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.

Tuesday's Line-up: Close Races?

Tuesday’s election is practically a non-event as far as the municipal elections go.  There is nothing competitive happening in any of the races for major offices.  For instance, Joe Lhota is bringing Rudy Giuliani to campaign with him in senior centers on Staten Island’s south shore: if the GOP candidate for mayor is trying to muster support among elderly Republican Italians, we can be fairly sure that his internal polling is not predicting a major victory.

The mayor, the public advocate, the comptroller, all five borough president races…is there the slightest doubt who will win any of these elections?  Would anyone take even 20-1 odds on the Democratic nominee losing in any major race?  People thought that the James/Squadron runoff was a waste of money, but really the general election is the one that good government types should think about getting rid of.

Fortunately for political junkies there are still a few competitive races to watch in the city council election…sort of.  Of the 51 council races, a handful could be close enough to watch.

District 19, in Northeast Queens, had one of the most contentious Democratic primary council races to replace disgraced CM Dan Halloran, who is leaving the Council in order to deal with his federal felony indictment.  Paul Vallone of the well-known Vallone family overcame the field with the substantial assistance of REBNY’s Jobs for New York PAC, which poured over $360,000 into the district to get Vallone the nomination, which comes out to $120 per vote.  Vallone wound up beating WFP candidate Austin Shafran by only 150 votes, so REBNY can probably consider its money well spent.

Paul Vallone works for his father’s lobbying firm and is attached to the old Vallone & Vallone law firm, which now serves largely as an “of counsel” answering service for Sacco & Fillas, another Queens law firm.  He is facing a Republican challenger, Dennis Saffran, who ran for Council against Tony Avella in 2001 and lost by a tiny margin.  Saffran, also an attorney, ran an organization called Citizens for the Community Interest, which fights what it considers the excesses of civil rights advocacy, and promotes anti-loitering laws and civil confinement of mentally ill homeless people who threaten passers-by.

The 19th CD is an unusual district in New York City, and largely resembles a Nassau County suburban bedroom community.  The area is basically conservative in the original sense, in that it resists the kind of overdevelopment that has destroyed many neighborhoods further west in Queens.  After electing Tony Avella twice, the district voted Dan Halloran, a law-and-order style Republican, into office in 2009.  Paul Vallone is likely to win on Tuesday, though his victory is not a certainty.  Paul Graziano, the 3rd place contender in the Democratic primary, has endorsed Dennis Saffran as the candidate least beholden to the real estate industry.  Graziano, whom I identified as a “left conservative” earlier this season, was never a Democratic loyalist, so his defection is less of a betrayal than some have suggested, but this also means that his endorsement will not necessarily draw a lot of Democratic votes.  In any case, the 19th CD is one to keep an eye on.

Another potentially interesting race that is CD 43 in southwest Brooklyn, where CM Vincent Gentile is aiming to become the senior member of the council.  Gentile, who served as State Senator for three terms starting in 1996, swapped seats with CM Marty Golden when Golden defeated him in his 2002 bid for a fourth term, and has served since then.  Gentile was notoriously on Speaker Quinn’s pay-no-mind list, and suffered the indignity of being denied chairmanship of a committee or even a subcommittee: instead he was made Chairman of the Select Committee on Libraries, of which he was the sole member.  He was shorted on discretionary funding as well, leaving him open to criticism that he was an inadequate representative for the district.

Gentile, to his credit, has argued that being on Christine Quinn’s bad side has been a sign of his independence.  Indeed, now that Quinn’s political future and legacy are in tatters, who amongst us can say that Vinnie Gentile should have kissed up to her more effectively?  In any case, he is facing a proxy for Marty Golden on Tuesday in the form of John Quaglione, a Golden staffer.  Quaglione is making an issue of the fact that Gentile didn’t bring sufficient funding to the district, though how a first-term member of the minority party expects to do better is a mystery.  Gentile has outraised Quaglione, and remains very popular among Democrats, having never faced a primary challenge.  He typically wins around 55 to 60% of the vote in his general elections, though this could wind up the year that Brooklyn elects a Republican.  Again, one to watch, though I wouldn’t strain my eyesight over it.

