Someone Call A Political Consultant!

Just when it seemed that the election season could not get more degrading, along came a campaign mailing from my congresswoman. This is what happens when the opposing political party allies itself with racists, sexists, sexual predators, tax dodgers and Rudy Giuliani and also promises government stagnation and the end of the Supreme Court.  I will have to vote for this woman, although she needs some kind of intervention. Where was her staff? Hopefully, the quote from Hillary is very old.  Let the mailing provoke your own thoughts (which you might put in the reply box below):

2016

Does NYC Support Democracy?

Manhattanites who vote are still scratching their heads over this last ridiculous “election” in which six Democrats ran unopposed for six judicial positions. As a poll worker, from 6 a.m. to 9:42 p.m. on Nov. 3 I wallowed in the spectacle of seeing voters come to terms with the fact that they were participating in a sham. They had no say in whether or not nominees would take office. In effect, in full view, the fix was in. This raises the oft-asked question of whether or not we should “elect” judges. Of course we seldom know anything about them in the first place, but pity the citizen who tries to learn about a potential judge. Most did not feel the need to submit their bios to a voter guide.

Do you see a choice?

Where’s the Choice?

Tuesday, when distressed citizens asked me if they had any choice at all, I pointed out their options: 1) Vote as directed. 2. Write in their own candidates. 3. Scan the ballot without marking it.

Three of some 100 voters in my district told me to void their ballots because they saw no point to any of it. There were other reactions to the situation as well. Two sets of parents audibly exhaled and proceeded to “privacy booths” to mark their ballots with their kids. (One is led to wonder about the value of secret ballots when the only choice a voter has is whether or not to participate.) Several who identified themselves as Republicans studied the sample ballot taped to the wall, mumbled about Donald Trump, and stole out into the night. I rejoice that New Yorkers generally support the principles of the Democratic party, but I am concerned that extremists and Know Nothings are hounding moderates from the  party of Eisenhower. Couldn’t Manhattan Republicans manage to nominate even one judge?

In some parts of the city, notably Republican Staten Island where a Democrat became District Attorney, real elections did take place. Thus some of the estimated $13 million dollars the Board of Elections pays citywide to hold an election was well-spent. As for myself,  I am left with pressing questions. Why did I not think to write in Joseph F. Crater and William M. Tweed? Who are the fools – the ones who turn out to cast a ballot or the ones who stay home? Finally, what can we do now that a great big democracy serves so few? Please comment in the box below.

Let’s Take This Lying Politician Seriously

The only good thing you can say about Gabriela Rosa is that she makes a great case for immigration reform. Without meaningful statues governing immigration, people who lie and cheat their way into the United States, as she did, will continue to feel justified. Worse yet, they will find support. She is surely not a woman who before last Friday would have told her son that playing by the rules and working hard were the way to succeed.

Why last Friday? Because that’s the day that her crimes became known. Rosa came to New York from the Dominican Republic. In 1996 she paid a man $8,000 to marry her so she could become a citizen. She later used that sham marriage to defraud a bankruptcy court. Eventually she divorced the husband she paid and married the man she had been involved with all along. She was so comfortable with her behavior that she ran for office in 2012 and was hailed as the first Dominican-American elected to the state assembly. Along the way she received $1,000 from a foreign government in violation of campaign finance laws.

Happily the truth caught up with her. Now 47, Gabriela Rosa was forced out of office after pleading guilty to two felonies. She is a disgrace to every group to which she belongs. She is a stain on women, immigrants, Hispanics and Dominicans. Her plea deal included her resignation from office, so she no longer belongs on the roster of New York State officials. Lamentably, she seemed to fit in there. That set from this year alone includes a roster of native-born convicted lawbreakers, including Eric A. Stevenson, William F. Boyland, Jr. and possibly Malcolm A. Smith, who was recently granted a mistrial and will be retried in January. All are Democrats like Ms. Rosa.

As part of her plea agreement, the U.S. attorney Preet Bharara will recommend that she serve only 12 to 18 months in prison. Her attorney Matthew Myers, who is under obligation to provide spin, says that her crime was minor. I don’t think so. I hope that judge will give her the maximum of 10 years instead. Please comment below.

