Zack Fink

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Does Doogie Howser Work in Albany?

Around the State Capitol there is a widely shared belief that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker was the real life inspiration for the fictional early 90s television program, “Doogie Howser MD.” For those who don’t remember the show, which ran for four seasons on ABC beginning in 1989, Actor Neil Patrick Harris portrayed the child prodigy who graduated from medical school at age 14. The show actually begins with Doogie Howser as a 16-year old resident at a Los Angeles hospital, even though he still lives with his parents.

Like Doogie, Zucker has an extraordinarily impressive resume. He graduated medical school early at age 22, “becoming one of America’s youngest doctors,” according to the Department of Health website. But that’s not quite the same thing as graduating Medical school as a teenager. Moreover, if Hollywood takes the life of an individual and uses it to sell people entertainment in the form of movies or TV shows, that individual would typically receive some sort of credit or compensation? Dr. Zucker gets neither of those things even though multiple members of the Cuomo Administration have repeated the story behind the scenes that Zucker inspired the character, including this week when I tweeted that Zucker was not and got an immediate response telling me the “Doogie Howser” story is in fact, true.

Doing what any responsible Reporter in my shoes would do, I set out to get to the bottom of what I was pretty sure was a cock-and-bull story. On Wednesday night I put in a call to Fred Specktor at Creative Artists or CAA, the powerhouse talent agency located in Beverly Hills, California. Specktor has represented Producer Steven Bochco for years, who created the show “Doogie Howser” along with David E. Kelly. Bochco’s additional TV credits include the groundbreaking show “Hill Street Blues,” which ran from 1981 to 1987 on NBC. He is also credited with the courtroom drama “L.A. Law,” another cop drama, “NYPD Blue,” and ( perhaps regrettably ) “Cop Rock.”

I phoned Specktor and his assistant immediately patched me through to the gravelly-voiced agent. He seemed amused by the call when I told him why I was reaching out. Specktor said he didn’t really know the answer to the question of whether Zucker was the inspiration for the “Doogie Howser” character, but said he speaks to Bochco almost every day and planned on doing so later that night or early the next morning. Surprisingly kibbitz-y and chatty, Specktor was particularly concerned whether or not I was some kind of “right wing journalist” who was trying to hurt a Democrat. I laughed and explained to him that NY1 is a New York City based, legitimate news organization. I also explained that Zucker’s credibility had recently come under fire over the water contamination crisis in the small upstate New York village of Hoosick Falls. As a matter of course, all things said about Zucker or that he said himself were now being more closely scrutinized. Specktor seemed reassured and we agreed to speak the following day.

When I reached out the next afternoon, Specktor answered his own phone and immediately cut to the chase. He had spoken to Bochco earlier in the day who said the claim about Zucker being the inspiration for the fictional character has “absolutely no truth to it.” Bochco actually recalled his inspiration which stemmed from a New York Magazine article he was reading in the mid 80s by Tony Schwartz about child prodigies. Bochco thought about it and began to hash out an idea for a show that would involve a young doctor. According to Specktor, Bochco had always been interested in child prodigies because he had one in his family. Specktor declined to elaborate when pressed for further details. But he added that if the “Doogie Howser” character was inspired by any real life person it was a member of Bochco’s own family, not Howard Zucker. Specktor went on to say that when he posed my question to Bochco it “elicited laughter.” Specktor ended our chat, which quickly became friendly again after I mentioned I was a huge Bochco fan ( I didn’t mention “Cop Rock” of course ), by telling me I should inform the Commissioner “to be a lot more careful” about making such claims.

In fairness to Zucker, I couldn’t find any actual time where he publicly claimed to be the genius behind Doogie. But it has been something commonly discussed around the State Capitol, particularly among the staff at the State Health Department. In fact, when I called the department seeking comment and mentioned my query was in regard to “Doogie Howser” the person on the other end of the phone didn’t even seem fazed. This article has been repeatedly referenced by supporters of the apparently tall tale, although if you look at the language in here it is actually a little vague. Certainly, the Commissioner has never done anything to dispel the notion that he is the real life “Doogie Howser,” and as I mentioned earlier I was accused of malpractice for suggesting otherwise.

So, why does all of this matter beyond being an amusing side note? Well, Zucker is currently being trotted out as the credible voice of public health in response to the water contamination crisis in Hoosick Falls. One legislative hearing was held last month, and second one was held this week in Albany. Zucker’s credibility has been called into question, including by fellow Democrats and certainly the residents of Hoosick Falls, who believe Zucker and his department were embarrassingly slow to respond to the crisis. At one point the State Health Department told residents not to expect adverse health effects from drinking the water even after the federal EPA had advised residents to stop. Many believe Zucker delivered a poor performance Wednesday after being grilled by lawmakers.

