Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



Where They Stand

Forget about term limits or perfunctory personality quirks. Here is a brief breakdown of where Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Comptroller William Thompson stand on some of the city's most important issues.

Has taken his crusade to get illegal guns off New York City streets nationwide, touts his record at reducing crime even in a recession. Wants to create a footwear recognition database. Proposes using GPS to fight crime in public housing. Expanding surveillance camera initiative currently around Lower Manhattan to Midtown. Has said he will fire Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to bring in a new team. Supports stop and frisks of suspects but says policy is overused. Promises to maintain police department staffing levels. Supports higher salaries for starting police officers. Would focus on "Wall Street" crime as well as crime in public housing projects.
Put forward a five-borough economic opportunity plan, full of proposals he's touted throughout his second term; includes tax breaks for businesses, expanded hours at workforce centers and potential job creation from the city's capital budget and federal stimulus dollars. Has promised to not raise taxes in the next year and has lobbied for reducing pension benefits for new public employees. (Like Bloomberg) wants to streamline the application process for new businesses and give tax breaks to small and independent business owners. Wants to raise taxes on those making more than $500,000 a year and restrict chain stores in certain neighborhoods. Has refused to support the new pension tier for new employees, saying that needs to be negotiated with unions behind closed doors.
After winning mayoral control of schools in his first term, successfully spearheaded its extension in his second. Wants to double the number of charter schools in the next four years, which would make charter schools account for 10 percent of school seats. Has touted test scores and graduation rates as a measure of how much schools have improved. Wants an additional 120,000 New Yorkers to graduate from our community colleges by 2020. Vows to get the Department of Education back to basics, fire Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, stop teaching to the test and reduce class size instead of closing schools. Wants to expand the number of district family advocates and was successful in lobbying for fiscal oversight of the Department of Education by the comptroller's office.
Put forth the 127-initiative PlaNYC 2030 in 2007, which includes a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent. Opposes drilling in or near New York City’s watershed, and has analyzed capacity limitations at landfills used by the city. Has not released any specific proposals related to environmental policy.
Says role of government is to improve and lengthen lives. Under his tenure, has banned smoking in public places, implemented mandatory calorie counts on some restaurant menus and banned trans fats. Wants to ban smoking in public parks and beaches. Supports a national health plan with a public option. Touts his protest of hospital closings in Queens and his support of streamlining publicly funded health care programs, like Child Health Plus. Says his administration would focus on health disparities and preventative care as well as expanding access to health insurance, similar to Brooklyn HealthWorks, which was also supported by Bloomberg. Supports a health care plan with a public option.
Has rezoned over 100 communities during his tenure. Many have preserved neighborhoods, but waterfront communities have seen massive luxury development. Says development plan has been balanced. Has not voiced support for legislation to roll back vacancy decontrol or repeal the Urstadt Law. Has been very critical of the Bloomberg development agenda, and says his administration would reexamine those rezonings. Has lobbied for vacancy decontrol legislation and the repeal of Urstadt in Albany.
Social Services
Was unsuccessful in restructuring the Department for the Aging to consolidate services, has controversially paid for one-way plane tickets for homeless individuals to leave the city and reunite with families, did not meet his commitment to reduce homelessness by two-thirds. Says he has made the system for homeless individuals better. Was against the centralization of senior centers by the Bloomberg administration. Would allow senior centers to define core services, expand and would use these facilities for other community services, like after school programs. Wants to reopen the federal Section 8 voucher program, offer emergency housing vouchers to the homeless and work on preventative poverty programs.
Wants to reopen shuttered LIRR lines in Queens, expand bus rapid transit, have light rail pilot project in Northern Brooklyn and Western Queens as well as install gateless toll plazas, expand ferry service, institute a transit "smart card" and give the police full authority over transit security -- much of this needs to be adopted by the MTA, which is in dire fiscal straits. Unsuccessfully lobbied for congestion pricing. Against tolls on the East River bridges and advocates for the reinstatement of the commuter tax. To solve the MTA's fiscal crisis, he lobbied for a weight based registration fee for new vehicles.

