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Council of Crackpots

from the magazine

Council of Crackpots

New York City’s far-left lawmakers are out of touch with reality. Winter 2015
Politics and law

Bill de Blasio built his 2013 campaign for New York City mayor around unapologetically progressive policies: an end to the NYPD’s “stop-and-frisk” practices, loosened restrictions on welfare availability, universal prekindergarten, and various other initiatives designed to reduce the economic inequality that, he claimed, had made Gotham “a tale of two cities.” De Blasio’s victory has quickly given him a national profile as one of liberalism’s standard-bearers, and he appears to have broader ambitions. Realizing any such aspirations will depend, of course, on how he performs as mayor, but de Blasio came into office with an advantage that his recent predecessors lacked: overwhelming support in the city council, whose members, as one lawmaker put it, are like a “cult of true believers,” eager to follow their leader. In New York, the mayor makes most of the news, and it’s easy to ignore the city council. That would be a mistake. Not only did de Blasio himself come from its ranks, where he spent years building alliances; New York’s next mayor may well be a sitting council member today—and, if so, judging by the views of some of the council’s leading figures, the de Blasio years might be ironically remembered for how moderate they were.

Illustrations by Arnold Roth

New York mayors have traditionally allowed the political bosses of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx to determine who would hold the speakership of the 51-member council. But even before taking office in January 2014, de Blasio had orchestrated an unprecedented campaign to secure the leadership post for his close political ally Melissa Mark-Viverito, of East Harlem. Drawing on his extensive political capital, de Blasio leaned on individual council members to back Mark-Viverito. The city’s powerful labor unions joined the push, and the mayor-elect won the support of Kings County Democratic boss Frank Seddio, with the promise of key committee chairmanships for Brooklyn council members. De Blasio thus ensured that he would have a reliable ally running the council.

Insiders had considered Mark-Viverito a long shot for the speakership. She grew up in privilege in Puerto Rico, where her ophthalmologist father, who owned his own dual-engine Cessna, founded a hospital that, after his death, sold for $165 million. She and her family own properties in San Juan and along the coast that provide them with a stream of rental income. Under the auspices of a program aimed at middle-income, first-time home buyers, Mark-Viverito purchased her current home, a three-family structure on East 111th Street, for $350,000, and paid off the mortgage after only ten years. The property is now estimated to be worth $1.2 million. Despite appearing at Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street sit-in and announcing on camera that she belongs to the “99 percent,” Mark-Viverito has the real-estate portfolio of a 1 percenter.

Curiously, Mark-Viverito, like de Blasio (who grew up as Warren Wilhelm, Jr.), changed her name in adulthood: Melissa Mark added her mother’s maiden name, Viverito, after graduating from Columbia University. It’s no stretch to infer that political considerations drove this decision, as they probably did de Blasio’s. The Teutonic resonances of “Wilhelm” would not likely attract votes or donors in the heavily Jewish or persistently Italian precincts of Brooklyn where de Blasio launched his career. Likewise, “Melissa Mark” lacks the tongue-tripping sequence of vowels that Mark-Viverito exploited for ethnic appeal when she moved to East Harlem from Greenwich Village to run against Philip Reed, her black predecessor, in 2003. She lost that race, but assumed Reed’s seat two years later, when term limits forced him out.

Even by the standards of New York City politics, Mark-Viverito stands on the left-wing fringe. During her first seven years on the council, she stood for, but did not recite, the Pledge of Allegiance. (Her spokesperson claimed that, having grown up in Puerto Rico, Mark-Viverito was “unfamiliar” with the one-sentence pledge.) In 2010, the future speaker circulated a petition calling for the release of Oscar López Rivera, who was convicted of seditious conspiracy for his leadership role in FALN, the Puerto Rican paramilitary group that bombed Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan, among other targets, in the 1970s. Mark-Viverito counts among her friends Evo Morales, the socialist president of Bolivia, whom she visited in 2008. She also participated in the protest movement to expel the U.S. Navy from Vieques in Puerto Rico, where she was arrested, along with other prominent progressives such as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Al Sharpton. Mark-Viverito’s family owns a 12-acre estate abutting the former Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, from which the Naval Forces Southern Command oversaw the controversial bombing tests. Perhaps the council speaker enjoyed sunbathing in peace.

