Bill de Blasio’s well-executed 2013 campaign for New York City mayor raised hopes among Gotham progressives that the affable, six-foot-five Democrat was the savvy political operator they’d been waiting for. He appeared to possess remarkable political instincts. He managed to outsmart a well-funded and well-liked insider, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, to secure the Democratic nomination. He demolished a Republican opponent, Joe Lhota, who positioned himself as the heir to the Giuliani/Bloomberg governing legacy. And he engineered the election of his progressive ally, Melissa Mark-Viverito, to succeed Quinn as council speaker, securing his left flank and declawing that institution as a check on his mayoral power.
Once in office, though, de Blasio seemed less sure-footed. The new mayor stumbled into a confrontation over charter schools with the Empire State’s more centrist governor, Andrew Cuomo, and lost—badly. De Blasio believed that he could use the power of his newly acquired office to settle a decade-old political score with charter school operator Eva Moskowitz. Not only is Moskowitz still in business, she’s also expanding her network of Success Academy schools and has consolidated her support. It was an embarrassing introduction to the real world of democratic governance for the former community organizer and city councilor.
But de Blasio hasn’t learned his lesson. In threatening to ban Central Park horse carriages, he is taking on a popular and well-connected industry and making enemies out of natural allies. The 300 or so carriage drivers, represented by Teamsters Local 553, enjoy the support of the Central Labor Council, representing 1.3 million workers in the five boroughs, as well as the left-wing Working Families Party. De Blasio is normally a union favorite. “We support many of the policies on his agenda, from universal pre-K to Vision Zero to immigration,” a spokesman for the Teamsters told me. “We want him to be successful—just not on this particular policy.”
Representatives of the horse carriage industry say that de Blasio has made no effort to reach out. “He’s never come by here to see how the horses are kept, not once,” says carriage driver Conor McHugh. “We’ve had city councilors tour the stables. We’ve had the media. We’ve had Liam Neeson. For all his talk about how bad we are as an industry, you’d think he’d come by just to be able to speak intelligently about it.” Adds driver Paul McDaid: “We’d be nice. It’s not like we’re going to kidnap him.”
If the mayor insists on imposing a ban, carriage driver Stephen Malone says, the industry will sue to protect its livelihood. The proposed ban would take full effect in mid-2016. A lawsuit and subsequent appeals would likely extend into 2017, setting up an agonizing political battle for the mayor as he heads into a reelection campaign.
The proposed ban has its roots in the 2013 mayoral campaign. New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets (NYCLASS), the animal-rights advocacy group founded by real estate developer Steven Nislick that is leading the charge against the carriages, played a key role in helping de Blasio defeat Quinn in the Democratic primary. In June 2013, two of de Blasio’s biggest donors—including his cousin, John Wilhelm—contributed a total of $225,000 to NYCLASS. Two days later, NYCLASS made a $400,000 donation to the independent political action committee, New York Is Not For Sale, which funded attack ads aimed at Quinn. Political campaigns are prohibited from coordinating with such outside groups. The FBI is investigating the donations, and the New York City Campaign Finance Board recently slapped NYCLASS with a $26,000 fine for making improper contributions to two city council candidates last year.
“These people are all bought and paid for by Steve Nislick,” says McDaid, who has driven a carriage in Central Park for 27 years. The carriage-horse drivers believe that Nislick, former CEO of Edison Properties, has designs on their West Side stable properties. Nislick denies it, telling the Daily News, “Even if someone offered me the chance to buy this real estate, I would say no.” But, as Crain’s New York Business reported recently, Nislick met with then-public advocate de Blasio in January 2013 to discuss Edison’s real estate and transportation plans. Three months later, he founded NYCLASS.
Does de Blasio really value Nislick’s support over that of the city’s powerful labor unions? Pat Kiernan, a NY1 news anchor, suggests that the mayor just wants to get the animal advocates off his back, and hopes to engineer a defeat in the city council for the ban. If so, it suggests political weakness. “This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing,” says McDaid. “I don’t think he has a plan. He’s just following the money. And because of that, I have to place my job in the hands of a guy who never created a job in his life—unless you count Rachel Noerdlinger, which I don’t.” A former publicist for Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, Noerdlinger was forced to take unpaid leave from her $170,000 a year job as chief of staff to de Blasio’s wife after the city’s tabloids published embarrassing revelations about her private life.
The Noerdlinger affair was the most damaging of a long string of unforced errors during de Blasio’s first year in office: bungling the response to a January snowstorm; violating the city’s traffic laws with his motorcade; showing up late to a memorial service for victims of the 2001 American Airlines Flight 587 crash; and infuriating the NYPD with his comments about the “dangers” his mixed-race son Dante may face during encounters with the police and referring to “alleged” assaults on police officers last weekend that were clearly caught on video.
Even the usually reliable New York Times has opposed Blasio over the carriage ban: “A selective animal-rights pose is an odd position for Mr. de Blasio, who calls himself a defender of unions and small businesses, and whose job it is to promote the city as a place for tourists. Why wipe out a well-loved, well-regulated, law-abiding part of the tourist economy?” De Blasio’s decision to introduce the ban during the Christmas season, when New York crawls with tourists, seems particularly ham-handed. “People come to the city just to take one of these rides,” says Malone. “I can’t tell you how many people say it’s on their ‘bucket list.’”
The Teamsters, the tourist industry, and the Times are not the only powerful constituencies annoyed by de Blasio’s meddling. The 15,000-member New York Taxi Workers Alliance has joined the fight, too, angered by the mayor’s proposal to give displaced horse-carriage drivers free “green taxi” medallions, allowing them to operate cabs in the outer boroughs—and skirt the waiting list for such permits. “Will our members be shoved to the back of the line? Will the city expedite horse carriage drivers’ licenses (ahead of) those who’ve already applied? The proposition is equally insulting and impractical,” NYTWA executive director Bhairavi Desai says.
Heading into the second year of his administration, de Blasio faces challenges that would test the mettle of the most experienced political manager. A recent poll found that more than half of New Yorkers feel the city is on the wrong track. Keeping the fractious peace between the NYPD and Gotham’s suddenly roiling minority communities will likely require as many allies as de Blasio can muster. Yet the mayor’s vaunted political instincts seem to have abandoned him. The horse-carriage battle is an entirely self-inflicted wound.
“I’ll tell you one thing, we won’t be going quietly,” says carriage driver McHugh. “They’ll have to drag us out of here.”