Finally, we consider a race that really isn’t much in doubt, but is interesting for other reasons.  CM Eric Ulrich of CD 32 in Queens, covering Howard Beach and the western (white) end of the Rockaways, is popular in his district and well-regarded by his peers.  A Republican with WFP and UFT backing, Ulrich is the only candidate in any city election this year to have received a campaign contribution from Mayor Bloomberg.  Ulrich ran for state senate in 2012 against Joseph Addabbo and lost, though it can be reasonably argued that Hurricane Sandy suppressed turnout in Ulrich’s main electoral districts of support.  

Eric Ulrich, not yet 30, appears destined for great things.  And yet, what could they be?  As a Republican, his future in city politics seems capped.  It is unlikely that we will see a non-self financed Republican mayor anytime in the near future.  He is clearly ambitious and capable, yet his electoral prospects are hard to calculate beyond his current position, which incidentally, he is sure to retain come Tuesday.  His Democratic opponent, Lew Simon, is running a low-funded, underdog campaign that was hampered last month by news that the candidate had an angioplasty a month before the general election.  Simon, a longtime district leader, is a staffer for Senator Addabbo, though this information is not foregrounded by the campaign.  The election will likely go to the incumbent, but the results should be interesting to read in regard to the political future of CM Ulrich.


Dog Whistling Dixie Down The Wind Past A Graveyard

Republican mayoral candidate Joseph Lhota outraged Democrats this week by releasing a commercial linking his opponent Bill de Blasio to the supposedly criminal-friendly policies of the Dinkins administration, for which de Blasio worked early in his career.  De Blasio condemned the ad as “divisive, inappropriate,” and said that New Yorkers would be “disgusted” by it.

Letitia James, Democratic nominee for public advocate, called the ad a “dog whistle” and insisted it be removed from the airwaves as unfit to be seen.

This phrase “dog whistle” has come into widespread use lately, and is a curious instance of a word that enacts its own meaning.  As used by Letitia James it means roughly, “a message with secret meaning that is communicated sub rosa to alert listeners.”  Council member James says that Lhota’s ad is trying to stir up white voters with memories of the high crime rate under David Dinkins.  But in calling the commercial a “dog whistle” James is dog whistling to her own base that the ad, and by implication Lhota himself, is racist, without ever using that loaded word specifically.

Lhota’s commercial is provocative and crude, and represents a floundering campaign’s miserable effort to gain traction.  But in what sense is it false?  Bill de Blasio did in fact work for the Dinkins administration, which is widely and commonly held to have been a failure, despite recent revisionist efforts to rehabilitate it.  Crime rates peaked and leveled off during Dinkins’ term, when ten thousand New Yorkers were murdered.  Ask anyone what their main memory of the Dinkins years is and they will likely cite the Crown Heights riot, which Dinkins accepted responsibility for mishandling.  Crown Heights was a major disaster in New York City history, and was labeled “the most serious anti-Semitic incident in American history.”  Lhota isn’t blaming de Blasio for Crown Heights, but he is asking whether de Blasio’s policies on crime are similar to those of Dinkins.  Why is that question met with insinuations of racism and called out of bounds?  De Blasio criticizes Lhota’s work for the Giuliani administration, which seems like a perfectly reasonable strategy for a political campaign.  What then is so outrageous about linking de Blasio to Dinkins?

Moreover it is a bit rich for the de Blasio campaign to complain about using race as an electoral tactic.  Mayor Bloomberg was stupid and absurd in calling the now-famous Dante de Blasio commercials “racist.”  But none other than Council member and former Black Panther Charles Barron more broadly and clearly articulated Bloomberg’s intuition in 2009 when he lambasted Bill de Blasio’s campaign for public advocate, which became the model for his mayoral run:

It's an insult to the black community, because you need to be talking about our black issues. Don't just promote your wife.  It's not fair to her, because everybody likes her. But that's the political animalism of Bill de Blasio - that he'll do these kinds of things, and he [won't] even stop at his own wife to get elected.
It's all right to have a family photo in the first piece of mail and maybe even the second piece, but the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, 10th piece, you're still promoting your wife - it is obvious. Everybody in the city is talking about it. ... The truth of the matter is she is a wonderful, beautiful woman for him to do that is a shame.

