Candidate Bill de Blasio promised to ban Central Park’s iconic horse-drawn carriages on his first day as mayor. “I grew up with the romantic notion that this was part of New York City culture,” he said during the 2013 mayoral campaign. “I had not really thought honestly about the ramifications of it.” Whether de Blasio was thinking honestly about the horse-carriage issue, or just politically, soon came into question. Journalists quickly discovered that real-estate developer Steve Nislick was the wallet behind a new animal-rights group—New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets (NYCLASS)—that spent big money supporting de Blasio and attacking city council speaker Christine Quinn, a carriage-industry supporter and one of de Blasio’s Democratic primary rivals. Critics charged that Nislick covets the valuable property lots on which the carriage drivers’ West Side stables sit, and that he was using the animal-rights issue to pursue his aims—with de Blasio as the political beneficiary.
The horse-carriage industry refused to go quietly back to the barn, however. The 300 or so horse-carriage drivers, members of the Teamsters, hit de Blasio in a vulnerable spot. Last month, Bill Lipton, state director of the union-backed Working Families Party, wrote a letter to the city council opposing the proposed ban. “We stand in solidarity with horse-carriage workers who play a pivotal role in generating millions of dollars in revenue as one of the top three tourist attractions in the city,” Lipton wrote. It was clever political judo. Many credit the WFP, with whom the mayor is closely allied, with providing the margin of difference in his primary battle.
The first day of de Blasio’s mayoralty has come and gone and he hasn’t moved to institute a ban—and now, it seems, public opinion has reared up against him. A Quinnipiac University poll shows 61 percent of new Yorkers opposing a ban and just 25 percent in favor. Unfazed, de Blasio promised: “There’s going to be hearings. There’s going to be a public debate . . . when more and more of the public experience what I experienced, and hear the truth about what’s going on with horses in the middle of the biggest city in the country, in the middle of Midtown traffic, I think a lot of people are going to change their minds.”
But it seems likelier that the mayor, a progressive hero with an eye on higher public office, will have to make up his mind about whose support he values more—a small group of vocal animal-rights activists or a large group of powerful and politically effective unions. Cutting loose NYCLASS would be an embarrassing public reversal for the mayor, putting him on the wrong side of the celebrity-heavy, animal-loving wing of the Democratic Party. Cutting loose the unions, though, would make it a lot harder for him to win a second term.
“Mayor de Blasio says we’re not a humane society if we allow horses like this to work in New York City, but what about the NYPD Mounted Unit?” asks Stephen Malone, a second-generation carriage driver who works out of the West 52nd Street stables. “They have their stables right around the corner and NYCLASS never protests them.” Malone has spent the better part of three decades working with horses and driving tourists around Central Park. In recent years, he has emerged as an industry leader, dealing with the press and working with legislators to craft regulations. He predicts that the city council hearings will be “a shootout,” and that the industry has enough allies in the 51-member chamber to prevent a ban. If, however, a ban does become law, the carriage drivers will take the issue to court, where Malone expects to prevail.
“You have to understand,” he says, “these people are insane. They confuse their own likes and dislikes with those of the animals. They don’t like living in the city, so they think the horses don’t like living in the city. They don’t like cars, so they think horses don’t like cars. They don’t like work, so they think horses don’t like to work. But horses need a purpose, they need something to do, and if you knew anything about horses, you would know that.” Malone stresses that he doesn’t think the mayor and the city council are insane, just groups like NYCLASS, who don’t see all the good that his industry does for the Big Apple. “We’re ambassadors for the city,” he insists. “We belong here.”
Far from being animal abusers, Malone says, carriage drivers love horses and work hard, in all weather and in every season, to serve Gotham’s tourists. Those looking to shut his industry down, Malone says, are just playing politics. “There’s nothing in it for them,” he insists. “They claim to speak for the animals, but they don’t. I speak for the animals. If I lose this battle, I lose part of my life. I lose part of my father’s life. I lose part of my kids’ lives. If they lose, they lose nothing.”
That may be true for NYCLASS, but not for Bill de Blasio. He stands to lose a lot.
Photo by hey tiffany!/Flickr