There is also the matter of two years ago when during a press conference announcing a ban on fracking, Zucker seemed to say he wouldn’t let his children live near land being fracked. He actually has no children.

So taken separately, the kerfuffle about Zucker’s children and his supposed claim that he inspired “Doogie Howser” may not be that big a deal. But when you start to add things up about someone who may exaggerate or sometimes even make false claims one could quickly conclude there is a credibility problem. Just ask Brian Williams.

Finally, when you combine what could be read as false or breezy statements with the very serious Hoosick Falls water pollutant crisis, these other incidents suddenly become that much more curious and worthy of scrutiny. Zucker and the Cuomo Administration are asking the people of New York State to believe them when they say they heeded early warnings about contamination and promptly did all they could to respond,

The bottom line is this: Zucker was not the inspiration for “Doogie Howser.” Here is a statement from the Departmnt of Health,”

“Thirty years ago, while working as a resident in a Philadelphia hospital, Dr. Zucker was interviewed at work by two TV executives who were interested in hearing about his experiences as an unusually young doctor. Dr. Zucker never followed up and does not know how this information was subsequently used. The show went onto the air on a short time later and his friends and co-workers certainly joked around about a connection.


And not to be outdone, Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for Governor Cuomo added,

“We agree that ‘NY1 is a New York City based, legitimate news organization.‎’ The rest of your post however, is nothing more than lighthearted character assassination.”

Senate GOP To Exercise Subpoena Power in Water Quality Hearings

From the Morning Memo:

State lawmakers have traveled back to Albany to hold the second of three scheduled hearings on water quality in New York.

Last week, the Senate flew solo at a hearing in Hoosick Falls – the epicenter of the PFOA water crisis – but today’s hearing, and a second one next week on Long Island, will include both houses.

By now, the water quality issues in Hoosick Falls have been well documented. Late last year the federal EPA told local residents to stop drinking and cooking with water from the town water supply. Serious questions arose about the state’s response, with the Cuomo administration seeming oddly out of sync with the federal agency about whether the water was actually safe to consume.

Last week, the hearing quickly devolved into a blame game between the EPA and the state’s Department of Health over who knew what and when, and who acted quicker to protect the health of Hoosick residents.

Interestingly enough, the EPA didn’t even testify. Instead, representatives from the agency reached out to reporters after the hearing to rebut some of the testimony of State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, who called the EPA’s actions in Hoosick “confusing.”

Incidentally, the EPA will not be testifying this time either, declining a second invitation to be heard on the record. But Hoosick residents and Capitol watchers are hopeful that a hearing with both houses will produce more answers about how their state government responded. Last week’s hearing, while valuable, seemed to raise more questions than it answered.

Senate Republicans have also invited representatives from French company Saint Gobain to testify today. The Saint Gobain plastics manufacturing plant in Hoosick Falls is believed to be the source of the water contamination. So far, officials with the company have refused to testify publicly, but have agreed to answer written questions.

That’s not good enough for the Senate Republicans, who say they will use the subpoena power vested in the legislative committees to compel the company to testify. While it may be too late for that to happen today, a senate source says the conference is hopeful the company will make a representative available for next week’s hearing.

The idea of issuing subpoenas was raised publicly by Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat and the ranking minority member on the chamber’s Environmental Conservation Committee, earlier this month. But Republicans maintain that the subpoena process has been in motion with Saint Gobain for at least several weeks.

Incidentally, Assembly Health Committee Chairman Dick Gottfried, who will be among those presiding over the joint legislative hearings, was asked during a CapTon interview last night about using the committee subpoena power to compel polluting companies like Saint Gobain to appear.

Gottfried, also a Manhattan Democrat, didn’t seem in any rush to move in that direction.

“There’s a lot on the table here,” the assemblyman said. “Right now, we’re looking at what the state policies and practices are when something arguably really bad becomes evident. The question of what a company – whether it’s Saint Gobain or somebody else – should be putting into the water and what the state should be doing about that is an important topic, a different topic.”

“We may well be getting into that, although people sometimes have the notion that since we’re a legislative committee we must be able to spend millions of dollars like committees in Congress can do to hold in depth investigations of things.”

“It would be great if we had that kind of resource. We really don’t. I’m not sure we’ve got, in a state legislative committee in New York, the staff resources to do that kind of investigation. But in any event, that’s a related, but important – and different – topic from what we’re looking into tomorrow.”

Gottfried seemed to take the EPA’s side in its ongoing dispute with the Cuomo administration over who was ultimately responsible for the mess in Hoosick Falls, saying that even though the federal agency’s acceptable levels of PFOA consumption was a moving target, the state should have been able to follow through – and, in his opinion, dropped the ball.

It’s hard to say what exactly is going to come out of these hearings. Maybe nothing much at all in terms of Capitol drama – like a resignation or some kind of “gotcha” moment. But sometimes government just kind of needs to do its job. And that happens when the legislative branch provides oversight of the executive branch, which it is clearly charged with doing.

