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Domenic Recchia Thinks He Is ‘Winning This Race’

Wed, 10/08/2014 - 13:46

Domenic Recchia just before DC 37 formally endorsed his congressional bid today. (Photo: Ross Barkan)

Despite a series of missteps and new questions about whether he can ultimately unseat an indicted elected official, Domenic Recchia Jr. declared today that he is unequivocally “winning this race” for Congress.

“I am winning this race. We have the momentum, we are doing great in this district. People are excited,” Mr. Recchia told the Observer at an endorsement press conference in Manhattan.

“You’re right, Michael Grimm does have a 20-count indictment,” he said. “This race is about Domenic Recchia. It’s not about Michael Grimm. I was in this race two years ago because I knew I could beat Michael Grimm and I am going to win this race. 27 days [from now], you’ll see Domenic Recchia’s the winner.”

Mr. Recchia was in Manhattan to receive the endorsement of the largest municipal union, DC 37. Ironically, DC 37 has not shied away from backing indicted elected officials like State Senator Malcolm Smith, but union leaders said today their nod was only about Mr. Recchia and his record helping organized labor.

The union, despite its size, is not known to swing elections.

“It has nothing to do with the indictment of Michael Grimm. This endorsement is focused on the accomplishments of Domenic M. Recchia,” said Zita Allen, a spokeswoman for the union.

While Mr. Recchia, a Democrat and former Brooklyn councilman, has out-raised Republican Congressman Michael Grimm and racked up numerous endorsements, observers of the race for the Staten Island and Brooklyn-based district question whether he will be able to knock out the incumbent. In addition to facing an indictment related to his management of a Manhattan restaurant before he was elected to Congress, Mr. Grimm drew criticism for threatening a NY1 reporter on air–still, even with a shoestring campaign and negative headlines, Mr. Grimm is neck-and-neck with Mr. Recchia in polls, worrying local Democrats.

Though Mr. Grimm’s indictment appeared to seriously diminish his chances of winning re-election–national Republicans stopped pumping cash into his coffers and the nonpartisan Cook Political Report said a Recchia victory was likely–the ex-marine has aggressively defended his turf. In an off-year election, demographics also favor Mr. Grimm and he has sought to tie Mr. Recchia to Mayor Bill de Blasio, a liberal Democrat who is relatively unpopular in the district.

Mr. Recchia does appear to be running a far stronger race than the Democrat who challenged Mr. Grimm two years ago, Mark Murphy. Mr. Murphy rarely appeared on the campaign trail, baffling supporters.

Before Mr. Murphy took the plunge, Mr. Recchia contemplated a bid of his own. He declined that year to enter the race.

The election will be held November 4.

Teachout and Wu Endorse Golden Rival Kemmerer

Wed, 10/08/2014 - 13:35

Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu speak in support of James Kemmerer, left (Photo:Will Bredderman).

Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu–who unsuccessfully took on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his running mate Kathy Hochul in the Democratic primary last month–today endorsed James Kemmerer, Democratic challenger to Brooklyn Republican State Senator Martin Golden.

Standing just a few feet from the Bay Ridge Manor, Mr. Golden’s family catering hall, Ms. Teachout and Mr. Wu reiterated Mr. Kemmerer’s long-running attacks on the GOP incumbent–who has channeled thousands of dollars into the business by regularly hosting campaign events there.

“I’m speaking out against Marty Golden as one of the worst examples of the old boys club and the broken system that is governing our state,” said Ms. Teachout. “What he is doing here is, his company, his family business has received over half a million dollars from campaign funds and state funds. And you don’t need to be a genius to recognize there’s something wrong with that. That we have a system that allows a state senator to instead of serving the people of Bay Ridge to be serving his own business and his own interest.”

Ms. Teachout noted that Mr. Golden has also used his government office’s website and mailers to promote events at the catering hall.

“He’s also a classic old boys club in a way that’s almost funny, if it weren’t true,” Ms. Teachout said. “The advertisement for the etiquette session that was on his website said it was going to teach women how to sit, stand and walk like a model. Well, I think far more important is to stand, sit and walk like a representative of the people.”

Mr. Wu–a law professor who coined the term “net neutrality”–heralded Mr. Kemmerer, a web developer, as both an old-fashioned anti-corruption crusader and as a new kind of cutting edge, tech-savvy pol.

“Jamie is exactly the kind of person we need in New York politics. He is in politics for the right reasons. He’s not going to the state senate to try and enrich himself. He’s not going to Albany because he’s interested in brokering a few deals to get campaign contributions in exchange for favors,” said Mr. Wu. “He shows that when it comes to the industries of tomorrow, when it comes to people who are thinking of the future, it is the Democratic Party and men like Jamie who are leading the way against the past, against Marty Golden, against the politics of yesterday.”

Both highlighted the need for a Democratic-controlled State Senate to push forward key liberal policies like public financing of elections.

Mr. Kemmerer said he had supported the long-shot pair against Mr. Cuomo and Ms. Hochul because of the governor’s handling of the anti-corruption Moreland Commission, and thanked them for backing him.

“You have been two candidates for everyday people, and you have valiantly fought against corruption, and for me that’s very special,” said Mr. Kemmerer.

The candidate said that, if elected, he would sponsor what he called “The Golden Rule”–a bill that would prohibit politicians from spending campaign money at any business where a member of their family works.

“We are not standing in front of a catering hall. We’re standing in front of a bank. The scheme Senator Golden employed here allows him to take campaign dollars and turn them into personal dollars,” he said.

Mr. Golden’s camp dismissed Ms. Teachout, Mr. Wu and Mr. Kemmerer as a pack of radicals outside the mainstream of both major parties.

“It’s never a surprise when Occupy Wall Street gets together. It’s unfortunate when it comes to Bay Ridge,” said spokesman Ray Riley. “Jamie worked hard to try to keep Governor Cuomo from getting the Democratic nomination and Zephyr is returning the favor. It’s what some would call a political quid pro quo.”

Mr. Golden founded the Manor, and sold it to his brother shortly before taking office. His wife continues to work there, and Mr. Golden continues to receive payments from his brother for the purchase of the building.

State campaign finance rules are notoriously lax, and candidates are rarely penalized for any expenditure they can demonstrate was somehow connected to their campaign. Mr. Golden has never been accused of any wrongdoing, though the Moreland Commission was reportedly examining his relationship with the catering hall and with a number of real estate developers.

Mr. Golden’s southern Brooklyn turf is predominantly Democratic, but is home to many socially conservative senior citizens, union members and Orthodox Jews. He has been re-elected five times since first winning the Senate seat in 2002, and is heavily favored to win again thanks to his vastly superior name recognition and massive campaign war-chest.

Melissa Mark-Viverito Quietly Holds a Fund-Raiser

Wed, 10/08/2014 - 10:27

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. (Photo: NYC Council/William Alatriste

Term-limited Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito quietly held a fund-raiser in Manhattan this morning, a source close to the speaker confirmed to the Observer.

The purpose of the fund-raiser was not immediately clear, but sources said the cash was headed for the 2017 campaign committee she established to run for speaker. It was held at the headquarters of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, a union representing educational administrators.

Ms. Mark-Viverito spent heavily on consultants during her race for speaker last year–she was elected by her colleagues in the bitter backroom contest–and is now $5,262 in debt, according to Campaign Finance Board records. She has raised $107,040 for the race, spending a whopping $112,302.

In addition to funneling money to consultants like Hiltzik Strategies and Pitta Bishop Del Giorno & Giblin, she also donated $8,500 to the Working Families Party, a key backer during the speaker’s race. Her campaign spending raised eyebrows in political circles–traditionally, candidates for speaker did not spend so much on a race that is not determined by voters.

In addition to settling her debts, Ms. Mark-Viverito could be looking toward the future, sources say. Though she has emphatically ruled out a mayoral bid–every other speaker has run for mayor–other runs for office are not out of the question.

Ms. Mark-Viverito will have to vacate her office at the end of 2017.

A spokesman for Ms. Mark-Viverito declined to comment.

Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli Enjoying Largest Lead in Latest Quinnipiac State Poll

Wed, 10/08/2014 - 07:48

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Of the three Democrats on the statewide ticket for re-election this year, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli is enjoying the widest lead, according to a new Quinnipiac University Poll released today.

