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Top 10 Stories of 2006

by Gotham Gazette Staff, Dec 18, 2006
 

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The biggest news story in New York, as in the rest of the country in 2006, was really the war in Iraq. The war had specific effects here, as New Yorkers died in battle; those at home debated what the United States should do; and New York politicians saw their influence increase on Capitol Hill as Democrats gained control of Congress, partly because of voters’ opposition to Bush administration policies in Iraq.

A furor arose nationally over Dubai Ports World’s plan to run port facilities in New York and other ports in the country. This takeover of port facilities was one of the big stories that did not happen in 2006. (For others, see The Big Stories That Did Not Happen in 2006.)

But 2006 was not just the year of national and international news. In New York, it was the year of Eliot Spitzer. His election as governor rarely seemed in doubt, despite two qualified and articulate opponents. Democrats and Republicans alike seemed to believe that the man who once took on Wall Street could manage to clean up the “mess in Albany.”

Here are the top 10 New York stories of 2006 – and the big stories that did not happen.

1. Democrats Sweep State Elections

Led by gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer, Democrats captured the four statewide offices on Election Day, giving them control of all the positions for the first time since 1942.

Election Day brought the state its first black lieutenant governor, David Paterson of Manhattan. In the contest for Spitzer’s old job of state attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, son of the former governor, won a convincing victory against former Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro following a campaign marked more by revelations about Pirro’s marriage than any policy debates.

But one winning Democrat was not invited to the ticket’s election night parties: State Comptroller Alan Hevesi. Long considered a shoo-in for reelection, Hevesi seemed in jeopardy after it became known that he had used a state employee as a chauffeur and companion for his ailing wife. The news provided a boost for the little known Republican candidate, former Saratoga County Treasurer Chris Callaghan. But despite the charges – bolstered by Hevesi’s apology, reimbursement payments to the state and a scathing report by a state ethics panel – the comptroller held on to win, getting 57 percent of the vote. Hevesi’s future remains in doubt, though, as the Albany district attorney is investigating the case and Spitzer seems likely to seek his removal from office early in 2007.

On other matters, Spitzer vowed to bring change to Albany from “day 1.” During the transition he implemented new ethics rules for himself and those advising him and said he would limit the size of campaign contributions that he would accept. He had also set forth an ambitious agenda, particularly in health care and education.

2. New Yorkers Gain Clout on Capitol Hill

The Democratic victories across the country on Election Day boosted the power and prestige of New York City and State’s overwhelmingly Democratic congressional delegation. With the Democrats assuming control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1994, Charles Rangel, the longtime Democratic representative from Harlem, was named chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, which handles tax writing and other financial matters. Joe Crowley of Queens also got a seat on the key committee. And Anthony Weiner, who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens, won a seat on another important committee: Energy and Commerce. Nydia Velázquez will head up the small business committee. And the representative from the Rochester area, Louise Slaughter, will chair the rules committee, giving New Yorkers two of the most powerful committees on Capitol Hill.

While neither of New York’s senators will head committees, they were big winners on Election Day as well. Senator Hillary Clinton trounced her Republican opponent for the Senate, former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer, bolstering her position for a presidential bid. And by masterminding the successful Democratic Senate campaign, the state senior Senator Charles Schumer, increased his power.

3. Health Problems At Ground Zero

Days before New Yorkers marked the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, researchers confirmed what many had long assumed: that the collapse of the Twin Towers led to serious health problems. Mt. Sinai Medical Center published the first major clinical study (in pdf format) of the 40,000 men and women who worked at Ground Zero in the days immediately following 9/11. Seventy percent of those tested reported respiratory problems, and 60 percent of them continue to be sick.

Studies have also shown reduced lung capacity among firefighters, increased respiratory problems among downtown residents (in pdf format), low birth weight for babies born in lower Manhattan soon after the attacks, and declining health for nearby residents with asthma. The collapse of the Twin Towers even led to the coining of a new medical term: " World Trade Center Cough." The death of James Zadroga in January, 2006, was the first death to be linked officially to a problem caused by work at Ground Zero -- though he does not seem to be the only one to have died from working on the smoldering rubble that rescue workers referred to as "the pile." Medical experts also predict that people who are healthy now may develop conditions related to 9/11 in the years to come.

Many blame these health problems partly on government neglect and, in some cases, outright deception. Until recently, many officials had been unwilling even to acknowledge a direct link between health problems and 9/11, likely because of the fear of a wave of lawsuits.

There are signs that change is coming. Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a new plan for tracking and treating 9/11-related cases, including giving millions of dollars to the city Health and Hospitals Corporation to expand its 9/11 related services. There are also several bills pending in Congress that would provide care and compensation to those whose health is suffering as a result of 9/11.

4. The $5.4 Billion Apartment Sale

In what BusinessWeek billed as “the world’s biggest real estate deal,” Jerry Speyer bought Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village for $5.4 billion. The complex, with 110 buildings on 80 acres on Manhattan’s East Side, has provided housing for ten of thousands of middle income New Yorkers. With the new owners likely to upgrade the apartments in order to get the biggest return on their investment, the sale prompted increased concern about the loss of affordable housing in Manhattan and throughout the city. Tishman Speyer, Speyer’s firm, said residents of rent-stabilized apartments would continue to be protected, but the company has not said what it plans to do with its new purchase.

