Gotham Gazette's Reading NYC Book Club held
a conversation on January 27 at the New Amsterdam
branch of the New York Public Library with Elizabeth
Kolbert, the New Yorker staff writer whose articles about
New York politics have been collected in a new book,
"The Prophet of Love and Other Tales of Power and
Deceit." An edited transcript appears below.
Elizabeth Kolbert (reading from her book): Before I
worked in Albany, I had always wanted to be a
political reporter, perhaps because I had no real idea
what the job entailed. I arrived there on December 31,
1986, the eve of Mario Cuomo's second inaugural, and
almost immediately was assigned to covered a scandal
involving an assemblywoman named Gerdi Lipschutz. A
63-year-old former dental assistant from Queens,
Lipschutz had served in the Legislature for six terms
and had risen to the chairmanship of the Assembly
Majority Steering Committee. At the behest of her
county's Democratic organization, she had also,
prosecutors revealed, maintained two "no-show"
employees on her legislative payroll. First, her
indignant colleagues shunned her; later, they voted to
strip her of her seniority and deprive her of her
legislative stipend - or "lulu" - and collectively
called on her to resign. On her last day in office, it
fell to me to follow her out to her car in the
Capitol's underground garage. I can still recall the
baleful look that she shot me when I asked her if she
had any final observations to share about her
In principle, Albany is a state capital much like any
other, with struggles that are no more or less
edifying; as a practical matter, anyone who has ever
spent much time there knows different. (William
Kennedy, Albany's Virgil, who has described the city
as "a state of mind," notes that "wickedness has been
our lot for more years than any man alive can
remember.") I ended up reporting on Albany for five
legislative sessions. During that time, the State
Senate Minority Leader, Manfred Ohrenstein, was
indicted on 564 counts of grand larceny and
conspiracy, and the Assembly Speaker, Mel Miller, was
indicted on 19 counts of conspiracy and mail fraud.
Both cases were eventually dismissed. (Shortly after I
left, the state's chief judge, Sol Wachtler, was
charged with extortion after demanding a payoff from
his ex-girlfriend and threatening to kidnap her
daughter.) The commanding officer of the New York
State militia was discovered not only to have accepted
bribes and falsified official documents but also to
have been a bigamist, and two janitorial workers were
reprimanded for having had sex - repeatedly - on a
desk at the headquarters of the New York State
Department of Transportation. The state's
drug-treatment commissioner was forced to resign after
allegations that he had steered contracts to friends
who failed to provide any actual drug treatment. He
became a pushcart vender and on warm days sold hot
dogs in front of the Capitol. He called himself the
Late last month [April 2003], I went back to the
capitol to see how Albany would handle this year's $12
billion budget gap, the worst since the Great
Depression. On the first day I spent in the city, the
state's legislative leaders emerged from a meeting
with Governor George Pataki to say that they still
hoped to reach an agreement with him on a spending
plan, which was interpreted to mean that they had
reached an impasse. On the second day, the governor
asserted, "In times of challenge, New Yorkers have
always stood together in making the right decisions,"
which was understood to signal a complete breakdown in
negotiations. By the end of the week, the Legislature
had approved a $93 billion budget that violated just
about every condition Pataki had laid down. The
governor has labeled it "patently unconstitutional."
At one point, standing in the Capitol's Red Room, he
declared, "I will do everything in my ability to
prevent this plan from becoming law, including
exercising my veto powers." Depending on how things
play out, the struggle between the governor and the
legislature will either merely prolong the state's
fiscal problems or, more likely, compound them.
Gotham Gazette: So what's wrong up there?
Elizabth Kolbert: They get reelected and keep going up
there every year. That doesn't provide a great deal of
accountability. It's particularly screwed up because
there are traditions that have allowed a complete
abrogation of responsibility.
People have a lot of theories as to why that is the
case. Redistricting is a big one. They carve up the
districts so that the Democrats control the Assembly
and the Republicans control the Senate and it will
ever be thus.
Chances for Reform?
What are the immediate prospects for reform?
EK: I really don't know. You've got to think a lot of
the members are really, really concerned. They have no
real clout and almost nothing to do. A lot of them are
not bad people.
GG: What about the reforms that have been enacted so
far -- will they make any difference?
EK: You mean like having to show up to vote? I think
it will make a marginal difference. Senate Minority
Leaders David Patterson - and he's a nice guy, he's a
smart guy -- said that in all the years he's been in
Albany-- he's counted -- something like maybe 75,000
bills have passed through the Senate and in only four
cases was the outcome of the bill in doubt. When a
bill gets to the floor, it is going to pass. That is
just an Albany rule. If it is not going to pass, it
doesn't get to the floor.