The governor and the legislative leaders have sometimes been known for their (way too) cozy relationship. It’s good to see Republicans and Democrats alike in the state Legislature calling for some accountability.

If nothing else, it gets critical information on the record. And that might give residents of Hoosick not only peace of mind, but information about how their government may have served or failed them in this crisis.

– Liz Benjamin contributed to this report.

Is A Democratic Senate Even Necessary?

This can be a very touchy subject for Senate mainline Democrats, who can get a little Al Roker on you if you dare to bring it up. But something is happening this election cycle which is a stiff departure from two years ago. Primarily labor’s involvement.

Two years ago, with an assist from Mayor De Blasio, Democrats vowed to take back control of the State Senate. They failed in their efforts ( although one could argue that numerically speaking they actually succeeded but politics prevents a sitting Democratic Majority ). They also left a trail of bitter feelings among Republicans and the Independent Democratic Conference, whose members had to fight off primaries. This time around not a single IDC member has a primary opponent. The labor unions appear to be standing down. This is not a completely hands off approach, but the endorsements this year speak volumes.

In 2014 NYSUT backed a full slate of Democratic candidates including Dave Dennenberg, Adrienne Esposito, Justin Wagner, Terry Gipson, Elaine Altman, Cecilia Tkacyk and Johnny Destino all of whom lost. In 2016 it’s much more of a mixed bag with NYSUT backing mostly incumbents including IDC members and Republicans. The outliers are Adam Haber and Todd Kaminsky on Long Island who have the union’s backing, Chris Eachus, and Terry Gipson once again in the Hudson Valley ( not sure what it is with this guy, but everyone seems to love him ).

The AFL-CIO endorsements tell a similar story. In 2014 the union backed the unsuccessful candidacies of Dave Denenberg, Justin Wagner, Ted O’Brien, Elaine Altman, Cecilia Tkacyk and ( of course ) Terry Gipson. This year, the AFL-CIO is staying neutral in some races, but mostly endorsing incumbents from both parties. The exceptions are Adam Haber and ( it kinda goes without saying ) Terry Gipson. Obviously more endorsements could come out later, but for now they feel a lot less all-Democrats-all-the-time than they did in 2014. As one GOP insider put it, the takeaway here is that “if it’s a wash, that is actually a big win for Republicans.” The lack of strong backing from unions could lead to money problems for Dems, and we already know that 1199 is giving Republicans money to maintain control of the Senate.

So what is going on here? For starters, the unions got a lot of what they wanted this year with the GOP-IDC coalition in control of the Senate. That includes a robust paid family leave program, and a path to a $15 minimum wage. These two things were unthinkable as recently as last year. For working people both of these new policies will make a huge difference in their lives. And they got it without a Democratic majority, or as one observer keenly noted, the unions “got what they wanted without having what they were told they needed.”

Secondly, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has made a real push to court the unions. For example at the NYSUT convention at the Desmond in Albany last week, Flanagan spoke to the members first, then hung around and took their questions for roughly two and half hours. Presumably in that soft spoken, mild mannered way of his. Flanagan is a lot more in the weeds when it comes to policy than his predecessor Dean Skelos. And as the former Chair of the Education Committee, Flanagan can speak to teachers in a language they understand. Part of this is self preservation and survival. Flanagan can read the polls like anybody else which warn of an anti-Trump tsunami at the ballot box this fall. He knows that down ballot races could be impacted should the anti-Trump vote materialize in the way liberals insist that it will. And that gets us to the final point, which is Flanagan’s relationship with IDC Leader Jeff Klein. People close to both men say it’s very strong. I used to think of Klein and Skelos as something like this, but the reality was actually far different. Both known for their flaring tempers, Skelos and Klein would sometimes yell past each other. But Klein respects Flanagan’s policy knowledge and the way he handles the conference.

Democratic sources seem confident that if they win enough seats, a reconciliation between the two Democratic factions will commence. I’m told that “talks are already underway.” However, GOP sources say they too “feel as though they are in a good spot” with the IDC, meaning the coalition could continue. If recent history is any guide, Senate Democrats have always picked up seats in Presidential election years. That’s likely to happen again this year, but the IDC decision on who to work with could still be critical to who controls the Senate. Democrats are telling people to expect a Democratic majority, but some in labor at least, appear to be hedging their bets.

Senate to Hold Hearing in Hoosick Falls

From the Morning Memo:

On Tuesday, August 30 at 10:30 a.m., the state Senate will hold a long-awaited hearing on water contamination in Hoosick Falls.

The hearing at Hoosick Falls High School is to be held jointly by the Senate Health and Environmental Conservation committees chaired respectively by Sens. Kemp Hannon and Tom O’Mara. Sen. Kathy Marchione, who represents the area, will also attend.

