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Bloomberg and Quinn: Chapter 2

A week after besting an unsuspecting comptroller by a narrow 50,000 votes, according to preliminary results, Mayor Michael Bloomberg may now have bigger things to worry about.

Come January, the so-called wounded mayor could face a drastically different City Council -- one that members say will be not only be more progressive, but also more aggressive.

With 13 new members, the 2010 City Council class, armed with Tuesday's general election results and fueled by anti-term limit extension rhetoric that dominated many of their campaigns, could bring more bite than Bloomberg bargained for. Members old and new are promising to turn the council from what critics say is a rubber stamp into the check that it's meant to be.

"It was certainly not a mandate, and hopefully this will empower and embolden a new City Council and the leadership that reflects that," said Councilmember Letitia James of Brooklyn of last week's results.

The question remains whether Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a longtime Bloomberg ally, can survive the council's overhaul and if the issues and positions that dominate 2010 will reflect some council members more combative approach.

Four More Years

For some of the past four years, the City Council has been marred with claims of complacency and controversy. Quinn shepherded through an unpopular approval of congestion pricing and spearheaded the divisive extension of term limits -- both votes, critics say, were done at Bloomberg's behest. In the past, members have accused the speaker of bottling up legislation, despite having dozens of sponsors at the council.

Quinn was weakened by the now-notorious slush fund scandal and, more recently, angered members by delaying a late and tepid endorsement of Democratic mayoral candidate Bill Thompson. All the while, Quinn's relationship with Bloomberg has been seen as extremely amicable.

Tuesday's results were not only a message to the administration, say new and incumbent members of the City Council, but also a directive to the City Council to trade in its roses for thorns.

"The results were very clear on Tuesday that there is a great level of dissatisfaction with the status quo," said Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito, who ran unopposed last week for a second term and was a Thompson supporter. "I think that’s a mandate for us to be more vocal on the issues that people want to be vocal on," she added.

Some members question (for the most part behind the scenes) whether Quinn is the right person to lead that team.

"I am going to be supportive of whoever is interested in really being that countermeasure," said Mark-Viverito.

Quinn argues she is. Saying she is "extraordinarily confident she will be re-elected speaker with little to no opposition," Quinn cites successfully standing up against the mayor's proposal to close firehouses earlier this year as an example of her independence. But as other Democratic members of the City Council say last week's margin of victory represents a call to arms against the administration, the speaker attributes the results to voter dissatisfaction with the economy.

When asked by Gotham Gazette if she would stand up to the administration more in a third term, Quinn said, "Fighting for the sake of fighting, that's not going to get anyone a job."

"When we can't agree, " she added, "we are going to hold firm to our principles just like we did in the first term."

If you take a look at the legislative record, the council and the mayor have only sporadically disagreed in the last four years. Under Quinn, the council overrode nine mayoral vetoes -- averaging about two a year. Her predecessor, who was also a candidate for mayor while speaker, jumped at the chance to oppose Bloomberg, leading the council in overriding the mayor at least 40 times.

There is no question, said Baruch College's School of Public Affairs Dean David Birdsell, that Quinn's tact has been more conciliatory than her predecessor's, Gifford Miller. Given Tuesday's results, that approach might pose a challenge for her now.

"When the animosity pumps up and the benefits erode you're going to have more direct opposition to the mayor and more vigorous opposition to the mayor," said Birdsell. "It does pose a political problem for her own caucus."

Birdsell said he would be "really surprised" if Quinn did not see a challenge to her leadership now.

On the other hand, some of Quinn's veteran colleagues argue the council will be stronger in a new term with Quinn holding the reins.

"Any leader is always feeling the pulse of the members," said Councilmember Robert Jackson, who said he supports a second stint as speaker for Quinn. "No one," he added, "wants a coup."

The Freshman Class

Some of the council's new members, however, are not ready to commit to another term with Quinn.

Like Daniel Dromm, who beat incumbent city Councilmember Helen Sears in district 25 in Queens in September's primary.

"You're definitely going to see a much more independent council and much more progressive council, fighting for the issues that have not been brought to the table before," said Dromm. Issues like requiring businesses to provide paid sick leave, he added.

