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Issue of the Week
 
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Patronage

by John Wolfson

10 December 01

When the New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation was spending more than it earned, then-new Mayor Rudy Giuliani called it "the only bookie joint in New York that loses money," and promised to follow through on a campaign pledge to reform what he saw as a corrupt agency. He vowed, he said, to clean out the patronage -- the awarding of jobs by those in power, a term often used as a synonym for corruption.

The reformer that Giuliani installed to head OTB was not a management expert, or a business leader, or a proven whiz in government administration. He was a football coach. Allie Sherman was a former coach of the New York Giants.

Over the next two years, Sherman would find himself accused of rigging contracts, assaulting employees and ignoring city hiring and pay laws. He was later stripped of most of his administrative powers and eventually removed as president.

Giuliani ultimately delivered on his promise to turn around the OTB, making it profitable and offering it for sale. But to many, his hiring of Sherman represented the worst type of patronage, the awarding of government jobs to friends or political allies.

Now it is another new mayor who implicitly vowed during his campaign that he would not engage in patronage. He made a point of advertising that he was not a politician, and argued that his having used only his own money on his campaign meant he was beholden to nobody -- in other words, he would not, for example, have to hire somebody as a reward.

Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg appointed his three deputy mayors last Friday. The deputy mayor for administration, Patricia Harris, was a deputy mayor in the Koch administration. But she also worked for Bloomberg, first on his staff helping him choose his charities and then on his campaign helping him get elected.

Is this patronage? Some would say it unfair to call it so. But just days earlier, a report issued by the court system detailed how judges appointed by county political parties sometimes steer lucrative legal work to lawyers allied with the same parties. With a system that still allows such blatant abuse of the power to appoint, some critics believe that Bloomberg and his team of screeners must be vigilant to avoid even the appearance of a quid pro quo.

That should be the guiding principle, they say, through the many, many appointments that must be filled. The mayor-elect and his 56-member transition team must hire an estimated 3,000 people to help him run New York City.

But other New Yorkers, even some of those who make a living advocating "good government," say there is no longer much reason for alarm. Indeed, they even believe that patronage has its benefits.

THE TAMMANY FACTOR

When most New Yorkers hear the word patronage, they immediately think of Tammany Hall, the infamous Manhattan political organization without whose support, virtually no one could get elected mayor of New York for more than a century. In exchange for votes and campaign contributions, Tammany provided jobs, benefits and kickbacks to its supporters. "That tended to be a central feature of New York City politics into the 1950s," said Martin Shefter, a political science professor at Cornell University and author of the book "Political Crisis/Fiscal Crisis."

Tammany's roots were not entirely corrupt, Shefter said. The organization started out representing the poor, who had little political power at the turn of the century. In the days before the civil service system and before efficient state-sponsored welfare, Tammany provided jobs, food and benefits that kept many families afloat. It could be argued that the political machine served a purpose. "But the party bosses were not Robin Hoods," Shefter said. They may have stolen from the rich, and given some to the poor, but they kept plenty for themselves.

The most notorious Tammany leader, William "Boss" Tweed, was said to have bilked the city of $75 million or more in schemes involving fraudulent contracts and overbilling for services. Tweed got himself appointed commissioner of public works, a position that reportedly allowed him to bill the city $360,000 for a month of work by a carpenter loyal to Tammany.

Even though Tweed died in prison, scandal and patronage lived on. When Tammany-backed Mayor Jimmy Walker resigned amid graft charges in 1932, it was said he left behind engineers with no education and lifeguards who couldn't swim.

The civil service system, first introduced in 1883 in New York City and Brooklyn (the first cities in the nation to have one) eventually prevented many of the patronage abuses. The government's creation of a state-sponsored welfare system lessened the poor's reliance on political machines for food and shelter.

Today, the place where the most blatant patronage-related scandals exist "is in the courts," said outgoing City Councilmember Stan Michels. The recent report about court patronage followed an investigation commissioned nearly two years ago by Chief Judge Judith Kaye.

The investigation found, for example, that one law firm received more than $700,000 in legal work over a five-year period. The firm just happened to include two partners who are sons of a sitting judge. The report also found that lawyers working within the patronage scheme severely overcharged the elderly and infirm clients they were supposed to look out for.

As a result of the investigation, about a dozen judges face possible disciplinary action.

PATRONAGE...GOOD OR BAD?

In retrospect, George Spitz admits he never had a chance to be elected mayor last fall. "I thought I did," he said the other night. "I knew it was a long shot but I thought my platform was so good it would carry me." It did not. Spitz, a member of the board of the Civil Service Merit Council, got about 8,500 votes in the Democratic primary. But he still believes in his platform, a big part of which was reforming the patronage system in New York.