New York City Democratic politics are largely shaped by organized labor. Almost every liberal leader in New York City—including the mayor and city council speaker—owes some measure of allegiance to the radical-leftist Working Families Party, which grew out of an alliance between labor unions and activist groups, such as the scandal-plagued Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (Acorn), which applied the union-organizing model to public housing complexes. WFP-backed candidates (like Mark-Viverito) are usually endorsed by the city’s most powerful unions: 1199 SEIU, which represents health-care and hospital workers; 32BJ, a union for property-service workers; the Transit Workers Union Local 100; and the United Federation of Teachers, which represents New York City’s public school teachers. (See “The Union That Devoured Education Reform,” Autumn 2014.) Mark-Viverito worked as an organizer for 1199, and the powerful union steered her to move to East Harlem to seek political office there.

The WFP runs pro-labor candidates with the goal of forcing mainstream Democrats and incumbents further left. Though it has national aspirations, the party thrives mainly in New York, where “fusion” voting rules allow candidates to seek office on multiple ballot lines. In 2010, a group of WFP-backed council members, led by Mark-Viverito and Brad Lander—who succeeded de Blasio in his Park Slope district after the future mayor became public advocate—formed the Progressive Caucus. Including Mark-Viverito as speaker, the caucus, with 18 seats, now makes up more than one-third of the 51-member council and dominates the council politically, holding all leadership posts and most key committee chairmanships. Its members are unremittingly left-wing.

Consider Margaret Chin, a two-term council member representing lower Manhattan. The first Chinese-American to represent Chinatown, Chin got her political start in the 1970s as a founding member of Asian-Americans for Equality, a front group for the Communist Workers Party. As a council member, Chin lifted the protective-landmark designation on an early-nineteenth-century wood-framed building on the Bowery, one of the few such historic structures remaining in Manhattan. The 1817 building, owned by a Chinese-American bank that contributed generously to Chin’s campaign, was quickly torn down to allow for the development of a generic, eight-story brick-and-glass structure. Chin defended the erasure of a remnant of New York’s Federal-era past, saying that the new building would offer below-market “affordable office space.” “Affordability” in reference to housing is a legal term pertaining to residents’ income. There is no equivalent term for commercial real estate, so Chin concocted the phrase to give cover to her donors.

Chin is a master of infelicity, as she demonstrated this past summer, when the city council voted 43–3 to pass a bill that will make municipal identification cards available to all city residents, regardless of immigration status. The law’s goal is to provide illegal or “undocumented” aliens with a form of legal ID for the purpose of entering city buildings or signing leases, with a view toward regularizing their presence in New York. The law’s many city council proponents worry, however, that citizens and legal residents have no compelling reason to apply for a municipal ID. If the only people who do sign up are illegal aliens, it will become a stigma to have one, and the normalization project will fail. So advocates have been busy coming up with reasons why everyone should carry a card. Council Member Carlos Menchaca, a cosponsor of the bill, argued that the ID card could acquire a “cool factor”; to that end, the administration strong-armed 28 cultural institutions that receive city funding into offering admission or membership discounts to card bearers for the first year of the program, which starts in January.

Advocates insist that the card will come in handy for New Yorkers who lack any legal form of photo identification—the same argument that Democrats have made nationwide in opposition to voter ID laws. Chin took these claims to another level, inexplicably declaring that “there are a lot of people with green cards that don’t have ID.” As an immigrant from Hong Kong, Chin likely possessed a resident alien’s green card herself at some point. Surely, she understands that the card is precisely a federally issued form of identification. City residents, of course, can readily obtain nondriver’s photo-ID cards for $5 from the Department of Motor Vehicles, but Chin complains that to obtain those, “we have to have so many forms and documents. And where do you go to get a nondriver’s ID? It is very difficult to find. I had a very hard time finding a motor vehicle place to do it.” As it happens, Chin’s district is home to a DMV office, about a ten-minute walk from City Hall.