According to a GOP insider, the goal of the hearing is twofold. During the day, the senators will call experts from various agencies including the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and Department of Health (DOH).

This will primarily be for information-gathering purposes, including whether overlapping jurisdictions or lack of communication or perhaps even sheer negligence led to what many consider to be a sluggish response to PFOA contamination in the town water supply. PFOA is considered toxic, and elevated levels have been linked to certain cancers.

As for the second part of the hearing, the senators will hear directly from the public. Individuals will be permitted to sign up in advance and testify during the afternoon, or beginning at 5 p.m., when people start to come home from work, the committees will allow Hoosick Residents to testify as walk-ins on a first come first serve basis.

The idea here is to hear from people who may still have fears about what they or their children have been exposed to. But it is also an opportunity to have elected officials simply listen to their stories, including what it has been like to live under this cloud for the last several months.

The story of Hoosick Falls is nothing short of a tragedy.

The primary charge of government at all levels is to protect the citizenry, and it appears as though that may not have happened in Hoosick Falls. While PFOA contamination is believed to have leeched into the ground water from the nearby Saint Gobain Plastics factory, this story is less about the polluter and more about whether the concerns from residents of a small town near the Vermont border were taken seriously in a timely enough fashion.

The facts on this remain murky.

While the Cuomo administration eventually kicked it into high gear crisis response mode, serious questions remain about the Department of Health’s initial reaction. And some local residents and lawmakers have even questioned the very competency of Cuomo’s own Health Commissioner, Howard Zucker.

Complicating this story is the dynamic of those who have chosen to invest in Hoosick Falls by purchasing homes and raising families there. Some residents were reluctant to even go public about the water contamination, fearing that homes they’d spent their whole lives paying off would suddenly plummet in value as the town became a place no one wanted to live. That is an underreported element to this story, and it makes it all the more heartbreaking.

The state Legislature is doing the right thing by holding these hearings to get to the bottom of what happened, but also to let residents know that their government is functioning on their behalf. There is a system of checks and balances, and the Legislature is here to provide oversight of the executive branch, not just rubber stamp legislation they are given marching orders to pass.

Unfortunately however, the two houses could not come to terms about holding joint oversight hearings, which would have demonstrated a united and bipartisan front. Instead, the Assembly will hold two hearings on its own, beginning the second week of September – one in Albany, the second on Long Island. Those hearings are supposed to address water quality more broadly, not focus solely on Hoosick Falls.

The bottom line is that there is nothing more fundamental than being able to turn on your faucet and trust that the government provided water supply is safe for drinking. It’s such a basic right in this country, and for good reason. If you cannot trust that the water being pumped into your home is clean and free of toxins, it makes it very difficult to trust your government about really anything else.

Heastie Looking for an Ally in ( Money Earnin’ ) Mount Vernon

Although it’s a crowded field to replace Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson, one candidate would seem to have an early edge and that is Jamaal Bailey, who currently works for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie as Community Relations Director in the Bronx district office. Bailey will actually be off the payroll officially on July 8th, as he prepares to run full time for the Senate seat. Hassell-Thompson announced in April that she was leaving the Senate this month to take a job with the Cuomo Administration.

Interestingly enough, the bulk of the 36th Senate District, which is expected to stay in the Democratic column, is located in the Bronx, roughly 86%. However, it also includes the City of Mount Vernon which makes up the remainder of the District. Bailey first interned for Heastie 12 years ago when he was a senior at SUNY Albany. He stayed close to the future Speaker, and eventually worked his way up to District Leader in Heastie’s Bronx District. Talk about getting on the right train, huh?

Hassell-Thompson has herself endorsed Bailey, and he recently got endorsements from the New York State Nurses and District Council 37, the powerful union. For Heastie, it is always helps to have friends and allies even if it’s in the other house. Bailey is someone Heastie took under his wing at an early age, and will presumably return the loyalty. Sheldon Silver was very adept at making sure his friends and allies occupied the seats that opened up in the State Legislature, and it helped him stay in power for 20 years.

Reached by phone, Bailey said he was humbled to receive the endorsements, particularly from labor since his grandfather was a Teamster.


Wright Turn

In January of 2015, the New York State Assembly was thrown into chaos when Sheldon Silver was hit with a multi-count corruption complaint by U.S. Attorney, Preet Bharara. A lot unfolded in those days and weeks following what some described as a nuclear bomb hitting the State Capitol. The morning of the arrest, Assembly Democrats lined up in support of Silver, holding an impromptu press conference outside the Speaker’s office near the Assembly floor. There, they declared their “overwhelming” support for Silver, and insisted the charges against him were “not a distraction.” Members then admitted to Reporters both publicly and privately that they had not yet even read the complaint.