So it's really the committee system that is broken.
Bills only get reported out of committee when they're
going to get to the floor. That is not how it should
be. And that reform they haven't talked about yet.
Book club member: How do we as constituents do
anything when Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Governor George
Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno are the
three people who control things?
EK: I don't think the legislature is passing a lot of
bills that don't have support. When you go to Albany,
you pass through the Assembly chamber. The Democratic
majority goes into that room. And when they go in
there, the assemblyman says, "I can't vote for that
bill. It will kill me in my district." That debate
goes on. So there is influence in that sense.
Book club member: Is it worse today?
EK: I got there in 1987 and I think it was better then
because, to be honest, the caliber of people was
Book club member: What's the first step toward
actually changing this?
EK: There was talk of a constitutional convention. I
do think people demanding a certain level of
accountability would help -- a lot of people marching
There are two things that legislators are afraid of.
One is their money, their campaign money, which Shelly
[Silver] controls, of course, and the second is votes.
But you have to convince them that this is the issue they're not going to get elected on.
People are always talking about having referendums and
initiatives to get things done. It sounds nice on
paper, and it sounds nice talking here - and maybe it
would be a good idea -- but a lot of the proposals in
California are very destructive. They're
That's popular democracy but it also can be
manipulated. So it's not entirely clear to me that
that would solve the problems.
Rudy, Mike and NYC vs. Albany
How did you decide to spend your life covering New
EK: I kind of stumbled into it. I was a junior
reporter at the New York Times - low man on the totem
pole - and I got sent to Albany one year. I was
incredulous at first. It's depressing on a civics
level. But the personalities and the human comedy
are quite interesting. And I do want to say about
Mario Cuomo, that while he was a nut in some ways, he
was a brilliant orator and he had a lot of ideas.
I don't know that it's that fascinating any more.
Whatever you want to say about the current governor, he's not a
GG: Why did you call your book "The Prophet of Love"?
EK: The Prophet of Love is the title of a profile on
Rudy Giuliani, which is a bit ironic. And it just
seemed like an appropriate title for the book.
Book club member: Can we talk about how Albany's control of the city
EK: The city is a creation of the state.
Mike Miscione: In 1870 they passed what is known as the
Tweed charter, which also became known as the home
rule charter, that gave New York City much more
control of the finances and activities of New York
City. That led to the greatest scandal in the history
of the City of New York - the Tweed Ring scandal,
which was personified in the construction of the Tweed
Courthouse. So people are always saying "New York
control," but this can be a cautionary tale of what
happens when you give control to the City of New York.
At the time, the State of New York, which was largely
Republican controlled, did a lot of very progressive,
very important things in New York City, and they were
able to do that because they were isolated from
EK: Your point is well taken. If you look back really
far back - or maybe not even that far back, I don't
want to be too despairing - New York has had visionary
government at various points and had visionary
leaders. You look at things like the [water]
reservoir system, a major accomplishment for its time.
We live off the vision of a lot of the people who came
before us. So, I think there have been moments of
inspiration and genius.
I think that Mayor Bloomberg when he pushes for the
stadium is trying to be part of that tradition. I'm
not sure he's got the right take on it, but I think he
is aware that, if it weren't for the people who had
really thought 50 or 100 years ahead, the city would
be completely different and much worse.
GG: In the book there are three profiles of Rudy
Giuliani. You leave him on a high note. It's how he
handled September 11. Since then, he's gone up and
seems to be coming back down. What do you think is
ahead for him?
EK: I wish I knew. I know the Republicans are going to
try to get him to run against Hillary Clinton. He says
he's not going to run against Hillary. He clearly
would like to go right to the White House. Whether he
does need to do anything between or whether he's
having a good time making an absolute fortune, I don't
Book club member: What about running for governor?
EK: He runs a very good rhetorical campaign and could
do a job of that. I really don't know whether he could
be a good governor. He might well be. Governor is an
executive position just like mayor. It's less
newsworthy. You're not in the news. It might be kind
I think an Eliot Spitzer- Giuliani race would be a
fascinating race. I'd like to be there for that.
Book club member: Would you say the state is
EK: No, I wouldn't say the state's unmanageable. Why
the city was always called ungovernable was because
you actually have to deliver services. You actually
have to run things. When you run the state, you really
are not running very much. That's one of the reasons
why it avoids scrutiny and why it doesn't make the
A lot of it is just passing through money. You send
your taxes to Albany and they get sent right back --
to Mike Bloomberg to spend on schools and on Medicaid.