NYC Charter Schools Play With Matches: Who’s Getting Burned?

When Bill de Blasio was a candidate for Mayor he created shock waves by saying that he would make charter schools that operate in public school buildings pay rent. Whether or not that helped him get elected last November, a few weeks ago when he refused to allow former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz to co-locate three of her Success Academy charters in crowded public schools with special needs students, he set off a firestorm. She claims, basically, that the Mayor is victimizing low-income students and their parents and she has engaged the help of Gov. Andrew Cuomo to reinforce that message.

Do she and her charter school peers and benefactors not have the ability and connections to find space for their charges? Do they not have money to pay rent? Could they succeed if they did not usurp the space intended for public school students that charters do not enroll? Success Academy pays Moskowitz $485,000 per year. Last year it hired the political consulting firm SKD Knickerbocker for $519,000. For that money, SKD could have lit the match that set off the fireworks, singeing de Blasio with charges of being mean to minority children, and inspiring Cuomo to promise to “save” charter schools. With this posture he seizes the opportunity to appear to defend the poor even as he benefits his hedge fund campaign contributors.

Basically charters are public schools that are allowed to operate free of the regulation – such as union rules governing teacher salaries and working conditions – that most public schools must abide by. In exchange they must demonstrate better results. Many do. Others don’t. Through the years the New York City Department of Education had to close a few of them for poor performance even before their charters came up for renewal. Others have been outstanding. The same can be said for New York City’s public schools. The two operations are so different that they thwart real comparison. [The charters make their case at http://www.nyccharterschools.org  Public school teachers explain theirs at http://www.uft.gov ] Clear, reliable data on the long-term benefits of charter schools versus public schools is hard to come by, which may mean that ultimately the schools are on par with each other. I have not heard either side declare unqualified victory, which could mean something as well.

Let’s take a brief and truly insufficient look at charter schools: at one extreme was Courtney Sale Ross, socialite widow of billionaire Steve Ross. Granted a charter to create Ross Global Academy, she was given space in Tweed Courthouse, landmarked headquarters of the city’s department of education. In 2010 after five years of poor performance and the development of a middle school that was described as “violent,” it was closed for poor performance. At the other end of the spectrum are the Promise Academy Schools, created in partnership with the Harlem Children’s Zone. Its website reports that at Promise Academy II, 100 percent of third-graders were at or above grade level on the 2008 statewide math test. At Promise Academy I, 97 percent of the third-graders were at or above grade level in math.

The well-funded public relations offensive for three Moskowitz schools makes one wonder if the charter school movement, notably in New York City, seeks not to inspire, but to discredit. Seeks not to augment, but to drain public schools of resources. Well-funded private financial entities, traditionally enamored with the privatization of public goods like schools and libraries, and hostile to unions that preserve jobs and wages, are bringing themselves under scrutiny as well.

Charter schools have refused to open their books and be as fiscally transparent as public schools and their administrators are required to be. Moskowitz successfully filed suit to bar the state comptroller from auditing her 22 schools, all of which are funded by tax-payers but which also receive the above-mentioned private support.

Happily, journalists have pointed out the whopping salaries that charter school administrators earn and the cash-fueled political alliances at the root of many of these schools. In the N.Y. Daily News Rachel Monahan provided a list of more than 16 such schools. At the top was Deborah Kenney, chief executive officer of Harlem Village Academies, which has two schools. She is paid $499,000. Compare this to New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña who earns $212,000 and is responsible for 1.1 million students, including those with special needs who seldom find a place in charters. In the N.Y. Times, Michael Powell discusses Eva Moskowitz who is paid her $485,000 to administer 20 schools.  A separate foundation established by hedge fund manager Joel Greenblatt and his wife pays half her salary. Both are Cuomo’s campaign contributors. Powell’s column is rich with political connections and a word on Moskowitz’s political action committee.

This Sunday Ginia Bellafante of the N.Y. Times observed, among other things, that charter school advocates have a public relations operation that rivals Paramount in the 1940s. She also pointed out that KIPP charter schools, with 141 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia, including 11 in New York City, conducted a study in which it found that only a third of students who had completed a KIPP middle school in the previous decade had graduated from a four-year college. This is better than the average for low-income schools around the country, but still far short of KIPP’s mission.