So if Joe Lhota is dog whistling that crime will rise under de Blasio by linking him to his former boss’s admittedly terrible policies, what would we call de Blasio’s use of his black wife and kids in his campaign advertising?  A howling siren?  A klaxon? 

Consider this video of Bill de Blasio’s daughter Chiara, which was released on the campaign’s official YouTube channel.  It begins with Miss de Blasio saying how happy she is to work with her family on her father’s campaign, “because it would be one thing if he were just some boring white guy who didn’t know what he was talking about.”  This line gets a laugh from the audience, including the candidate himself, and is clearly the salient feature of the video, whose description reads, “Chiara de Blasio introduces her dad, who's ‘not just some boring white guy,’ at a Young Progressives for de Blasio event last week.”

Most teenage children think their dads are boring—mine certainly do—but that isn’t the joke here.  In fact it is the opposite.  Not only is Bill de Blasio not boring as a dad, he is not boring qua white man.  How refreshing!  This is, please remember, an official message of the de Blasio campaign, linked to the campaign website.  We have gone beyond dog whistling here, gone beyond codes or winks or insinuations, and into explicit blazons of overt racial characterization. 

I’m not saying that the de Blasio campaign is racist, or that white men are unfairly picked on, or that the Lhota commercial is in good taste.  But given that the de Blasio campaign has been so willing to foreground the race of its candidate’s family, and to highlight how extraordinarily different he is from typical white people, it seems more than a bit disingenuous for the campaign to then pretend that a question about de Blasio’s links to a failed mayoralty is beyond the bounds of polite discussion, because some hierophantic ears, tuned to a secret frequency, might hear a message that is already in the open anyway.


De Blasio Spouse Tie to Hikind Corruption Probe

Recent reports, concerning advertising payments made by Maimonides Medical Center to a company owned by Dov Hikind, have elided the fact that Chirlane McCray, wife of Bill de Blasio, was a key marketing executive at the hospital during the period the payments were made.

Crain’s reported last month that Governor Cuomo’s Moreland Commission, tasked to investigate corruption in the Legislature, had subpoenaed Maimonides as part of a probe into Assembly member Dov Hikind.  Hikind, whose district includes Maimonides, has a weekly radio program which sells advertising through DYS Production, owned by Hikind.  Hikind failed to mention that he had received income from DYS Production on his financial disclosure forms, and was forced to amend his forms dating to 2006.

Maimonides Medical Center receives substantial funding from the state, and spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbying annually.  The hospital disclosed that it paid DYS Productions $65,000 in one recent year, though Hikind only admitted to receiving between $5,000 and $20,000 that year.  Given that Maimonides receives so much state funding, it seems like a good question as to whether there is a conflict of interest on Hikind’s part in accepting hefty advertising dollars from the institution.

Oddly enough, Chirlane McCray, wife, helpmeet and political strategist to Mayor-presumptive Bill de Blasio, was a marketing executive in charge of communications and major ad buys at Maimonides Medical Center from 2005-2010.

Ilene Tynion, Vice President for Public Affairs at Maimonides, clarified McCray’s role during her time at the Brooklyn medical center, and minimized her possible interactions with Dov Hikind or his advertising company.  “Chirlane was the Assistant VP for Marketing, which meant that she managed the relationship with Della Femina Advertising, our outside agency, and handled internal communications, messaging, the employee newsletter; and also external communications, such as an insert in Physician’s Practice magazine, or other ad hoc communications.”

Asked about the hospital’s advertising on Dov Hikind’s radio show, Tynion insisted that while advertising was under Chirlane McCray’s purview, “ethnic and niche marketing” was directed by Maimonides’ Community Affairs department, which operates in a separate reporting line from the External Affairs department, where McCray worked.  Nevertheless, Tynion allowed that McCray was “part of the team that participated in in the process.  All of us participate in Community Affairs to some extent…she was part of the process.”

Chirlane McCray’s husband is a longtime ally of Dov Hikind, who backed both de Blasio and Bill Thompson for mayor.  In 2010, when Simcha Felder left the Council to work for John Liu, Hikind, Blasio and Sheldon Silver backed Joe Lazar to take the seat in what became an all-out proxy war against David Greenfield, who was backed by the Kings County Democratic establishment, headed then by Vito Lopez, and who also received the support of de Blasio foe Lew Fidler.