It's a huge amount of money that is passed around and
divvied up, which is why the budget is really all the
state focuses on for months and months. And that is
where their power comes from: sucking in a tremendous
amount of money - look at your state tax dollars - and
then redistributing it. They are not out there plowing
the road. They are not out there picking up the
Howard Koeppel: I'm fascinated by the dynamic between
the city and the state. We here in the city are always
saying, "Oh, we've been shortchanged by Albany," and I
don't doubt that. By the same token, though, I've
traveled all around the state. In towns like Buffalo
and Niagara Falls, main streets are boarded up and the
economies are in shambles. Is the balance right, in
terms of financing, or is the balance off? Who really
deserves more? How can we, in good conscience, ask for
more money when these places are in such dire
EK: That's a very good question. New York's argument
often boils down to, "We have X percent of the
students and we don't get X percent of the money."
Now, the guys in Albany would point out that the city
raises its money in very different ways from the
suburbs and small cities and that that money is, as
they like to say in Albany, basically "fungible." So
when we spend money it goes into one big pot and you
can spend it for education or not, it doesn't matter.
If you do all the calculations it's very, very
difficult to decide whether the city is getting
shortchanged or not.
People would argue up and down and from one end to the
other. Certainly, as you point out, the city is
economically in a lot better shape than a lot of these
other cities so you would be hard-pressed to say,
"Let's just take money from Buffalo and give it to New
York City." But, in terms of the money the city sends
to Albany, the city generates a lot of the money - all
the major corporations are here and they're sending
money to Albany -- so how do you apportion that?
In your writing about Hillary Clinton you focus on
the fact that she wasn't from New York, came here, and
had a lot of trouble. You mentioned the St. Patrick's
Day parade, that she didn't see the potential danger
in that. You go through a couple of other things. So,
why do outsiders have such a tough time navigating New
EK: There are two pieces about Hillary in here. One is
when she is a senator and it's pretty complimentary to
her. I think she's worked very hard for New York and
is in a difficult position as a minority senator. I've
followed her around for a long time and she's very
involved in almost ridiculously nitty-gritty issues.
But to go back to her original campaign, she did some
totally hilarious things. She wore that Yankees baseball cap. She said that she had passed
through Elmira as a kid — I mean it
was just laughable.
New York politics is very complicated -— ethnically very
complicated. It has a long, long history; you're
stepping into a lot of battles, and the St. Patrick's
Day parade was a great one. She said, "Oh, yeah, I'd
love to march in the St. Patrick's Day parade,"
completely unaware of 10 years of court battles. Many,
many things that in other places would be pretty
non-controversial in New York are wildly
controversial. That's the function of being such a
polyglot city and having so many wonderful
controversies, and why it's great to write about New
But she is a student of things and she's very
methodical; she methodically learned about New York.
But before, she just didn't instinctively get it. She
didn't realize, "Oh my God, there's a minefield here
and there's a minefield there." So she found out a lot
about them by simply stepping on them, and it was
She's a Midwestern girl, from Illinois. She said, and
I think it was true, that she related to upstate, that
it was much more Midwestern. And she's very popular
upstate. I once went with her to a meeting of, she
said it was the farm advisory board. She sat around
with a bunch of farmers and seemed very genuinely
interested in the dairy issues. And there she was.
Book club member: What is it about New York State that
attracts so many carpetbaggers?
EK: Well, we're willing to elect them.
The Education Of Michael Bloomberg
GG: The other newcomer, who's not so new to New York
City, but to politics, is the mayor. He wasn't
incredibly popular when he started, and I was
wondering about your thoughts on how he's managed to
recover and learn to better navigate the city's
EK: His problem, if you want to call it a problem, is
that he came into politics and said (he's never told
me this but people around him would say this and act
this way): "This a city, it's like any other
organization, it's an employer of 250,000 people, and
it should be run like a business, rationally with
certain rational principles."
What he ran up against was that people didn't really
want government to be organized rationally. It is
organized the way it's organized because of enormous
numbers of constituencies and enormous numbers of
interests. He came up against that, and it was an
education at every turn. I think he has learned that
politics and running a government are not like running
a privately held corporation. He's much more sensitive
to that right now.