"I have not made a 100 percent commitment to her," Dromm said of Quinn. But, "my response to a lot of that is who is the other candidate?"

Newly minted Councilmember-elect Ydanis Rodriguez of Washington Heights also declined to say whether he supported Quinn's candidacy for a second term as speaker.

Many of these new members, which include several activists and public school teachers, are expected to push the council more to the left and put forward an agenda that is likely to challenge the mayor more than the one seen under Quinn. Some of the council's new members are already committing to getting paid sick leave approved and are requiring more say at the Department of Education. For instance, Dromm, a public school teacher, said he wants to see less of a focus on testing at the Department of Education and more accountability to parents.

Adopting lines from the Thompson campaign, some incumbents, including Councilmember Leroy Comrie, the deputy majority leader, say the council is ready to take on more aggressive policies to curb the city's cost of living and bail out the middle class.

Stepping Up to the Plate

Despite the call for a more anti-Bloomberg council, most agree that Quinn will likely end up winning another term as speaker. Some say it's because members value her leadership style, while others say it's, in part, because no one with widespread support is willing to challenge her. Although Councilmember Charles Barron announced last week he would step up to the plate, it is unlikely (given his often divisive stance) he could garner a majority.

Among the names some have floated is Inez Dickens, a popular councilmember from Harlem. According to a staff member, Dickens is not running for speaker.

Some political observers say what's important to them is not who is in charge on the east side of City Hall, but what issues they bring up. For some of Thompson's most vigilant supporters, they are hoping the council adopts their candidate's platform, and some are happy to see Quinn be the one to do it.

"Is she willing to challenge the mayor to achieve it?" asked Arthur Cheliotes, president of the CWA Local 1180, of Quinn's candidacy for speaker. "I'll give her the benefit of the doubt, I think she can."

"We’ll be expecting it," said Cheliotes. "More than expecting it, we'll be demanding it."

Vann Gets a Challenger

Photos by Courtney Gross
Albert Vann (left), Democratic incumbent in City Council District 36, is being challenged by Mark Winston Griffith (right), running on the Working Families Party ticket

At the corner of Malcolm X Boulevard and Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Councilmember Al Vann had amassed a small troop of volunteers and staffers, all handing out palm cards with a truncated version of the Brooklyn legend's accomplishments.

Sporting his signature wardrobe piece (a hat -- today, a tan fedora with a small feather), the 74-year-old council member shook hands and conversed with students leaving nearby Boys and Girls High School. He told most passengers climbing up from the Utica Avenue station, "Democrats, all the way" -- a phrase that quickly became his call to the polls.

"I am one of the most effective legislators around," boasted Vann, clad in a baby blue suit.

But hundreds of residents of Brooklyn's 36th district think otherwise. Vann, who has represented central Brooklyn for 35 years, won the September Democratic primary, but only with 30 percent of the vote. Because of that, Vann's closest rival, former Drum Major Institute executive director Mark Winston Griffith, decided to continue his candidacy for tomorrow's general election on the Working Families Party line. In September, just 735 votes divided the two in of a field of eight candidates.

Republican candidate Robert Hunter also will be on tomorrow's ballot -- the first G.O.P candidate in Bedford Stuyvesant in at least two terms.

A Legend's Rival

It's tough to take on an incumbent. Griffith is doing it twice in the span of two months. And, this time around, he has some impressive names behind him.

Standing on the steps of City Hall last week, Griffith accepted the endorsements of the Rev. Al Sharpton and Councilmember Charles Barron -- two names that resonate with some of the city's black community. The 36th district is almost three quarters African American.

Photo by Courtney Gross
Griffith has the support of Reverend Al Sharpton and Charles Barron

Citing Griffith's energy and youth, both Sharpton and Barron were quick not to criticize Vann when announcing their support for Griffith. “This is all about Mark,” said Sharpton. “This is not about Vann, about term limits. I’m not anti-Vann. I’m pro-Mark.”

Griffith had been on Vann's radar for months. Before the extension of term limits, which Vann supported, the councilmember set up a committee to look for his replacement. Griffith was at the top of the list.

Now, the two will face off tomorrow in a race that has received little attention and nary a debate or forum. Griffith hopes now that the field has narrowed, he will be able to snag some of the more than 6,400 voters who pulled the lever against the incumbent in the primary.