While Gov. Andrew Cuomo has little to worry about — he’s got a 20-point lead overall against GOP challenger Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who more people deemed unfavorable than favorable — Mr. DiNapoli’s lead is even wider than the governor’s and that of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

“You can color New York Democratic blue and throw away the crayons,”  Maurice Carroll, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, said in a press release. “Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli both have solid leads.  Normally, the attorney general has a higher profile than the comptroller, but DiNapoli has the best lead of any of the three top Democrats.

Mr. DiNapoli is currently leading his Republican challenger Bob Antonacci by a margin of 56 percent to 28 percent — and enjoys nearly even support among men and women, according to the poll.

“Is that a reflection on him or on his Republican challenger, Bob Antonacci?” Mr. Carroll asked.

Of the three pols, Mr. Schneiderman has the smallest lead, but it’s still in the double digits — he’s up 46 percent to 34 percent over Republican challenger John Cahill. Despite a focus in his first term on issues like the housing crisis, Mr. Schneiderman has struggled with name recognition in earlier polls. In recent weeks he’s been holding campaign rallies, and on Sunday stumped at a Brooklyn church with Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Mr. Cuomo’s comfortable lead against Mr. Astorino — 51 percent to 31 percent — is buoyed by a 32-percentage-point lead among women in the state, according to the poll. The governor, along with his candidate for lieutenant, former Congresswoman Kathy Hochul, has launched a Women’s Equality Party ballot line and has spent the weekend traveling around the state in a bus bearing the party’s name, emphasizing his commitment to passing a 10-point Women’s Equality Act in Albany.

“New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo got a head start on the Quinnipiac University poll with his weekend campaign bus ride touting women’s issues,” Mr. Carroll said. “A monster lead among women voters powers him past Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino.”

Mr. Astorino, meanwhile, continues to struggle to define himself — at least in a positive way — to voters, according to the poll. More voters deem their opinion of him unfavorable than favorable, 29 percent to 27 percent. And another 43 percent said they don’t know enough about him to form an opinion.

The poll was taken from October 1 through October 6, and has a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.

Bloomberg Defends Legacy as de Blasio Touts New Parks Initiative

Tue, 10/07/2014 - 17:25

Michael Bloomberg. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Hours after Mayor Bill de Blasio touted a new, allegedly more equitable funding initiative for city parks, a former Parks commissioner in the Bloomberg administration aggressively defended the ex-mayor’s efforts to bolster parks in the five boroughs.

“We were extremely proud to make parks and open space a major priority for city government in New York,” said Veronica White, the last Parks Department commissioner under Michael Bloomberg, in a blog post on Mr. Bloomberg’s website. “The Bloomberg administration made $5 billion in capital investments in parks, the largest capital investment in the city’s history, with the vast majority invested in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and Northern Manhattan.”

The in depth post, which ran this afternoon, was clearly intended as a rebuttal to Mr. de Blasio’s much-heralded parks-related announcement today. Mr. de Blasio and allied elected officials announced that the city would be allocating $130 million to 35 smaller parks and playgrounds in the five boroughs, telling reporters that many of the little-known parks were neglected during the Bloomberg era.

Left-leaning Democrats at Mr. de Blasio’s press conference strongly implied that Mr. Bloomberg ignored the parks that were not “tourist destinations,” favoring green spaces close to affluent areas. But Ms. White said today that was simply not the case.

“The Bronx River Greenway, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park Aquatic Center, Freshkills Park on Staten Island, Fort Washington Park in Washington Heights and Coney Island are just a few examples of parks that received major investments under Mayor Bloomberg, who added more than 850 new acres of parkland to the five boroughs,” she argued.

Ms. White said the Bloomberg administration raised the Parks Department’s operating budget to $380 million, the “highest in history,” developing parks in parts of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island that “now serve or will serve as anchors in previously underserved parts of the city.”

She also said the Bloomberg administration chose initially to prioritize larger parks over Mr. de Blasio’s small green spaces so the city could provide the “largest possible number of families in the areas needed most.”

In 2013, Ms. White said, the city allocated $80 million of new funding in the capital budget towards “smaller, neighborhood parks.” “We were proud to see the new Administration is keeping the funding we allocated in the budget and is now expanding on that effort with additional funding for those neighborhood parks,” Ms. White added, referring to Mr. de Blasio’s announcement today.

The robust defense of Mr. Bloomberg’s legacy is nothing new. Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Bloomberg were never close and Bloomberg staffers have continued to push back publicly when they feel the new mayor, a liberal Democrat, is either not giving Mr. Bloomberg enough credit or denigrating the work that he did.

“By the end of Mayor Bloomberg’s term in 2013, 76% of New Yorkers lived within a 10-minute walk of a park or playground, giving this generation of New Yorkers the greater access to parks than any before them,” Ms. White said.

Council Passes 25-Mile-an-Hour Speed Limit

Tue, 10/07/2014 - 15:23

Traffic in New York City (New York Observer File Photo).

The City Council today voted to put the brakes on drivers across the five boroughs by lowering the default speed limit on city streets to 25 miles per hour.

The new legislation–which passed by a vote of 45 in favor to four against–would drop the speed limit on most city streets from 30 miles per hour to 25. The new limit would not apply to state highways or to streets with a different posted speed limit.

Brooklyn Councilman David Greenfield–who sponsored the bill–argued that having motorists sacrifice a line on the speedometer would mean more pedestrians and cyclists getting to keep their lives, noting that a person struck at 25 miles an hour is twice as likely to survive as an individual hit at just five miles per hour faster.

“It’s not a regular occurrence here in the City Council that we can actually pass legislation that will probably save lives, and that’s what we’re doing here today,” said Mr. Greenfield.

One of the four lonely dissenting voices was Councilman Paul Vallone, who noted that much of his Queens district lacks public transit options, leaving his constituents with no real choice but to drive. Mr. Vallone also voiced a more general distrust of the internal bureaucratic workings of the city Department of Transportation.

“I cannot put my faith in an agency that has nothing throughout my district and our borough about renovating signs,” Mr. Vallone said, adding that he would support the creation and expansion of other traffic safety measures, such as school slows zones.

Mr. Vallone was the sole Democrat among the dissenters, with the other three ‘no’ votes coming from the Council’s only Republicans: Vincent Ignizio and Steven Matteo of Staten Island and Eric Ulrich of Queens.

The state–which controls regulations on all municipal streets–voted in June to allow the city to lower the speed limit. The bill now goes to the desk of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has voiced support for the measure.

Eric Garner’s Family Files $75 Million Claim Against NYPD And City

Tue, 10/07/2014 - 14:16

A photo from Eric Garner’s funeral. (Photo by Julia Xanthos-Pool/Getty Images)

The family of Eric Garner has filed a $75 million claim against the NYPD and the city of New York.

Garner died in July when police in Staten Island placed him in an apparent chokehold while trying to arrest him for allegedly selling untaxed, loose cigarettes. The claim names the city, the NYPD, and several police officers involved in the arrest in alleging wrongful death, pre-death pain and suffering, assault, battery, negligent training, civil rights violations and a slew of other claims surrounding Garner’s death, which was caught on video and heavily publicized.

The claim was filed by the law offices of Rubenstein and Rynecki — headed up Sanford Rubenstein, the attorney for the Garner family who is now being investigated for allegations of raping a woman after the birthday party of Rev. Al Sharpton, another major figure in the Garner case. It was filed on behalf of Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother and the administrator of his estate, and Esaw Snipes, Mr. Garner’s wife.

The claim was received by the city on October 6, according to a stamp affixed to a redacted copy of the document.

“The Office of Comptroller Scott M. Stringer confirms receipt of the notice of claim on behalf of Eric Garner.  This claim is now under review,” Mr. Stringer’s office said Tuesday.

Garner’s death is being investigated by the Staten Island District Attorney, Daniel Donovan, and a special grand jury reportedly convened last week to consider bringing charges against any of the officers involved, including Daniel Pantaleo, the office seen on video placing his arm around Garner’s neck and bringing him to the ground. Mr. Pantaleo is one of several police officers named in the claim filed against the city.

