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So Many Wonderful Controversies

by Gotham Gazette Staff, Jan 31, 2005
 

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.

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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 situation.

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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 Knishener.

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?

GG: 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 better.

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 up there.

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 contradictory.

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

GG: How did you decide to spend your life covering New York politics?

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 rhetorician

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 came about?

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 Tammany control.

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 know.

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 of tedious.

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 unmanageable?

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 news.

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 garbage.

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 condition?

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?

Hilarious Hillary

GG: 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 York politics?

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 York.

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 hilarious.

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 politics.

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 with it

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

GG: 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.

Henry Stern: 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 political patronage.

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 Giuliani administration.

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.


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