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Being Borough President

by Gail Robinson, Jul 18, 2005
 

Borough President Races:
Can This Island Be Saved? (Manhattan)
A Challenger for Carrion (Bronx)
Markowitz's Slam Dunk (Brooklyn)
A Muted Campaign in Queens (Queens)
A Two-Man Race in Staten Island (Staten Island)

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John Nance Garner, Franklin D. Roosevelt's vice president for two terms, famously commented that the number two office in the land wasn't "worth a pitcher of warm piss."

So what would Garner make of New York's five borough presidents? This is, after all, a job whose occupants Rebecca Meade likened in the New Yorker to "neutered beasts."

The office does offer the trappings of power -- a lofty title, $135,000 a year salary, a driver and sometimes a palatial office - but without much real authority anymore. Nevertheless, dozens of politicians are raising money, issuing press releases and spending endless hours shaking hands at subway stations in the hopes of capturing the job. As candidates scrambled to meet the July 14 deadline for filing petitions to get on the ballot, 24 candidates were vying for the five jobs.

And this year is less competitive than most. In every borough except Manhattan, a sitting president wants another term. Given the notorious power of incumbency in New York this undoubtedly scared away many potential challengers. It did not, however, keep the campaign donors away. As of July 16, two of the incumbents - Adolfo Carrion of the Bronx and Marty Markowitz of Brooklyn - had raised more than $1 million for races in which, many observers say, they face little credible opposition.

But the real action is in Manhattan. Fourteen candidates are seeking to replace C. Virginia Fields. It is, as one of them said, an open seat -- and those don't come up very often.

FADING POWERS

(From left to right)
• Carlos Manzano
• Eva Moskowitz
• Brian Ellner
• Scott Stringer
• Adriano Espaillat

The office of borough president was created at the time of the consolidation of Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island into the City of Greater New York in 1898. (Before that, "New York" was just Manhattan and parts of the Bronx.) The idea of borough president, the charter said, was to preserve "local pride and affection." Brooklyn had just been forced to surrender its status as a separate (and major) American city, and Queens and Staten Island were still largely rural.

Three years later, the borough presidents gained considerable clout in a revision of the city's charter, becoming five of the eight members of the Board of Estimate, which controlled the city budget and had power over building projects.

But the presidents' heyday drew to an end in 1989. Because the borough president of Brooklyn with more than 2 million residents had the same number of votes on the board as the borough president of Staten Island with a population of about 380,000, the United States Supreme Court ruled that arrangement unconstitutional, violating the principle of one person-one vote. To address the ruling, another charter commission eliminated the Board of Estimate and expanded the City Council. But they kept the borough presidents. They did this because of "a feeling by at least some people that there needed to be some level of government between the City Council and the mayor," said John Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York Graduate Center. And, he said, the politics of eliminating five high-profile political positions was considered more trouble than it was worth.

Every borough president still got to appoint one member to the powerful central Board of Education. But even that vanished with the advent of mayoral control of the school system -- and the dismantling of the Board of Education -- in 2002. This capped what Mollenkopf called "a long steady decline in the power of borough president since the time Greater New York was fashioned in 1898."

Today, the borough presidents make a few appointments -- to community planning boards, the planning commission and various other agencies and task forces - chair the borough boards, and oversee the delivery of services in their boroughs, though with limited power to fix whatever might be wrong. They can propose legislation in City Council, recommend some capital budget expenditures and dispense some money within their borough.

There have been no loud protests over the diminution of their power. After all, more than a century after consolidation, while some New Yorkers still feel that "pride and affection" for the borough in which they reside, most see themselves, first and foremost, as New Yorkers: Adults cross borough boundaries every day to go to work and children to go to school; congressional and city council districts straddle borough lines; only one daily newspaper (the Staten Island Advance) caters to a specific borough.

"You could do away with the borough presidency and I don't know if the nature of New York City politics and policy would change," said Doug Muzzio of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs.

"The office doesn't do much," admitted Joseph Dobrian, the Libertarian candidate for Manhattan borough president.

"It really doesn't serve any government purpose," said a writer named Ann Noonan, who wrote a paper a few years ago calling on the city to eliminate the office of the borough president, arguing "New York City's budget cannot afford these ceremonial disbursements of roughly $37 million," and presented it to the charter review commission. People praised her proposal, she says now, but it went nowhere.

WHAT THE CANDIDATES SAY

(From left to right)
• Magarita Lopez
• Bill Perkins
• Stan Michels
• Marty Markowitz
• Helen Marshall

Aside from Dobrian, most candidates for the office argue it does have clout, with influence far beyond the official duties.

"It's a bully pulpit. It's advocacy. You need to be very vocal," said Brian Ellner, a lawyer who is one of the candidates for Manhattan borough president.

The borough presidents serve as cheerleaders for their borough, trying to attract investment and new projects. Staten Island President James Molinaro boasts of creating parks and limiting development, while Helen Marshall of Queens talks up the new Mets stadium planned for her borough and Adolfo Carrion says he has created new jobs.

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz has become the cheerleader par excellence, such an abashed booster of Brooklyn's food, people and neighborhoods that he was featured in a New Yorker magazine profile. Markowitz also takes the credit - or blame - for persuading developer Bruce Ratner to propose an arena in downtown Brooklyn for the Nets basketball team. "Bruce had no interest, absolutely no interest," Markowitz told the New Yorker. "But I was very persistent with him, and didn't take no for an answer."

Even Marty Markowitz, though, has been known to admit that his main powers extend to handing out certificates of appreciation to Brooklyn citizens and dispensing Junior's cheesecake.

Borough presidencies do indisputably accomplish two things. They provide plum elected office for five politicians and jobs for some of their associates. And they can be a path to higher office. Mayors Robert Wagner and David Dinkins first served as Manhattan borough president, as did mayoral candidates C. Virginia Fields, Andrew Stein and Ruth Messinger. Robert Abrams went from being Bronx borough president to being state attorney general, while another Bronx borough president, Herman Badillo, moved up to U.S. Congress. Today, former Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer is running for mayor, while his successor, Adolfo Carrion, has already announced his plan to try for Gracie Mansion in 2009.

That, more than anything else, may be why the office of borough president persists. "Politicians want it because it's a stepping stone," Muzzio said. "What else would these people run for?"

 


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