So was Chirlane McCray helping her husband’s political pal by steering advertising dollars to his radio program, possibly as insurance for Hikind’s support for de Blasio’s eventual run for Mayor?  As Maimonides Medical Center continues to insist, the money they paid Hikind was a “tiny percentage” of their total ad budget—perhaps tiny enough that a word from a marketing executive to a community affairs representative would be enough to get those “ethnic or niche” dollars assigned to the local assembly member’s radio show.

The Moreland Commission is looking into it…let’s see what they have to say.


Bill De Blasio and Micah Kellner Teamed up for Car Cash

Democratic mayoral nominee Bill de Blasio joined Assemblyman Micah Kellner in a concerted 18-month campaign to block Nissan from getting the contract for the Taxi of Tomorrow, while each accepted the maximum campaign contributions from the CEO of a rival company.  The other company, Vehicle Production Group (VPG), was funded by a $50 million federal loan that soured earlier this year, resulting in VPG’s bankruptcy and the seizure of its assets by the government.  

The Public Advocate made news last week when he expressed his displeasure with Taxi and Limousine Commissioner David Yassky, vowing to replace him should he win the general election.  Yassky and de Blasio have a long history of butting heads, back to Yassky's opposition to de Blasio's campaign for Speaker in 2005.  Micah Kellner, who has tangled with Yassky publically in the past, made a stir when he tweeted “Amen!” in response to de Blasio’s announcement regarding the commissioner last Thursday.

City Council Watch (followed by the New York Post) has already covered Micah Kellner’s constant efforts on behalf of VPG and its MV-1 van, including a spirited sales pitch before the TLC, and chipper quotes for VPG promotional literature.  In return for his passionate support, Fred Drasner, the CEO of VPG, donated thousands of dollars to Kellner’s assembly and council campaigns.

Bill de Blasio is well-known for operating from the pocket of New York’s medallion fleet owners, who have, along with their lawyers and family members, et al, contributed more than a quarter-million dollars to his mayoral campaign.  Unnoticed amidst all this cash is the quiet $4950 that Fred Drasner gave to the de Blasio campaign in July 2012, in the same week that VPG gave $5000 to Micah Kellner.    

Micah Kellner and Bill de Blasio, incidentally, are the only two candidates to have received money from Fred Drasner in the current cycle.  In fact, they are the only two candidates in the state of New York to have received money from Fred Drasner since 2001, when he gave to George Pataki.

The Public Advocate first teamed up with AM Kellner in May 2011 when they, along with Brooklyn BP Marty Markowitz, wrote a letter to Comptroller John Liu asking him to investigate the Taxi of Tomorrow RFP process.  De Blasio, Kellner and Markowitz claimed that Ricardo, Inc., a consultant hired by the TLC to vet the three submissions, was biased against one of the contenders, a Turkish car manufacturer called Karsan Automotive.  Ricardo Inc. had prior dealings with the other two companies, a couple of little players named Ford and Nissan, and thus was not impartial in its consideration.

Micah Kellner was already on Fred Drasner’s payroll at this point, so we know why he was so eager to derail the Taxi of Tomorrow RFP process.  Marty Markowitz and Bill de Blasio had apparently been told that Karsan would build an auto factory in Brooklyn, and were on board for that reason.  Although, one must admit, it really does sound preposterous to imagine New York City contracting with a Turkish car manufacturer to supply its entire fleet of taxis.  But perhaps I’m way off base: after all, Turkey falls right between the Czech Republic and Indonesia in world automobile production.  

In any case, de Blasio and Kellner kept pushing, even after Markowitz had given up the fight to give Turkey the Taxi of Tomorrow contract.  In September 2012, two months after Fred Drasner had maxed out to de Blasio and written his latest check to Kellner, the two elected officials co-signed a letter to David Yassky and the rest of the TLC.  Having gotten nowhere with the conflict of interest argument, de Blasio and Kellner now asserted that Nissan’s proposed taxi was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because it is a van, yet not accessible to wheelchairs.  Commissioner Yassky and the City contend that the taxi is not technically a “van,” and thus is exempt from that stipulation…basically the courts will figure it out.

