Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Change of Pace, Part 2

While I am not in the habit of writing 'light' pieces as a journalist, I believe it's important to acknowledge credit where credit is due. As if to underscore my previous entry about Rudy Giuliani, Bill de Blasio (the new NYC Mayor), deserves praise for his handling of last week's snowstorm. Specifically:
a) The patience he demonstrated while reacting to local reporters as they began circling the waters for blood, like sharks--as they seem predetermined to do whenever there's an event of almost any potential controversy, even in the absence of any;

b) The thoughtful and deliberative way the Mayor explained why schools were kept open, in the face of outright hostility from some reporters;

c) de Blasio's ability to genuinely acknowledge making a mistake with aplomb and humility. 

Humility? Graciously accepting a mistake had been made? This was indeed a stark contrast to our two previous mayors.

Here's what happened: After the storm initially hit, reports from residents of the uber-entitled Upper East Side of Manhattan started making their way to the media saying they didn't receive the "appropriate" level of sanitation services to clear the snow. 

For the record, my parents moved into this area in 1964, where I was raised. I watched it change first gradually, from being a melting pot of mostly working class immigrants--Germans, Hungarians, Irish--until the 1980's when then-Mayor Koch ushered in the first real wave of mega-development. Many of the neighborhood's rent-stabilized buildings were spared for a time, so while the population changed, there was still a mix of the old and new. By the mid-1990s, the singular power of the real estate industry, vacancy decontrol, and Giuliani's philosophy of 'business and development' at all costs, served as a lethal cocktail to any vestiges of the past, obliterating a good chunk of Manhattan's history. It currently contains some of the the nation's wealthiest zip codes.

In response to inquiries about the complaints at his press conference, de Blasio said, "They’re just mistaken. No one was treated differently. We believe in a five-borough approach. That’s in everything we do.... I think people need to be mindful when they hurl those charges. That is not real respectful of the men and women who work so hard for us at Sanitation.... But every neighborhood is being serviced very devotedly by the men and women of Sanitation."

Of course, there's some irony here as outer borough residents have been making these claims for years; even Giuliani--the 'champion' of all things Staten Island--was not exempt from such criticism. Unless it's something akin to a 'snowpocalypse,' usually only some local community paper pays attention. But because this was the Upper East Side--even though it wasn't a giant blizzard and we're really talking about some temporary inconvenience--the media feeding frenzy commenced with its usual abandon.

Here's de Blasio's complete statement later that day: “After hearing concerns about street conditions on the Upper East Side, I headed to the area to survey the streets for myself, and to hear from residents directly. While the overall storm response across the city was well-executed, after inspecting the area and listening to concerns from residents earlier today, I determined more could have been done to serve the Upper East Side. I have instructed the Commissioner of the Department of Sanitation to double-down on cleanup efforts on the Upper East Side, and as a result, 30 vehicles and nearly 40 sanitation workers have been deployed to the area to finish the cleanup. Our crews will remain on the streets around the clock until the roadways are clear in every neighborhood, in every borough, across New York City.”

I also feel Mayor de Blasio deserves credit for describing in detail the criterion that goes into whether or not to keep open the City's public schools. "There are a lot of factors that go into the decision. First and foremost is safety. So I had to be convinced that the situation would be safe. But it’s also really important to remember - it’s our obligation - if we can make the school day work, by law, that’s our obligation," he explained. "If we didn't know if kids could get where they would need to go, they might be at a bus stop for a prolonged period of time and have that kind of exposure–that was a real concern. But when we heard at 10pm last night from the National Weather Service that this snow was tapering off rapidly, we knew what Commissioner Doherty had that he could deploy overnight, we talked to the MTA, we talked to the Department of Education about the school buses' path, et cetera. There was a real consensus on the call that we could get the system to work effectively– meaning kids would not be left in a situation of being outside for prolonged periods of time, and that's what was crucial in making the decision."

It cannot be understated--though it appears to be somewhat ignored within the mainstream narrative--that this is our first mayor with children enrolled in the public school system in decades. You have to go back to Mayor Abe Beam in the mid-1970s, though his children were out of school by the time he was elected.