The question is, is that good or bad, because
obviously, you have to be willing to go up against a
lot of these interests if you want to get something
done. That is the problem with running New York City:
with every single move you make, there are many
entrenched interests, sentimentally entrenched and
financially entrenched, and there's tremendous
resistance to change. Every garden will be fought
over, every corner will be fought over. "We will fight
you in the trenches, we will fight you in the
streets." What's great about New York is that people
really care about it, but from the standpoint of
making systemic change—even if everyone sees that
something is broken—you have 500,000 ideas on which
way to fix it.
So sometimes, you can argue, the mayor - whoever that
is -- has to say, "We are doing it this way," and has
to put all of their political capital behind it. To a
certain extent, he did that with the schools and the
chips will fall where they will. Was it the right way
to do it? Once again, I don't know. But it was a way
to do it, and he did do it.
GG: You have a chapter about the budget and how the
mayor addressed the budget deficit. Do you think the
mayor has carried us through the financial hard times?
EK: He did, and he paid a huge price for that. He
started by telling everybody he was raising property
taxes by 18 percent, and ever since then he's told
everyone they're going to get a rebate. But if he
hadn't been willing to bite that particular bullet -
property taxes are considered a pretty big bullet to
bite in New York City -- the city would have been in
pretty bad shape. It turns out the economy picked up
so it wasn't year after year of bleeding red ink. But
he had to get through that year, and it wasn't an easy
year. He looked at the numbers and he did what he had
to do and that, I think, is the kind of quality about
him that is valuable.
Book club member: The City Council had to go along
EK: Yes, but the City Council doesn't take the hit in
the way that the mayor takes the hit. Because of the
Financial Control Board and all of that from the
city's fiscal crisis, the city can be taken into
receivership very easily. The mayor knew that, and the
council knew that. If we don't get out of this year
close to a balanced budget, the Financial Control
Board is going to take over. That's a huge hammer.
Past Mayors, The Future Of This Mayor
What are your thoughts on the mayor's race?
EK: Bloomberg has so much money and he's done a
reasonable job. There's not a tremendous animosity
toward him that someone could marshal—even if people
don't love him, he's fine.
Bloomberg is really an honest mayor. Every generation forgets how hard it is to
get honest mayors, someone who is not accommodating people’s hanky-panky because of their
communal connections. We had many mayors doing that. Koch was an exception. So were Giuliani
and Bloomberg. Young people have no idea of the "good old days" when jobs were filled by
EK: A lot of people would take exception to the
particular history that you just offered but your
basic point is that reform administrations run into a
lot of trouble. This one may well have too except that
Michael Bloomberg happens to have $4 billion to his
name. If he didn't, he would be in a very different
situation because he too would be reliant on the
interests that finance campaigns. To his credit, he
availed himself of that independence but that means
that for electoral purposes he is—I don't want to say
unbeatable—but very, very, hard to beat.
GG: What parts of that history would you revise?
EK: I don't consider myself an expert on this at all
but obviously people would take issue with the
characterization of the Koch administration. People
would also take issue with the characterization of the
Henry Stern: The people Koch appointed turned out to
be exceptionally honest and hard working. But there
were people he held over from the Abe Beame
administration. Those involved in corruption, Koch
didn't appoint them, they were the preexisting clumps
and previous county leaders who were an entirely
different power structure.
EK: I don't want to demean his administration in any
way but it ended in the graft scandal, so I don't
think that many people would call it a reform
administration. I personally don't think of Giuliani
as a reform mayor. There was a tremendous political
patronage operation so I don't think you can call that
a reform administration.
I'm no expert but I think if you asked most
historians, in New York City politics, reform
administrations come once in a blue moon, and I think
that Mike Bloomberg may indeed be one of them.
I'll Be Back
GG: We can't help but notice that you have moved out
of New York, and that your last articles have been
about the presidential race, "The Protestant Work Ethic
and The Spirit of Capitalism," and global warming. Are
you planning any more pieces on New York, or did your
experiences in politics and hanging out with those restaurant
inspectors chase you from the city for good?
EK: My husband teaches college in Williamstown,
Massachusetts at Williams College and for many years he
commuted to Williams from New York. Then we did a
switcheroo, and I commute to New York from Williams.
So, I took a sort of hiatus from New York City
politics. But it's true that after a while you need a
break from New York politics. It's been a long run.
But I think for the mayoral election I will be back.
The comments section is provided as a free service to our readers. Gotham Gazette's editors reserve the right to delete any comments. Some reasons why comments might get deleted: inappropriate or offensive content, off-topic remarks or spam.