The death led to renewed discussion of the relationship between the NYPD and communities of color, with Mr. Sharpton rallying behind the Garner family and holding a massive demonstration on Staten Island in August, as well as criticism of Police Commissioner Bill Bratton’s broken windows theory, which focuses on making arrests for quality of life crimes like selling untaxed cigarettes.

In a statement, Mr. Sharpton said the notice of claim was filed now so the Garner family could “protect their right to a lawsuit before the time to file expired,” and said the family had not made a final determination on whether to keep Mr. Rubenstein as their attorney, given the rape allegations.

“It in no way reflects their decision or the decision of National Action Network or other supporters determination of the legal counsel that will represent the family going forward, in light of the issues around Sanford Rubenstein,” Mr. Sharpton said. “We will make this announcement with the family on Saturday at NAN’s weekly Saturday action rally. Being that the allegations against Mr. Rubenstein just surfaced on Sunday and Monday, it is clear whatever we would have decided to do could not have been decided or changed by yesterday (the deadline date.) We must protect the family’s rights. No one should read anything else into it.”

See a copy of the notice of claim below:

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Bill de Blasio Will Ask Wealthy Park Conservancies to Help Fund Parks Plan

Tue, 10/07/2014 - 12:00

Mayor Bill de Blasio with Mitchell Silver, his Parks commissioner. (Photo: NYC Mayor’s Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced today he will eventually ask wealthy parks conservancies to volunteer cash for his new parks equity plan, but for now $130 million in public money will fund the initiative to spruce up lesser-known parks.

The announcement came as Mr. de Blasio and a coterie of elected officials flocked to a park in Flushing, Queens to champion the mayor’s plan to distribute public funds to overlooked neighborhood parks throughout the five boroughs. The mayor, however, stopped short of saying explicitly he would compel conservancies to redistribute their funds.

“The public sector is putting our money where our mouth is. We will, I assure you, we will also turn to the major parks conservancies and ask them to make a substantial contribution to this process,” Mr. de Blasio said. “We expect to get some real important contributions from the conservancies as part of these processes.”

Speaking with reporters, Mr. de Blasio would not say exactly how he would convince these conservancies–the Central Park Conservancy, the nonprofit group, received a $100 million gift two years ago–to chip in cash to other parks, but said conversations were in place to make this a reality eventually.

“There’s a lot of ways to get that done. We’ve been in real conversations with them and I hope I’ll have something more to say quite shortly,” he said. “I do expect the conservancies to play an important role.”

When pressed about the possibility of the city eventually legally enforcing a redistribution of resources, Mr. de Blasio said “all ideas were on the table.” He did imply, however, that only a voluntary model may be feasible and that a major public contribution would spur private donors to give to non-marquee parks.

When he was running for mayor, Mr. de Blasio expressed support for a proposal championed by State Senator Daniel Squadron that would have mandated large conservancies which pump millions into parks like Prospect Park and Central Park contribute 20 percent of their budget to under-funded parks. Critics argued such a plan would discourage donors from giving cash to the conservancies; even liberal local elected officials who represent the parks resisted the proposal, and some others questioned its legality.

When Mr. de Blasio introduced Mr. Squadron today, he thanked him for the “extra energy” he lent to the parks debate. Mr. Squadron praised the mayor’s initiative, even though it differed from his original proposal.

“A year and a half ago, folks were simply not talking about parks equity,” Mr. Squadron said today. “Parks, especially those in communities of greatest need, suffered from chronic under-funding.”

Mr. de Blasio held his press conference on the cracked blacktop of Bowne Playground, where elected officials like Councilman Mark Levine, the chair of the council’s parks committee, Queens Congresswoman Grace Meng and Public Advocate Letitia James heaped praise on the mayor for his plan, known as the “Community Parks Initiative.” The $130 million in capital dollars–a mayoral commitment of about $110 million and nearly $20 million from elected officials and grants–will go to 35 neighborhood parks for various repairs and upgrades.

The left-leaning elected officials all argued–or implied–that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg focused too much on high-end parkland like Brooklyn Bridge Park and the High Line in Manhattan at the expense of less glamorous parks and playgrounds.

“It’s been decades of disinvestment in our parks, decades, and again, it did cut along demographic lines,” Mr. de Blasio said.

Cuomo Proposes New York State Create An Export-Import Bank

Tue, 10/07/2014 - 11:56

Andrew Cuomo (Photo: Will Bredderman).

Gov. Andrew Cuomo today proposed that New York State create its own version of the federal Export-Import Bank to provide lines of credit for foreign investors–even though he acknowledged that such an institution would constitute what he called “corporate welfare.”

Speaking at a business summit at the Jacob Javits Center, Mr. Cuomo boasted of cutting taxes and creating private sector jobs in his first term–and argued that the next step would be to encourage international investment in New York State. To that end, the governor announced his intention to ask the legislature to form a so-called “Ex-Im Bank” with $35 million in start-up capital to provide loans and insurance to encourage foreign companies to establish themselves in New York

“We’ll have a real vehicle that can facilitate companies that want to make that transition,” said Mr. Cuomo. “Opening up those global markets is the next step for us.”

The governor noted that international trade has always been an integral part of New York’s economy and character–symbolized by the two ships on the state seal.

“At the center of who we are as New York is a trading seaport, that’s what we were. That’s what made New York, New York. And that’s still what makes New York, New York. We’re a center for international ideas and commerce,” said Mr. Cuomo.

Talking to reporters after his speech, Mr. Cuomo acknowledged that the federal Ex-Im Bank–established by executive order during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration–had come under attack from Republicans in Congress for subsidizing large corporations like Boeing that could obtain private loans.

“If Boeing said to me today, I will bring 20,000 jobs to Utica, New York, to go into a start-up zone, I would say ‘yes,'” said Mr. Cuomo.

The governor launched into a defense of what he himself called corporate welfare, arguing it is necessary to keep jobs in New York State.

“We are subsidizing corporate welfare, we are subsidizing corporations to locate in certain states. There is no doubt about that. ‘Well, you shouldn’t do that.’ Well, then, we’re going to lose. Because the other states are. And if you want New York to stop, you have to stop the other states,” Mr. Cuomo said. “The companies shop states. The companies will come back to you and say, ‘well, Tennessee offered me this, what are you offering me?’ Eventually there will have to be some federal answer to this, I think.”

Mr. Cuomo, however, said he did not know what such a federal answer would be.

The governor also announced that during his second term, he intends to travel to Canada, Mexico, Israel, China and Italy to encourage foreign investment.

“Why Italy? Because I want to go to Italy. There’s no state rationale for that,” he said, to laughter and applause from the audience.

Rob Astorino Calls For West Africa Flight Bans to Prevent Ebola

Tue, 10/07/2014 - 10:50

Rob Astorino speaks about Ebola today. (Photo: Jillian Jorgensen)

While many elected officials have sought to downplay the actual risk of the deadly Ebola virus spreading in the United States today, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino today called for the Federal Aviation Administration to ban flights from West African nations to the United States.

“God help us if Ebola comes into New York because we were afraid to offend someone,” Mr. Astorino said near the United Nations building.

Mr. Astorino, the Republican candidate for governor, assailed the systems currently in place to stop Ebola’s spread from nations like Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — noting that a Liberian man who is hospitalized with Ebola in Dallas simply lied on a paper questionnaire when he left the virus-stricken nation. He also pointed to airlines like British Airways and Air France, which have stopped flying to those nations, while the U.S. has declined to impose restrictions.

“That’s madness,” he said. “It defies common sense then that we would allow air travel form Ebola-stricken nations until airport screenings are guaranteed to be foolproof. So I therefore call on the FAA today to halt air travel between New York airports [and West Africa] until proper protocols are in place.”

But critics of a flight ban say it would hamper aid efforts in West Africa, where the spread of the virus has been spinning out of control and where health and hospital standards make it hard to contain the illness, which is spread through bodily fluids. Mr. Astorino argued that wouldn’t be the case.

“We should allow our healthcare workers, epidemiologists, to be over in West Africa and have safe return with the right protocols,” he said.