So when this Mayor discussed the issue, you know it's one with which he is all too familiar. "I, for fourteen years as a public school parent, I thought about these exact issues for my own children," de Blasio said. Prompted by a journalist's question, the Mayor added, "Dante (his son) went to school today. I personally escorted him to school. He was grouching the whole way, but he had three exams today, so I just want to say for the record: Dante would have really liked to stay off for his three exams, but he is doing his three exams as we speak."

The de Blasio team clearly grasped the enormity of the issue, one in which it seems there is not necessarily a 'correct' answer. "By the way, a lot of parents in this town will tell you, that when kids aren't in school it's incredibly disruptive for their lives and they don't necessarily have a safe alternative place to send their child," explained de Blasio. "Let's be clear, I respect that you talked to some parents.... But when we think we can actually get the school day off effectively, and have transportation achieved in a way that will give us good attendance, and that kids will be safe– it's our obligation to keep school open, and that's why we did it."

So, it's refreshing to have a mayor who is open to criticism without automatically becoming combative or defensive. Also, how nice--at least on the surface--to have an executive who appears contemplative when making important decisions, one who seems to take into account varying factors and input before rushing to judgment. And de Blasio is a decent guy--as I know from experience, when we worked together on the Dinkins' reelection campaign in 1993. 

Coming soon: Analysis of certain de Blasio's political and agency appointments.... stay tuned!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Actual 1993 non-campaign issued sticker:

Rudy defends Christie, or was he defending himself?

It’s interesting that former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani has been the most vociferous supporter of embattled NJ Governor Chris Christie so far. The picture evolving about Christie and his team—the pettiness, the bullying, even the general culture of fear created by his administration’s vindictiveness—mirrors the tenure of our ex-mayor. Perhaps Rudy is feeling a little defensive?

If the Christie Administration’s behavior and tone seems familiar to Giuliani (and to those of us in NYC), there’s good reason. There are many well-documented accounts of Giuliani’s meanness and spitefulness, such as the way he cut funding to social service organizations like Housing Works, who was outspoken against his HIV/AIDS policies.

Even one-time Giuliani supporter, former Mayor Ed Koch, wasn't spared from Rudy’s wrath, and ended up writing a book called Giuliani: Nasty Man. Official portraits of both Koch and former Mayor David Dinkins were removed from City Hall’s blue room after each committed the sin of speaking out.

And it was Giuliani who shut down and barricaded City Hall Park to prevent public demonstrations—well before legitimate safety concerns were raised following the WTC attacks.

The word petty was commonly used to describe Rudy’s eight years in office. Giuliani was known to hold long grudges, and pursued some former Dinkins’ Administration officials with a special myopia bordering on sociopathic. False allegations of financial improprieties spurred Giuliani to publicly eviscerate former Youth Services Commissioner Richard Murphy—by all accounts an incredibly well intentioned and honorable man—practically ruining his professional reputation. It wasn’t enough to simply discredit critics or those who had the bad luck of association; it became widely known his minions might later intervene with corporate boards and/or prospective employers to ensure total destruction.

That NYC spent millions to settle civil rights law suits or pay punitive costs while Rudy was in charge speaks volumes.

For me, the tone was set for his career as an elected official on election night in 1989, after being defeated by Dinkins. My only take away while watching his concession speech on television was his screaming at, and lecturing, his own supporters. It seemed so aggressive to yell at the very people who allowed you to be in the position you were standing, even if they were rowdy. (Full disclosure--I was a volunteer for Dinkins in 1989 and on the staff of his reelection team in 1993.)

Rudy will forever be linked with the infamous police riot at City Hall in 1992. Thousands of drunk NYPD officers--most of whom don’t live within the confines of NYC but in more suburban, homogeneous areas because they have no residency requirement-- whipped themselves into an anti-Dinkins frenzy, in part because of his support for a more independent civilian complaint review board. Only this time, Rudy didn’t try to quell them; in fact, it is widely regarded Giuliani himself played a hand in stirring the pot. Racial epithets were hurled against Dinkins, who was also called a washroom attendant. At least one black member of the City Council was harassed trying to access her office in City Hall, while also being called a racial slur.

