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It is April 5, a big day for the Yankees, and they have sent one of their stars up to bat. He is the tall man in business-suit pinstripes in the corner of the crowded hearing room upstairs at City Hall. He is watching closely as City Council members cast their votes on whether or not to approve a new billion-dollar stadium for the Bronx ball club. His name is Stanley Kalmon Schlein, and although he has never run for elective office and most people don't know his name, he is to politics in the Bronx what Randy Johnson is to baseball in the Bronx: a crafty veteran with a wicked fastball who can throw over the plate or at your head depending on what the situation demands.
In the hearing room, Schlein is listening to every word as intently as Joe Torre watches his players, alert for the slightest flaws. It is not a shutout. One Bronx councilmember has dissented, criticizing the new ballpark because it will snatch 22 acres of parkland from the green-starved South Bronx with too little in return. But this was expected. A Brooklyn councilman has also voted no, denouncing George Steinbrenner, principal owner of baseball's wealthiest club, for rampant greed. But the councilman is a renegade, a member of no one's team, and this, too, was expected. The committee hearing is a warm-up for the vote an hour later by the full council. The tally there is a lopsided 45-2. The Yankees win. The Yankees win.
Stanley Schlein walks quickly from the hearing room, his BlackBerry to his ear. He is speaking in a low voice to Yankees president Randy Levine, the Giuliani-era deputy mayor who hired Schlein at $450 an hour to help guide the team to this moment. Standing in the City Hall rotunda, the cell phone still glued to his cheek, Schlein accepts congratulations from council aides, other lobbyists, reporters.
He is 58 years old, handsome with thinning brown hair and hooded eyes that have been watching power traded in this building as long as anyone. His first lessons came years ago from the Bronx's wily Democratic Party boss, a man named Pat Cunningham, who also served as a Steinbrenner counselor. When Cunningham went to prison, Schlein worked just as hard for the new party chief, a goateed cigar chomper named Stanley Friedman. Schlein carried out the laborious election-law chores, maneuvering allies onto the ballot, knocking foes off of it.
He held City Hall jobs as well, first as a top adviser to the council's leader, then as an aide to Mayor Ed Koch, who named him to an obscure patronage-filled body called the Civil Service Commission. Schlein has remained on the panel ever since, reappointed by Democrats and Republicans alike. When Friedman was later convicted of bribery and racketeering, Schlein suddenly was the last man standing, the party's political bulwark. As such, he helped to school a new generation of leaders who came out of the borough's now dominant Puerto Rican political clubs.
The current Bronx Democratic Party chairman, Assemblyman Josï¿½ Rivera, stands in the rotunda a few feet away from Schlein. Rivera wears a grizzled white beard and a baseball cap, and carries his ever present video camera, with which he obsessively records every event. His title is not to be confused with decision-making power. Rivera's key contribution here is his progeny. His 26-year-old son, Joel Rivera, is the council's majority leader and the chief of the borough's delegation pushing for the Yankees' plan. But Schlein is clearly the shepherd. He has guided Bronx Democrats to an arrangement with Steinbrenner's team under which the lost parkland will be replaced with new open space and public ball fields, albeit constructed with synthetic turf atop new parking garages.
The local community board hated the scheme, voting 2-to-1 against it, citing high asthma rates and increased traffic. But their vote doesn't count. More important to sealing the deal is a commitment by the Yankees to supply $800,000 a year in grants that Bronx pols can dispense at will. Also included are thousands of free game tickets, as good as cash in New York. This is the deal Schlein has successfully packaged and sold.
That he is on both sides of the negotiation by virtue of his power within the Bronx Democratic Party and his Yankees lobbying retainer is a problem only for ethics watchdogs and spoilsports. "It's as though he sat in a room alone and negotiated with himself," remarked one dissident Bronx Democrat, one of many who have long marveled at Schlein's staying power.
Even those who look askance at the wheeler-dealer's behavior have long acknowledged his rascally charm. "Did I hear the word 'indictment'?" he said with wide eyes and a broad grin as he approached a group of reporters chatting in a City Hall corridor a few weeks ago. He has always been a good quote, a patient and courteous handler of an often ill-informed media. He has a tendency to speak in the staccato cadences of another of his mentors, former Liberal Party boss Raymond Harding, who helped keep Schlein in the fold during the Giuliani years and won him a midnight reappointment to his Civil Service Commission post in Giuliani's last week in office.