It definitely appears that Bill de Blasio, already very friendly with the multimillionaires who control the bulk of the city’s taxis, figured that it wouldn’t hurt to oppose the Mayor and the TLC on the Taxi of Tomorrow issue either.  Then, when Vehicle Production Group and their paid representative Micah Kellner saw how amenable de Blasio was to work with on transit issues, they slipped him a large check and asked him to sign another letter: one that didn’t promote Brooklyn’s automotive industry, but which was draped in enough lofty self-righteousness about the disabled as to provide the mayoral candidate with enough cover, should any questions arise.

Vehicle Production Group wound up costing the taxpayer around $42 million.  We have seen, between his wanton sexual behavior and flagrant willingness to play-for-pay, exactly at what a low level of ethical behavior Micah Kellner operates.  It may be eye-opening to consider that Bill de Blasio, until now everybody’s Mr. Clean, is willing to get dirty with scoundrels such as Micah Kellner and his benefactor Fred Drasner.


Handicapping the Next Speaker

Now that the primary election is over and the composition of the council-elect is fairly well established, give or take a possibly competitive inter-partisan election here and there, we can start trying to place odds on the next speaker.

Most of the races, after all, were foregone conclusions.  Perhaps six or eight of the primaries were competitive.  Only one incumbent lost.  Most of the drama of the last few months has been window dressing.  It is when we begin weighing the various blocs that will determine the boss of the whole body that things become interesting.

It is a little like a papal conclave: 51 equal members go in, and one of them emerges, transfigured through a mysterious process we hear little to nothing about.  It is an important moment, because the council speaker has, de facto, more power than the other 50 members combined.  The speaker sets the agenda, distributes money, makes committee assignments and decides which bills come to the floor.  Being an individual council member gives you a certain amount of influence in your home district, but being speaker makes you a player in city politics.

The election of the speaker isn’t really made just by the members of the council, however.  It is well known that the different borough delegations have varying degrees of freedom regarding their votes.  The Queens delegation, for instance, typically votes as a bloc according to the dictates of the county delegation, and the Bronx delegation has traditionally voted together as well.  The collapse of the Lopez machine in Kings County will likely result in a fragmentation of discipline among the Brooklyn delegation, and the Manhattan members have usually been free to vote their conscience.

Nevertheless, other factors come into play as well.  Different boroughs have traditionally been awarded specific slices of the political pie.  The following schema represents the historical facts, and I am not swearing that the future will reflect the past.  But this, according to elected officials who have spoken off the record, is how it has worked:

Manhattan gets the speakership.

Brooklyn gets judges.

Queens gets key appointments to central staff and major committee assignments.

The Bronx gets the majority leader.

And Staten Island?  Well, Staten Island gets to choose the minority leader.

The common view is that the next speaker will likely not be a white man.  I would agree with that perspective assuming that Daniel Squadron defeats Tish James in the PA runoff, because having the mayor of the city and his three successors be white men would be terrible “optics” as the expression goes.  However, the race question is very tricky when it comes to the city council.

Four years ago the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus of the council comprised for the first time an absolute majority of the body.  Emboldened by this ascendency, Charles Barron challenged Christine Quinn for the speakership, exhorting his comrades-in-color to seize the moment and elect one of their own (himself) speaker of the council.  Barron was punished for this rebellion, losing his chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee, and none of his colleagues broke ranks.

The problem with electing a minority speaker is that there is a deep schism within the BLA Caucus between the black and Latino members.  They have drawn-out internecine battles over every internal appointment to the leadership of their own caucus, so the idea that they would reach a unified consensus on choosing one of their own members to lead the entire council is preposterous.

Besides, who is the minority candidate that would be acceptable, not just among the BLA members, but also to the white members of the council?  Remember that white representation will actually increase next year, with the replacement of Robert Jackson by Mark Levine in CD 7.  Inez Dickens’ candidacy is wrecked on the shoals of her support for Chris Quinn.  Jumaane Williams’ name has been put forth, but he is probably too liberal for the council's moderates to accept, and he faces opposition within his own delegation from Darlene Mealy and the representatives of the traditional Brooklyn machine.