Unions Flex Their Political Muscles

Image by Ya-Hsuan Huang

Facing almost overwhelming odds in his quest to defeat Democrat John Liu and become New York City's next comptroller, Republican Joe Mendola tried a new tack last month.

"How in heaven's name is he supposed to be an independent auditor of unions and city agencies when he's so tight with them that he’s even having his victory celebration in a union hall?” Mendola said, alluding to Liu's victory celebration at the teachers union headquarters in downtown Manhattan. "There's a conflict of interest there that screams at voters."

Scream it may but New Yorkers have become accustomed to the roar. Labor has long helped boost politicians in New York. Union endorsements bring financial donations and members to staff phone banks and ring doorbells. And this year, labor has seemed particularly powerful as candidates backed by key unions and the Working Families Party, which includes many of the city's more progressive unions, managed to topple sitting City Council members -- an almost unheard of feat in New York City -- and win the Democratic nominations for public advocate and comptroller.

These victories, along with a campaign finance law that exempts unions from key restrictions, have sparked renewed debate about labor's role in city politics and government. While most candidates embrace union support, critics see organized workers -- particularly public employees -- as having too much influentce over public policy.

"Largely because of the union lock on pols, City Hall and Albany ignored Recession Economics 101 and raised taxes by a combined $13 billion this year," Michael Goodwin recently complained in the Daily News.

But Democratic public advocate candidate Bill de Blasio, who received more money from unions and their political action committees than any other citywide candidate this year, takes a different view. "A lot of what government is supposed to be doing is improving the lives of working people," he said.

Winning Efforts

The Working Families Party by no means has support of all unions, and it includes other groups such as ACORN as well. That said, the party has very strong ties to unions, and it had a particularly strong showing on Sept. 15 and 29.

De Blasio, the party's choice for public advocate, and Liu, its pick for comptroller, each best out three formidable opponents to win the Democratic nomination. Its mayoral choice, William Thompson Jr., won his primary. The party provided support to three challengers who ousted incumbent City Council members: Jumaane Williams, Daniel Dromm and Deborah Rose. It also backed but did not actively work for Fernando Cabrera, who kicked the Bronx's Maria Baez out of office. Its candidates also captured the Democratic nominations for two open seats in Brooklyn and one each in Queens and Manhattan.

Of course, the party lost some contests, notably the Manhattan district attorney's race, where its candidate, Richard Aborn, lost to Cyrus Vance Jr. Its effort to topple two more Brooklyn incumbents -- Diana Reyna and Albert Vann -- as did its choices for two other open seats in Queens.

Labor's success extended beyond the Working Families Party. In both citywide races, the candidates with the most union money -- de Blasio and Liu -- won. On the other end, David Yassky, who had virtually no union support, lost to Liu in the runoff by a wide margin.

Following the Money

New York is the nation's most unionized state with just shy of 25 percent of the workforce belonging to a union, far above the national rate of 12.4 percent, accordingto the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among public employees in the state, 69 percent are union members.

So far this election cycle, unions have given about $375,000 to candidates for office in New York City. Many unions that represent public employees -- such as the United Federation of Teachers, the Uniformed Firefighters Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees -- gave thousands of dollars to their preferred candidates. The city's largest municipal workers union, DC37, donated at least $14,890.

Candidates collected a total of about $94,000 from 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, many of whose members rely directly on government programs, especially Medicaid, for their jobs. Unions representing private employees, such as the communication workers, the retail workers, the food and commercial workers and the hotel workers, also made campaign donations.

This year marked the onset of the city's new campaign finance law, passed in 2007, which restricts contributions by lobbyists and businesses that do business with the city but does not put any similar restriction on campaign donations from unions -- such as DC37.