The municipal ID bill’s other cosponsor, Council Member Daniel Dromm of Queens—a close Mark-Viverito ally—has also backed a bill to let noncitizen legal residents of New York vote in municipal elections. The bill contains provisions ensuring that no visible distinction be made between citizens and noncitizens at polling sites, lest noncitizens feel stigmatized. (Since noncitizens still wouldn’t be able to vote in state or federal elections, they would need a different ballot. The logical way to manage that process would be to have two separate voter lines, but that would make a visible distinction, precisely what Dromm’s bill would prohibit.) Proponents of noncitizen voting point to the experience of such enlightened jurisdictions as Barnesville, Maryland (population 176), as models for New York. Barnesville has had no trouble accommodating the votes of its half-dozen or so resident noncitizens, the advocates say—so New York, with its thousands of polling sites, multiple ballot lines, and overlapping municipal, state, and federal elections, should be able to handle the minor technical adjustments that true democracy demands.

As chair of the council’s education committee, Dromm has emerged as the progressive attack dog on education policy, excoriating the mayor’s political enemies as anti-child and racist. In his introductory comments before an eight-hour hearing on the city’s charter schools—where at least 90 percent of students are black or Latino—Dromm likened the policy of school choice to apartheid. Dromm also compared one charter school’s practice of disciplining unruly students by putting them in a time-out room for ten minutes with the solitary confinement of inmates on Rikers Island, the city jail.

Public Advocate and former council member Letitia James is the council’s presiding officer and constitutionally the successor to the mayor—a disturbing prospect, for those who know what a loose cannon she can be. At Dromm’s hearing on charter schools, James invoked the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case and referred to charter schools as a form of neo-segregation. In 2009, she expressed outrage about a Tuesday night riot in which three teens were shot outside a restaurant offering 50-cent chicken wings. Rather than condemn the violence, James instead chided the restaurant’s owners for “irresponsible” management in holding their promotion on the eve of a school holiday, when the teenagers would be more likely to go out for the evening. “I want this Tuesday restaurant promotion stopped, or the lease of this business revoked,” she demanded. A 2014 Daily News report found that Public Advocate James “is often absent from the office for hours to attend personal appointments and political events,” though she is never shy about touting her purported accomplishments. James started her career as public advocate, after all, by claiming to have championed the plight of 11-year-old Dasani Coates, a homeless girl living in a city shelter and profiled in a poignant New York Times feature; she had helped bring the girl to the paper’s attention, she claimed. When her boasts proved untrue, James backtracked—but she still showed up for de Blasio’s inauguration with the girl as her prop, referring to her as “my new BFF.” Even liberal supporters found it exploitative.

Council Member Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn was the prime mover behind bills to end the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices, which enabled cops to stop pedestrians engaged in suspicious behavior, with an eye toward discouraging them from keeping guns on their persons. The policy helped reduce shooting deaths in New York. (See “Courts v. Cops,” Winter 2013.) Now that officers have reduced their street stops, potential criminals could calculate that the risk of being caught with an illegal gun has diminished. Williams is also known for his opposition to the Broken Windows theory of policing, which seeks to forestall serious crime by cracking down on “minor” violations such as subway turnstile-jumping or graffiti. (See “Why We Need Broken Windows Policing,” page 10.) In an effort to reduce the “significant stress” that getting arrested can cause, Williams sponsored a resolution calling on police to “stop arresting people for committing minor infractions in the transit system.” According to the text of the resolution, being arrested for littering, gambling, or urinating in the subway can be “very disruptive” to the arrestee. Moreover, being arrested is “overly punitive and unfair” and can even cause “financial hardship.” Clearly, Williams’s policy priorities don’t include protecting subway riders from disorderly or violent behavior.