At their best, charter schools could serve as laboratories for new models of education. Maybe a longer school day and an 11-month school year could lead to a better-educated nation. Data may show that some day. Meanwhile, it seems that education is not truly what charter schools, which began to take their present form after state legislatures authorized them in 1990, are really all about. Based on overall results for students so far, I don’t see that they are doing a better job than public schools. Certainly when it comes to their finances, charters and their backers don’t want officials to do the math. They may find that they would have done better to just pay the Department of Education some rent.

Ferries Could Save Tax Payers from the Second Avenue Subway

A decade ago, the Metropolitan Transit Authority held public meetings at the old Hunter College School of Social Work to prepare East Side residents for the construction of the Second Avenue Subway, and for the destruction and damage to homes and businesses. Mysore Nagaraja, then president of MTA Capital Construction Company, nearly wept as he described the plight of those of us living east of Third Avenue in the 70s who had to walk 20 or 30 minutes to reach the subway. That was why, he told us, construction of the Second Avenue was so important and inconvenience was to be darned. He was so aggrieved about our situation and so agonized over those who live around York Avenue and 77th Street, that he advocated construction of multiple entrances on the north, south, east and west sides of every station so that after years of suffering we would not have to cross one more avenue, or tarry at one more traffic light, before we could descend to a train each day.

As it turns out, residents of the far East 70s or 80s will continue to be under-served by train service, even if the Second Avenue Subway is ever completed. There is no stop between the 86th Street and 72nd Street stations. Michael Horodniceanu, Nagaraja’s successor, told me during neighborhood tour of the underground construction this is intended to speed travel on the line. I had suspected that plans to construct a station in the high 70s were dropped because a developer pal of former MTA chairman Peter Kalikow was building a new high-rise on the spot, but clearly I was wrong.

Although Second Avenue Stubway, when it opens, will not shave much time from the commute of those living on East 79th Street and First Avenue or York, a more efficient and cost-effective service for them and everyone else is on the way.

The East River, the greatest transit artery in New York City, is one that few travel today, but the New York City Economic Development Corp. recently proposed five new ferry routes that would exploit its possibilities. Such service would connect waterfront neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx to Manhattan and to each other. It would also improve transit from midtown to the Lower East Side and Wall Street.

Current ferry service on the East River has proven to be a success. It served 1.2 million total riders last year, some 3,200 riders daily. Fare is $4.00 each way, and like the rest of public transit, it is subsidized. The city pays $2.22 or 55 percent, for each one-way trip, compared to 62 cents, or 35 percent, for the subway, which because of the varying fare structures averages $1.73 per trip. Increased use of ferries would make the water system more cost-effective.

Currently there is a pier at 34th Street on Manhattan’s East Side and shuttered one near Gracie Mansion at East 90th Street. An additional one in the mid-70s has been on the drawing board. Happily, construction of ferries would also cost taxpayers far less than the subway. A NYCETD report notes that the extension of the 7 train cost $1.6 billion per mile served, compared to the cost of construction of infrastructure serving the East River Ferry at $8 million per mile served. Unlike busses, ferries don’t travel on congested roads and bridges. Based on what figures I can glean from MTA reports and a helpful 2010 post on the 2nd Ave. Sagas blog, I calculate that construction of the Second Avenue subway ballooned to a cost of  $2.75 billion per mile.

Phase 1 of the Second Avenue Subway will end at Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street and is supposed to be operational by December, 2016 after much delay. Increased ferry routes, and the relatively new Select Busses on First and Second Avenue that have improved surface transit, should mean that other Manhattan neighborhoods will not be needlessly and pointlessly blighted at enormous cost to taxpayers.

Turning Off the Trickle Down Spigot

These are the peak days for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office a day ago and has not disappointed New Yorkers yet. This high point provides an opportunity to reflect on his greatest achievement. No, it’s not that 33 years after the inauguration of Pres. Ronald Reagan, the notion of trickle-down economics has finally trickled out, or that Progressives are emerging from cover, or even that the media sniffs the change in the wind.