Almost as soon as the Stuyvesant deal was announced, another moderate-income development, Starrett City in Brooklyn, went on the auction block. Sixty percent of the tenants in the 140-acre development on Jamaica Bay receive federal rent subsidies. Although real estate experts predicted that the complex far from Manhattan could go for more than $1 billion, they also noted it was unclear how much a new owner could change the character of Starrett City. Both sales, along with continued construction of luxury buildings and high prices, indicated that the New York City real estate boom, while perhaps flagging a bit, continues

5. Health Board Bans Trans Fats

In a move that some praised as a path-breaking public health measure and others denounced as Big Brotherism run amok, the city health board banned almost all uses of artificial trans fats in city restaurants. This made New York the first city in the nation to ban the artificial fats that medical experts say increase the chances of heart disease and other serious health conditions.

Restaurants would have to start sharply curtailing the amount of trans fat, found in oils and shortening, by July 1 from recipes that contain more than a half-gram of trans fat per serving. By July 1, 2008, they would have to remove all items with more than a half gram of trans fat, including deep fried foods, from their menus.

In another effort to encourage New Yorkers to eat more healthily – and to lower high rates of obesity and diabetes in the city – the health board will also require restaurants with standardized menus –McDonald’s and Starbucks, to name two – to post the calories content of their offerings.

6. Legal Battle Over School Funding Ends

The 15-year court fight to win more state money for New York City public schools ended in November when the state’s highest court ruled that city schools need an additional $1.9 billion a year to provide all their students with a sound basic education.

The decision in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit represented a partial victory for the education advocates who launched the suit in the early 1990s. They cheered the fact the court for recognizing that there is a right to a sound education and a link between funding for schools and the schools' ability to provide that education.

But the court’s dollar amount – while not “chump change” as several observed – represents far less than the $4 billion to $6 billion set out in decisions by lower courts.

Noting that Governor-elect Spitzer had said during his campaign that state schools could get an additional $8 billion, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity and others vowed to take the fight for more funds to the new governor and the state legislature.

And no matter how much money the city schools do get, fights seem certain over how the money will be spent and whether the Department of Education will have to account for how it uses the money.

7. Commission Recommends Closing Hospitals

New York's health care system is under immense pressure. The state's hospitals are in worse shape than hospitals almost anywhere else in the country; its Medicaid program is the most expensive in the country; and millions of New Yorkers lack health insurance.

Eighteen months ago, Governor George Pataki appointed a commission to recommend a course of action. In a report released in November, it concluded that there are too many hospital beds in New York, leading to a financially unsustainable health care system. The panel recommended closing nine hospitals statewide and forcing 48 others to change the services they provide. Five of the hospitals slated to close and 10 set to restructure are in New York City.

The recommendations were widely seen as one of the biggest things to ever happen to the New York health care system. Some protested the closings, saying they would only aggravate existing inequities, and a poll found that over 70 percent of New Yorkers opposed the recommendations. Others said the closings wouldn't save money. Still, there never seemed to be much doubt that Albany's lawmakers would allow the plan to go through. Both the state's major health care workers union and its hospital trade association -- political juggernauts who have made hospital closings politically unfeasible in the past – did not oppose the report. Pataki and incoming governor Eliot Spitzer said they supported it. And indeed, the legislature passed on its chance to block it.

8. Christine Quinn Becomes New York City Council Speaker

Members of the City Council chose Christine Quinn from Chelsea as their new speaker, making her only the third person – and the first woman and the first gay person – to hold the powerful post. Quinn replaced Gifford Miller who had to leave office because of term limits.

Although Quinn won out over several rivals, thanks to skilled backroom maneuvering and the support of powerful city political organizations, she pledged to make the council more open and democratic. As her first year as speaker neared its end, observers gave her mixed grades on her reform agenda, saying she had implemented some needed changes, on such matters as enacting the budget and restricting access to the council by lobbyists, but faltered on eliminating special stipends for committee chairpeople and restricting council members’ outside incomes.

9. Police Kill Unarmed Man on His Wedding Day

In an event that rekindled long-standing tension over police conduct in black communities, 23-year-old Sean Bell died in a barrage of 50 police bullets on his wedding day. Bell, who was unarmed, was leaving his bachelor party at a Jamaica strip club when plainclothes police began shooting at his car, killing him, wounding two of his friends and even sending a bullet into a nearby air train station.

The number of shots fired, the victim’s race and the shooting by members of a special undercover unit prompted comparisons with the fatal police shooting of Amadou Diallo in 1999. But, in sharp contrast with the conduct of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani following the death of Diallo, Mayor Bloomberg met with black leaders shortly after the Queens shooting and called the number of rounds fired “inexplicable” and excessive.

Several weeks after the shooting witnesses and police disputed what happened that night. As the year ended, the case was still under investigation by Queens District Attorney Richard Brown.

10. Summer Heat Kills Dozens, Causes Long Blackout in Queens

One of the worst heat waves on record in New York killed about 140 people. After five straight days of above 90 temperatures in late July, temperatures in early August edged above 100 in some parts of the city for three more days. Heat stroke caused about 40 of the deaths, with the others arising from conditions, such as heart problems, exacerbated by the heat.

An earlier – and less severe heat wave – had caused power outages of as long as 10 days in some parts of Queens, raising concerns about the city’s aging infrastructure. The power failure was blamed on the distribution system, which relies on aging and outmoded equipment. As food spoiled and people sweltered, ire grew at Con Ed for both the failure and for seriously underestimating the number of people affected as well as for not being able to get the lights back on more quickly. But Con Ed has refused to take the blame, going so far as to issue a report in October praising its handling of the blackout. In that report, Con Ed said a series of unrelated events, including an underground cable fire, caused the power to fail.

 




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