"When you're running against an incumbent, you're radioactive to some level," said Griffith as rain dripped along City Hall's columns. "When there are eight people in the race it obviously makes it difficult to distinguish yourself, but I believe that the results of the primary in fact help distinguish us."

Those differences between the two include age and experience, for one. Griffith, 46, is running for office for the first time. Vann has been running since the 1970s. Griffith has said he would focus on getting healthy food in the district, halting rampant foreclosures (Bedford-Stuyvesant has one of the highest numbers of foreclosures in the city with 740 last year, according to the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy) and revitalizing commercial streets. Vann said in a third term, he wants to pass legislation giving senior citizens and those with disabilities a break on their water bills and focus on improving public housing.

Vann thinks he has the advantage.

"I'd rather have experience any day than quote 'newness,'" said Vann.

According to the most recent campaign finance filing, the councilmember has raised $66,471, received $168,505 in public funding and spent $132,313. Griffith has raised $92,876 in private money, $173,894 in public and has spent $160,146.

A Brooklyn Staple

By most accounts, Vann is an institution in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Having served for more than 25 years in the state Assembly, the councilmember was known as the political powerhouse of central Brooklyn for decades. So, his showing in the primary was a disappointment to many of his supporters -- but not necessarily a surprise.

Vann has the second worst attendance record in the City Council, missing almost 30 percent of all meetings. He has been charged with being noticeably absent in the community and been the subject of several damaging stories in the Daily News. Even some of his supporters say he was in "retirement mode" at City Hall.

Vann reasons that he skips meetings in favor of events going on in the community. He argues he has started so many programs and coalitions in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which has one of the lowest median household incomes in the city at just more than $30,000, he has lost count.

He said he spearheaded a $20 million initiative at the City Council to spur job creation -- more than half has been budgeted so far, according to council documents. He says he was instrumental in landing funding for the new Bedford-Stuyvesant Family Health Center, and was successful in bringing technology into the classroom.

And in his 35 years in public office, Vann has acquired some fans.

"People who say this man has been absent, this guy has been out there and I say turning lights on for the people," said Ulysses Kilgore III, the president and chief executive officer of the family health center.

Others argue for fresh blood, like Griffith.

Griffith, a community activist who lives in Crown Heights, was at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, a nonpartisan think tank, focusing on social justice issues since 2008. Before that he was the co-director at the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project. For full disclosure, Griffith also founded Gotham Gazette's community development section.

He says at the council he wants to bring a conversation about sustainable development and also hold developers accountable.

"I think people want someone who is going to show up, who is going to be invigorated, who is going to be passionately on their side," said Griffith. "I think that Al Vann has served his neighborhood well and people recognize that. But they also recognize that over the last few years he just hasn’t been as present. He hasn’t been as engaged."

The insurgent candidate knows he has an uphill battle. The district, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, has not in its history elected a third party candidate. Griffith says he is a Democrat for life, but his name remains on the Working Families Party line.

For Vann, he is playing up his primary win, portraying his candidacy as part of a Democratic ticket with mayoral candidate Comptroller Bill Thompson, and council members Bill de Blasio and John Liu, who are running for public advocate and comptroller. A third term, Vann says, will be a fitting end to a long tenure in New York politics.

"I'm going to end my career as I started it," Vann said. "Aggressive."

Stated Meeting: Hines Midtown Tower Approved

Giving the go-ahead to the Museum of Modern Art to add three more floors to its gallery space, the City Council approved an approximately 1,000-foot skyscraper adjacent to the museum in Midtown Wednesday, which will be designed by renowned architect, Jean Nouvel.

The tower, which will be as tall as the iconic Chrysler Building, has its fair share of detractors, including community residents who argue the building is too large and would bring too much traffic to the area.

The council also approved legislation requiring foreclosure consultants to print state regulations on their advertisements and drastically increased fines for those who leave their vehicles unattended and idling.

A Midtown, Mid-Block Museum

The tower, otherwise known as 53 West 53rd Street, will include a seven-star hotel of less than 100,000 square feet, an additional 75,000 square feet for the MoMA, including gallery and "support space," and approximately 120 luxury condominiums.

