By Albert Samaha
By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
Carl Kruger, state senator from Brooklyn's most southern reaches, barreled up the thruway to Albany last week in his black 2008 Cadillac sedan. He was in a hurry to get there because, thanks to the Democrats finally winning control of the State Senate this year—Hurray! Power to the People!—he has a great deal to say these days about bills and budgets.
This influence stems from his new position as chairman of the mighty Senate Finance Committee. In fact, now that this blessed new day has dawned, and the Senate is no longer a Republican graveyard of progressive hopes and dreams, Kruger is the people, and the people have finally got the power.
His elevation to the finance post brought a cheer the likes of which has not been heard since the 1960s, when the Senate had its last brief taste of Democratic control: "All the way with Chairman K.!" they roared.
The Chairman is 59 years old, built like a fireplug, and the possessor of a Brooklyn mouth that roars. Here he was late last week, thundering on the telephone about this latest attack on the people: the push to charge tolls on drivers crossing the East River. The idea was advanced by Richard Ravitch, the former MTA chief, as a way to keep fares low for the millions who ride subways and buses. The governor embraced it. The Assembly's leader, Sheldon Silver, re-jiggered the numbers so that the bridge toll was roughly that of a subway fare. His members, he said, were good to go. None of this fooled Chairman Kruger.
"This is not just a battle over the so-called Ravitch rescue plan for the MTA," says Kruger, biting off his words like Hugo Chávez firing up the masses. "This is a feeding frenzy by the Manhattan elite at the expense of the outer boroughs!"
Thanks to the people's victory at the polls last fall, this is not empty talk. Kruger now commands the vast arsenal of legislative weapons enjoyed by the Senate majority—weaponry that was once aimed at the people's interests by Republican reactionaries, but which is now rightly aimed at their true enemies.
"I am prepared to use the full subpoena power of the finance committee," said the Chairman. His target? Nothing less than the MTA itself.
"The goal is to have them open their books, pull up the venetian blinds, and shed some sunlight on that dark and musty entity that they call the MTA," he said.
I ask you: Could Chávez himself have said it any better?
Part of his anger at the agency, the Chairman acknowledges, is personal: The district he represents has long been shortchanged by the mass transit system. True, as the blatantly pro-MTA Daily News pointed out last week, there are 20 subway stations in the neighborhoods Kruger represents, serving some 109,000 riders daily. But, as the Chairman understands, the personal is political. What the newspapers don't tell you is this sad fact:
"When they built the subways, we were not only ignored, we were treated like we didn't exist," he says. "We have an antiquated bus network that drops us off at the Flatbush Junction. That's it."
Because of this second-class-citizen status, local residents like the Chairman must rely on vehicles like his mighty Cadillac to get around. Not to say he doesn't sometimes use a Metrocard. At least twice last year, Kruger bought monthly transit passes at $81 apiece. This fact is proven by his campaign expense reports, which show that he used those funds to purchase the passes. In fact, when the New York Post (another MTA mouthpiece) pulled a silly stunt last week by asking to see the Metrocards of Kruger and his Senate allies, the Chairman quickly shamed the paper by pulling an envelope right out of his pocket.
"Do I have a Metrocard? Yes, I do," he told us last Thursday, moments before the Post pranksters caught up with him. "Sometimes it goes empty. My most use is not so much the subway because the subway takes me nowhere."
We rest our case. A man of the people who clearly speaks the people's language.
Equally committed to waging this battle is the Chairman's very close ally, Pedro Espada Jr. Espada, 56, is a former boxer and knows how to fight. The people's Democratic revolution in the Senate quickly recognized his many talents. Since joining the new majority, Espada's titles include: Vice Chairman of the Senate Rules Committee; Vice President of the Senate for Urban Policy; Chairman of the Senate Committee on Housing, Construction & Community Development; and Chairman of the Senate Task Force on Bronx Economic Development.
The newest Bronx state senator was too busy last week to get on the phone with the Voice. In fact, he has been so busy that he has not even had time to open an office in his northern Bronx district. True, he is the only newly elected state senator without a district office, but that is totally irrelevant. What he has been doing has been fighting for the people, on this MTA issue and other matters.
You can get a taste of his fighting spirit—which is very much like Chairman Kruger's—from an excellent clip available on his State Senate website, in which he uses the new video equipment that the Democrats appropriated from the old Republican misleaders. In the clip, the Vice Chairman explains what he and his fellow senators are trying to accomplish with their own MTA funding proposal, one that does not include any miserable bridge tolls and which sharply cuts the amount of payroll tax included in the so-called Ravitch rescue plan.
But let him speak for himself:
"It is a very responsible proposal," he says, speaking into his Senate-financed camera. "What it did not do is give the MTA a blank check. It seeks the MTA to be accountable, to be responsible, to be transparent, and to really undergo the kind of auditing that any corporation or agency should undergo before it starts asking for more money."
In a separate statement issued last week, and forwarded by his press aide, Espada said that all this talk about imminent fare hikes is really just a scare tactic. "I believe there is ample time for Albany to step in and prevent these massive fare hikes and service cuts," he said. But, with the people's money, it is most important to be careful, he said. "Fiscal prudence must prevail," he stated.
Espada knows whereof he speaks. At the exact same time that he is insisting on transparency from the transit agency, he is doing the same with the State Board of Elections. The agency has been giving him a hard time about the fact that he has yet to file what it deems proper campaign expense statements from his 2008 primary and general election contests.
Actually, if the board's lawyers would only listen, they would see that Espada has already made several filings for a committee called "Espada for the People" (what else would you call it?). OK, there was a slight oversight in that the committee had the wrong designation—a political action committee, versus an election committee—but is that really important? It is all being straightened out.
And the fact that there were no expenditures at all listed on his "11-day pre-primary" filing? Or that the general election reports are still among the missing? Again, this is the kind of nit-picking that only bureaucratic pinheads would engage in.
What do they think he is? The MTA?