Spitz argues that every worker for the city except the mayor should have to take a civil service exam -- which is the way most of the city's 250,000 workers get (and keep) their jobs. Even the mayor's deputies and commissioners should have to prove their competency, he believes. That would rid the city of what he says is the corrupting influence of patronage jobs. "At some city agencies," he said, "you have patronage appointees supervising professional engineers. They just don't know what they're doing. It's shameful and bad for the city."

Lenore Chester doesn't go that far, but she is not sure the mayor needs control of 3,000 jobs. Chester is a former associate director of Citizens Union, which was founded at the turn of the 19th Century in part to battle patronage-linked corruption, (CU's affiliate organization Citizens Union Foundation is the publisher of Gotham Gazette). Chester believes the mayor should be able to appoint his key commissioners and deputies. "They need to be loyal to their boss," she said. "But everybody else's loyalty should be to the city."

Former Mayor Ed Koch has a different take. "The worst thing in the world would be to have the people there to carry out the mayor's policies become civil servants," he said. Hiring more workers under civil service procedures "would cripple the government," he insisted. "You can't fire civil servants."

It is indeed a cumbersome process to get rid of a civil servant. Workers under the mayor's control, however, may be fired, as hired, on his whim. "I would say there should be more jobs controlled by the mayor," he said. "Patronage does not have to be evil. If you appoint a good person and it's a patronage appointment, that's a good appointment."

Chester agrees. "The fact is, sometimes with patronage, you can get some really good people into city government that otherwise wouldn't get in."

Said John Mollenkopf, executive director of the Center for Urban Research at City University, "I'm not so sure patronage appointments are a bad thing. The whole point of getting elected is to run the government the way you think it should be, with the people you trust."

But Koch said a mayor will be tested. Unions, businesses, county parties and organizations will all apply pressure to get their members hired, thereby boosting their influence in the administration. "The banks, the unions, they were not for Bloomberg, he doesn't owe them," said Koch, who endorsed Bloomberg. "But if you do owe them, then you have to demand from them qualified people. You may have to ask for a few names to get one that you can work with."

But who does Bloomberg owe?

DEBT SETTLEMENT?

Just weeks before election day, Bloomberg's mayoral campaign appeared in ruin. He trailed in some polls by 16 points and generated more news for an aide's odd assertion that opponent Mark Green was actually a Stalinist than for any policy initiatives of his own. Green was said to be already deciding who would fill important spots in his administration.

Then Mayor Giuliani finally decided to endorse Bloomberg. Everything changed. The polls narrowed. Bloomberg, as he would later acknowledge, rode the endorsement to victory.

Is it a coincidence, then, that Giuliani announced recently that he expects many of his second- and third-tier administration appointees to be hired by Bloomberg? Or is it patronage?

"You'll see people from Giuliani's years, and Koch's with Bloomberg," political consultant Henry Sheinkopf said. "He owes them."

Koch scoffed at the assertion. "I haven't made one single request, and don't intend to."

A former high-level city worker, now a political consultant, thinks there's another reason Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman with no experience in elective office, is likely to hire workers from past administrations. "He doesn't know anybody," said the consultant, who asked that his name not be used "The circles he runs around in, maybe he can get 20, 30, 40 friends. He's not going to be able to have people that he knows, because they're not going to come into city government, not to be an assistant commissioner making $80,000."

Recently, Bloomberg announced that he will, in fact, rely heavily on the services of experienced City Hall workers. "You don't need more than one person as a total outsider," he said. "I fill the bill for a total outsider."

HIS OWN MAYOR

But Bloomberg has sent out other messages as well, insisting that just because someone has served well under Giuliani does not guarantee him or her a job in the new administration. He said he has personally notified some commissioners that they will no longer have a job in City Hall.

And many observers believe the mayor-elect is uniquely situated to bring new people into city government.

"Bloomberg comes in with many fewer debts to the 'permanent government' than anyone else might have," said Mollenkopf.

Many observers believe the choices Bloomberg makes will say a lot about the kind of mayor he'll be. The political consultant who requested anonymity said he expects a leader who will delegate power, "a commissioner government, not a City Hall government."

Mollenkopf pointed out that as a businessman, Bloomberg was adept at spotting talent and would simply overpay, if necessary, to acquire it. "He didn't have to give too much on policy," Mollenkopf said. "How that will transfer to a public sector, where you can't just give bonuses and hire for whatever salary you like, I don't know yet."

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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation, the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation’s public education programs.  Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.