The Media’s Mayoral Myths

How the Campaign Coverage Missed Coalitions, Stadiums, Affordable Homes, and Ethical Lapses

In his closing statement at last week's mayoral debate, Peter Vallone, the council speaker whose Post, News, Crain's, and Citizen Union endorsements have suddenly made him a plausible primary winner, claimed firsthand knowledge about the problem of affordable housing in the city.

'I know what it's like not to have affordable housing because i have three sons—none of whom could afford to buy a home in the same community that I live in," said Vallone. None of Vallone's opponents blinked, and no one in the media checked Vallone's empathetic assertion.

Actually, Vallone's sons all own homes and bought them as young men. The oldest, Peter Vallone Jr., bought a beautiful home in exclusive, suburban-looking Hollis Hills for $257,000 in June 1993, when he was a 32-year-old newlywed. Real estate records indicate that a house on the same block as Vallone Sr.'s sold for $260,000 that March and that, throughout 1993, a dozen homes in Vallone Sr.'s zip code sold for an average price of $178,000. Vallone Jr., who practices law with his father in a small Astoria firm, also owns a condo in his father's council district and is running for that father's seat.

Vallone’s scorecard: Sons—0 for 3; stadiums—2 for 2
photo by Cary Conover
Vallone’s scorecard: Sons—0 for 3; stadiums—2 for 2

Perry Vallone bought his home at 8 Nottingham Drive in Eatonville, New Jersey in 1993 as well, when he was only 30 years old. He paid $196,430 for it, far more than the average sale price in Astoria at the time. Paul Vallone, who is also a partner in the Vallone law firm, paid $312,500 for his home in Flushing in 1996, when he was 29 years old. Fifteen homes in Astoria sold that year at an average price of $185,000.

The passive acceptance of Vallone's false claim is symptomatic of what's been wrong with this campaign. When four Democrats run a peace-pact primary, it means reporters have to do the work themselves, inspecting the records and assertions of the candidates. Instead, the coverage has been as bland as they have.

The big news break was the Hevesi bribe bomb that the Post put on its cover and Newsdayput on page A41. Had assignment editor Rudy Giuliani not revived the story, even that would have been a forgotten one-day wonder. Giuliani was smart enough to focus on the provable misconduct issue—Hevesi's favors for a major donor—and let the uncorroborated but banner-headlined criminal charges fall by the wayside. But Hevesi's actual opponents helped circle the wagons around him, until Mark Green finally, 11 days after the story broke, said at a recent debate that he had never set up a meeting with a city contractor for one of his campaign donors. Green's suggestion that Hevesi's actions might've been "undesirable" was a veritable broadside.

Fernando Ferrer actually reprimanded Green for this momentary pact breach, saying that viewers "must be wondering why we are talking above everyone's issues" like housing and schools. He and Vallone rallied to Hevesi's defense, with Ferrer calling Giuliani's attacks a "smear." But at the Voice's endorsement interview the next morning, Ferrer finally offered his first criticism of Hevesi, saying that the new reports that Hevesi's office had helped another member of the same contributor's family get a hospital job "trouble me." The doctor wound up dismissed for misconduct.

"You don't fool around with health care," Ferrer said. "You don't make political recommendations in a health care setting." Asked what he would tell a campaign fundraiser who asked him to set up a meeting with a city vendor, Ferrer said he would tell him "I can't do that; that's not my job." Ferrer has no doubt been muted on these ethics questions in hopes of winning Hevesi's support—or that of Hevesi backers like the United Federation of Teachers and the Queens Democratic organization—should he face Green in a run-off.

The other big story of the campaign—Ferrer's so-called black-Latino coalition—has been just as mysteriously mishandled by the candidates and the media. Though this coalition has been the dominant theme of the news coverage of Ferrer, the candidate himself suggests that he's not even attempting to create one. "Have I ever said that?" he asked the Voiceeditorial board. "Have I ever expressed that to you, or anyone else, in public or private?" Yet Ferrer has not taken advantage of pivotal public opportunities, at debates and elsewhere, to pointedly rebut any suggestion that he's more concerned about two of the city's communities than he is about others—and no opponent has challenged him to do so.

A couple of unfortunate Timesstories created the impression that Ferrer is running a racially exclusionary campaign. Back in May, Adam Nagourney led a Timesstory with the damaging assertion that Reverend Al Sharpton said that he would endorse Ferrer "only if Ferrer pledged to endorse black candidates for Bronx borough president and city comptroller." Though the Timeshighlighted this demand as having been framed in "notably stark racial terms," Nagourney did not mention anywhere in his story that Sharpton had also asked Ferrer to endorse Norman Siegel, a white candidate for Public Advocate. Nagourney concedes that Sharpton told him about the Siegel demand, but says Sharpton added Siegel's name in a second call well before the story closed.

The Timescompounded this error with another story on August 11 that started out almost entirely with paraphrases of Congressman Charles Rangel, citing him as saying that he and other black leaders had "decided against endorsing any of the white Democrats" and would "instead seek to create a black-Latino coalition." Though the Times'phraseology was in "notably stark racial terms," the only direct quotes from Rangel in the piece weren't racial at all. He said he and the other black leaders could not agree to support any of three candidates who happened to be white, each of whom got a word of review from Rangel, some quite generous. He said they were now considering Ferrer.

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