Gotham Gazette

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Questions For Republican Mayoral Candidate Joe Lhota


NEW YORK — Joe Lhota, the Republican mayoral candidate whose leadership of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been credited with helping to stave off calamity to the city's subway system during Hurricane Sandy last year, is often considered a seasoned manager of large, untidy bureaucracies. It is a well-deserved reputation. He held positions in the Rudy Giuliani administration, including as budget director and deputy mayor of operations. He was MTA chief from 2011 to 2012. During an interview with the Gotham Gazette at his campaign office near Grand Central Terminal, he responded to questions on various public policy issues, from the budget to the Community Safety Act (which he called the "Community Un-Safety Act"). 

GG: The City Council and mayor recently approved a new city budget, so that seems like a good place to start. Do you think the so-called “budget dance” is a distraction from actual debate about budget priorities?

LHOTA: See, I look at the dance as starting in January. When the public talks about the dance, they are really just talking about what they think is what happens in regards to the executive budget in connection with member items, which is just a minor, minor piece, about $300 to $400 million dollars. And quite honestly, that budget dance starts at the beginning. The city charter, the lowercase “c” constitution of the city, lays out the process for the dance.

GG: So you’re not critical of the budget dance?

LHOTA: I’m not critical of the budget process at all.

GG: What do you think of the way that discretionary funding is distributed to City Council members for their district?

LHOTA: Some members, some people running for mayor have actually called for the end of Council member items. I'm not at that level yet. I think it … needs to be open and transparent.

GG: The city’s open data law is a national model. What would you do to make sure that the city continues to be at the forefront of the open government movement, and how would you get agencies to comply with the law?

LHOTA: Originally the MTA was saying we will develop the app and I said no. Let us put the data out there, let other people develop the app and, if you go into the store where you can buy the apps on your smartphone, there are about 12 or 13 different app providers that will provide you that same level of data because we have let it out there. The MTA is not in the business of creating apps. The MTA is in the business of moving people from point A to point B and knowing exactly where the trains are, let us tell the world where the trains are and let them decide how we do it. That is this same thing with city government we are going to do.

What amazes me is that there still is a long, long way to go for the city to be technologically at the cutting edge because we are not near the cutting edge; there are other municipalities around the county who are much more advanced than we are. I encourage you to look at a magazine called Government Technology, which I used to get when I was deputy mayor.

GG: What would you do as mayor to get agency heads to promote technology innovation?

LHOTA: That’s an even broader question than the specific one you asked. How would I go about making sure I hire commissioners who are technologically savvy? It is going to be a component … I will no doubt have different task forces for dealing with the health commissioner and this commissioner, and that commissioner. But they need to be more than just an expert in that area. They also need to show some technological savvy. It is going to be a key component in the selection of any commissioner.

The one thing I will tell you about technology, technology brings out in government the phrase I hate the most which is, "We have never done it that way before." You hear it a lot and you would hear it a lot and that's exactly what you don't want. Of course, you have never done it that way before. That is why it is called technology.

GG: Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Department of Education received considerable financial and professional support from the private sector. What role should the private sector — either business people or companies — play in financing, shaping or steering the DOE and its policies?

LHOTA: It is interesting, I talked a lot about charter schools and some people automatically assume charter schools are subsidized. There is one charter school program, Uncommon Schools, it is called, where the private sector contributions started and then after that there are no more contributions. All they use to fund that operation is the money they receive from the city of New York. I think it is a very, very good model.

I don't want to do anything to discourage the private sector from philanthropic efforts, we need to continue that.

GG: How much control should the next mayor have over the city’s subways and buses? Should the city wrestle control over mass transit from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority?

LHOTA: The transportation world in this city balkanized. It truly is. You have major roads in New York City that are controlled by the sate. For example, the FDR drive, is not a city road. It is a state road and the state repairs and upkeeps it. You have the MTA, which has the subways and buses and the bridges and tunnels.