The tower's midblock location and its size, which was initially proposed at 1,250 feet tall, was the primary reason for community opposition, said RitaSue Siegel, the vice president of the West 54th-55th Street Block Association and the vice president of the Coalition for Responsible Midtown Development. Both groups oppose the plan, and the local community board voted to reject the proposal.

"We have to live with a Chrysler-size building in the middle of a block," said Siegel following the City Council's vote.

The site, which is in Council Speaker Christine Quinn's district, abuts the landmarked St. Thomas Church and the University Club, both of which have agreed to sell their air rights to make way for the tower.

"It’s going to be an iconic addition to the New York City skyline," said Quinn of the tower.

Opponents of the project argue the tower is three times the size currently allowed under the area's zoning.

The tower, which needed a special permit from the City Council, was approved by a vote of 44 to 3. Council members Charles Barron and Tony Avella voted against the proposal -- both members tend to be anti-development. Councilmember Daniel Garodnick, whose district is a block away from the building, also voted against the plan, citing community opposition.

Following the council's approval, the MoMA released the following statement: "Today’s approval of Hines' 53 West 53rd Street proposal represents an important milestone. The Museum of Modern Art appreciates the support of Manhattan Borough President Stringer, the City Planning Commission and the City Council for a project that will contribute significantly to the city’s architectural heritage and economy while enabling the museum to show even more of its collection to the public."

In this economy, the financing for such a large project could be in limbo. When Gotham Gazette asked Houston-based Hines, the developer, if financing was secured, a spokesperson said via e-mail, "Because the special permit was just approved today, it is too early to answer your additional questions on financing and construction start."

Advertising Mortgage Consultants

They are plastered to telephone poles and street signs across the five boroughs, urging homeowners to "Call Now!" They promise to help residents with foreclosure and the personal mortgage crisis spreading across the city.

The City Council, though, says it’s a scam.

As a result of the subprime mortgage crisis, consultants have created a market and made a living off of residents in or threatened with foreclosure. With signs promising help with mortgages and foreclosure proceedings, these consultants often require homeowners to pay in advance for their services, say city officials. Those consultants, they add, then disappear with the already cash-strapped homeowner's money without providing the promised advice.

Last year, the State Legislature approved legislation regulating these consultants for the first time. The state law requires a contract before these consultants can give services and bans consultants from receiving pre-payment.

Although city officials said they would like to ban these consultants in the five boroughs, a decision ultimately left up to the state or Congress, the council unanimously approved legislation (Intro 1070-A) that requires consultants put these new state regulations on their advertisements so homeowners know their rights.

If consultants do not comply, they could face fines of between $2,500 and $5,000 for each violation.

Ultimately, said council members, the city urges residents in foreclosure to call the city's constituent hotline, 311, so they can be put in touch with a city-chartered nonprofit that provides foreclosure consulting services gratis.

"When you make this call, most of your problems just get worse," said Councilmember Lewis Fidler of Brooklyn, pointing to a photo of a typical mortgage poster seen on the city's streets. "When you make that call, to 311, your problems can be solved."

The city's nonprofit, the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, was founded in July 2008 and has 70 counselors and attorneys to answer residents' concerns and questions. According to the center, its staff has already counseled 5,700 distressed homeowners.

Unattended Idling

In February, Middle Village residents Robert Ogle and Alex Paul were fatally struck down by a drunken driver after he stole a car left idling outside a local deli.

In January, an unattended idling van left in reverse ran down two children in Chinatown.

Now the City Council passed legislation drastically increasing fines for leaving a vehicle idling and unattended. Currently, the fine is $5 if you leave a vehicle unattended and idling for more than three minutes. Under the new legislation (Intro 947-A) fines will increase to $250 and the time limit will be removed.

The bill was approved by a vote of 46 to 1, with Councilmember Erik Martin Dilan of Brooklyn dissenting.

A Passenger Bill of Rights

The council also unanimously approved legislation (Intro 1023) that requires passenger vans post a bill of rights in the backseat. The council has passed similar legislation pertaining to yellow and livery cabs.

The bill of rights will let passengers know they have a right to a properly licensed driver, a working seat belt and a smoke-free environment, among others.

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