Hey, look…it was a confusing time for everyone. Silver was proclaiming his innocence, and the SCOTUS decision in the McDonnell case this week may ultimately prevent Silver, convicted on all seven corruption counts last year, from ever spending a day in prison. As someone who sat through that entire trial, I had serious questions about whether or not the government actually proved federal corruption beyond a reasonable doubt or simply demonstrated that Silver was a double talking politician who nevertheless legally used the rules ( he admittedly helped create and enforce ) to benefit himself. Either way, one could make a fair argument that it was unequivocally time for Silver to step aside after 20 years as Speaker, and focus instead on his defense. Perhaps Democrats should have understood that.

Behind the scenes, they actually did know that Silver’s days were numbered. And jockeying for the Speaker’s position began relatively quickly. That brings me to a conversation that took place early on between Assemblyman Keith Wright – (D) Harlem, and Assemblyman Carl Heastie – (D) Bronx. Wright considered himself a logical successor to Silver, and had already begun asking fellow members for their support. Wright was also on a bit of a mission. Already, Governor Cuomo had gotten involved by suggesting Majority Leader Joe Morelle would make an excellent interim Speaker to steady the ship during this period of turmoil. Wright was deeply resentful, having served as Cuomo’s Democratic State Co-Chair along with Syracuse mayor Stephanie Miner, who proved a headache for the Cuomo Administration. “They don’t know what the f— to do about her,” Wright once told me.

Heastie was actually in a better position to be Speaker all along. As the Bronx Democratic County Chair, he already had a natural base of votes from Bronx County. He also had a solid alliance with Queens Democratic Chair, Congressman Joe Crowley, who could also deliver a lot of votes for Speaker. But more than that, Heastie had support among fellow Democrats who liked and trusted him. He was a natural leader, and a lot of the younger members were eager to get him installed, almost as the “Anti-Shelly.” Whereas Silver was known for his authoritarian and top-down rule, Heastie at 47 years old was perfectly situated between the old guard members in their 60s and 70s, and the younger ones in their 30s. He was able to bridge the not insignificant generational divide among Democrats in the chamber. And Heastie promised to listen to members more than Silver ever did.

I was not privy to this conversation between Heastie and Wright, but from what I was told Heastie said something to Wright last January along the lines of, “You have another path,” meaning a run for Congress. Heastie continued, “this is all I have,” meaning the Speakership. The two men agreed that Wright would step aside, and in return Heastie would do all he could bring out voters in the Bronx for the 2016 Democratic Congressional Primary. The question now is…was that actually done?

The 13th District is comprised of 496 election districts, 108 of which are now located in the Bronx after 2010 redistricting. That’s roughly 20% of the vote. According to the Board of Elections, Espaillat beat Wright in the Bronx 2,371 votes to 1,418, or by a little more than a thousand votes, which curiously enough was roughly the margin separating the two candidates last night ( it’s now around 1,200 votes ). So, the Bronx actually could have made a huge difference in helping Wright win, it just didn’t. Turnout was very low in the Bronx, and was slightly higher in the 2014 Primary.

Technically speaking Heastie has absolutely no control over GOTV efforts in the Bronx, that falls to his successor Bronx Democratic Chair, Assemblyman Marcos Crespo who was with Wright last night as the votes were coming in ( Heastie was not ). Reached by phone, Crespo says of the results, “I can’t say I’m totally shocked, no.” He added that he “doesn’t think turnout was much different than in other elections.” Finally, Crespo pointed out two things that are significant, 1) it was a very quirky year in which people are being asked to go to the polls several times and many are just “tired.” 2) At the end of the day, even County machines do not control the will of the voters.

Wright was also probably hurt by his own friend and mentor, Charlie Rangel who announced his retirement more than once, only to dangle the possibility of Wright running for the seat, then pulling it away and saying he intends to run again. All that time the demographics of the ditsrict were shifting away from what were traditional Harlem voters who first elected Rangel in 1970.

Finally, Wright is a lot of things, but at the end of the day, he is an establishment candidate. He’s been in the Assembly since 1993, and was certainly known as someone who works well within the system. There is just no question that even with low turnout, 2016 is an anti-establishment year.


The New Front at the Port Authority

Now that the Chris Christie Bridgegate crowd has been ( forcibly ) moved out of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a new dynamic is taking shape at the bi-state agency. Traditionally, there have been fights between the New York and New Jersey side over priorities and allocation of resources. Much of that was put on hold when the Bridgegate scandal erupted, because that was so overtly political and so New Jersey specific, that all New York had to do was step aside and let it play out. That is precisely what New York Governor Andrew Cuomo did, though mostly for his own political reasons.

But now Christie appointees Bill Baroni and David Wildtsein have been ensnared by the U.S. Attorney’s office, and I’m told former Chair David Samson may soon be in handcuffs over the “Chairman’s Flight.” Which means that a new New Jersey crew has moved in to stake out positions on behalf of the Garden State. As one insider put it about Baroni, Samson and Wildstein, “those guys were just a–holes. But it’s definitely a weird place and a weird time at the Port Authority now.”