The astonishing thing is that de Blasio trusted middle class voters to finally recognize their economic interests. Candidate de Blasio’s stated platform was about standing up for the poor, but the middle class did not feel threatened or excluded. Assisting have-nots (and de-segregating the South) is how the Democrats lost their unassailed majority and they have been scrambling ever since. This time, however, in 2013 New York City, the middle class rallied to support a man whose name they barely knew a year ago because he proclaimed a fundamental truth they recognized: Giuliani-Bloomberg New York was fast becoming Dickens London, a place where only an unrepentant Scrooge could feel secure. This is the New York they have come to know. They are now in as much or more jeopardy than people in public housing.

With 46 percent of New Yorkers at or near poverty after the supposed recovery from the Great Recession, those in the middle have seen proof that they are one job loss, or one serious health crisis, from near-poverty and possible homelessness. Ask a 45 year old who has been out of work for seven months how he or she envisions the future. Most know at least one such person, and having a talk with them is painful indeed.

In contrast, those earning more than $500,000 a year tend to feel threatened when they hear about resources going to the less fortunate. The proof is that de Blasio’s opponent Joseph Lhota prevailed in the wealthiest zip codes, those where average income exceeded $140,000.*

The new mayor hasn’t given up on the wealthy yet — in his inaugural address, de Blasio pointed out that the tax he proposes to levy on them to fund universal pre-kindergarten enrollment would only cost them about three dollars a day. He cajoled that this was the price of a latte.  He got a laugh, possibly because such a tariff would cost the rich too little to drive them down to middle class level – unless $500,000 in adjusted gross income is what it takes nowadays to be middle class in today’s New York. This is a point that many do ponder. And a latte is the first thing to go.

The mega-rich have been silent about de Blasio since his blow-out win. The Catholic ones feel on safer ground denouncing the Pope. Billionaire Ken Langone, founder of Home Depot, told Cardinal Timothy Dolan that when Pope Francis warned  “Money must serve, not rule,” the rich were offended. One donor was so miffed that he threatened to retaliate by withholding a seven-figure donation to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Langone felt secure enough to offer this sentiment to CNBC.

This is the kind of billionaire mind-set that made middle class New York voters think.

*Click “average income” link in the lower right corner of the link for vote by personal wealth

Bloomberg Packs Heat, Obscures Light

On January 1, 2014 Michael Bloomberg will no longer be mayor of New York City, but he will continue to pick at the threads of the nation’s social safety net in indirect and almost untraceable ways.

The question is whether Bloomberg does it deliberately or not. Clearly he is working against elected Democrats in red states and thereby he assists Republicans who are not friendly to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment benefits or gun regulation.

In 2006 Bloomberg co-founded Mayors Against Illegal Guns with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and became its largest funder. Its admirable mission is to promote public safety by cracking down on illegal firearms. Spurred by horrific homicides in the intervening years, the group has grown from an initial 15 to one thousand mayors in 46 states, including four in Arkansas, a state that increasingly leans toward Republicans.

Trouble began when, with Bloomberg-like gusto, this group took shotgun aim at those who did not rally to their dictates. These included moderate politicians in red states who declined to support unpopular legislation to restrict gun ownership, including background checks. This story unfolded around the nation throughout 2013, but the N.Y. Times just reported that Bloomberg’s aides were warned that they are endangering Democrats’ political chances. If Democrats lose, Republicans win, and their platform is not friendly to gun restrictions.

Former President Bill Clinton phoned Howard Wolfson, Bloomberg’s Deputy Mayor for Government Affairs and Communications, to request that the Bloomberg group drop its ads against Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, a beleaguered Democrat facing re-election in Clinton’s native state. Request denied. The ads ran. Pryor may have scored points with his constituents with his retort that he did not take orders from Bloomberg or New York City. We will find out next November when Arkansans either let him keep his Senate seat or award it to a Republican. I am betting that Pryor’s opponent won’t back gun restrictions either. Does Bloomberg think that far? He would if he truly cared about this issue or if he cared enough to hire people who could think effectively. Is Bloomberg aiming for gun restrictions or for a Republican majority? No one should count on his being a straight shooter, even with a $31 billion fortune in ammo. The people of New York City and the nation are not rid of him by a long shot.

