slope.  Marching in support of a lawsuit that eight employees of the Vegas Auto Spa have filed against the owner of the car wash, the elected officials blocked traffic and were removed by the NYPD in what Lander called an act of “civil disobedience.”  Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito participated in the protest but did not subject herself to arrest.

Civil disobedience is how people respond to repressive authority when politics has failed them.  It is an act against the state.  But Brad Lander and Carlos Menchaca are elected representatives and agents of the state, and furthermore are part of the ruling clique.  In what sense are these powerful elected officials in a position to perform “civil disobedience” regarding a labor dispute between the employees and owner of a decrepit car wash?

Yesterday’s action brings to mind the farcical protest of a few months ago, when two dozen councilmembers blocked traffic on lower Broadway to protest the Eric Garner decision, held a die-in on the steps of City Hall, then went inside to participate in the scheduled Stated Meeting.  The point of civil disobedience is that there is some risk to the participants--30 days in jail, getting beaten up, at the very least a fine—in order to demonstrate their dedication to the cause.  Watching a bunch of legislators enact a zero-cost charade of civil disobedience, when they are actually the ones in charge of the city, is the ultimate sign that politics in our one-party city is totally empty. 

Even Mayor de Blasio praised the councilmembers’ feckless manifestation, citing proudly his own “civil disobedience” arrest in 2013 when he protested the closing of Long Island College Hospital—which wound up closing anyway, after he was Mayor. 

The problem with the Progressives is that they can’t admit they are in charge, because their whole mission is an endless uphill battle against the forces of reaction.  So Brad Lander and Carlos Menchaca smilingly pantomime the gestures of revolution, while the police whom they control go along with the charade of arresting them for the cameras.

De Blasio's Immigrant Grandmother: Sweatshop Boss

Mayor de Blasio tugged at the heartstrings of all New Yorkers during his State of the City address when he spoke of his immigrant grandmother, Anna Briganti, who well over a century ago forsook the beauties of Italy “for an apartment at 205 East 17th Street in Manhattan, just a short walk from here…a place lacking the tranquil comforts of her childhood.”

The mayor explained that, in search of “a better life,” his grandmother and her two sisters started an embroidery company in 1910.

“My grandmother’s story – like most New York success stories – was not a fairy tale,” explained the Mayor.  “She did not stumble upon success through luck or charm; she forged it with hard work and raw grit.”

An inspiration, to be sure.

However, the Mayor omitted the part of the story where his grandmother and her sisters turned their house at 205 East 17th Street into a factory where no fewer than 34 people were working by 1915. 

Moreover, he neglected to mention that his grandmother’s sister Imperior was arrested, according to The New York Times (12/4/1915) on charges of “violating regulations relating to smoking and safety appliances.”  The arrest came “as a result of an extensive campaign against fire hazards in the factories of the city.”

Mayor de Blasio’s great-aunt pled guilty to “having an inadequate fire alarm apparatus,” four years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 garment workers less than a mile ("just a short walk") south of the “Misses Briganti” home/"factory at 205 East Seventeenth Street.”

Bill de Blasio certainly isn't at fault for how his grandmother made money running a dangerous sweatshop.  But he is at fault for prominently foregrounding his insipid version of a story of immigrant striving, when the truth is much more complex and interesting.  Even if it doesn't fit his simplistic "two cities" narrative.

Chirlane McCray Exploits Her Daughter's Woes

The shamelessness of Mayor De Blasio and his wife in foregrounding their children to score points is stunning.  There appears to be no limit to how far this scheming couple is willing to push their kids into the spotlight in order to gain political leverage.

This week Chirlane McCray announced a broad initiative to “create a roadmap” in order to “outline a plan” to provide better mental health resources to New Yorkers.  The initial roadmap will be rolled out this summer, and then the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City will work with city agencies to “pursue its findings.”

Then, just as her husband used their son Dante as a prop when he spoke in December about the dangers that the police pose to young black males, McCray trotted out their daughter Chiara to be the city's poster child for recovery from depression and substance abuse.

“I’m proud to say that Chiara is kicking butt at recovery—and she’s working really hard to help other young people dealing with similar challenges,” pronounced McCray.  All well and good for Chiara, though one wonders how eager this teenager actually is to have updates on her nascent recovery from alcohol and drug addiction used as part of her parents’ ceaseless public relations campaigns. 

It was one thing for the de Blasio machine to release news of Chiara’s addiction in late 2013 to get ahead of media reports, but creating a professionally filmed commercial of the announcement was in bad taste.  Then with (presumably) ghostwritten articles on xoJane.com, and now being used as an element of her mother’s speech, one wonders at what point the de Blasios will let up.  When she relapses, God forbid?

The most repulsive part of McCray’s speech, however, was when she insinuated that it was a financial struggle for her and then-Public Advocate de Blasio to pay for their daughter’s treatment:  “It was quite a task for us to find affordable mental health professionals and a program to meet Chiara’s needs. The needs of our daughter, who is no longer a child and not quite an adult. A young woman who has become an edgy biracial activist.”

Chiara being biracial is irrelevant to anything outside of a de Blasio campaign mailer, though at this point it is no surprise that the family would interject their demographic status anywhere.  But it is outrageous that McCray would pretend that it was a financial struggle for them to get help for their daughter.  Leaving aside the fact that the family income was likely close to $300,000 at the time of Chiara’s crisis, Public Advocate de Blasio, as a city employee, had access to excellent health insurance that covers unlimited inpatient rehab at nominal cost...and that’s with the HMO option.  Even in the unlikely case that the de Blasios chose one of the cheapest plans offered by the city, Chiara was still eligible for at least 30 days of rehab, and seven days of detox.

One supposes that, at their income and debt maintenance level, it could have been a stretch for the de Blasio family cash flow to pay for 90 days of luxe care at Promises Malibu, or some other spa facility catering to the elite.  But the recovery industry is mature enough now that it offers price points for everyone, and insurance companies know that it is cheaper to pay for a few months in rehab than it is to cover the aftermath of drunken car crashes.  In her effort to appear conversant with middle-class financial woes, Chirlane McCray comes off as clueless as Hillary Clinton did when she claimed that she and President Clinton were "flat broke" on leaving the White House. 

None of this is too shocking, of course.  Bill de Blasio has been using his wife and children as political props for years.  Aside from perhaps Sarah Palin, has any American politician since Nixon’s Checkers speech been as unctuous and ingratiating, so stupidly self-righteous in regard to his family, as Bill de Blasio?  Seriously: if you can think of someone, let me know.