Stepping in to fill the void are current Port Authority Chairman John “Why should I resign?!?” Degnan, and Democratic New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who while not a member of the Port Authority Board, hopes to control half of it in the near future if he can get elected Governor in 2017. Governor Christie seems to want nothing to do with the Port Authority these days and for good reason, but Cuomo does. He very much wants his plans to revamp LaGuardia Airport to go through. The Sweeney and Degnan crowd, which includes New Jersey Democratic Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, are slightly less than enthusiastic about Cuomo’s plans and want to at least make sure they get what they want, which is a new Port Authority Bus Terminal in Times Square. The politics on the Jersey side are interesting because Degnan’s kid, Phillip Degnan, is the Comptroller for the State of New Jersey, appointed by Christie ( please do not even ask why New Jersey allows the Comptroller to be appointed by the Governor, because that is a whole other issue ). Some believe Degnan is cozying up to Weinberg and Sweeney because he is hoping his son could get appointed Attorney General in a Sweeney Administration.

The new fault line between New York and New Jersey came into view at the March 24 meeting of the Port Authority Board where Sources say Degnan threatened to hold up Cuomo’s LaGuardia Airport project unless he got a commitment from the agency to build a new bus terminal. In the end he got it. But insiders say the bus terminal is very nebulous at this point with an unknown price tag and no money to really get started. Moreover, the New York side is taking heat about yet another massive construction project in Times Square. New York City Councilman Corey Johnson and New York State Senator Brad Hoylman have both raised concerns. New York wants there to be a smaller terminal in Times Square and a second terminal built on the Jersey side, but Sweeney and the current Jersey crop oppose that because they don’t want New Jersey commuters to have to make two stops on their ride into the City, also known as a “two-seat bus ride.” A second terminal has long been opposed by Weinberg, and Sweeney is fishing for North Jersey votes since he is a creature of the South Jersey machine which is headed by South Jersey Democratic Political Boss George Norcross. The South Jersey Democrats have difficulty winning Statewide elections, and Sweeney knows a solid way to stay in the good graces of North Jersey, and Bergen County voters specifically, is to make their commutes into Manhattan MORE pleasant not LESS. New Jersey watchers also know that so goes Bergen County in most statewide elections, so goes the rest of New Jersey. It’s a little like Ohio in national elections.

What’s interesting here is that normally it’s the Jersey side pushing for more projects in New Jersey, and New York pushing for more projects in New York. Here, at least on the bus terminal, the opposite is true. And Foye, who was recently asked by Cuomo to stay on at the Port Authority despite an announced retirement last year, continues to be a thorn in the side of New Jersey. Foye is the one who sounded the alarm on Bridgegate. Some believe he would have gone a lot further had Christie not called Cuomo and told him to tell Foye to – ahem – back off ( the actual language was far more colorful ). But clearly Sweeney now has it out for Foye because he wants to control the agency and use it for what every other New York or New Jersey Governor has ever wanted – his own projects.

According to a source, earlier this month Sweeney said of the March 24 fight between Degnan and Foye,

So you know something, I am not happy with Pat Foye in any way, shape or form and he can go at any time…if I was John Degnan…I would have fired him on the spot for the way he spoke to him, the way he handled himself. Who the hell did he think he was? He works for them. He’s not their equal. He’s not their advisor. But that shows you how screwed up the place.

During the same rant, Sweeney also called himself “the fly in the ointment” on Port Authority reform. Bills to reform the agency need to pass all four houses of the legislatures in both states, and be signed by both Governors. Christie and Cuomo vetoed the real reforms that came to their desks over the holiday weekend in late 2014, and efforts to restart the reform train have all stalled.

Sweeney actually attended the March Port Authority meeting and after tensions flared, Degnan joined Sweeney in the back of the room for a gaggle with reporters. Degnan has wanted the New York bus terminal project for some time. On his first day as Chair he even took a symbolic bus ride from New Jersey into the terminal to make a point. But insiders from the New York side say  the bus terminal “is not well vetted,” and another described it as “half baked.” The good news about the Port Authority is we appear to be past the Bridgegate era, and now the New York and New Jersey sides can go back to what they have done for over 80 years which is hating each other and fighting over public policy.


In a statement, Sweeney says,

“I think Chairman Degnan is doing a great job at the Port Authority in making sure that both states are treated fairly when it comes to developing transportation related capital projects. While the Port Authority has a checkered history when it comes to New Jersey getting its fair share, the current Chairman never shies away from standing up for our interests and for transparency.  Plans to build a new bus terminal in New York, preserving the one-seat ride for New Jersey commuters is a perfect example of that.  He should to be treated with the respect and dignity his position deserves.”

