The people running for Manhattan borough president agree on one thing: The job they seek is not worthless. Their funders apparently agree, already having cut checks to the nine Democratic candidates totaling more than $4 million, six times the haul in 2001.
The money raised so far is more than the borough president’s budget for this entire fiscal year. Borough presidents, or beeps, were once big players on the city’s powerful Board of Estimate, but that body was scrapped 15 years ago. Now the job is viewed as a cheerleader’s post—and perhaps a stepping-stone to higher office.
Don’t tell that to the candidates. To a man or woman, they say that while a beep isn’t what it used to be, the job can still have clout. “The formal powers of the office are frankly less important than the occupant,” says Councilmember Eva Moskowitz, one of the runners. “You can have a lot of powers and be a do-nothing person.”
Assemblyman Scott Stringer highlights the beep’s voting power over a portion of the multibillion-dollar teachers’ pension fund. “I want to look at how we can use that money to loan out for affordable housing,” he says. Councilmember Margarita Lopez echoes that call. The beep’s budget, while small, “can be used to initiate projects that conform to a vision of affordability and sustainability,” says Councilmember Bill Perkins. And when the money runs out, there’s still a bully pulpit. Brian Ellner, a lawyer and former school board member in the race, points to Marty Markowitz’s spearheading growth in Brooklyn. “If you have a very active borough president, a lot can get accomplished,” he says.
Perhaps most important, there’s the borough president’s ability to weigh in on development projects, name a member of the city planning commission, and fill the seats at all the borough’s community boards. The beep “does have a role in land use review, and obviously land use is a pretty important policy in a dense island like Manhattan,” says candidate Moskowitz.
Amen, sayeth the real estate and development industry, which has donated about 10 percent of the cash in the race. Each of the candidates (they also include assembly members Adriano Espaillat and Keith Wright, former councilmember Stanley Michels, and former city administrator Carlos Manzano) has taken real estate money. But some have been bankrolled more than others: About 18 percent of Perkins’s $338,000 total comes from these interests, as does 17 percent of Stringer’s much larger $880,000 war chest. One of the most powerful developers in town, Stephen Ross of the Related Companies, has collected $26,000 for Stringer. Eleven of Perkins’s top 20 donors are real estate–connected.
What’s that money buy for the donors? “I think that they will, like you and others, expect to have an opportunity to represent their point of view on one thing or another,” says Perkins, who points out that the lead-paint law he championed a couple years back was not exactly beloved by landlords and builders. “And some of them I’ve already done business with in the sense that they’ve done work in my district or they’ve done work in the city and there’s been no ethical or unsavory kind of decision made in their favor.”
Stringer points to his support for rent regulations and opposition to the West Side stadium as proof he’s not in any developer’s pocket. “So anybody who thinks that they gave me money for very special access can call me and I will cut them a refund check immediately,” he vows.
Wherever the money comes from, its power is limited in a very tricky race. With nine legitimate candidates and no runoff provision, the primary victor might emerge with a mere 20 percent of the vote—maybe just 30,000 to 40,000 votes, depending on turnout. As one strategist puts it, that’s more like a race for a lowly state senate seat than president of a borough of 1.5 million people.
Collecting 30,000 votes from a couple hundred thousand ballots sounds easy, but the dynamics of this race are anything but simple. Running borough-wide means you can’t shake everyone’s hand, as you might try to in a City Council race. But these candidates don’t have the cash to go on television. So just alerting voters to the fact that you’re running is a challenge: One campaign’s polling shows 80 percent of those surveyed can’t name a single candidate in the race. The size of the field makes negative campaigning a risky tactic, because tarring one candidate might just help one of your rivals and not you. But it also means that if any one candidate stumbles, the rest will pile on.
The key phrase among political handlers in this race is “securing the base.” For Espaillat, the first Dominican American elected to state office, that’s Washington Heights and Inwood. Moskowitz has to seize the Upper East Side, and Stringer must lock up his West Side stronghold. But the candidates are vying for some of the same bases. Wright and Perkins are both African Americans with districts covering parts of Harlem. Lopez, Espaillat, and Manzano are Latinos. Ellner has been building support in the gay community for 18 months, but Lopez has been an outspoken lesbian legislator for eight years. The white and Jewish vote could split any number of ways.
Campaigns say they’ve begun trying to pick up pockets of support in areas where none of the runners has a built-in advantage. East Harlem is considered up for grabs, as is Battery Park–Tribeca. Stringer has built union support, while Moskowitz hopes her high-profile role as education committee chairwoman will get public school parents out for her. Perkins—recently hailed in The Nation as a pioneering urban progressive—is trying to get the left behind him.
For some, the race has gotten nasty. Lopez was hit for receiving Scientology donations and for directing city funds to a controversial “detox” center for WTC rescue workers run by the group. (She insists the donations had nothing to do with her support for the center, which was one of several projects she funded that year.) Moskowitz claims she has been labeled an “ambitious” woman by rivals.
But squabble as the candidates might, their fates aren’t entirely in their hands. Turnout for the primary will depend mostly on interest in the mayoral race; it’s not just the overall number that matters, but who composes it. If Fernando Ferrer’s bid to become the first Latino mayor energizes that ethnic vote, the Latino beep candidates might get a boost. Virginia Fields’s sinking fortunes might cost Wright and Perkins. Or perhaps not: Perkins thinks the hot race to replace him in his council district—his base—will matter more than the mayoral contest. Lopez’s district is also the scene of a heated battle.
All the fuss brings us back to the starting question: Is this a real job? Could New York City live without borough presidents? Perhaps. But if they stood on their own, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx
would be among America’s 10 largest cities. Boston has a mayor, so Manhattan— with roughly three times Beantown’s population—might deserve at least a spokesperson.
There is, after all, a lot to talk about: For Stringer, it’s scrutinizing tax breaks meant to keep businesses in the city. For Ellner, it’s a proposal to try congestion pricing—charging vehicles for entering high-traffic areas—on New York City roads. Lopez wants to create housing for city workers who are mandated to live in the five boroughs. Espaillat sees an affordability war replacing the drug war as a threat in his neighborhood. Michels wants to press for protecting the city’s watershed, while Manzano emphasizes homeland security. Moskowitz thinks quality-of-life issues—the little things like garbage collection—are as important as big-ticket issues.
Plus, stepping-stones might be underrated. “If you cut out the five borough presidents, you are cutting out five positions where government officials can cut their teeth,” says Doug Muzzio, a public affairs professor at Baruch College. “The stepping-stone is both a negative and a positive.”