There are virtually no flights that travel directly from the United States to the West African nations most affected by Ebola — the man who brought the virus to Dallas connected in Brussels first. But when travel is booked on a single ticket through a connection, U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection can track that it originated in Liberia, according to the Washington Postallowing for increased screening, or, as Mr. Astorino favors, a ban.

But asked whether passengers — especially those who had been willing to lie about Ebola exposure — would simply travel to another nation first and then on to the U.S. on a separate ticket to skirt the ban, Mr. Astorino said West African flights heading not just to the U.S., but also to Europe, should be grounded.

“That’s where we’ve got to focus, internationally, our efforts on preventing the outbound flights from going to Europe and going to America, so it becomes a contagion,” he told the Observer. “I’m not concerned about political correctness. We shouldn’t worry about offending anyone right now, because if we worry about offending someone right now we’re going to have very possibly this spreading throughout the United States, and then wondering why it was allowed to happen.”

The FAA or the U.S. government would not be able to ground flights from West Africa to nations other than this one, of course. Asked if doing so would leave residents of West Africa feeling trapped, Mr. Astorino again reiterated that he’s not worried about offending anyone.

“I’m not concerned about offending or political correctness, I’m concerned about containing a virus that is spreading rapidly and is causing fear and could lead to panic,” Mr. Astorino told the Observer.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, asked about Mr. Astorino’s push to ban travel to West Africa, said he didn’t think it would work — citing those concerns about skirting the ban by flying elsewhere first.

“I don’t think it works mechanically to say, ‘shut off entry from any country,’ because what happens is you just fly to another country and you then you come in from that country,” Mr. Cuomo told reporters today. “So you can’t come in from Liberia. OK, so I’ll fly to Paris, I’ll come in from Paris.”

Mr. Astorino joins several Republicans, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, in calling for the flight restrictions, which the Centers for Disease Control has insisted would not be helpful.

This story has been update to include comment from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Colorado’s Governor Flipflops on Marijuana: Reckless, Not Reckless, Reckless Again

Tue, 10/07/2014 - 08:04

(Photo: Getty)

Colorado is a politically signficant and interesting state. A few months ago,The New York Times’ Frank Bruni described it as “a battleground and a bellweather.” It is the former because unlike other important states like California, there is still statewide political competition in Colorado. It is the latter because numerous key issues including immigration, environmental concerns and marijuana legalization have particularly acute bearing on Colorado. Colorado is also governed by John Hickenlooper, the kind of innovative, and even quirky, politician that seems to be much more common in the west than in the northeast.

Politics in Colorado are probably best known nationally because in 2012 it became one of two states (the other was Washington) to legalize recreational marijuana. Governor Hickenlooper opposed that initiative and remains concerned about the consequences of legalizing marijuana. During a recent debate with his Republican opponent Bob Beauprez, in a statement that was reminiscent of John Kerry being for the war before he was against it, Mr. Hickenlooper, spoke about Colorado’s decision to legalize marijuana, “To a certain extent you could say it was reckless. I’m not saying it was reckless because I get quoted everywhere. But if it was up to me, I wouldn’t have done it. I opposed it from the very beginning. What the hell. I’ll say it was reckless.”

Governor Hickenlooper appeared to be confused about whether or not legalizing marijuana was reckless-unprecedented might have been a better word-but what he seemed to be really saying was that he was not sure what position on marijuana would most help him in a tough reelection campaign. The initiative passed in 2012 with 55% of the vote, but with a somewhat different electorate expected to vote in 2014, one that like 2010 will probably skew older, marijuana is complicated issue for Mr. Hickenlooper. Judging from that quote, it is clear that Mr. Hickenlooper has some reservations about legalizing marijuana, but it equally clear that he knows some of those reservations are unfounded. “To a certain extent you could say…I’m not saying it was,” are not the kids of phrases used by a man who has great confidence in what he is saying. They are also the words of somebody who is following, not leading, public opinion.

These comments by Governor Hickenlooper were made the evening after the Supreme Court ruled against appeals by Indiana, Virginia, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Utah to allow the banning of same sex marriage. That decision by the Supreme Court may not have formally marked the end of the marriage equality debate, but it came close. Ten years ago it was far from clear which side would win the fight for marriage equality. Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision was a clear nod to the victor.

Marijuana legalization may be at a similar point. Reforms in laws regarding medical, and now recreational, use of marijuana are strong evidence as to what direction the marijuana debate is moving. Mr. Hickenlooper’s opposition to the legalization of marijuana is not new; and it is, at least to some extent, based in legitimate questions of governance. Nonetheless, Governor Hickenlooper’s opposition to legalization is largely a reflection of the time in which he came of age politically. Age replacement was a major engine behind public support for marriage equality and will likely have a similar effect on the debate around legalizing marijuana.

Democratic politicians like Mr. Hickenlooper struggle to find a position on marijuana that does not alienate either older voters who are more likely to oppose legalization or the many voters who cannot fathom why smoking pot is illegal. New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo has moved forward with legalizing medical marijuana, but has referred to legalizing the drug for recreational use as a “nonstarter.” That position is expected to be tested as legislation to legalize recreational marijuana is likely to be introduced in Albany next year. California’s Jerry Brown has raised more specific concerns about expanding his state’s legalization beyond medical use, posing the question “How many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation? I think we need to stay alert, if not 24 hours a day, more than some of the potheads might be able to put together.”

At 56, Mr. Cuomo is the youngest of these three governors. The next generation of Democratic governors and politicians are likely to take a different view, reflecting the demographics of the changing electorate. According to a recent poll, 49% of Americans, and more than 50% of those younger than 65, support legalizing marijuana. Once the momentum for marriage equality grew strong enough the laws changed very quickly, almost leaving even progressive politicians behind. Marijuana legalization may be reaching a similar point. When that happens Mr. Hickenlooper’s current position will be the one that is politically reckless.

Lincoln Mitchell is the national political correspondent for the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.


Letitia James, Charting a New Path for Public Advocate, Holds Her Fire at City Hall

Mon, 10/06/2014 - 23:24

Public Advocate Letitia James endorsing Congressman Charles Rangel in June. (Photo: Ross Barkan)

Mark Green delighted in bloodying his knuckles against Rudolph Giuliani. Betsy Gotbaum shunned the spotlight as Michael Bloomberg threatened the existence of the very job she was elected to perform. Bill de Blasio yanked the spotlight back and used the post to springboard across Centre Street to City Hall.

Letitia James, the newest public advocate, is still carving out an identity nine months into her tenure as the first public advocate to serve with a mayor belonging to the same political party. A liberal Democrat like Mr. de Blasio, the public advocate-turned-mayor, Ms. James has not warred with City Hall like her predecessors, who were Democrats charged with serving as ombudsmen in the shadows of two imposing Republican mayors.

The idea of a public advocate not acting as a mayoral bête noire is a bit jarring to long-time observers of the office.

“I hope she’ll evolve and do more oversight of and investigations into city services and corporate misconduct rather than coming across like merely a vice president or deputy mayor,” said Mark Green, the city’s first public advocate and an endorser of one of Ms. James’ rivals last year.

As Comptroller Scott Stringer, yet another Democrat and self-identified progressive, appears to revel in tweaking City Hall at every turn, Ms. James’ reticence is raising eyebrows. A voluble, Bloomberg-bashing pol when she served in the City Council, Ms. James was strikingly mum as Mr. de Blasio drew criticism for placing a phone call to police after a top ally was arrested early this year. Months later, as Mr. Stringer hammered the mayor over his alleged tardiness in submitting prekindergarten contracts to him for review–the universal pre-K program is an unequivocal centerpiece of Mr. de Blasio’s agenda–Ms. James aggressively defended the mayor.

“I know they are dedicated to excellence: nothing less, nothing more than pure excellence,” she said in late August.

Ms. James, an attorney by trade, has chosen instead to hone in on a wide variety of fairly substantive pet issues that Mr. de Blasio ignored during his one term as public advocate. Though those close to Ms. James say she harbors many of the same mayoral ambitions as the once unknown Mr. de Blasio did, she will likely not be able to mount a viable run until 2021, when Mr. de Blasio is term-limited.

Barring unforeseen circumstances or a surprise re-election defeat, Ms. James is set to hold the post for eight years, which means she will have more time to burnish her reputation and move away from simply wielding the office as a blatant campaign tool–something Mr. de Blasio was accused of doing.

