From the Bronx to Queens, Deals Defined Quinn's Council Leadership
Friday, August 30, 2013
Click on the audio link above to listen to Andrea Bernstein's conversation with Wayne Barrett about his earlier report on Christine Quinn's dealings with long-time Brooklyn Democratic leader Vito Lopez.
It was December 2005 and 39-year-old Christine Quinn, an obscure one-term Chelsea councilwoman, was on her way to the Westchester Square headquarters of the Bronx Democratic County Committee to close the deal that would make her speaker, second only to the mayor in the power she would wield in City Hall. Her path to the Council leadership—positioning her to shape the city’s fiscal and development policies for the next four, and ultimately eight years—was, by city charter design, an inside game. Twenty-six members of the 51-member legislature would soon pick a winner.
Queens was the linchpin, with 16 votes on the Council. But Quinn needed 10 more votes and, like her two predecessors, she turned to the eight-member Bronx delegation. Her campaign committee had donated $3,300 to the Queens and Bronx Democratic parties since 2004, a bright hello. The longtime Queens Democratic boss, Tom Manton, was dying of cancer, and Quinn would be his last hurrah. U.S. Rep Joe Crowley would soon be the new Queens leader and, shortly before this meeting, Quinn hosted a fundraiser for Crowley, who’d been handpicked by Manton to succeed him, first in the Assembly and then in Congress.
The meeting was in the office of Jose Rivera, the Bronx party leader. Bill DeBlasio, who is running against Quinn for mayor now, was then her closest competitor for speaker, and he’d wooed Rivera to the end. But Rivera had made his choice, aligning himself with Queens behind Quinn. The purpose of the meeting was to work out the details of the deal.
Joining Rivera at the meeting were his son, City Councilman Joel Rivera, Councilwoman Maria Baez, and Stanley Schlein, a lobbyist whose machinations in Bronx politics have made headlines for years. Manton brought his three law partners—Jerry Sweeney, Mike Reich and Frank Bolz—each of whom held top posts in the party hierarchy. While no one involved in the meeting would discuss it on the record, a Bronx participant and a Queens participant did offer details. A third source who helped arrange the meeting and met with Rivera to discuss it the day after says that Rivera spelled out to him precisely what happened during these discussions.
Eight years later, the meeting remains a window into Quinn’s political life, which is little examined or understood. Perceived even now as a Chelsea maverick, she was, as early as 2005, an insider’s insider, sitting alone with the patriarchs of New York party politics who’d been cutting patronage and power deals like this for decades. She knew how things worked; the bosses weren’t making her speaker and walking away. They wanted commitments then that would put their people at her side, and they expected “respect,” as they put it, from her on Council matters that affected their interests, from big development projects to budget allocations. Indeed, the very deal-making skills that this week won her The New York Times’s endorsement in the mayoral primary – the paper said that she “has turned the Council from a collection of rambunctious, ill-directed egos into a forceful and effective legislative body” – are the same qualities that lead critics to say she has compromised her ability to be a check and balance on the mayor and independently lead the Council.
This is a story of some of the choices Quinn made back in 2005, the policy choices that followed and the politics played.
CAN'T TELL THE PLAYERS WITHOUT A SCORECARD
At its core, the details of the deal-making that December day involved key Council jobs and committee assignments. In turn, the Council shaped in these negotiations became a critical conduit for the big redevelopment projects that the bosses and their corporate allies wanted.
Back in 2002, Rivera had positioned his 21-year-old son, Joel, to be the majority leader of the Council when Gifford Miller became speaker with the support of the Bronx and Queens. Quinn kept Rivera in the post, which came with a $23,000-a-year bonus over the base council member’s salary, and also named him chair of the Health Committee, a post she had held herself for four years. Quinn appointed Baez to head State and Federal Legislation, a gain for the Bronx delegation. Rivera had elected his daughter Naomi to an Assembly seat in 2004, and Quinn, who’d given $1,000 to Naomi’s campaign, put her husband, Antonio Rodriguez, in a $109,000 graphic designer job at the Council. Rivera also won the power to name the next city clerk, a patronage plum with 86 jobs controlled by the speaker.