What I have been calling for, just as an aside, is that the bridges and tunnels need to be given back to the mayor. They were taken away from the mayor in 1968 by the Legislature at the request of Gov. Rockefeller. The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority still exists; it is a subsidiary of the MTA. I have called as a candidate to have the mayor take over the TBTA again because that way they can control the tolls over there because tolls are going up for the purposes of subsidizing things unrelated to the bridges and tunnels.

I think what I would like to do, that existed pre-Mike Bloomberg is the Mayor’s Office of Transportation. It was a coordinating body between all of them. In fact Janette Sadik-Khan was the head of the Mayor’s Office of Transportation during the Dinkins administration.

Their role was to make sure the city was heard at every level within every one of those agencies, so much so that the mayor’s representatives on the MTA board would meet with the Mayor’s Office of Transportation before committee meetings, before board meetings, and understand what the committee and what the city wanted from the MTA, and so it was very important.

There really needs to be an overall effort to try to get everyone to work together. That is one of the reasons I want the bridges and tunnels — by the way, the bridges and tunnels only connect the five boroughs. They don't go to Nassau County, they don't go to Westchester County. They only connect one borough to another borough. In one case in the Rockaways, [a bridge] connects Queens to Queens.

So the people who want to go from one side of the borough to the other side of the borough have to pay a toll. It is amazing how inequitable that seems to be. I don't know any other place in the country where it costs you money to go in the same county from one side to the other side. The mayor and City Council should control all of the bridges and tunnels in the five boroughs. Then there will be the beginning of less balkanization going on because then you will be able to control the ability to get from one borough to another borough and have a cohesive or at least a coherent transportation policy and strategy, maybe strategy then policy.

GG: The bridges and tunnels, but not the subways.

LHOTA: Quite honestly the subsidy that is provided by the state to mass transit is voluminous and we can't lose that subsidy. The subsidy right now on the transit ride — about 50 percent of the cost for your subway ride, and I'm going to be off by a couple percentages, but it's about 50-50. Fifty percent of the cost of the subway ride comes from the fare and the other 50 percent comes from the state in the form of subsidies.

But those subsidies are different things, they can take the form of every time you get in a cab, 50 cents goes to the MTA. Every time you have a new mortgage, you have something called the mortgage recording tax, that goes to the MTA. Again, even the subsidies’ streams are balkanized.

Maybe I know too much because I'm wonkish on this issue. But you can't just say the mayor should take over the MTA without realizing the fiscal implications. It needs to be a much more comprehensive answer than we are just going to take it over.

GG: Sam Schwartz, the well known transportation policy expert, has come out with a new plan for how tolls can be priced, which some describe as “congestion pricing” but he does not. What do you think of the plan?

LHOTA: No question it's creative, no question it's innovative, and it would require all of these disparate governmental functions to sit at a table together and agree, that I'm going to charge less, you're going to charge more, you're going to pay me back, it's a swapping of money. That's because these revenue streams that are created by the Port Authority, by the MTA, by the city, by the state, anyone else is involved in this area, they already have dedicated uses to where this is going, they're going to say why.

GG: Is that where your plan for bringing back the Mayor’s Office of Transportation would come into play?

LHOTA: The Mayor’s Office of Transportation would never be that powerful. It will at least be able to try to have a cohesive, coherent policy coming from the mayors office, coming from the direction of the city. Look, Sam's idea is innovative and creative, but at the same point I think it's extremely controversial and how it will ever pass I just don't know. By the way, the other people sitting at the table are the New York State Assembly and the New York State Senate. They have a very big role in this and, quite honestly, their role through the Public Authority's Control board has what I call Security Council rules, anybody who says no and the entire issue falls. It's not a majority rule situation … which is what you have the Security Council at the United Nations. All you need is one member of the Security Council to say “nyet,” like they used to say during the Cold War, and it fails. It doesn't go forward. Those are the same rules you have in Albany.

GG: What do you think of the two public safety bills that were recently approved by the City Council under what is being called the Community Safety Act? One law would establish an independent inspector general to monitor the New York Police Department. The other gives individuals the right to sue for racial profiling by the NYPD.