Let There Be Peace on Earth — Decriminalize Pot Now

White people of all ages have long been able to use marijuana legally, at least if they were careful. Outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg regrets that he quipped that he had enjoyed pot, yet his frank flippancy did offer a beacon of truth about enforcement of anti-drug laws. White people, even before they become billionaires, usually get off fairly easily for drug use, if they are detained at all. Cases in point are celebrities and their offspring. Google Lindsay Lohan and Cameron Douglas, who got into serious trouble only after their flouting of laws became too egregious and too well documented to ignore.

If Ramarley Graham, whom police shot dead by his grandmother’s toilet early in 2012, had been Bloomberg’s white child, he would have known he had little to fear from New York City police, who probably would not have charged into his dwelling without a warrant and slaughtered him because, once they found themselves inside the house, they decided he was armed. Turns out, the reason the 18-year old fled was because he did have a small amount of marijuana, but no gun. In a note worthy of a Dickens novel, the officer who shot him was named Haste.  A Bronx grand jury declined to bring charges again the officers.

In this Yuletide season, there come a ray of hope that this will be less likely to happen in future. State Senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) has introduced legislation to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana under state law along lines similar to the state’s current system regulating alcohol. A spokesman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared her move a “non-starter”  but many legislators are working to see it pass. The fact that this is politically risky is clear enough to cut through any smoky haze, as is the fact that the war on drugs has been as constructive as the one Vietnam. Among the benefits of decriminalization are these: it would keep youth out of prison crime schools (this admittedly would not help upstate communities that depend upon prisoners from downstate); it would spare the lives of police who can be injured or slain in drug busts; it would preserve the characters of those corrupted by drug lords; and it would help taxpayers, if the $1.7 billion New York City pot industry were taxed. Recognizing the disaster of the drug war,  Uruguay just took a innovative step. Alarmed that drug-related murders accounted for a third of total homicides in 2012, its legislators passed a bill to legalize marijuana and put its production and sale under government control and President Jose Mujica will sign it, a brave move since two-thirds of Uruguayans say they oppose it.

Organized crime around the globe is surely hiring lobbyists to fight Kruger’s bill right now.

Sen. Chuck Schumer Is Harrassing Me

In the recent election season I was subjected to harassing telephone calls from Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY). Before the Democratic primary, although I am on the Do Not Call Registry, Schumer robocalled me several times urging me to vote for his candidates — City Council Speaker Christine Quinn for Mayor and  State Senator Daniel Squadron for Public Advocate. His calls always came at inconvenient times when I was trying to eat a meal or balance on a stepladder. His endorsements were as ineffective as they were unwelcome. Both Squadron and Quinn lost their races decisively. In Brooklyn, however his candidate for District Attorney Kenneth Thompson prevailed. Schumer may be running out of juice in more ways than one — in previous election cycles he robodialed me many more times than he did this year.

So imagine my surprise when I learned that Schumer has proposed legislation to raise fines and increase punishments on telemarketers violating Do Not Call rules. Has he no self-knowledge whatsoever? Of course not. Does he not know he violates the spirit if not the letter of these laws himself? Obviously not. How could it be? Self-centered self-importance provides the thick hide that pols are always telling us they must have. Of course, Schumer is not the only pol to robocall. He has just made himself the most ridiculous.

The legislation that needs to be proposed is the expansion of the Do Not Call Registry to  include charities, political organizations, and telephone surveyors as well as debt collectors. In enacting the law, legislators gave the Do Not Call Registry no sway over these groups, which serve the politicians themselves. Chief among them are telephone surveyors, whose calls harass us as surely as robocall scam artists. They take the surveys that enable elected officials and wannabes to figure out which way the wind blows so that they can amend positions on public issues.

The Senator says the number of unwanted telemarketing calls has skyrocketed. His press release notes, “As of August 2013, the FTC was logging 140,000 to 200,000 robocall complaints monthly compared to 65,000 in October 2010, according to published reports.”