"It was a piece of legislation that unions had crafted so they wouldn't be treated the way corporations would be treated," said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney for the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Prior to the law, donations from groups doing business with the city far outpaced those from labor unions. In the 2001 and 2005 election cycles, for example, "doing business" firms gave about $25 million to citywide candidates, while unions gave a relatively paltry $4.1 million, according to an analysis by the New York Times.

Russianoff said it is not yet clear what impact the new law -- and its exemption for unions -- had on this year's election. He said the Campaign Finance Board will review that after the November election.

Whatever the board and other analysts find, though, Russianoff does not expect further restrictions on union money. Asked if a limit similar to the one on businesses was likely anytime soon, Russianoff said, "In a word, no."

Union help goes beyond the power of the purse, though. "The real strength unions have is the ability to mobilize members," said Russianoff. "Corporations don't have that."

The Working Families Party, for example, has said that leading up to the Sept. 15 primary, it knocked on 227,928 doors and talked to 62,112 voters -- not bad for an election in which only around 350,000 people voted.

Last Month's Results

In races that people know little about -- their district City Council's contest, for example -- an endorsement can serve as a quick signal of where a candidate stands. Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party, said he hoped that last month's victories indicate "that people support our view that everyone deserves a chance at a decent, meaningful life."

Many of the contests hinged on individual circumstances. The "lingering effect of term limits" played a role, according to Cantor, contributing to defeats of City Council members who voted to extend them. And, he said, many of the winners were "good candidates with a good message and hard work behind that."

The low turnout probably helped the union-backed candidates since only the most motivated citizens -- many, no doubt, union members or their families -- turned out at the polls. By one estimate, DC37 may have 4,000 to 5,000 members in City Council District 45 in East Flatbush. The unions' preferred candidate, Jumaane Williams, won that race by about 1,100 votes.

Working Class History

Unions have long wielded influence in New York politics. "Mayor LaGuardia never could have been mayor without labor's support," said Joshua Freeman, a professor of history at Queens College. In his book, Working Class New York," Freeman describes the city in the 1940s as a place where union activists played a key role in creating a kind of "New York exceptionalism... a local polity that during coming decades came to symbolize the best or worse of urban liberalism, depending upon one's point of view."

During that time, unions helped to preserve rent regulation for most of the city's housing stock and worked successfully to maintain low transit fares, keep the City University tuition free and expand municipal services. By the 1960s and the mayoralty of Robert Wagner, "New York labor reached a zenith of power," Freeman wrote. "Organized labor wielded its influence in ways unrivaled in the city's history to make working-class life more pleasant and secure."

Gradually that began to change. That power became a victim of demographic changes in the city, the bitter divisions wrought by the 1968 teacher's strike, the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and New York's growth from a working class city to more of a global financial capital.

Even considering last month's victories, Freeman does not think labor has the power it once did. "It has less of decisive effect than it did in earlier years" when labor could sway bigger things, like the mayoral race, he said.

Steven Malanga, the senior editor of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute, puts it more harshly. "What matters in defining New York is the mayor's office," he wrote recently in the New York Post. "By contrast, the comptroller is essentially an auditor with little policy-making clout, while the public advocate's job is so ill-defined it might as well be called 'the public appendix'" and City Council members "spend their days on constituent service or in committee meetings."

Voter, Supporter, Employee

Limited as labor's clout may be, last month's election has prompted alarm in some circles and a flurry of agitated newspaper opinion articles.

"The Real Estate Board has gone crazy," said Cantor. "They think the barbarians are at the gates."

Many of those expressing alarm cite a fundamental change between the union powerhouses of 50 years ago and those of today. Now, the strongest unions represent public employees. When their members go to the polls, they are, in essence, electing their bosses -- the people they will have to negotiate with at the bargaining table.

Public sector unions, Fred Seigel and Dan DiSalvo recently wrote in the Weekly Standard, "can achieve influence on both sides of the bargaining table by making campaign contributions and organizing get-out-the-vote drives to elect politicians who then control the negotiations over their pay, benefits, and work rules. The result is a nefarious cycle: Politicians agree to generous government worker contracts; those workers then pay higher union dues a portion of which are funneled back into those same politicians' campaign war chests. It is a cycle that has driven California and New York to the edge of bankruptcy."