LHOTA: I'm against the inspector general. I also think the Community Safety Act is misnamed, I think it's the “Community Un-safety Act.” I think it's going to do everything to make it more difficult for the police to do their job, handcuffing them in many ways. And I believe it makes us unsafe.

I encourage everybody, I really mean this, and this gets overly wonky. There is a court case called Terry v. Ohio, 1988, written by Earl Warren, the chief justice at the time, which gives permission for cops, police officers to stop anyone if they believe that person is doing anything suspicious. This was passed by the Supreme Court eight to one. It has been the guidelines for the police department here and around the country.

GG: Do you think the mayor's tactic of using his wealth to influence the passage of the bill is a good strategy?

LHOTA: Let me turn it on its head and ask you a theoretical question. Do you think it's a good idea for the governor to go out and raise money for something called a Committee to Save New York, to lobby the state Legislature on his proposals?

This has been going on since the beginning of time in democracy. The distinction is that Mike Bloomberg may be the only one funding it … I have no idea what it is like to be a billionaire, to be able to do these types of things. This concept of elected officials going outside asking to raise money to affect the legislative process is nothing new; it's just a continuation of what has been going on in this country for quite sometime.

Did you see the most recent Abraham Lincoln movie?

What is amazing is that I saw it in a theatre in lower Manhattan and, after it was all over, there were these two little ladies right in front of me and they were probably 70s, 80s and a major portion of the film was the fact that Lincoln asked his Secretary of State, that at the time was leading the charge for the 13th Amendment, to go out and hire lobbyists to lobby the Congress to be able to get the bill passed and these two little old ladies said, "Do you believe it, they had lobbyists back then?” And it was just like, “Lady, there have been lobbyists since the beginning.” There were lobbyists in Rome at the Roman Senate; there were people that did that.

So that the idea Mike Bloomberg is doing something new and different, he's not. Is it fair? We're a country where you're allowed to express your opinion. It's a First Amendment right and you can do it with money.

Intern Daniel Stein-Sayles contributed research assistance.

Eliot Spitzer In Albany: Good at Making Enemies


ALBANY, N.Y. — Eliot Spitzer thrived as attorney general. He investigated Wall Street and took down white-collar crooks with such zeal and willfulness he was called “The Sheriff of Wall Street.”

As governor, Spitzer used the same brazen — some would say bullying — tactics against obstinate legislators. Unwilling to compromise or negotiate, he found his efforts frustrated until he had squandered his immense political capital and resigned amid a prostitution scandal in 2008.

After a five-year hiatus from the political scene, Spitzer re-emerged this week to announce a run for the comptroller’s office.

While it’s impossible to forecast how Spitzer would act as comptroller, this much is clear: Spitzer in that office could prove especially troublesome for the next mayor. The comptroller’s office is tasked with monitoring city spending and analyzing contracts, and its work often rubs up against the mayor’s initiatives.

“I pity whoever is the next mayor because, with the powers of comptroller, this guy is going to be on the mayor’s case on a daily basis,” Baruch College political science professor Doug Muzzio said in an interview this week. “This office is a stepping stone and he’s gotta step on the mayor.”

Spitzer said on the Charlie Rose Show earlier today that he had changed. “I hope that I have become a bit more accepting of alternative views, desires to listen,” he said to guest host Mark Halperin. “A bit more reflective and empathetic.”

A look back at Spitzer’s record in Albany as both attorney general and governor shows that while he was able to build on his resume and attract attention, he also thrived on conflict and was unwilling or unable to compromise.

Those characteristics proved valuable when he was an attorney general and the goal was to prosecute cases; they became a liability when he was governor and when working with the Legislature required a more subtle form of negotiation.

Spitzer’s short tenure in the governor’s mansion from January 2007 to March 17, 2008, was typified by setbacks, personal conflict with legislators and an insistence that he get exactly what he wanted, when he wanted it. Threats were Spitzer’s favorite legislative tool.

Spitzer notoriously told Assemblyman Jim Tedisco after the lawmaker resisted his call to support him at a press conference on an ethics deal: “I’m a f---- steamroller and I will roll over you and anyone else! I’ve done more in three weeks than any governor in the history of the state.”

