New York

Grading the Speaker


The location Mike Bloomberg chose for his second State of the City speech—the sunlit atrium of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden—was an unconscious expression of the paradox of his reign. Just a few weeks ago, in the budget modification that plunging revenues forced him to adopt, Bloomberg cut the city’s subsidy of the garden by $275,509. More may well be coming in the upcoming budget.

The Brooklyn garden has retained an influential lobbyist, Joni Yoswein, a onetime assemblywoman who managed City Council Speaker Gifford Miller’s early run for the council, to protect it from cuts. Among her 18 other clients is the New York State Trial Lawyers Association (NYSTLA), which retained her last year just as the new mayor began demanding tort reform. Bloomberg has been pushing vigorously for legislation that would limit the city’s $550 million-a-year exposure to liability lawsuits—a cause he mentioned again as recently as the State of the City speech.

Yoswein, who is listed as one of Miller’s biggest fundraisers on filings with the Campaign Finance Board, is paid $78,000 a year to lobby against the mayor’s tort bills in the City Council, which were prompted by costs that have soared 2600 percent since 1978. Yoswein raised $25,425 in contributions from 42 different sources, including $1000 from a personal injury firm prominently associated with the NYSTLA, for Miller’s committee. Current and former directors of the association donated at least $7250 to Miller. The committee is raising funds for the next citywide elections in 2005 though Miller has formally indicated to the CFB that the office he will run for then is “unknown” (he will be term-limited out of the council).

Bloomberg is particularly focused on the $70 million spent annually on sidewalk claims, asking the council to shift liability to commercial- and multiple-dwelling owners as well as to change laws that permit NYSTLA to file maps of alleged sidewalk defects that serve as legal notice to the city. In an op-ed piece in the Daily News last Sunday, the mayor made the argument that “every dollar paid out through lawsuits is a dollar we can’t put into schools, police, or parks”—and for that matter the Botanical Garden or any of Yoswein’s other city-supported clients.

William Cunningham, the mayor’s communications director, told the Voice that the reform legislation “just got lost” in the council, adding: “Why it got lost I couldn’t tell you.” In November, Cunningham contended, “it looked like tort reform could have been done before the end of last year. There were a lot of indicators that both sides of City Hall wanted it and were looking to round out our year with it. Now we’re approaching February and I just don’t know where it is.” Chris Policano, the spokesman for Miller, said that “anyone who suggests there was a timetable for the tort bill is wrong,” adding that several councilmembers who participated in a hearing on it have “valid questions” about it and that the council is merely being appropriately “deliberative” about the bills.

Cunningham is certainly not griping about Miller. The speaker delivered what his predecessor, Peter Vallone, would never have pushed through the council—the largest property tax hike in history, an 18.5 percent albatross on the backs of all 41 councilmembers who voted for it less than a year before their own re-elections. Almost as courageously, the 33-year-old-speaker-who-wants-to-be-mayor backed Bloomberg’s smoking ban, standing up to Post ridicule and legions of lobbyists. Miller also acquiesced on over $800 million of Bloomberg service cuts proposed in the November budget modification, even cutting $200 million out of the schools, though the speaker had made the council’s “education-first” restoration of $300 million in June his claim to fame for this year’s budget.

As helpful as these critical actions were to the mayor, Miller has also been willing to take Bloomberg on, overriding his veto of a predatory-lending bill that bars the city from doing business with bad banks and passing a living-wage bill for health workers over his opposition.

These legislative achievements, applauded by progressives, were accompanied by a series of less recognized, but also significant, new laws. The council passed laws adding the transgender community to the human rights code, extending city domestic violence shelter rights to victims of “intimate partners,” barring gun permits for those named in a court order of protection involving any “intimate partner,” and automatically recognizing domestic partnerships legalized out of state. It also acted to protect building service workers displaced when management changes mandate the purchase of energy-efficient products, and restrict bicycle riding on sidewalks.

Miller attempted at a late December press conference to do a statistical comparison of the number of what he called “substantive” bills passed by the new council in its first year with the number passed by prior new councils in 1990 and 1994, right after an election. His list of 47 bills was larded with at least 20 nominal ones, even including a law that takes p.c. so seriously it bars “gender-biased terminology” like “councilmanic” from any future use in city “laws, documents and materials”—without suggesting an alternative (councilpersonic?). Though Miller was trying to transcend the council’s street-naming image, his list included three bills that changed the name of agencies, two that suspended parking laws for Purim and the Asian lunar holiday, and a self-serving bill that allowed Miller and a half-dozen other members to extend their own terms.

The list of bills was designed to quantify Miller’s success, but no legislative leader can be measured by a number. He and his new council of activists can take pride in several of these legislative initiatives, though Miller must also explain why tort reform as well as a lead-paint control bill co-sponsored by 31 of the 51 councilmembers appear to be moving very slowly through the council process.

More than any other piece of legislation, the lead paint bill, which allows affected tenants to sue landlords, has stirred misgivings among councilmembers about Miller’s willingness to stymie an initiative with substantial support, though the members will not go on the record about their complaints. Miller’s aides ascribe the delays to a court case about the old law that is now before the Court of Appeal. In fact, Miller observed in a recent Citizens Union interview that “the number of cases of lead poisoning has dropped dramatically in the last few years,” suggesting that this was “a good” produced by the old, and highly limited, law.

Harlem councilman Bill Perkins, a sponsor of the bill and member of Miller’s leadership team, told the Times in June that the argument that lead poisoning rates “are going down” is a “very diversionary and almost racist argument” because “they’re not going down satisfactorily in communities of color.” Though 7657 children had high lead levels in the city’s latest test, the real estate interests, some of whom are contributing to Miller’s campaign kitty, are resisting any change in law, citing a reduction of 1876 poisoned children since the last lead paint bill passed the council in 1999.

The ultimate test of Miller, though, is the budget. As salutary as his November support of the property-tax hike was, Miller had the option of passing a council budget in June that recognized the real revenue shortfall, had tax increases in it, and applied the added revenue to services that were cut. Instead, he joined with Bloomberg in ratifying a fantasy budget. Since the council has much more charter power over the budget when it is initially adopted than when it is modified, he relinquished whatever chance he and the council had to set their own agenda. It was a mistake he is unlikely to make the second time around.

Research assistance: Cathy Bussewitz, Alexa Hinton, Felicia Mello, Solana Pyne, E.B. Solomont, Steven I. Weiss

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