Crowley’s Queens team already had the Council’s top staff job: Chuck Meara – whose brother Brian is Crowley’s personal lobbyist – had been Miller’s chief of staff and kept the job under Quinn. But Queens also wanted the second most powerful job, first deputy, and it had a Crowley family candidate for it: Ramon Martinez, Crowley’s one time brother-in-law. Quinn knew Martinez from the ‘90s, when they worked briefly together in the Council before Martinez went on to work for Hillary Clinton and other New York elected officials.
Martinez and Crowley’s sister Maura had finalized their divorce in 2003. Now, in 2005, they were faced with the challenge of financing the college educations of three teenagers. In the family business of county party politics, Crowley’s family needs, like Rivera’s, rose to the top of the patronage agenda. The Queens negotiators made it clear that they wanted Martinez to get the job so he could “pay Crowley’s sister’s alimony” or “support Crowley’s sister,” a theme that all the sources at the meeting agree was conveyed in these general terms. Crowley declined to talk to WNYC for this story.
The denouement? When Quinn took over as speaker in January 2006, firing 61 staffers she branded as patronage employees, her top hire was Martinez, who remains her key aide, dwarfing the influence of the laid-back Meara. Martinez, who was then working in the Public Advocate’s office, got an instant $20,000 raise when he moved to the Council. His salary soared by $50,000 in two years, and he now makes $206,190 – some $94,295 more than the speaker herself.
Quinn’s problem was that Rivera had a bad personal history with Martinez and was opposed to Queens getting both top staff jobs. And he resented the alimony explanation, relayed to him by Schlein, who was the point man in discussing the job with the Queens party leaders. So Rivera insisted on a job for another Martinez, Ululy Martinez (no relation to Ramon), who was Rivera’s election lawyer at the Bronx party and had never held a government job of any kind. He, too, was named a deputy chief of staff.
Quinn told WNYC that she won the support of the Bronx and Queens party leaders "because they thought I was the best candidate." Asked what they sought from her in return, she replied, “People would let it be known to me what committees different members wanted to be on, what committees people wanted to chair. But there were no commitments made of this for that or that for the other thing. Absolutely not."
Indeed, Quinn did not give the county leaders everything they wanted. “She said no,” said one participant. “Everyone wanted the Education Committee,” but Quinn stuck with a Manhattan councilman for that post. In a 2006 interview with New York Magazine, she said her discussions with the bosses “were relational, not transactional.” But for the party leaders, at least, they set the table for some high-value transactions.
REBUILDING THE HOUSE THAT RUTH BUILT
Just a couple of months into her speakership, in February 2006, Quinn was embroiled in the Council’s consideration of the two projects that meant more to Jose Rivera than any others in his reign as Bronx Democratic leader: the redevelopment of Yankee Stadium and the construction of the nearby Gateway Center Mall. They were giant projects – and, hence, opportunities to gather campaign contributions and political sway. (One measure of the value: between 2004 and the end of 2008, when Rivera was ousted as leader, his varied campaign committees collected $58,625 from the Yankees and the Related Companies, which built the mall).
But that’s getting ahead of the story, which really begins with understanding the cast of characters.
Schlein, who was Rivera’s indispensable man and top adviser, was the lobbyist for the Yankees on the new stadium and was also seen at a key City Hall meeting on Gateway, though he wasn’t registered as a Related lobbyist. Schlein was “driving the Yankee negotiations” at the Council, said one of the two Rivera aides at the Council who watched him navigate the intense bargaining.
Also involved were the Crowley confidante, Brian Meara, as another Yankee lobbyist, and Roberto Ramirez, Rivera’s predecessor as party boss, who had been retained by the Yankees, too.
It was an awkward time for Schlein—the state administrative judge had just barred him from any further work on guardianships and other lucrative fiduciary court appointments. And he was under investigation for using the offices of the city’s Civil Service Commission, which he chaired, as a home for his one-man law firm, a probe that would result in a $15,000 fine from the Conflict of Interest Board and his eventual loss of the post.
Nonetheless, what Schlein and Rivera wanted for the Yankees, they got.
