City Council Representative Yassky's Zigzag Path to the Runoff

A credibility gap for Comptroller wannabes

Dick Dadey remembers walking in his Brooklyn Heights neighborhood in September 2008, when he bumped into his neighbor and City Council representative, David Yassky. Dadey, who heads the city's oldest good-government group, Citizens Union, brought up the big topic of the day: the growing rumor that Mayor Bloomberg was poised to make a brazen bid to dump the city's term-limits law in order to win a third term.

"He didn't have any hesitation," said Dadey. "He indicated to me he would not support overturning the term-limits law without a voter referendum."

Dadey checked in with Yassky again during a formal visit to City Hall once Bloomberg openly called for the change. "I went up to him and said, 'David, you're going to oppose this, right?' And he said, 'Of course I am.' He said it in no uncertain terms. So I marked him down as a 'Yes' for our side."

A few days later, Dadey heard that Yassky was saying something different. "I called him, and he said that he had not yet really made up his mind. I was in disbelief. He said he had not yet come to a final position on the issue and asked that I no longer list him as a 'Yes,' but as 'Undecided.' I told him, 'Well, from my point of view, you have changed your mind because you told me on two separate occasions that you were going to oppose this.' He said, 'Well, it's complicated because I am opposed to term limits generally, but I would not like to see this go through.' "

The call lasted some 15 fairly heated minutes, says Dadey. "I felt he was backing away from a commitment he had made to me earlier. He was all over the map."

Yassky later offered his own last-minute compromise, calling for a new referendum on the issue. "It was a charade," says Dadey. "He was trying to have it both ways." After Yassky's bill failed on the Council floor, the roll call was held on the mayor's bill. It passed 29-22, with Yassky voting in favor.

Asked about the exchange last week, Yassky said he had no memory of the two earlier conversations with Dadey. "I talked about term limits with 400 people, maybe more," he said. But he recalled the last one.

"I remember that we had a tense phone call. I don't remember the words of it. I do remember Dick calling me and being angry about it."

Was Dadey right to be angry?

"Honestly, no," said the Councilman. He said his goal all along had been to have the issue resolved by referendum. "From the outset, I knew that a 12-year policy was better. But I was very troubled by the way the mayor was doing it. I was looking for a way to figure that out."

Mike Bloomberg may well escape paying the ultimate political price for manipulating a self-serving City Council into passing a law that gave itself and the mayor an extra term—despite two previous referendum votes against it. New Yorkers are still angry about that, but not angry enough to vote out a sitting mayor—that is, until Bill Thompson comes up with solid arguments to convince them otherwise.

But the two remaining candidates for city comptroller—Yassky and Queens Councilman John Liu—are little known to most voters. And how they performed under fire during that critical moment could be a deciding factor in the September 29 runoff.

Liu was a resolute opponent of the change, although clearly not a leader in the fight against it, an honor that goes to Bill De Blasio and Tish James. Yassky? As Dadey suggests, he was on all sides of the issue, until he wasn't.

The Councilman said last week that he has no regrets on his decision. He insisted that he would be the tougher of the two candidates in holding the mayor accountable and ferreting out mismanagement in Bloomberg's favorite fiefdoms, including the education and economic development agencies. Given his declared passion for open government and accountability, it would be nice to think so. But if his term limits behavior is the yardstick, comptroller Yassky seems more likely to be extremely proficient—but absent without leave on the toughest issues.

Which is too bad, because David Yassky is almost tailor-made to be the city's fiscal watchdog: His pedigree is Princeton, Yale Law, and Charles Schumer, for whom he helped shape bills on gun control and law enforcement funding. He spent time as a corporate lawyer and more time analyzing municipal finances at the city's budget office. His Council reputation is bright and creative, and he even has achievements to show for it: affordable housing on the Brooklyn waterfront, the rescue of Red Hook's working piers, clean-fuel cabs on city streets.

But the term limits episode is mirrored by his confusing, zigzag path toward higher office. A few years ago, Yassky was heroically backing a judge who had angered Brooklyn Democratic boss Vito Lopez. Now, he's Lopez's candidate. There's nothing wrong with seeking the backing of the powerful county leader, but you're not supposed to drop directly into his pocket. This summer, Yassky told a group fighting to win more low-income housing in an undeveloped corner of Williamsburg and Bushwick that he didn't have time to sit down for a meeting. Then he told the Times that he favored Lopez's scheme for the site—which steers all development to the leader's own allies.

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