In contrast with the unions of the mid 20th century, Freeman said, today's unions have a narrower priority: their collective bargaining position with the city. But, according to Freeman, public employee unions are hardly alone in using political activity to pursue parochial goals. "It's not a whole lot different from other politically active groups," he said. "Real estate interests don't tend to get involved in education."

Spheres of Influence

Photo by Courtney Gross
Union supporters for Bill Thompson

The power of these public employee unions -- whether good or bad -- is unmistakable. It is evident in the campaign finance bill's exemption of unions and in the debate over reducing pensions for public employees, cutting government programs and a myriad of other issues large and small.

Carol Kellermann, president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a private watchdog group, said that union influence shows up most clearly in efforts to control spending.

"If you look at spending and what state and local government spend money on," she said, citing education, Medicare, public employee salaries, "in every one of those areas there are organized public employees."

On pension reductions, she said, the union's power makes it "very, very difficult to achieve change... and even to discuss it rationally."

"Everybody else would benefit from these changes," Kellermann said, "but they aren't organized."

The city and state's fiscal problems do pose a major challenge, Cantor said. "It is very difficult to sustain vibrant public sector when the private sector is under such stress," he said. But he said the Working Families Party and its union supporters reject the idea that the way out of our fiscal problems is "to make public sector lives as difficult as private sector lives."

The Fine Print

While the Working Families Party, with some 20 groups, may take that kind of broad view, individual unions can get down to very specific issues. Take the United Federation of Teachers whose contract has been widely assailed as a collection of minutiae about what teachers can and cannot do.

Currently the city and the union are behind closed doors hammering out a new agreement. One issue allegedly in play are rules for teachers considered unqualified to teach. But, even though Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have complained about the contract, many experts do not expectthem to do much to change it.

The teachers, considered one the most powerful unions in the city, have not endorsed in the mayor's race so far. And that could indicate a deal in the works.

Bloomberg persuaded the union to support mayoral control of schools and wants the union to "at the very least not endorse Bill Thompson" for mayor, according to Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute. In return for that, Stern said, Bloomberg has a powerful incentive to give the teachers a raise and keep the contract basically as is, and ignore work rules he complained about in the past. (Neither side is publicly discussing the negotiations.)

"There has been a grand compact, a grand accommodation," Stern said recently.

Disagreements Among Friends

Unions and the candidates they support deny that politicians who get union support are required to toe the labor line.

De Blasio said he has worked closely with unions over the years and understands their concerns. But, he said, "that does not mean I always agree with them by any stretch." For example he said, when he served on a community school board in Brooklyn, he disagreed with the teachers union on work rules. He said his support for a strong police Civilian Complaint Review Board was at odds with positions taken by various law enforcement unions and that the sanitation workers had concerns about his bill requiring recycling of electronic waste.

"All public servants represent a broad range of issues and try to determine what good public policy is," he said. "You can't go by who supported you in the last election."

Some detect a whiff of sour grapes among some politicians who now seem to be distancing themselves from unions and the Working Families Party.

Responding to criticism of his many union endorsements, Jumaane Williams said, "I don't know why unions are bad all of a sudden... Every candidate took hours out of their day to seek the same endorsements."

During a candidate debate, Yassky indicated his position on pension reform -- he has said he would be open to cutting pension benefits for newly hired city employees -- might have cost him union support. "What I haven't done is tell anyone what they wanted to hear," Yassky said. "I'm sure there have been political consequences."

Following his defeat, Yassky co-authored an op-ed piece with former Mayor Ed Koch deriding the influence of the Working Families Party. "The problem," they wrote, "is that the WFP is driven not simply by ideology, but also by the very specific interests of its component parts -- namely, the city's largest labor unions. These organizations have a very direct financial stake in the state and city budgets, an interest that is often at odds with the public interest."

