By Shaunna Murphy, Shea O’Rourke, Marguerite A. Suozzi
Tabloid headlines and even New York Times editorials echoed City Hall last week in targeting Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver as the one-man wrecking crew who obstructed Mike Bloomberg’s congestion pricing program. The mayor’s post-defeat scapegoating, however, has been as politically tilted as his pre-defeat contributions. The mayor has written checks totaling half a million dollars to Senate Republican boss Joe Bruno, who, like Silver, never brought the traffic plan to the floor yet miraculously became “the invisible man” in all the finger-pointing that followed.
Since congestion pricing’s defeat, The Times has called Silver “unworthy of his office.” “Here was a chance for Silver to show some real leadership,” Schenectady’s Daily Gazette railed. “His shortsightedness will cost the city $354 million in federal funds,” Newsday piped in.
And the mayor certainly isn’t going out of his way to refute the blame. His deputy mayor, Kevin Sheekey, told New York 1 that Silver has not been an effective leader in the past week. “I don’t see any courage in Albany,” he added. Bloomberg also made several statements implicating Silver as the main culprit. “I do not think that any one person should decide what’s right,” the mayor said at a press conference at Georgetown University.
But others find the finger-pointing unwarranted. “The editorial attacks on Shelly [Silver] are totally unfair,” said Assemblyman Richard Brodsky (D-Westchester), the plan’s leading opponent in the Assembly. “In the end, the overwhelming majority of the Democratic conference made the decision here. Probably 80 percent opposed the legislation.”
Despite the onslaught of editorial boards blaming Silver for the plan’s failure, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno had an equal chance at passing the bill. Silver stepped forward and said he wasn’t bringing the pricing bill to the Assembly floor because the overwhelming majority of Assembly Democrats opposed it during a protracted, closed-door, conference. Bruno, on the other hand, never said what the position of the majority of his GOP conference was, particularly the many Republican senators representing commuter districts as far away as Rockland County.
Bruno appears to have flirted with the notion of a floor vote only to put Senate Democrats in the difficult position of voting for or against it, but no one in Albany believes he had the votes to pass the bill from his own conference. Silver and Bruno, like the legislative leaders that preceded them for decades, rarely, if ever, allow floor votes on a bill unless a majority of their own members favor it.
Three senators interviewed by the Voice indicated that Bruno was merely posturing on the bill, raising questions about the Bloomberg administration’s evenhandedness in their assessment of how the biggest reform effort of their second term was scuttled. The difference was that as the Monday night deadline got closer, it was Silver who finally spoke up about what was actually true in both houses: This bill didn’t have enough support to pass.
“The assembly, by not voting, gave Joe an out — he appears to have made a promise to the Mayor without actually believing he could deliver it,” said Senator Liz Krueger (D- Manhattan), who was in favor of the bill. “Joe didn’t think he had the votes in the senate, and once the assembly publicly announced that they weren’t bringing a vote, he didn’t have to try anymore. … At least the assembly said they didn’t try to bring it to the floor.
Since introducing the plan on Earth Day last summer, Bloomberg has donated an estimated $1.2 million of his own money to the Senate Republican Committee and $50,000 to the Republican Assembly, but has not donated a dime to statewide committees for senate and assembly Democrats. In the final accounting, Bloomberg’s actual contributions will probably be even greater than initially projected, according to Senator Krueger.
“They don’t have to report any new filings until July,” Krueger said. “He could have given them anything they wanted — we have no idea what he gave them in total. I suspect that the adding up of the amounts will be much more than reported so far.”
Polar divisions between upstate Republicans — with access to Bloomberg’s campaign contributions — and metro-area Republicans — whose constituents didn’t want to pay $8 every time they drove into Manhattan — would have left the deciding votes in the hands of the Democrats. Had the Dems rejected congestion pricing, the city’s pro-pricing and pro-Bloomberg media certainly would have taken notice again and again before the fall election season.
According to Long Island Senator Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington), who opposed the bill, there was never strong support from his GOP counterparts in the Senate, primarily out of fear that Long Island would turn into a giant parking lot. As to why upstate Republicans would have any interest in going against the wishes of their city brethren, Johnson could only guess: “Obviously there were stories about how the mayor donated half a million dollars to the senate campaigns, so that might have had something to do with it,” he said. “I just think it’s rather a shame that we didn’t get a chance to hear from them.”
Krueger said that communities outside of the metro area, who wouldn’t be nearly as affected by the bill, don’t necessarily need to have that much of a say in the matter. “If you’re north of commuting distance from New York City, you don’t have a horse in this race,” Krueger said. Still, even if there had been a vote, Krueger said, there was enough vocal opposition from metro-area Republican senators to make Bruno question whether he could do his part in getting Bloomberg’s bill passed.
“I’m up there, and I never heard any Senate Republican saying they would support this bill,” Krueger said. “There were plenty of Long Island, Staten Island, and Westchester Senators who had no intention of voting for it. Joe Bruno would have needed a lot of Republican Senators to vote for this for it to pass, and he never implied he had those votes. He never brought it to the floor.”
But according to Senate spokesman Mark Hansen, Bruno “has a very good relationship with mayor Bloomberg,” “is supportive of the plan for congestion pricing” and would have brought the bill to the floor for a vote last Monday, when the assembly passed on taking it up, had enough senators been present. As many as 17 Democrats boycotted the session that day, according to press reports.
Senator Johnson said the idea that Bruno wanted a vote but was let down by a boycott by the Democrats is a fiction. “He had enough members in the Senate chamber to bring this to the floor,” Johnson said. “At one point, there were 34 members of the Senate on the floor, and by the end of the day Monday there were 45. He could’ve brought it to a vote at any point, but he chose not to, and the reason is that he knew he didn’t have enough votes to pass it.”
Krueger said that Senate Democrats were primarily concerned with budget disputes that day, and that Bruno never actually called the Rules Committee or the Finance Committee into session about congestion pricing; a necessary step before bringing any bill to the floor.
Senator Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset), one of several Long Island Republicans opposed to the bill, said his impression was that the Senate was never planning to consider congestion pricing that day, an omission that could only be attributable to Bruno, who sets the Senate calendar.
“To my knowledge, it was not meant to be brought to the table that day,” Marcellino said. “It was never on the schedule.”