The Yankees wanted a new Metro North train stop at the stadium and didn’t want to contribute a cent to the project, even though there was no money in the MTA budget to pay for it. In the final 24 hours of pre-vote negotiations at the Council, they got it, outraging The New York Times editorial board.
The size of the project meant that new parks would need to be built near the stadium, replacing old community parks. At the Yankees’ urging, the Council agreed to pay the entire cost of these parks, which would escalate from $116 million to $190 million over the life of the project.
The Yankees also made it a condition of the deal that the city would pick up the cost of a 9,300-space parking garage, which totaled $100 million in direct subsidies and $278 million in tax-exempt bonds.
When the terms of the deal sparked immediate criticism, Quinn defended it. Why was the city alone paying for a new train stop and garage? Noting that it would be nice if everyone took mass transit to games, she argued: “One has to, when they’re developing a project like this, have a reality sense of what the needs are as it relates to parking.”
Speaking this week to WNYC, Quinn rejected the notion that her support for the final package had anything to do with the strong support it got from Rivera, Schlein et al, who’d help make her speaker only four months earlier. She said she did not talk to Rivera or Schlein about the stadium deal. Nor, she said, has she changed her mind about the project, telling WNYC that she had “no regrets” about it. It was “something my colleagues and I worked on for quite sometime and came up with a deal that we thought was fair and good for the Bronx, fair and good for the city,” Quinn said.
The final sweetener, brokered directly with the council by Schlein, was a 40-year community benefits agreement, worth $800,000 annually - a pot of money, game tickets and other goodies that Rivera’s Bronx allies would control and distribute. The community package also included a requirement that the Yankees use Bronx construction contractors, particularly minority vendors, a provision that led to the team’s retention of a minority-owned boiler company that paid a $50,000 bribe to Bronx Councilman (and Rivera ally) Larry Seabrook. Seabrook was convicted of this and other crimes and is now in jail.
And the garage? It is virtually bankrupt, and half-empty for games, with parking fees as high as $48. The company that operates it has defaulted on the bonds and failed to make a single rent payment to the city, running up a $40 million bill. The IRS is now investigating the bond deal, going back to the original, unusual way it was crafted.
The Gateway Mall is faring better financially, but critics debate its economic value to the city. The Related Companies’ no-bid contract for the mall, approved by the Council a few weeks before the Yankees’ deal in early 2006, did not require any percentage payments to the city geared to mall revenues, unlike many projects on city-owned land. Instead, while Related earns $27 million a year from its current mall tenants, it is only paying the city $800,000 as compensation for the project. The justification is that it generates jobs – a point that Yankees President Randy Levine has made repeatedly, at one point saying critics “should be encouraging us to create jobs instead of engaging in political grandstanding.” But the pay averages $8 an hour, a thin reed on which to justify such a huge subsidy. The Council rubber-stamped these terms, and Related became one of Quinn’s biggest financial supporters, having bundled or donated $58,254 to her campaigns since 2006.
A spokesperson for Related declined to comment on the arrangement.
MEANWHILE, NEAR CITI FIELD…
Roll the calendar forward to 2009. That’s when Queens leader Joe Crowley surfaced at the Council with a project of his own to champion. A member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Crowley rarely gets involved in Queens controversies. But he interjected himself into the debate over another Related Companies project: the $3 billion redevelopment of Willets Point.
The Bloomberg administration wanted to transform the scrapyards and light-industrial zone there – in the heart of Crowley’s congressional district near Citi Field—into a housing, hotel, mall and office colossus. But the project required condemnation by eminent domain of a raft of businesses - 150 of them Hispanic-owned. So when the rezoning of Willets Point came before the Council in November 2009, it was already shrouded in such controversy that 32 members, including a dozen from Queens, signed a letter opposing it. It fell to Quinn to get the Council to support the project.