Spitzer’s failure to use the governor’s office was a surprise to many who saw Spitzer’s use of the attorney general’s office as masterful.

“During his time as AG he almost created a new paradigm for the attorney general’s office and for use of Martin Act,” Muzzio said, referring to the law that dates back to the 1920s and gives the attorney general expansive powers to investigate financial fraud — more power than almost any other public officer in the country.

Using the powers under the Act, Attorney General Spitzer battled securities fraud, brought cases against a myriad of investment banks like Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs, and charged Richard Grasso the chair of the NY Stock Exchange with violating his position as head of the then nonprofit by taking too large of a salary.

Those cases generated splashy headlines and earned Spitzer a reputation as a no-nonsense prosecutor in the people’s interest. He made sure the media had the pictures of alleged bad actors to splash all over front pages and evening news. That made Spitzer more than his share of enemies in the business world, but they were in no position to block his agenda. That situation changed when he became governor.

Spitzer only spent a year in office running the state. While he rammed through some reforms, he soon found himself repeatedly stymied by the leadership of powerful Republican state Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno.

Bruno blocked a number of issues that were important to Democrats, including Spitzer, for years on issues like same-sex marriage, Rockefeller Drug Law reform, and rent law reform. Bruno was all-powerful as head of the Senate and controlled his conference with great precision.

Spitzer and Bruno also battled over Spitzer’s budget, especially Spitzer’s plan to reduce healthcare spending. Bruno also steadfastly opposed Spitzer’s evangelical push for campaign finance reform.

In response, Spitzer poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a special election for a Republican-held senate seat through the state Democratic Party. The effort proved successful, and Spitzer began the trend that saw Democrats take the majority in the Senate in 2008. But Spitzer was not in power to reap the rewards.

Eventually, the Spitzer administration was caught using state police resources to try to track Bruno’s use of state aircraft for political ends. “Troopergate,” as the scandal came to be known, and the investigations that followed, bogged Spitzer down in a grueling battle with the Legislature and the press — until The New York Times reported that Spitzer had frequented high-priced prostitutes in other states and structured payments to avoid detection. Spitzer called a press conference in the city and, with his wife by his side, he resigned.

It was an especially shocking denouement given that Spitzer’s run for governor was less a political campaign and more a coronation. News outlets from around the world reported breathlessly about how the Sheriff of Wall Street would soon take to the governor’s mansion.

“He came in with such fanfare and hope that it made the plummet that much greater,” said Russ Haven of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Haven said he saw Spitzer as being genuine in his push for real reform in Albany. Spitzer did launch a successful push for ethics reform and he noted that Spitzer’s ethics body — the Commission on Public Integrity — was a precursor to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ethics panel.

But Haven said when the Troopergate scandal hit there were leaks from the CPI to the Spitzer administration. Those leaks and Spitzer’s insistence that he appoint the majority of members to the CPI have weighed heavy on legislators who are reluctant to allow anyone to police them. Spitzer’s meddling in ethics reform may have soured legislators on future proposals.

David Grandeau, who was ousted from his position as head of the state’s lobbying commission when Spitzer pushed through the new CPI, said that he feels Spitzer came to Albany with a “holier than thou attitude” and wanted Albany to do as he said, not do as he did.

He said Spitzer should not have the chance to return to politics. “I’m old fashioned,” Grandeau said. “Once you have squandered your public service you should go away. You have destroyed your honor and privilege.”

Grandeau also said he still thinks there are outstanding issues with Spitzer’s time in office that need to be dealt with, including whether the former governor violated the public officers law by using a state plane to travel to Washington, D.C., where he had arranged a meet-up at a hotel with a prostitute. “Let’s deal with that before he returns to public office,” he said.

So what about the comptroller’s office? Is it a good fit for Spitzer? Muzzio thinks so. “It suits his abilities like the attorney general’s office does,” he said. “The powers are delimited but it is an extremely powerful office.”

In other words, Spitzer would be his own boss again, would have subpoena power and have clear foils — Wall Street and the next mayor of New York City.