“Tish James has been an effective watchdog for working families across New York City. By strengthening the office’s policy, legal, and constituent services functions, she has helped improve the lives of New Yorkers — from school lunch for students to body cameras for NYPD officers to protections for subway riders — the work of the Public Advocate’s office has resulted in real change across our city,” said Aja Worthy-Davis, a spokeswoman for Ms. James.


The office of the public advocate was created in 1993 and is little understood by most New Yorkers two decades later. After the City Charter was revised in 1989 and the old Board of Estimate was eliminated, the City Council decided to rename one of the last vestiges of the Board, the City Council president, the public advocate.

By this time, the City Council had the newly-created speaker post, making the president’s role redundant. Some in the council argued the office should have been abolished altogether, a contention that Mr. Bloomberg revived again as Ms. Gotbaum, a Democrat, irked him.

The public advocate, the first in line of succession to the mayor, is bestowed with certain powers: she can introduce legislation, investigate agencies, sit on the city’s pension board and handle constituent complaints like a glorified council member. Callers to the office, aides say, are often the most desperate; usually they are people who have not been helped enough by their local lawmaker.

Compared to the mayor and comptroller’s offices, the public advocate’s budget is meager. Mr. de Blasio boosted Ms. James’ budget from $1.6 million budget up to to $2.3 million for this fiscal year, after Mr. Bloomberg had slashed it. The office still employs less than 40 people.

“The role of public advocate is pretty difficult to define and measure because the budget is so incredibly small. A lot of New Yorkers have expectations of what they want the public advocate to do but if you look at the number of staff, it’s amazing the office can actually run,” said Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University.

Ms. James, unlike Mr. de Blasio in his public advocate days, now presides over City Council meetings as a non-voting member. It’s not clear Mr. de Blasio ever wanted to–or was welcome to–preside in Christine Quinn’s City Council. The old speaker, an ally of Mr. Bloomberg’s, feuded with Mr. de Blasio and eventually lost to him in the 2013 mayoral race.

Ms. James at her inauguration with his Dasani Coates. (Photo: NYC Mayor’s Office)

Observers of the office say Mr. de Blasio wielded it as an effective bully pulpit but accomplished little in substantive change. He rarely introduced bills–Ms. James just passed one–and harped on national issues like the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, while also creating a popular list of the worst landlords in the city.

Those who worked for him at the time said Mr. de Blasio was a savvy opportunist, employing a robust press shop–future Cuomo spokesman Matt Wing was one top press secretary–that obsessed with trying to insert the public advocate into the headlines. Mr. de Blasio sent scores of critical letters to city agencies, proactively hunting for news coverage in a way that Ms. James has yet to do.

“During his term as public advocate, he was attracted to issues that drew the most publicity,” a former de Blasio aide recalled. “He understood reporters weren’t going to write about a public advocate being a cheerleader for an unpopular mayor.”

Mr. de Blasio always wanted Ms. James to prevail over her top rival last year, State Senator Daniel Squadron, sources say. Early on in the race Mr. de Blasio, then a candidate for mayor, even tried to persuade Reshma Saujani, a James opponent and staffer in Mr. de Blasio’s public advocate office, to drop out of the contest to clear a path for Ms. James. Ms. Saujani refused and eventually finished in third, reconciling with Ms. James and co-chairing her transition committee.

Along with then-Comptroller John Liu, Mr. de Blasio was a clear left-wing counterweight to Mr. Bloomberg during his last term. The ombudsman function of the office, some say, is not being embraced enough by Ms. James–even sympathetic Democrats privately question whether Ms. James, a colleague of Mr. de Blasio’s when they served in the City Council together, will ever be able to seriously act as a watchdog for Mr. de Blasio. (Aides point out Ms. James has challenged the mayor when needed, like when she reprimanded him for the cost of a security booth outside his now uninhabited Park Slope row house.)

Of course, it made perfect political sense for a liberal Democrat to play the foil to an increasingly unpopular billionaire centrist. Ms. James does not have it so easy.

“If you’re the public advocate and you have a lovebird relationship with mayor, what’s the point of the office?” groused one Democrat who backed Ms. James a year ago.

Those close to Ms. James argue that’s a simplistic way of looking at the position. They point to her championing, in the wake of a Staten Island man’s death in NYPD custody, the use of body cameras on police so all interactions with civilians can be recorded.

250 postal workers, partly in thanks to Ms. James’ advocacy, now have jobs again.

Aides also tout her efforts to successfully force the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to better educate riders and MTA personnel about sexual harassment on the subways and the mayor providing funding for free lunch for all middle school students, a program that was made possible by Ms. James’ relentless politicking.

“Tish didn’t just hold rallies. She made the policy case for expanding lunch access, worked through the nuances of federal funding formulas, pushed through the Department of Education bureaucracy, and won wide-support for the measure,” argued a source close to the public advocate.


Ms. James and Mr. de Blasio were colleagues in the City Council from 2004 through 2009, a crucial period when the two Democrats occupied a marginalized left flank in the council. The fellow Brooklynites, in addition to sharing similar political beliefs, rose to power with the aid of the Working Families Party, the labor and liberal activist-backed organization that swung the city’s political zeitgeist leftward.

Mr. de Blasio was a WFP founding father. Ms. James is still the only city elected official to win an election on the WFP line alone (the WFP cross-endorses Democratic candidates and then lends its vaunted get-out-the-vote operation to boost their chosen Democrat.)

Ms. James with Mr. de Blasio when they both served in the City Council. (Photo: Marc A. Hermann-Pool/Getty Images)

The circumstances behind Ms. James’ journey to elected office can seem almost mythical. Her predecessor, James Davis, was assassinated in the council chambers 11 years ago. The culprit was a political rival, Othniel Askew, who, according to Ms. James, visited her the night before he pulled out a .40 caliber pistol and killed Davis.

“The person who assassinated him visited me the night before,” Ms. James told the Observer last year. “Sat on my stoop and came into my home for two hours. He wanted to know whether or not I was going to run again, and if I was not, he wanted my support.”

Ms. James won a special election to replace Davis, representing a district neighboring Mr. de Blasio’s. While Ms. James has been a reliable ally of the mayor’s, a select number of progressives see her as the more pure member of their ranks. When developer Bruce Ratner sought to bring the Barclays Center to downtown Brooklyn and use the glittering arena as an anchor for a long-promised–and yet to be constructed–affordable housing development, Ms. James was an unflagging critic of the project, known as Atlantic Yards. Mr. de Blasio was a booster.

Mr. de Blasio, the campaign manager for Hillary Clinton’s first and successful U.S. Senate bid, is able to weave rather seamlessly between the world of the hard left that helped him climb the ranks of municipal politics and the centrist Democratic realm of the Clintons and Cuomos.

Ms. James, at least publicly, is not one to extend an olive branch to Democratic Party’s corporate-friendly wing. As elected officials like Mr. de Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito rushed to loudly back Mr. Cuomo’s re-election bid against insurgent left-wing challenger Zephyr Teachout, Ms. James was silent.

When Ms. Teachout, a law professor, racked up far more votes than most pundits thought possible, Ms. James appeared pleased.

“I think he got the memo,” she said told the Observer last month. “Something tells me he got the memo, and something tells me he read it!”


Others in the city’s upstart liberal ranks want Ms. James to speak more forcefully, especially if Mr. de Blasio hedges too close to the center. When Eric Garner, a black Staten Island man, died in July after police placed him in a chokehold, Ms. James–now the highest-ranked African-American elected official in the city–did not lead the charge of critics decrying the alleged police brutality. Instead, she stuck to her even-keeled advocacy of body cameras.

“In terms of her role as the most prominent African-American woman in elected office citywide, folks want her to step up more on issues impacting low-income communities of color, post-Eric Garner,” explained a Democratic consultant. “People want to see her occupy the left flank and be there as a substantive voice of dissent when de Blasio drifts toward the center.”