It didn’t help appearances that the project was a bit of an ethical mess. Claire Shulman, the 83-year-old former Queens borough president, had set up a nonprofit local development corporation, Flushing Willets Point Corona LDC, to build grassroots support for the project. The LDC was underwritten by a $250,000 city grant and real estate interests, including Related’s co-developer on the project, Sterling Equities, the real estate arm of Mets owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz. But Shulman had failed to register the group as a lobbyist with the city clerk and was fined $52,000 for the omission. Then she registered it, and a storm ensued, since LDCs are barred by law from lobbying the Council. The Times quoted hersaying that “we lobbied the city for the city,” a statement that eventually resulted in a state attorney general’s finding that the LDC had “flouted the law” and a settlement that barred it from lobbying the Council. Quinn did not criticize the grandmotherly Shulman at the time - indeed, she shared stages with her, beaming about Willets Point – and remains silent on the lobbying gaffe.
Though the project’s opponents, led by local Councilman Hiram Monserrate, vowed they would not support the rezoning unless it was stripped of any use of eminent domain, they switched en masse when Bloomberg and Quinn added 800 more affordable housing units to the project. The day before the vote, in unscripted moments at a press conference, Bloomberg extolled Quinn’s efforts, saying repeatedly that “we would never have gotten this done” without her and Monserrate. Crowley held a pre-vote press conference at City Hall, pushed recalcitrant Council members, and delivered a speech backing Willets Point at a breakfast of the prestigious Association for a Better New York on the morning of the vote. He called himself “part of the leadership team” that won its passage.
Quinn told WNYC that she never talked directly to Crowley about Willets Point, indicating that she didn’t even know the Queens organization’s position on the project.
As quickly as the cheering died down, the angry Willets Point businesses sued the city to block the project. The case dragged on until May 2012, when on the eve of an appellate review of elements of it, the Bloomberg administration suddenly withdrew its plan. The winning lawyer said: “The city knew it was going to lose.” Among other things, the city had presented two conflicting environmental impact statements, one saying that traffic on a new expressway ramp to be built for the project would boom by 50 percent, the other estimating a 15 percent increase. It held a public hearing on the project without a Spanish interpreter, though the room was filled with clamoring Hispanic businessmen.
Now, a revised project is back before Quinn, slated to come to a Council vote in October. Critics note that it cuts the affordable housing units in half, and that the developers may not have to build any if they delay the housing project for a decade, which they are permitted to do under the deal. The emphasis now is on a huge mall, an echo of Related’s Gateway development in the Bronx.
As for Monserrate, who was already the subject of a federal criminal investigation at the time of the vote, he is in federal prison. He had steered $420,000 from Council discretionary fund to a virtually nonexistent nonprofit he’d created in his district and used the money to finance his campaigns. These grants were part of a system overseen by Quinn that still dogs her mayoral campaign, though she has instituted reforms of the process.
PLAYING THE INSIDE GAME
Mayor Bloomberg, of course, is the granddaddy of the Yankees, Gateway and Willets Point deals. But as speaker, Quinn’s charter duty is to lead a Council that is the only check and balance to mayoral power. Years ago, the media began calling her "deputy mayor" Quinn, a tag earned by her frequent support of Bloomberg. But almost none of the coverage of her over the years has noted the inside track the Democratic leaders have had as well, shaping staff and policy.
Shortly after Bill DeBlasio lost the speaker race to her in 2006, he said: "Quinn understood better than I did that a lot of the ballgame revolved around the Democratic county leaders." Quinn wrote in her recently released memoir, "Patience and Fortitude," that the leader had "a huge influence on the process." She calculated that there were two ways to win in 2005—"from the ground up," trying to persuade individual Council members, and "from the top down," convincing the county leaders that they should line up their members behind her. "We decided to run a hybrid campaign and do both," she wrote.
No political organization or union or power center in the city has been more important to her career than the party apparatus, especially Queens. They put her in the speaker's chair, and her campaign is built around the record she achieved as speaker. But Crowley, Rivera, Schlein—and her longtime ally, the former Brooklyn party boss Vito Lopez—are part of that record, too.
Research contributed by Ben Shanahan, Zach Bergson, Calin Brown and John Santore
CORRECTION: WNYC originally reported that one outcome of Christine Quinn's December 2005 meeting with the Queens and Bronx Democratic Party leaders was the appointment of Elizabeth Crowley, a cousin of Queens leader U.S. Rep Joe Crowley, as chair of the Fire Safety Committee. That is incorrect. Elizabeth Crowley was not elected to the City Council until 2009. WNYC regrets the error.