The only reason that Council Member Inez Barron isn’t a Progressive Caucus member is because the group’s politics aren’t radical enough. In January 2014, Barron, a former state assembly member, assumed the seat formerly held by her husband, Charles Barron; he, in turn, will succeed her in Albany this year. A former Black Panther, Charles Barron was known during his time on the council for never standing during the Pledge of Allegiance, for inviting Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe to City Hall, and for saying that he wanted to go up to the next white person and “slap him, just for my mental health.” Inez Barron has introduced little legislation so far, but given her other talents, perhaps she doesn’t need to. In February 2014, to mark the anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death, she asked her colleagues to snap their fingers while she declaimed an ode:

We’re an African people, we’re related you and I,

African by heritage beneath God’s sky

We have a common bloodline, we’re the first to walk the earth:

Black, red, tan and gold, we’re the first of human birth.

We built the pyramids and yes we made the Sphinx;

We sailed the ocean wide and with Mexico we linked.

We used the Nile River to cultivate the land

And then we used technology to pull crops from sand.

The Greeks came to African universities

We taught them how to diagnose and do brain surgery

We taught them math, geometry and then we taught them trig,

Physics and astronomy, oh yes oh yes we did!

. . .

This is just a tidbit of ancient Africa:

She civilized the whole world, we owe it all to her.

We’re an African people, we’re an African pebrople, etc etc.

The assembled council members smiled and applauded this bizarre performance. The press tweeted about it as though it were an amusing end-of-school prank. No one asked what the reaction would have been if a white council member had recited, say, an Ode to Europe celebrating how the white “bloodline” had “civilized the whole world.”

Few council members have much experience of professional life outside politics. Many worked as staffers to council members before becoming council members themselves. One, Progressive Caucus member Richie Torres of the Bronx, said in an interview with The Nation, “Do I look like a politician to you? I’m a 25-year-old college dropout who grew up in public housing. I’m gay. I’m Afro-Latino. I hardly have the characteristics people associate with a politician, but here I am.” Council Member Torres had previously served on the staff of a council member from an adjoining district. He was essentially selected by the local machine to fill a vacancy. So when he asks, “Do I look like a politician to you?” the answer, more or less, is yes.

De Blasio and his left-wing allies have worked with impressive unity to achieve their goals. For example, de Blasio promised during his campaign to expand paid sick leave in New York City. During the new mayor’s first month in office, Mark-Viverito introduced an amendment to the city’s existing law requiring virtually all employers to provide five days of paid sick leave for workers. The amendment passed overwhelmingly, with few members concerned about the possible effect on small businesses. San Francisco mandated paid sick leave in 2007, and progressive advocates, citing research showing only slight declines in profitability, insist that the impact on businesses there has been minimal. A study by the Employment Policies Institute, however, reveals that most of these surveys include businesses that had already offered paid sick leave to their employees, before the introduction of the new regulations. Newly covered businesses wound up laying off workers, raising prices, and cutting back employees’ hours.

Affordable housing is a progressive obsession in New York City, where paying half of one’s income to share an apartment half the size of a racquetball court is considered reasonable. An expanding swath of Manhattan and Brooklyn is dominated by the construction of market-rate or “luxury” housing. Indeed, when the annual going rate for the rental of a one-bedroom apartment is itself higher than the area median income (AMI), it’s hard to say exactly where “luxury” begins. Many New Yorkers are priced out of the neighborhoods in which they want to live.