Ms. James receiving the endorsement of the Queens Democratic Party last year. (Photo: Ross Barkan)

At times, it can seem like Ms. James is grasping for the signature issue or cause that will raise her profile. Aides point to her body camera advocacy, but it’s not apparent the public is associating her with the issue–Mr. de Blasio and his police commissioner, Bill Bratton, have long endorsed the idea, regardless of the pubic advocate’s prodding.

Her image, at least among some Democrats who have closely watched her ascent, is not always pristine. Even as she trounced four Democrats to win the public advocate’s race a year ago, insiders grumbled that she was not a disciplined enough campaigner.

Allies pleaded with Ms. James to spend more time on the phone raising money. She had a habit showing up late to campaign events. Ultimately, some familiar with her campaign argued she relied too much on powerful unions like 32BJ and 1199 SEIU to drag her across the finish line.

During and after the campaign, Ms. James had the peculiar habit of occasionally massaging the truth. After inquiries from the Observer and other news outlets, the New York Times revealed in January that Ms. James was not the source of their much-heralded series on a homeless Brooklyn girl named Dasani Coates. Ms. James had claimed as much, even parading around the girl and her family at her inauguration on New Year’s Day.

For reasons that are still unclear, Ms. James also lied about her true age. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2013 that she misled reporters for years, shaving off four years from her age: she was 54 in 2013, not 50.

And when the Observer confronted her this year about her endorsement of Councilman Fernando Cabrera’s campaign for State Senate, in light of his stark anti-gay views and the furious opposition to his candidacy, Ms. James offered a head-scratching explanation: she said she only endorsed Mr. Cabrera “on paper.”

The missteps, or oddities, may appear to be piling up. But at least one former public advocate believes Ms. James is using the office exactly how it was intended.

“I never wanted to be the municipal nag. I wanted to get things done,” Ms. Gotbaum, the former public advocate, said. Ms. Gotbaum endorsed Mr. Squadron a year ago and now heads a firm that fund-raises for Ms. James.

“I’m very optimistic about Tish. She’s okay.”

James Oddo Has Nothing to Say About Fellow Republican Michael Grimm

Mon, 10/06/2014 - 17:47

Staten Island Republican Borough President James Oddo (Photo: Jillian Jorgensen)

They may be members of the same party, but Borough President James Oddo declined to throw his weight behind Congressman Michael Grimm today.

Mr. Oddo has not endorsed Mr. Grimm (or Mr. Grimm’s Democratic opponent Domenic Recchia Jr.) in the tight congressional race, and declined to do so today when he, two other borough Republicans and Mayor Bill de Blasio were asked to weigh in on the race during an unrelated Staten Island press conference.

“I have no comment about the congressional race, but I am supporting Assemblyman Cusick for re-election,” Mr. Oddo said, referring to his controversial cross-party endorsement of popular Assemblyman Michael Cusick, a Democrat.

The borough president even held up a small lapel-sized button with Mr. Cusick’s name on it, for emphasis. Mr. Cusick is expected to handily win re-election against a lesser known GOP challenger, Joe Tirone.

“OK, curve ball,” Mr. de Blasio, who is backing Mr. Recchia, said. 

The question about the congressional race came after Mr. de Blasio announced that $28 million in federal Sandy relief dollars — allocated by Congress in a bill often touted by Mr. Grimm — would go to shoring up Staten Island University Hospital’s campus. Mr. Grimm, who was not present at the press conference, did not address Mr. Oddo’s comments but did tout that funding again.

“I am very pleased that my fellow elected officials are grateful for the federal funds that I fought so hard to secure and I’d like to once again thank my colleagues in Congress that supported the Sandy relief bill that delivered the grant that was celebrated today,” Mr. Grimm said in a statement the Observer.

Mr. Oddo’s snub of his fellow Republican should come as no surprise to watchers of Staten Island politics, where GOP in-fighting and feuding is not uncommon. While the two pols were never particularly close, they had a falling out over a particularly bitter primary battle for Mr. Oddo’s former City Council seat.

Mr. Grimm and his mentor, former Borough President Guy Molinari, backed Lisa Giovinazzo in her challenge to the eventual winner, Councilman Steven Matteo — Mr. Oddo’s former chief of staff and his chosen candidate in a race so acrimonious it fractured the borough’s Republican party, leading to the ouster of its chairman.

Mr. Oddo and Mr. Grimm have mostly declined to speak about each other — “I have a standing policy because there are only 24 hours in a day not to comment on that individual,” Mr. Oddo said back in April, at a Hurricane Sandy recovery event Mr. Grimm declined to attend.

Mr. Oddo has clashed more often, and more publicly, with Mr. Molinari, the congressman’s political godfather — who recently told the Staten Island Advance that Mr. Oddo’s endorsement of Mr. Cusick amounted to “playing footsie” with Democrats and promised to teach him “a lesson.” In a blistering response, Mr. Oddo told the Advance that Mr. Molinari, who once held both his seat in Borough Hall and Mr. Grimm’s in Congress, reminded him “who and what I never want to become.”

Mr. Grimm has declined to attend any Sandy events held or attended by the mayor — including one at Mr. Oddo’s Borough Hall office, leading Mr. Grimm to criticize Mr. Oddo for attending the event and Mr. Oddo to criticize Mr. Grimm for skipping it.

Other than the mayor, all the elected officials at today’s event were Republicans — Mr. Oddo, Council Minority Leader Vincent Ignizio, and Mr. Matteo — and none of them took the opportunity to stump for Mr. Grimm, at least during the press conference. Mr. Matteo, the winner of that divisive primary, didn’t step up to the microphone to take the open question. Mr. Ignizio, meanwhile, declined to talk politics at the bi-partisan affair.

“I just want to say this is a great day for Staten Island University Hospital, and I’m not going to get into politics with the mayor here, or with anyone else for that matter, at this event,” Mr. Ignizio said. 

But afterward, Mr. Ignizio reiterated his support for Mr. Grimm.

“I support Mike — I’ve supported him since he first ran,” Mr. Ignizio said.

Mr. de Blasio, not for the first time, offered full-throated support for Mr. Recchia.

“I think he will be a fantastic congressman, so I strongly encourage people to support Domenic Recchia,” he said.

This story has been updated with comment from Mr. Grimm.

Despite Questions, de Blasio Declares ‘Case Closed’ on Rachel Noerdlinger

Mon, 10/06/2014 - 16:02

Mayor Bill de Blasio at a Staten Island press conference today.

There may be plenty of lingering questions surrounding what Rachel Noerdlinger told the Department of Investigation about her relationship with an ex-con during her hiring, or her son’s injuries when she applied for a residency waiver — but Mayor Bill de Blasio is clearly tired of taking them.

“I think we’ve covered this issue very clearly. DOI did a review, there was no effort to deceive,” Mr. de Blasio said at an unrelated Staten Island press conference. “I have absolute faith in Rachel and her ability to serve the people of this city, and — case closed.”

Mr. de Blasio’s office said Friday a DOI investigation had found that Ms. Noerdlinger, chief of staff to first lady Chirlane McCray, failed to mention on a hiring questionnaire that she lived with Hassaun McFarlan, who has been convicted of killing a teenager as a young man and trafficking drugs more recently. But DOI found there was no “intention to deceive” in her actions, according to the mayor’s office, and Mr. de Blasio declined to take any disciplinary action against her.

Ms. Noerdlinger’s relationship with Mr. McFarlan was just one of many reasons she was under scrutiny over the last week. The Observer reported Ms. Noerdlinger had been hit with a $28,000 federal tax lien, and the New York Post reported that while she was granted a waiver to live in New Jersey because her son was badly injured in a car crash, the teenager was well enough to play high school football.

Mr. de Blasio was asked specifically whether he was concerned about statements Ms. Noerdlinger made to get her residency waiver, and once again defended her.

“No I’m not, and I think this whole notion, with all due respect to all of you and the job you have to do, this notion of let’s talk about people’s boyfriends, let’s talk about their children, it’s just going too far,” Mr. de Blasio, who has made his family a central part of his public persona, said.

But a reporter repeatedly pressed Mr. de Blasio, pointing out that Ms. Noerdlinger was granted the waiver because of her son.