But he said that New Yorkers should get ready for war and gridlock between Spitzer and Weiner if both men are elected. “There is a potential thrilla in Manilla situation with Tyson biting off ears type of stuff,” he said, referring to the much-hyped third boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier and the boxing bout between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield where Tyson bit off a bit of Holyfield’s ear.

“The reporters will love it, but for the rest of us it will mean gridlock,” Muzzio said.

Going Back In Time To Vote


ALBANY, N.Y. — Going to the polls this year could be like stepping back in time to another era when voters had to pull down on levers to make their ballots count.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation today allowing the New York City Board of Election to bring lever voting machines out of storage for the primary election and likely mayoral runoff. The city has been using electronic voting machines since 2010.

In an approval message, Cuomo called the plan a "poor solution" but also said not signing the bill could be worse.

"Preventing the use of lever voting machines through a veto could profoundly impact the integrity of this year’s elections," Cuomo wrote. He signed the law in private.

The measure also delays the runoff until Oct. 1, from Sept. 24.

Citing numbers from the latest Quinnipiac poll showing City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, former Congressman Anthony Weiner and former Comptroller Bill Thompson in a statistical three-way tie, BOE attorney Steve Richman defended the need for the lever machines at a public meeting earlier today.

"If the margin of victory is that close — and we can only look at the latest polls which show the three top candidates all within a point and a half of each other — that that's something to be done," Richman said before taking a jab at opponents to the BOE's lever solution. "I guess its more important to use, for some people, the scanners than to actually accurately count the votes."

Seven of the nine BOE commissioners approved a resolution on the plan to use the lever voting machines.

BOE Commissioner Naomi Barrera said the Legislature had "tied their hands," referring to efforts by the board to get state lawmakers to move the primary to an earlier date to allow for more time for a runoff.

"We have no choice but to go back in time," she added.

"Hopefully we're not in this position next time around," said Commissioner Simon Shamoun. "But going around the city and speaking to different groups and people — the support for lever machines among voters is overwhelming …I get almost nothing but positive reception."

Board President Frederic M. Umane and Secretary Gregory C. Soumas were absent and did not vote.


Good government groups had opposed bringing back the lever machines, arguing that deploying antiquated machinery would lead to confusion at the polls. They also argued that the lever machines were difficult for disabled voters to use.

They called the plan a "half-baked solution that seeks to absolve the responsibility of the Legislature in creating a crisis borne of their own failure to act."

But the BOE had argued that it would be unable to calculate the results from the Sept. 20 primary with its electronic voting machines and get them ready in time for a runoff election, initially arguing that the primary date be moved up to June. After failing to convince state lawmakers that the date change was necessary, the BOE asked the Legislature to empower them to use the lever voting machines.

The original Senate bill proposed by Republican Sen. Marty Golden, of Brooklyn, would have allowed for the use of the lever machines for any non-federal election. But good government groups said that could set a bad precedent that would allow for their return in the future under other circumstances. That provision was eventually killed.

The measure that was signed into law limits the use of the machines to the primary and runoff.

In his approval message, Cuomo listed a number of fixes the BOE could enact to prevent the need for lever voting machines Cuomo also suggested the BOE change it’s hand-count requirements and use high-speed scanners.

Elections Systems & Software, the maker of the city’s electronic voting machines, had offered the BOE faster electronic ballot counters for free if the BOE continued to use them for ballot printing or charge them $1.5 million for the counters outright.

The BOE rejected that offer, saying the counters would violate state law.

Sen. Adriano Espaillat, whose attempt at winning a seat to Congress was complicated by the messy handling of the 2012 election by the city BOE, slammed the approval of lever voting machines but said he agreed with Cuomo.

“I share Gov. Cuomo’s disappointment that the BOE pushed for this short-term tactic instead [of] pursuing meaningful reform. I stood with every good government group in New York City to oppose this plan,” Espaillat wrote. “The abandonment of federally compliant voting machines for the 2013 primary is a setback towards the goal of bringing sunlight and accountability to a troubled organization."

Soria contributed to this report from New York.

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