New York Civic: Rounding the Far Turn By Henry J. Stern

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Four Experts Discuss Bloomberg Campaign, Record, Achievements

A professor and three journalists, experts on New York City politics, participated in a panel discussion before an audience of civic leaders, graduate students and political groupies this morning at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

In alphabetical order, the speakers were Adam Lisberg, City Hall bureau chief of the Daily News; Doug Muzzio, professor at Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs; Joyce Purnick, author of Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics; and Glenn Thrush, who covers Capitol Hill for Politico. You can get more complete biographies of the four speakers by linking to their names. In fact, they are knowledgeable students of New York City politics. The event was put together by Andrew White of the New School.

Basically, there was not much contention between the panelists. They agreed that Mayor Bloomberg was extraordinarily wealthy, which we all know, and that, over the years, he used millions of dollars of his fortune, originally anonymously, to advance his political interests as well as to benefit the public. To most people, that is all right..

In the past, some New York political bosses have stolen millions of dollars from the public, Boss Tweed in the late 19th century being the most notable example. The old New York County Courthouse on Chambers Street cost twice as much to build as the United States paid to buy Alaska from Russia under Czar Alexander II in 1867. Secretary of State William H. Seward arranged the purchase for $7,200,000. The transaction was initially derided as "Seward's Folly" and "Seward's Icebox." The courthouse, now informally but not legally named for Tweed, took over twenty years to build, and was finally completed in 1881. Its construction is the zenith of municipal fraud.

Other politicians, now and over the years, receive inflated salaries, patronize prostitutes, employ their relatives, award contracts on a pay to play basis, double charge on their expense accounts, set up phony consultant firms, pay political clubs for benefits ranging from party nominations to walking around money for Election Day. Some are paid by private firms which benefit mightily from their political influence. So far, that practice is legal. BTW, today is Runoff Day. It is five weeks to Election Day..  

At today's session , the audience was eager to ask questions. A couple were very hostile to the mayor for a variety of reasons, real or fancied, which they expressed at length. The panel did not respond because no one could be sure of the facts in these situations, except that the complainers’ tone and words were not convincing. even though their allegations may have had some merit. 

Most of the dozen or so who spoke briefly simply sought information, which is what questions are supposed to be. Considerable resentment was expressed by panelists and questioners at the mayor’s decision, in concert with the City Council, to over-ride the City Charter to make himself eligible to run for a third term, which was a privilege enjoyed by Mayors LaGuardia, Wagner and Koch. Of course, when they ran it was legal.

In 1993 the Charter was amended by referendum to limit elected city officials to two four-year terms, and a 1996 referendum yielded the same result, except by a closer margin. It is likely that if the issue were placed before the voters in 2008, with the support of the elected officials and the publishers, the limit would have been extended to three terms. But the straight road was not the one taken.

Panelists expressed the view that the issue had not blown over, and that many people still resented what the mayor had done, especially since he had repeatedly stated over the years that he would not seek to run again. People said the controversy had diminished the mayor into an ordinary human being, demonstrating his personal ambition and desire to remain historically relevant. On the other hand, those are not all bad qualities. People who are neither ambitious nor desirous of public attention generally do not spend their time and money and expose themselves to abuse by seeking office.  Rule 23- B applies:: “It comes with the territory.” 

There was general agreement that the mayor, particularly in his first term, had run an upright and professional administration, had defused racial controversy that had previously flared, particularly in the wake of police shootings. The  mayor deserves credit for the continuing reduction in crime, which he properly shares with his long-serving Police Commissioner, Ray Kelly. Most of the audience appeared basically satisfied with city government, certainly when one compares it with our pathetic state government.

Little was said about the work of individual agencies, but Deputy Mayor Edward Skyler was mentioned a number of times by panelists, who saw him as a faithful public servant, well regarded by both the mayor and the city agency staffs with whom he deals. Skyler, who began his city career in Parks & Recreation in 1995, is regarded as a problem solver, not an ideologue. The question was raised whether Skyler and First Deputy Mayor Patricia E. Harris, a key figure in the administration whom the mayor completely trusts, would stay for a third term. Both, along with Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey, have publicly thought aloud about their lives after City Hall. They would be difficult to replace, and their successors would have to gain the mayor’s confidence, which few people are said to enjoy.

Fears were expressed that the third term would be less successful than the first and second. LaGuardia was unpopular in 1945. He had wanted for years to participate in World War II. He liked to be called by his military rank, Major. His liberalism had alienated many Republicans, and the Tammany Democrats had never supported him.

Wagner had won the Democratic primary for his third term by defeating State Comptroller Arthur Levitt (1900-80), father of the current Arthur Levitt, (1931- ), who served as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission during the Clinton years. In 1961, Mayor Wagner to some extent ran against his first two terms. In his third term, he rejected Robert Moses’ proposal for a Lower Manhattan Expressway. Sadly, his wife, Susan, the mother of his two sons, died of cancer in 1964, and he moved out of Gracie Mansion for the remainder of his term.

Mayor Koch’s third term was marred by scandals caused by people he did not appoint, like Stanley Friedman and the late Donald Manus. Koch himself was so distressed by their misconduct that he contemplated suicide, and discussed the matter with the late Cardinal John J. O’Connor. His third term was not that different from the first two, but the slaying of 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins by an Italian-American youth who was part of a gang inflamed racial tensions in the summer of 1989.

This blogger was allowed a question. He said that all the discussion had been on the strengths and weaknesses of Mayor Bloomberg. The election, five weeks from today, will be between Bloomberg and City Comptroller Bill Thompson, who had not been mentioned. No one said anything about the Comptroller.  It appeared that to most of the audience, support for Thompson consisted primarily of those who disliked Bloomberg for personal and substantive issues. Some people saw the mayor as an arrogant but benevolent plutocrat, heedless of the feelings or ideas of others, with an inordinate but not wholly unjustified high opinion of himself. Others were turned off by his support for real estate development, the West Side stadium, and bike lanes that could choke traffic. The fact that his most unpopular proposals, congestion pricing and bridge tolls, were rejected by the Assembly helped the Mayor because no one actually suffered because of his ideas.

More people supported the Mayor than liked him, because there is general respect for his achievements and his integrity. The passage of time has not been kind, however, and some are resentful of his manner and style. The reporters on the panel generally felt that he had contempt for them, but they understood that was part of his personality. Ms. Purnick was most sympathetic to Bloomberg, but she is aware of his impact on others.

Although it was possible to make a case against the Ma
yor, Prof. Muzzio felt that Bill Thompson had failed to do that, and that it would be very hard to make a compelling argument in the last month of the campaign, even if you ignore the Mayor’s enormous advertising buys and field operations, which are competently managed.

 The blogger then asked if there were any public achievements on which the Comptroller could or should base his campaign.  The answer from the panel was silence.

Henry J. Stern writes as StarQuest. Direct email to him at StarQuest@NYCivic.org. Peruse Mr. Stern’s writing at New York Civic.

eHeziNew York Civic: Rounding the Far Turn By Henry J. Stern

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