“She got the waiver for a variety of reasons, and it was done appropriately. The point is, and let’s be honest about this, the way this public discourse is going, people are going more and more, in not just this case but in many other cases, into people’s boyfriends, girlfriends, children, aunts, uncles. This does not have to do a lot with public service — she’s a good public servant,” Mr. de Blasio said.

The reporter and Mr. de Blasio again briefly sparred over the waiver before Mr. de Blasio cut off the conversation.

“The point is she’s a good public servant and that’s what I respect,” Mr. de Blasio said.

Rangel Sizzles Sharpton With Bizarre Comment on Sanford Rubenstein Rape Case

Mon, 10/06/2014 - 15:21

Charles Rangel (Photo: Will Bredderman).

Congressman Charles Rangel today offered a strange assessment of the allegations that prominent civil rights attorney Sanford Rubenstein — who is representing the family of NYPD chokehold victim Eric Garner — raped an executive of Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network following Mr. Sharpton’s 60th birthday party on October 1.

The Observer questioned Mr. Rangel — who has a historically troubled relationship with Mr. Sharpton — at the launch of an East Harlem jobs center about his stance on the controversy surrounding Rachel Noerdlinger. Ms. Noerdlinger, Chirlane McCray’s chief of staff and a former aide to Mr. Sharpton, has been in the spotlight after her ex-con boyfriend made numerous anti-police comments on social media.

After briefly dismissing the scrutiny around Ms. Noerdlinger, the congressman asked the Observer, “You want to get into the rape?”

“No victim, no face, some lawyer, no Sharpton, condoms!” Mr. Rangel said, chuckling, before a political aide ushered him away.

Mr. Rangel’s office did not immediately respond to a request to expand upon the remark.

The as-yet unnamed NAN executive, whose allegations were first reported by the Daily News this weekend, reportedly told police that she came out of a drunken stupor to find the 70-year-old Mr. Rubenstein, a former Rockland County legislator, penetrating her with an object inside his apartment. She told police that she found bloody condoms nearby on the floor the following morning, according to the New York Post.

Mr. Rubenstein, who has yet to be charged, is said to be maintaining his innocence, claiming the sexual contact was consensual. Mr. Sharpton has called both Mr. Rubenstein and his accuser “friends.”

On the topic of Ms. Noerdlinger, Mr. Rangel told the Observer that he did not see the reason for controversy, noting that the Department of Investigations chose not to penalize her for not mentioning her boyfriend or his criminal record.

“I never saw it in the first place, because it’s the mayor’s problem to decide who he vets and what the standard is, so no,” Mr. Rangel said. “There has been an investigation, she has not been found guilty of any wrongdoing, but one of her associates has said something against the police, and you want my opinion about what?”

Animal-Loving Michael Grimm Doesn’t Want to Ban Horse Carriages

Mon, 10/06/2014 - 12:19

Congressman Michael Grimm today. (Photo: Ross Barkan)

When it comes to Bill de Blasio’s priorities, Michael Grimm really is a neigh-sayer.

The Republican congressman, a noted animal lover who scored the Humane Society Legislative Fund’s endorsement last week, couldn’t bring himself to support the Democratic mayor’s vow to ban horse-drawn carriages, a pet cause of animal rights activists.

“I don’t think we should ban the carriages. The only thing we should mandate is that the horses are treated well and treated humanely,” Mr. Grimm told the Observer today at a campaign event outside the Staten Island Ferry terminal.

Mr. Grimm said Mr. de Blasio’s desire to put the horse carriages out to pasture is purely “political” and has nothing to do with the safety of the animals. “I think it was political. I think there were ulterior motives because they want those stable areas for development or whatever. I don’t think it has anything to do with the welfare of the animals,” he said.

“Generations have made their living [driving carriages.] People want to say all the right things about how they’re trying to grow the economy and create jobs, yet they’re trying to take away jobs left and right,” Mr. Grimm added.

While Mr. Grimm, a conservative Republican, has repeatedly blasted Mr. de Blasio, a liberal Democrat, and Domenic Recchia Jr., the Democrat challenging Mr. Grimm, the battle over the fate of the carriages has scattered ideological allegiances. The Working Families Party and the Teamsters union, representing the drivers, are fighting back against the ban: many progressives in the City Council are ambivalent about the mayor’s plan and what it will mean for the carriage driver jobs.

Mr. Grimm’s attack on Mr. de Blasio’s motives is also one that has been echoed in other political circles. Last year, the prominent animal rights group NYCLASS launched a game-changing independent expenditure against Mr. de Blasio’s top rival, Christine Quinn, and Mr. de Blasio earned the adoration of NYCLASS activists when he vowed on “day one” of his administration to take the carriages off city streets.

While the issue is inherently Manhattan-centric, polls show residents in the outer boroughs like the idea of keeping the horse carriages around. In Mr. Grimm’s re-election bid against Mr. Recchia, the issue of animal welfare has not been at the forefront, however.

Mr. de Blasio did not immediately return a request for comment.

Assembly Housing Chair Wright Wants Moratorium on Luxury Development

Mon, 10/06/2014 - 11:35

Keith Wright, right, with fellow Harlem lawmakers Raymond Rodriguez and Charles Rangel (Photo: Will Bredderman).

Manhattan Assemblyman Keith Wright–chairman of the Assembly’s Housing Committee–today backed Congressman Charles Rangel’s call for a moratorium on subsidized luxury development.

At an event in East Harlem celebrating the opening of a new jobs center, Mr. Rangel reiterated his longtime argument for an end to government assistance for upscale construction–an argument with which Mr. Wright said he agreed. In the past decade, the city and state have granted tax abatements and subsidies for luxury projects that included a percentage of units for middle class and poor New Yorkers, a policy the two pols both said needed to end.

“We’ve gone condo crazy, and certainly it’s destabilized a number of communities, and we need to look to re-stabilize our communities,” Mr. Wright, who represents swiftly gentrifying central Harlem, told the Observer. “We have too many luxury developments, there’s just too many, at least in communities that may not necessarily be able to afford them. I think the pendulum needs to swing in the other way. I think we need to look at putting in some more middle- and low-income housing in various parts of the city, especially in Manhattan, because Manhattan can’t just become the island of the rich.”

Mr. Wright, however, was hazier on the details of how to reconcile such a moratorium with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to construct and maintain 200,000 units of affordable housing, which hinges in part on re-zonings and outlays for upper-income construction that devotes 20 percent new units for low- and middle-income earners–a plan Mr. Wright said he was “very much in support of.”

The assemblyman did say, however, that he would push to reformulate the calculation of “area median income”–an average of earnings that is used to determine what constitutes “affordability.” The current metric incorporates the wages not just of residents of New York City, but of suburban Rockland and Westchester counties, which Mr. Wright argued skews the statistic unfairly upward in low-income neighborhoods.

“They throw the average so high that people in Harlem, people in East Harlem cannot in no manner, shape or form compete at that economic level,” Mr. Wright said. “Nobody can afford these luxury condominiums. I know I can’t.”

The assemblyman, however, noted that the calculus for AMI is set at the federal level and that resetting it would fall to Mr. Rangel, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other national players.

Mr. Wright said he would also seek to fund new low- and middle-income construction. He would not, however, commit to supporting Mr. de Blasio’s effort to repeal the Urstadt Law, a statute that leaves control of the city’s rent-regulated housing stock in the hands of the state.

“I’ll have to look at it,” said Mr. Wright, who added that he still resides in the rent-controlled apartment he grew up in.

Mr. Rangel, for his part, explicitly argued that the 80-20 ratio of market-rate to affordable units was inherently unfair for buildings that receive public money.

“We don’t need no damn luxury housing, it’s not an emergency, and this whole concept of 80-20, maybe for somebody else, but we don’t have schools where 80 percent of the students are already educated and 20 need help. We don’t have hospitals where 80 percent are well and others need care,” Mr. Rangel said. “What we need is affordable housing.”

Mr. Wright–along with several other state legislators–came under criticism last year after he sponsored a bill that created tax exemptions for luxury developers that donated to his campaign. The bill’s passage triggered an inquiry by the anti-corruption Moreland Commission.

During Month of Gaffes, Vice President Biden Says Something Brilliant

Mon, 10/06/2014 - 09:51

Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Its been a busy few weeks for Vice President Joseph Biden.