Whatever the merits of their argument, the column elicited a cynical reaction among some political insiders who noted that Yassky had sought the Working Families Party and union endorsements himself at various times in his career.

On to November

With the primaries over in this overwhelmingly Democratic city, many unions have already accomplished their key political goals for the 2009 elections. The mayoral election still looms, though, with labor divided. Democrat Thompson has managed to pick up the Working Families Party and DC37 endorsement, along with backing from the Communication Workers, the Uniformed Firefighters and the Transport Workers, among others. Thompson has received almost $41,000 from unions and many thousands more from union political action committees. Despite that, questions remain as to how hard some of these groups will fight for Thompson.

Bloomberg also has some union backing, including from the Building and Construction Trades. And then there are groups, notably the teachers, who remain on the sidelines, at least publicly.

Like the candidates in last month's primary, Bloomberg and Thompson are courting labor votes -- and each campaign puts out a press release when it bags a thumbs up from one group or another. What the announcement does not include is what, if anything, the candidate promised in exchange for that support.

Stated Meeting: Graffiti Cleanup and Rezoning Sunset Park



You want graffiti erased from your storefront?

The City Council on Wednesday approved legislation to make it easier for residents and business owners to have graffiti removed from their properties -– gratis -- by the city.

In addition, the council approved a 128-block rezoning of the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn.

Graffiti Be Gone

In order to remove graffiti from private property now, the city must obtain a waiver from the property owner.

Under the legislation (Intro 1042), which was approved by a vote of 44 to 2, the city will paint over graffiti unless the owner objects –- essentially reversing the current practice. Anyone who wants to keep the graffiti on the property must alert the city within 35 days.

“This system now will help the majority of the property owners in the city of New York get graffiti removed from their property free of charge, but it gives those New Yorkers, who for whatever reason want to keep the graffiti on their property, the option of keeping it on their property,” said Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Owners who get a letter from the city alerting them to graffiti and who do not respond would effectively be giving the city the go-ahead to clean it up. This way, said Councilmember Gale Brewer, who sponsored the bill, the city can clean up graffiti quickly and more efficiently by painting blocks at a time.

Councilmembers Erik Martin Dilan and Helen Foster voted against the bill.

Sunset Park

Nestled between Park Slope and Bay Ridge, Sunset Park has been the home of row houses, a large Hispanic population and what many call “Brooklyn’s Chinatown.”

Sprinkled with industry, like the Brooklyn Army Terminal, the neighborhood started to feel pressure from developers once its surrounding communities were rezoned to prevent overdevelopment, said Councilmember Sara Gonzalez, who represents the area.

Under the existing zoning, according to the City Council, there was no limit on building heights in much of the neighborhood. Under the new zoning approved by the City Council by a vote of 44 to 2, buildings would be limited to about five or six stories along streets and six to seven stories along portions of Fifth Avenue and all of Sixth Avenue. Councilmembers Charles Barron and Tony Avella voted against the rezoning.

The rezoning also includes an inclusionary housing option, which would allow developers to build larger buildings if they provide affordable housing.

Despite the current limitations, or lack thereof, the rezoning has been controversial. Residents claim it will lead to large luxury developments, which promise to displace the area's lower-income residents and small businesses.

The South Brooklyn Legal Services and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund have filed a lawsuit on behalf of some residents over the rezoning. The city did not factor in all of the rezoning's effects, including how it could change the socioeconomic character of the community, said Bethany Li, an attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“The Department of City Planning hasn't fully revealed the true impact of the rezoning,” said Li. “They don't consider people. They don't consider small businesses in the neighborhood. They don't look at all at the potential change in the socioeconomic conditions.”

Gonzalez says differently.

“Community Board 7 passed this unanimously. The borough president has given his stamp of approval,” said Gonzalez. “This plan is the community's plan.”

Schools and the MTA Communicate

The council also unanimously approved legislation (Intro 951-A) that requires the Department of Education to file student enrollment information with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority so the authority can better utilize its bus routes.

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