The 1993 Giuliani campaign team established a precedent with the press that followed into governing. If a story wasn’t deemed positive or flattering enough, then hell broke loose for the responsible reporter. They had an overt contempt for the media, unless it suited their purposes. (ED--I know this in part because I spent most of 1994 writing my Masters thesis analyzing local press coverage of the preceding year’s mayoral race. For this, I conducted countless interviews, and the anecdotes were immensely telling.)

Often, reporters would receive late-night angry tirades from a press person. Sometimes, their editors would be the recipients of the abuse. The threats of boycotts were often followed through once Giuliani was in office. That’s what happened to NY-1, then in its infancy—the very real threat no administration officials or commissioners would appear. It became widely understood within the media access to the administration in general was extremely limited and completely controlled, even if they weren’t angry at you. Often, a lack of transparency appeared the overall strategy. Don't forget, Giuliani’s records were secretly whisked away before city archivists could first review them.

I personally witnessed this contempt. While I was working at the late WNYC-TV—to this day, the City’s only ever public television station (WNET is NJ-licensed), we aired a long-running show nightly called ‘News City.' It was a show televising the goings-on in front of and/or inside City Hall, that’s all—no editorializing, no commentating, nothing. Obviously, because Dinkins was Mayor going into 1993, he was often filmed attending events or press conferences, and was televised often. But someone around Giuliani or he himself decided this was evidence of bias by the City-owned station, and even made this a campaign issue.

This belief required a great deal of selective fact picking. Then he was like a dog with a bone, going after the station’s existence with the fervor of a religious fundamentalist.

Saying essentially the City shouldn’t be in the business of running a television station, in 1996 he unilaterally was able to sell this publicly owned asset to a giant conglomeration. (This is also around the time he wanted to sell off the municipal water supply; this effort was thwarted by other elected officials including the Comptroller and some Council Members.) The replacement station survived less than a year. The license is now owned by an infomercial/”Christian” network. I’m still not certain how much of the $207* million sale price the City ever received.

In actuality, very little City funding was involved. The TV station was responsible for covering most of WNYC’s budget, including both the AM and FM radio stations, while much of the City’s support (about 90%) came in the form of in-kind services such as office and studio space in the Municipal Building. Apparently, being in the radio business remained acceptable.

Then there are all the well-documented accounts of Giuliani’s disrespect and nastiness belittling anyone who publicly disagreed with him.

After more than 50 women were sexually assaulted during the 2000 Puerto Rican Day parade, the Mayor steadfastly defended police conduct, where officers simply dismissed the women’s complaints--even as the magnitude of the event became clear. (Rudy often seemed to have a blind, knee-jerk reaction regarding the police—think Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo.)

During the 1999 West Nile virus outbreak, when the City was spraying huge amounts of toxic chemicals to kill mosquitos, there was a woman who got blasted by one of the sprayings on the upper west side (in Riverside Park?). After she publicly complained, Giuliani went on a vicious crusade to demean and discredit her, saying what she said had happened was impossible because the trucks weren’t spraying where she claimed she was…until it was revealed that in fact they were, and she was telling the truth.

I don’t remember any kind of public apologies with the enthusiasm he seemed to reserve for castigating everyday citizens.

Finally, this is the same man who publicly told his then-wife he was divorcing her, the same man who cravenly--as America’s Mayor--turned 9/11 into a highly lucrative personal cottage industry.

So, don't be surprised if Giuliani keeps defending Christie, even if the evidence continues to prove damning. After all, the mentality that justifies utilizing public resources for political payback no matter how harmful or trivial seems to be reserved for a special kind of twisted mind, and a close circle of sycophants who either think similarly or are prime examples of expediency or self-preservation.

There’s probably no coincidence both Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani are former federal prosecutors.

 *The original story listed $100 million.