Mayor de Blasio came to office promising to “build and preserve” 200,000 units of affordable housing over ten years, with an emphasis on providing units to those making less than 50 percent of the AMI. The current system allows developers to build extra floor area in exchange for building or preserving affordable units, either within existing developments or elsewhere in the neighborhood. De Blasio’s proposed Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning program would require developers to make a significant percentage of their new units permanently affordable—that is, restricted to particular income levels, as determined by a percentage of the AMI—without anything in return from the city. Market-rate renters will effectively subsidize those paying “permanently affordable” rents. This coercion may work when developers build in desirable areas, such as lower Manhattan or north-central Brooklyn, but in other parts of the city, where low-income housing is most in demand, no incentive exists to build when 20 percent of the units must be rented below-market. Subsidized housing requires that someone do the subsidizing.

A curious wrinkle in de Blasio’s plan arose last summer when it turned out that a new development on Manhattan’s Upper West Side had, with city council permission, built separate entrances for its market-rate and subsidized tenants, effectively segregating the owners of luxury condominium units from the renters of the affordable units. The “poor door” issue intersected with the “two cities” narrative and sparked outrage from a variety of elected officials, many of whom, including then–council member de Blasio, had voted in 2009 for the package of zoning changes that included the “poor door” provision. Public Advocate James denounced “this kind of segregation which we as a society abhor.” Jumaane Williams, chair of the council’s Housing Committee, circulated a petition decrying the “terrible practice” whereby “taxpayer money is being used to subsidize segregationist housing policies.”

The scandal goes beyond the issue of separate entrances. Luxury buildings in New York City are increasingly equipped with amenities such as rooftop decks, gyms, and pools. Developers attempting to maximize the value of units that sell for upward of $2,000 per square foot have, in some cases, limited the use of these amenities to market-rate occupants. Progressive Caucus council members Mark Levine and Corey Johnson, both of Manhattan, want to introduce legislation forbidding any such separation of tenants or limitations on their use of building amenities. Other proposals insist that affordable units must have access to the same views as the market-rate units.

Should such measures be adopted, the effect will likely be the placement of affordable units in separate, stand-alone buildings with few or no amenities—or, worse, developers could opt not to build any affordable housing. Presumably, many space-starved New Yorkers would be willing to bear the shame of using a “poor door,” if the upside was paying a submarket rent for an apartment in a desirable—and otherwise unaffordable—location. The poor-door brouhaha illustrates again the misguided and counterproductive thinking of New York’s “affordable housing” advocates.

The Progressive Caucus has lots of ideas for future reforms. Council Member Lander, for instance, has introduced a bill outlawing credit checks as part of the hiring process. Credit checks, he claims, “slow economic and job growth during a time of high unemployment,” though businesses might be better placed to assess the economic effects. The bill has supermajority status, virtually ensuring its passage. The speaker and the mayor have issued statements on the pressing need to make New York City a safe haven for Central American migrants. Mark-Viverito insists that the city should be prepared to take in and house thousands of illegal-immigrant children. In October, Mark-Viverito sponsored and the council passed a series of bills that will substantially erase any cooperation between the city and the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. The bills forbid ICE from maintaining an office on Rikers Island and prohibit the city from sharing information regarding illegal-alien criminals, unless they’ve recently been convicted of violent felonies. The Progressive Caucus supports a minimum wage of $15 per hour for employees of large retail chains, including fast-food workers. That would require approval from Albany. Raising the minimum wage is a high priority for organized labor, though, which can use it as a baseline to push for increases in its own workers’ contracts.

The quirky personalities and often zany ideas of New York’s progressive council members can make for amusing reading, but the job of governing a city of 8 million people is no joke. The city’s economy has rallied impressively from the Great Recession, but its high tax burden and cost of living make it hard for middle-class residents to get ahead. (See “The Cost of New York,” Summer 2014.) A looming budget crunch will force the city to make difficult political choices, and it remains to be seen whether two decades of public-safety gains can be preserved under de Blasio’s less assertive policing regime. In short, the city faces serious challenges and needs serious leaders to meet them. Based on the quality of its political bench, New York could be in real trouble soon.

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