Mayoral Control Falls Apart

Last night there appeared to be an agreement on a one year extension of Mayoral control of City schools but that now seems to have fallen apart. At issue is what some have called a “poison pill” designed to give the State greater control and oversight. According to people familiar with what’s on the table, individual schools would be forced to disclose their funding formulas. For the first time it would show which districts are getting what money and how that amount was determined. It’s about forcing the city to comply with the Campaign for Fiscal Equity which sued over inequitable distribution of funding among wealthier and poorer school districts back in 1993. New York State complied with the ruling of the Court of Appeals until the 2009 fiscal crisis, when it began reducing the amount the neediest districts received.

This is a doozy for so many reasons, I don’t really even know where to begin. For starters, it gives New York State’s Division of budget a more outsized role over Mayoral control. But like everything in Albany, politics is just below the surface. This appears aimed at undermining what Mayor de Blasio points to as one of his biggest successes which is his stewardship of the New York City public school system. If those formulas are disclosed it would potentially provide ammunition for the CFE lawsuit to be reopened. A major headache and a potential embarrassment for the Mayor who is up for re-election just next year. If the formulas show that poor districts aren’t getting their fair share, it could undermine the Mayor’s top selling point as a politician who should be hired for a second term. Moreover, if it’s only a one year extension, the Mayor could be forced to come up to Albany next year and explain all this to Senate Republicans while under oath.

Senate republicans have made no secret of their disdain for the Mayor, And Governor Cuomo’s feud with de blasio has been well documented. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie stormed out of a meeting with the Governor yesterday, and I’m told it relates directly to this and the Speaker’s belief that fellow Democrat Andrew Cuomo isn’t being supportive. Neither are Senate Leaders Jeff Klein and John Flanagan who defended more transparency with the city’s school funding formulas after a leader’s meeting this morning.

Flanagan said,

Let’s go back to basics. We send over $9 Billion to the City of New York in State aid…It is eminently reasonable for a parent or a City Council Mmeber to say ‘where are you spending the money?’ How much are you spending per pupil in what districts. And let’s be very, very clear. The City of New York is unique and special. The rest of the State publicly votes on their school budgets. There is a lot more transparency at the local level.

Klein agreed, adding

I don’t think it’s unreasonable if we require the City of New York, as part of Mayoral Control, to provide transparency. let’s see how much we are spending per school.

If de Blasio were to get challenged in a primary next year it would probably not bother Flanagan all that much. And if he were challenged by someone like Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. it probably wouldn’t even bother Klein or Cuomo all that much, both of whom have close ties to the Bronx BP. It’s also yet another example of Cuomo co-opting those on the left who would be more natural allies of the more progressive Mayor, such as advocates who brought the CFE lawsuit in the first place. Yes, folks, Heastie has once again been isolated in his defense of the Mayor. And that seems to be at least part of what is holding everything up.

Bag Fee Palace Intrigue

Say what you will about the bag fee legislation approved by the City Council last month, It’s probably fair to say no one expected the Democrat dominated New York State Assembly to even consider overturning the will of the also overwhelming Democratic New York City Council. Thus it was a huge surprise yesterday when Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he remains open to doing precisely that. Telling reporters,

I think there is a concern among the Assembly Members, particularly those who represent the city, on the language that is in the City Council bill, so we are looking at it. And we have some issues with it. And we are in discussions with the City Council and the Mayor to see if we can kind of push this off to have a better discussion of what to do in the city. But there are concerns among the City members.

It was probably a sign last month that Heastie allowed a joint State legislative committee hearing in the city on this issue. Assembly Member Mike Cusick (D) – Staten Island said Monday that he believes he has enough support in the full Assembly to pass the bill right now. The bill has cleared the Cities Committee and is currently in Ways and Means, but was not on Tuesday’s agenda to be reported out of Ways and Means. All amendments to any legislation expected to pass next week are said to be due this Thursday, so bills can go live for passage next Tuesday after aging the requisite three days. So, if this is gonna happen, it needs to happen soon.

So, what is really going on here?

Coupla things. On the one hand, Heastie needs to be responsive to his members. He is still a relatively new Speaker, compared to the previous one who stayed 20 years and is currently on a path to federal prison. If many of the members from Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island are complaining that the city legislation puts an undue and disproportionate burden on working class constituents, of course the Speaker is obligated to do more than simply pay the issue lip service. Or as one insider put it, the Speaker needs to make sure each of his members “gets one,” and for guys like Cusick this is his “one.”

But there is also a back story between Heastie and City Council Speaker Melisssa Mark-Viverito. The issue goes back to 2012 when former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn helped sign off on the district lines coming out of the 2010 census. Quinn at the time was angling to be Mayor and a very large portion of ( ultimately misinformed ) City Hall watchers believed she more or less had it in the bag. Quinn, working through the Districting Commission, helped change Mark-Viverito’s district. By a lot. Forcing a good portion of Councilmatic District 8 into the Bronx, an area where the future Speaker had no base of support. Her district had previously been mostly East Harlem. This became the only District in the City that was not contiguous, and it included two distinct boroughs. Observers at the time thought Quinn was trying to weaken Mark-Viverito and prevent her from succeeding her as Speaker. Quinn denied this.