Melissa Mark-Viverito wants the job, but is also too far to the left, and is not trusted by the black contingent of the BLA caucus.  Plus she is not very likable.  Nothing is impossible, of course, but it would not be surprising at all if Dan Garodnick emerges as the candidate of compromise, assuming Tish James wins the PA race.

I envision something like this: Garodnick becomes speaker, satisfying the real estate interests who feel soothed having a Manhattanite from below 96th Street in that role.  Annabel Palma becomes majority leader in order to maintain Bronx Latino visibility in leadership.  Jumaane Williams is made chair of Public Safety as a sop to the Progressive Caucus.  In order to mollify Queens, Mark Weprin becomes Finance chair, taking over his brother’s position from four years ago, while Karen Koslowitz gets Land Use and Julissa Ferreras gets bumped up to Economic Development.  This calculus doesn’t favor Brooklyn, but realistically speaking, half of Brooklyn’s delegation will be freshmen, while only 1 out of Queens’ 13 council members will be new.

This is all pretty much rotisserie-league stuff, but the logic is there.  If Squadron wins, that would make for a different mix.  Let’s see what happens.


Who Voted for John Liu?

There has been a great deal of analysis of the mayoral primary election in regard to demographic crossover.  Blacks went for de Blasio, women went for de Blasio, gays and lesbians appear to have gone for de Blasio.  Yet Thompson did well among Latinos, and he did especially well in certain areas of the city that are overwhelmingly white: Yorkville, Manhattan Beach and Breezy Point all went heavily for the conservative, business-friendly Thompson, the only Democratic candidate who stood up for stop-and-frisk.

In post-racial New York, it seems, there is only one group who didn't get the memo about crossing over politically, and who voted almost strictly along narrow ethnic lines.  John Liu, winning about 7% of the total vote, did remarkably, even astoundingly well in primarily Asian districts, and rather less well everywhere else.  In fact, and this is a generalization with plenty of counter-examples to be sure, Liu, on a precinct-by-precinct level, either won the district overwhelmingly, or came in 4th or 5th. 

We can look at this data in a couple of ways.  We could say that there is a lot of anti-Asian racism and a reluctance to elect a Chinese mayor.  This could be the case, though Liu won the comptrollership 4 years ago, and did well across the city in the primary election, winning the Bronx, for instance, with about 40% of the vote.  Liu was denied public matching funds this year, and one could argue that this disadvantage made it impossible for him to get his message across.  However, as Comptroller, Liu was notoriously available at the opening of every pizza box and envelope, and certainly made the most of his city-paid driver and security detail to hit as many public functions as possible.  Certainly he cut a higher profile over the last four years than Bill Thompson.

And of course, John Liu certainly gave people plenty of reasons not to vote for him, the indictments of his top aides being one and two.

The real question isn't about John Liu.  It is about the parts of the city that voted for him overwhelmingly: Chinatown, Flushing, and Sunset Park, the three areas of the city with the densest concentration of Chinese voters.  There has been a lot written in recent years about how the Chinese-American community is finally coming into its own politically. In 2002 John Liu became the first Chinese-American elected to the Council, and in 2004 Jimmy Meng was the first elected to the Assembly. In 2009 Margaret Chin became the first Chinese-American representative from Chinatown on the City Council, and Liu was elected to citywide office.  

One could look at the growing Chinese-American electorate and say that they are still at a stage of political immaturity regarding ethnic voting patterns.  It certainly appears that the Chinese vote in this election cut sharply along those lines.  One might encourage the community to look beyond the race or ethnicity of the candidate to embrace, as we ideally do, the notion of finding common ground across such provincial boundaries.  Surely it is just an adolescent phase that all new immigrant communities go through, rooting for "their" guy, looking for another "first."  Certainly the Quinn campaign tried to do that with women and gays, though they failed, perhaps because women and gays are sophisticated enough voters to know that just because Quinn is one of them, that doesn't mean she is necessarily the best candidate for them.

So it is an interesting phenomenon.  John Liu was a credible candidate to be the first Asian-American mayor.  He ran a broad campaign and tried to appeal to a lot of different voters, coming out strong against stop-and-frisk early on, even trying to get the pro-marihuana legalization vote towards the end (slightly desperate, that.)  In the end though, he basically won the Asian vote, and wound up the classic "ethnic" candidate, supported by his base, and largely ignored by everyone else. 