On September 16th, Mr. Biden used the term “Shylock” to refer to banks and other loan agencies. Not surprisingly, this remark did not sit well with many Jewish organizations or individuals. A few days later, the Vice President apologized for what he referred to as a “poor choice of words.”

Last week at a speech at Harvard University, Mr. Biden, referring to the United Arab Emirates, stated “They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except that the people who were being supplied were [Jabhat] al-Nusra and al-Qaeda.” He also implied that foreign fighters had gotten into Syria through insufficiently protected Turkish borders. These statements were a candid expression of the Obama administration’s frustration with key regional allies, but most senior administration officials would not have stated it as plainly as the Vice President did. Predictably, within a few days Mr. Biden had to apologize to officials in the UAE and Turkey for his comments.

Biden made those remarks at a speech at Harvard University, where he also scolded former Defense Secretary and director of the CIA Leon Panetta for joining the ranks for former Obama administration officials who have written books critical of the president whom they had previously served. Mr. Biden referred to these books as “inappropriate.”

And buried in Biden’s staunch defense of President Obama was a line that beautifully and concisely sums up the foibles of American foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere: “We Americans think in every country in transition there’s a Thomas Jefferson hiding behind some rock, or a James Madison beyond one sand dune.”

Mr. Biden’s characterization of the U.S. view of the world was a not very veiled attack at the neoconservatives who were so influential in the previous administration, but it was also a criticism of fellow Democratic Party foreign policy heavyweights Mr. Panetta and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who faulted President Obama for not pursuing a sufficiently pro-active foreign policy. It also — perhaps in a moment of frustration, anger or simply loyalty to President Obama — revealed an insight into what Mr. Biden has seen in his decades working on foreign policy.

The remark is also a wonderful summary of the gestalt of how the American foreign policy establishment, and even the U.S. in general, views the rest of the world, and itself. In this line, Mr. Biden has captured the naiveté, but also the optimism, that has long characterized American foreign policy. The U.S. has, of course, spent too much time looking behind just one more rock or sand dune and believing that the latest political hack, or ambitious military leader to rise to the top is Afghanistan’s Jefferson, Iraq’s Madison or Pakistan’s George Washington.

Mr. Biden’s remark also reveals the arrogance of American foreign policy. By always looking for the next Jefferson or Madison we refuse to recognize that other countries may have other models or paths to follow, and that the American experience is not universal — a belief that may spring from good intentions and a generosity of spirit, but also reflects an unwillingness to accept real differences between people and countries. It is the political equivalent of believing that everybody everywhere can speak English if you just speak it loudly and slowly enough.

Lincoln Mitchell is the national political correspondent for the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell

Domenic Recchia Portrayed as Circus Clown in Republican Mailer

Sun, 10/05/2014 - 19:31

The front side of the anti-Domenic Recchia mailer.

Send in the clown.

Democrat Domenic Recchia Jr. is portrayed as a circus clown in a scathing New York State Republican Party mailer, lambasted for his vote to raise property taxes and his support of a resolution to endorse a Bloomberg era congestion pricing plan.

“Which one of these clowns raised property taxes 18% and voted to hike our tolls eight dollars?” reads the text on the front side of the mailer. An image of a frowning Mr. Recchia, a former Brooklyn councilman, and a red-haired, red ball-holding clown appear next to the words.

On the back side, Mr. Recchia, who is trying to unseat Republican Congressman Michael Grimm, is shown wearing a red ball nose.

“This clown did. Domenic Recchia voted for the largest property tax increase in city history–over 18%. Then he voted to raise tolls for Brooklyn and Staten Island drivers by eight dollars,” the mailer reads on the back. “The last thing we need in Washington is another clown like Recchia.”

A spokesman for the State GOP did not disclose how much the mailer cost or how widely it was sent in the Staten Island and southern Brooklyn-based district–this piece ended up in a Brooklyn mailbox–but said residents had “every right to know” about Mr. Rechia’s votes. (The State Party also paid for another mailer that photoshopped a dunce cap on Mr. Recchia’s head.)

“Staten Island and Brooklyn’s hardworking taxpayers have every right to know that Domenic Recchia voted to raise their taxes in the City Council,” said David Laska, a spokesman for the State GOP. “The last thing we need in Congress is another Bill de Blasio liberal to rubberstamp every tax hike Nancy Pelosi tries to impose on the American people.”

The back side of the mailer.

Mr. Recchia has defended his property tax hike vote, in which he joined a majority of the council, as a necessary way to give the city revenue after the devastating September 11 attacks. The mailer’s wording, while accurate, is a bit deceptive: Mr. Recchia voted, also in the majority, to support a resolution endorsing former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s controversial congestion pricing plan, not hike already existing tolls.

The Democrat-dominated State Assembly ultimately scuttled the plan to charge cars $8 and commercial trucks $21 to enter Manhattan below 86th Street, though the pricing scheme could have potentially allowed added revenue from new East River bridge tolls to make lowering the high tolls on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, connecting Staten Island to Brooklyn, more economically feasible. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a state agency, determines how high tolls are on the Verrazano Bridge and Mr. Recchia, as a city councilman, had no direct say over how much tolls increased or decreased.

In response to the mailer, the Recchia camp called Mr. Grimm a “national laughing stock” for the 20-count indictment he will fight in court later this year.

“We’ve seen time and time again the level of desperation of Michael Grimm’s campaign, and this just reaffirms that,” said Sarah Weinstein, a spokeswoman for Mr. Recchia. “For an indicted congressman who is planning on being forced out of Congress and is most widely known as a national laughing stock and embarrassment to the people of this district, his weak attempt to distract voters from his poor record and legal troubles is laughable.”

De Blasio Backs Schneiderman For Re-election

Sun, 10/05/2014 - 14:00

Bill de Blasio and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. (Observer File Photo)

Mayor Bill de Blasio today endorsed Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in his re-election bid against Republican challenger John Cahill.

The mayor announced his support for Mr. Schneiderman at the historic Bridge Street AME Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. At the lectern, Mr. de Blasio told the church’s black congregation about the launch of his universal pre-kindergarten plan and signing of a new executive order mandating higher wages at city-subsidized companies–peppering his speech with religious references, criticisms of the stop-and-frisk policing policy and expressions of sympathy for President Barack Obama and his struggles with the Republican-dominated Congress.

The mayor cited Mr. Schneiderman as a critical friend to his agenda in the state government, describing the massive settlements he negotiated from banks that bundled shaky mortgages during the 2008 financial crisis, and his efforts to force employers to pay back-wages to workers.

“He has been exemplary, I want people to understand how important it is, if you believe in the things that I have just laid out for here in New York City, if you’d like to see our federal government respond to all of us, if you want more leaders who shared these values and then acted on then, then pay attention to the leader you have right now in the state of New York right now, your Attorney General, because he has acted on those values each and every day,” Mr. de Blasio said. “Eric Schneiderman is a true ally of my administration, a true ally, someone we can depend on, someone we believe in, because every single time he will do what’s right and progressive.”

Mr. Schneiderman echoed the mayor’s emphasis on cooperation, as well as his biblical rhetoric–alluding repeatedly to the books of Genesis and Deuteronomy.

“Together we are admonished by God to pursue justice,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “It is our duty as Americans, as Christians and Jews, to always be in pursuit of equal justice under the law, and I’m proud to work with you.”

The state’s top lawyer also touted his multi-billion-dollar relief packages he had wrung from Bank of America and JP Morgan, his prosecution of under-paying employers and his effort to mandate background checks for purchases at gun shows.

“You have no stronger ally than me and the people in my office who think every day of how to make us safer and how to make us truly safe,” Mr. Schneiderman said.

Polls show Mr. Cahill–former chief-of-staff to Gov. George Pataki–trailing Mr. Schneiderman by 16 points among likely voters, making it the tightest of all the statewide races. The surveys indicate Mr. Schneiderman suffers from a lack of name recognition, though he leads his opponent by 71 points among black voters and 42 points among Latinos. Mr. de Blasio, meanwhile, enjoys a high approval rating among the city’s black and Latino voters.

Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Schneiderman spoke at the church on the same morning as Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also seeking re-election, spoke at two separate churches in Jamaica and Brooklyn.