Mark-Viverito did what any local elected at the time would do, she went to the Bronx Democratic machine for help, which was chaired by none other than Carl Heastie. From reports at the time, Heastie and Mark-Viverito didn’t eactly hit it off. Ultimately, Mark-Viverito won the seat. Whether the machine actually pulled the maximum amount of votes for her it could, or sat on it’s hands a bit is a matter of dispute, and it depends on who you ask. Fast forward to the end of 2013 when discussions were under way about who would be elected City Council Speaker. The Borough County Chairs had dinner together in Puerto Rico over Somos weekend and came away with the conclusion that no one was wild about Mark-Viverito as Speaker, particularly Heastie or Queens Democratic Chair, Congressman Joe Crowley. Enter the Newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio, who twisted arms and helped push through Mark-Viverito as Speaker with an assist from Brooklyn Democratic Chair Frank Seddio.

Some have pointed out that it’s curious during what feels like a long slog to the finish line in Albany this year, with just days left on the legislative calendar, this plastic bag issue is very much alive while other critical pieces of legislation such as renewing a developer tax credit known as 421a, and The Dream Act appear to have fallen by the wayside.

***UPDATE*** A spokesperson for Speaker Heastie says that whatever differences he may have had with Council Speaker Mark-Viverito in the past have since been put to rest, and they now enjoy a very solid working relationship.

Campaign Laws Are Clear on Some ( but not all ) Things

In a recent interview with Brian Lehrer on WNYC, Mayor de Blasio was asked whether he would rule out using a 501(c)(4) Super PAC for his re-election campaign in 2017. The mayor responded with,

It’s just too early to say, and I’ll say it in very simple terms. I’ve said clearly if people choose to run for this office, God bless them.

Technically speaking, Super PAC’s are not allowed to coordinate with the campaigns. They must spend money independently. So, by indicating he will decide whether or not to employ a super PAC as the campaign moves forward, does that possibly demonstrate a failure to understand where the boundaries are when it comes to political fundraising? Some in State government believe it does.

The answer is also somewhat revealing in that Mayor de Blasio is currently under scrutiny from U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara for fundraising practices on behalf of the Senate Democrats dating back to 2014. At issue is whether the Mayor intentionally subverted state campaign finance laws by funneling money to County Democratic organizations which then wheeled that money to specific Senate candidates in the Hudson Valley. People who are much more well informed about state election law than me say it’s pretty clear: that’s not allowed. There are limits on what can be directly earmarked for individual candidates, and using what amounts to a middle man to get more money to those candidates would seem to be a violation of the law. I have no idea whether this actually happened, and it’s for the U.S. Attorney to sort out. But to some critics it sounds like Mayor de Blasio was blind to the very lines one cannot cross when it comes to political fundraising.

In the same radio interview the mayor expounded on why his office has refused to cooperate with the Joint Commission on Public Ethics or JCOPE’s investigation into the Campaign for One New York which raised money to support the Mayor’s agenda before it was abruptly shut down in March. The Mayor said,

We see an entity that again suspiciously seems to only look at us and not other people doing the exact same thing.

In response Seth Agata, former Counsel to Governor Cuomo who now heads JCOPE, told the Daily News’ Erin Durkin,

We are investigating right now the Committee For One New York, not the mayor. He’s confused himself with a separate corporation and that’s very troubling. If he’s that intimately involved with this corporation, perhaps that raises other questions.

One could certainly make the point that in this environment, with a thirsty U.S. Attorney who is willing to investigate what has always been considered “business as usual” in New York State, everyone needs to be extra special careful about navigating and recognizing the boundaries when it comes to political fundraising which ( rightly or wrongly ) exist for a reason. Or as one insider put it about the Mayor, “he does not get it. He keeps blurring the line. This U.S. Attorney is looking at everything.”

People close to the mayor say these two examples do not show any ignorance of the law, nor any indication there is a failure on de Blasio’s part to understand the nuances of those laws. They “vehemently disagree” with that assessment, and argue the Mayor “knows exactly where the boundaries are.”

In a statement, Andrew Friedman a spokesperson for the Mayor’s political arm said,

Mayor de Blasio has said repeatedly that he and his staff will cooperate fully with all law-enforcement investigations. Unfortunately, there have been serious questions raised about conflicts of interest, selective enforcement, and politicized investigations by state agencies — JCOPE and the Board of Elections – and those questions should be examined. Most importantly, the Mayor is fully confident that all efforts have been completely appropriate and within the law at all times.