Speaker Quinn and Some Other Losers

Christine Quinn’s devastating loss yesterday was a demonstration of the fatuousness of the Speakership as a source of political power.

My constant readers will recall one of the first columns I posted this election season, in early May, where I laid out the difficult electoral calculus of a Quinn mayoral win:

Are we at City Council Watch the only ones who have noticed that Ms. Quinn’s electoral experience is rather limited?  Unlike any of her opponents, she has never been elected to anything beyond the confines of the 3rd Councilmanic District.  Moreover, in 2009, when she ran for her third term, she scarcely won a majority in the Democratic primary, taking less than 7000 votes in total….
It is easy to make the mistake that Chris Quinn wants everyone to make, which is to see her standing next to Mayor Bloomberg at handshakes and press conferences for the last decade, and to see that physical proximity as a sign of her spiritual proximity to power.  But in fact, becoming Speaker of the Council requires only 25 votes other than her own….
Chris Quinn’s main primary opponents have all won City-wide races.  They have strong outer-borough support, which she lacks.  Labor, which is vital to winning a Democratic primary, is not favorable to Quinn’s dithering on living wage and sick leave legislation….
So how does Chris Quinn win? 

Well now we see the answer: she couldn’t.  Leaving aside term limits and the slush fund, leaving aside her terrible personality and the bizarre quirks by which she made an enemy of New York’s frothing, barking animal lovers, being Speaker of the City Council is probably a net negative in the minds of the electorate.  Heading up a legislative body in a republic means you are a pol’s pol, the one who can force his or her will eyeball-to-eyeball in the Member’s Lounge.  Ask yourself, Who was the last Speaker of the House of Representatives to become President? 

It is a little bit sad though.  Bloomberg played Quinn on term limits through and through.  He looked at her and probably thought, “I have screwed over three thousand people smarter than this woman.”  I can imagine Bloomberg taking Chris, Kim and Chris’ old dad down to Bermuda for a weekend, and telling her lies about their joint legacy.  "Kim you play golf, right?"  Laughing at Mr. Quinn’s stories.  Then when the plane is jetting them back to New York thinking to himself, “Well, that was easy.”

Quinn figured that term limits would be forgotten about by the time 2013 rolled around, even though she was warned that it would come back to bite her.  Her hubris did her in, and the fact that voters, especially the kind who vote in Democratic primaries, have very long memories.  Plus, a relentless ground strategy by Anybody But Quinn set the Speaker's campaign on its heels: in the last two days of the campaign, when Quinn should have been making incursions into Brooklyn and Queens, she had canvassers desperately trying to shore up votes in Chelsea, her home base.  Even then she lost in some of her own ED's.

Up in CD 5 Micah Kellner was defeated handily by Ben Kallos.  Council Watch is pleased that we were the first to break news of Assemblyman Kellner’s corruption, regarding Vehicle Production Group.  We are interested to see how Kallos does in taking over the seat, and will keep an eye on his progress.  It will also be fascinating to see what AM Kellner chooses to do in the coming year: will he run for re-election, and if so, will he be able to come back from his humiliating loss, and overcome the taint of financial and sexual scandal that now colors his political name?

Council Watch was wrong in a few similar cases: both Vito Lopez and Eliot Spitzer, whom we pegged as walk-ins, lost as a result of their sexual peccadillos.  Kellner, Spitzer, Weiner, Lopez: it appears that the public has low tolerance now for scoundrels and harassers.  Women vote.

The execrable Sara Gonzalez lost, the only incumbent to do so.  Check out my piece on her in the current City & State to read why the voters made the right choice.

Mark Levine won handily in District 7…no surprise there.  Inez Barron will continue the grand Barron tradition of shaking her fist in City Hall and sitting down through the Pledge of Allegiance.  Charles Barron can rest for a few months before assuming her Assembly seat in the special election.  Corey Johnson beat Yetta Kurland easily, having placed a pop-up GOTV ad on Grindr to remind his base to squeeze in polltime between hook-ups.

We are looking forward to the fallout of yesterday’s elections, and will continue to keep you posted on the latest scandals and eruptions, as or even before they occur!