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.

During last year's tempest over the Council's slush-fund scandal, it emerged that Yassky had steered $55,000 to a youth group called Neighborhood Assistance Corporation created by former Brooklyn Councilman Steve DiBrienza. Based in DiBrienza's old district office, the group was largely inert, according to local reports, aside from paying salaries to DiBrienza and a pair of former aides, one of whom also worked on Yassky's Council campaigns. Yassky began funding the group in 2005, just as he was preparing a risky run for Congress in a largely black district where he wasn't even a resident.

Yassky took a lot of flak for his strategy: He moved his family a few blocks to become eligible and ran as an effective reformer who just happened to be the lone white candidate facing several black opponents. The hope—which didn't pan out—was that white votes in brownstone Brooklyn would put him over the top. DiBrienza, who represented the same neighborhoods for years, at one point had had the same idea. Instead, he endorsed Yassky.

Yassky said last week that he awarded the funds at DiBrienza's request without personally inspecting the group. "I've always said it is bad practice to have individual Council members designate funds to nonprofits," he said. "We don't have the resources to investigate."

The congressional race had nothing to do with it, he said. "I asked Steve if he was looking at this. He said no."

Yassky isn't the only panderer. Liu has the backing of the equally patronage-hungry Queens County Democratic organization, and he raised his own integrity issues when he kept insisting he was a child sweatshop worker even after his mother said it didn't happen. He has also boasted that he exposed the MTA's secret two sets of books, a laughable claim since it was the now-unmentionable state comptroller Alan Hevesi, along with Thompson, who made that 2003 finding.

The run-off is likely to set another low turnout record. This gives Liu a clear edge: In the streets, his solid union support trumps Yassky's New York Times certification. But both enter the last lap of the race well behind the curve, credibility-wise.

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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