He is right about that, and I support whatever curtails telemarketers. Unfortunately, relevant laws now on the books allow Sen. Schumer and his ilk to call us whenever they wish and as often as they want. I would like to opt out of these as well. If politicians and non-profits believe their messages are important, let them use the mails, which they already do anyway. That way they would help the U.S. Postal Service (but admittedly add to junk mail to be recycled). They could also continue to spam us via Internet, which generates no paper waste. Meanwhile, I challenge Sen. Schumer to figure out the number of unwanted robocalls he is generating and stop generating them. It is for his own good too — the electorate is less likely to know that he supports candidates they don’t.

Biking with de Blasio – End the Cold War Against Pedestrians

The other evening a 40ish delivery man artfully rode his bicycle between another woman and myself who were walking on a Lexington Avenue sidewalk. The cyclist frightened us both but did not physically injure us. He was breaking the law that forbids anyone over the age of 14 from riding on the sidewalks, but no matter. The police were elsewhere — frisking doctors, lawyers, job-seekers and others who are guilty of having too much pigment in poorer neighborhoods. Even if the police department decided to make its presence visible in “safe” neighborhoods, police don’t enforce N.Y. ADC. LAW 19-176. Through the years on those rare occasions when I have seen uniformed policemen walking through Manhattan’s East Side, I have seen adult cyclists weave around them. The police have never broken stride.

Terrorizing pedestrians in New York City is not regarded as serious if the person doing the terrorizing is on a bicycle and does not seem to be an Arab. It doesn’t seem to matter much that cyclists cause serious injury to pedestrians. Each year more than 500 NYC residents are injured badly enough to be treated in area hospitals, according to data collected between 2007 and 2010.

The Stuart C. Gruskin Family Foundation is working on this, partly because Stuart C. Gruskin was slain in an incident involving a cyclist riding the wrong way up a Midtown street. (Could this indicate that cyclists disobeying laws are a threat to public safety?) The foundation works to promote safety for cyclists and pedestrians and as well. In fact all of us, whether we are walking, riding a bicycle or operating a motor vehicle are supposed to obey the law. The cyclists have defeated me: I now stop on red. When I have the right of way I for one feel safer in the path of an approaching truck than I do in the path of a bicycle. Opinions can differ, but I have learned that the trucker will at least try to stop.

So here’s how we get to Bill de Blasio, who happily is New York City’s incumbent Mayor and who has promised to look out for people who have felt ignored for the last dozen years or so. He has said that if elected he would expand bike lanes and the bike sharing CitiBike program, with a goal of raising the percentage of city trips taken by bike to 6 percent by 2020. Fine, but he has another shoe to drop before it is knocked off by a speeding cyclist.  In addition, Mayor de Blasio, working with the City Council, needs to insure that all cyclists are subject to laws that govern commercial cyclists and he needs to insist that those laws are enforced.  He also must see that even non-commercial cyclists are licensed.

Cyclists should be required to wear  “a jacket, vest, or other wearing apparel” with a number printed in large type by which they can be identified. This number needs to link to CitiBike or to city records. If Citibank marketers have to create jobs and hire New Yorkers to issue licenses at their blue racks, so be it. Most cyclists already wear helmets, so let them sport license numbers as well. Motor vehicle drivers and dog owners need to buy licenses – why shouldn’t cyclists? Why does a toy poodle need to wear identification and not a human racing through red lights and over sidewalks? Such identification would help to apprehend those who do not properly follow city laws and it might even remind cyclists that they have responsibilities to others as well as to themselves. They seem to believe they are saving the planet…how about sparing pedestrians as well?

Outgoing Bloomberg Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, known to some as Bicycle Woman, spent tax dollars on education programs for cyclists – although you would think everyone everywhere knows that a red stop light or sign means stop and that enforcement of laws might have been the way to go. The next Transportation Commissioner, or whoever is supposed to be in charge, needs to put energy into making the privileged class that is cyclists responsible citizens as well. There is more to being responsible than donning a helmet for one’s own protection. No mention of bike lanes was made in this post — they have been good for CitiBike and Citibank, but I don’t see how they have helped pedestrians who use fewer public resources than cyclists when they are allowed to walk in safety.