The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2010

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JUNE 2010 Issue


The Cuomo Agenda

In announcing his bid for governor in late May, Andrew Cuomo put forth a comprehensive plan for reforming Albany. Which is all well and good, because the capitol desperately needs a housecleaning—and opening the windows and letting sunlight into its dark corridors is a good place to start. But deep into his 224-page campaign book, The New NY Agenda: A Plan for Action, Cuomo offers a surprisingly brief discussion of what he would do to oversee the state’s main economic power center, located in Lower Manhattan. As a certain predecessor of Cuomo’s can attest, it’s a lot easier to go after the crooks in Albany than those on Wall Street.

Cuomo fashions himself as “fiscally prudent and socially progressive,” but his idea of prudence is anything but progressive. At the outset, his New NY Agenda calls for “immediately imposing a cap on state spending and freezing salaries of state public employees as part of a one-year emergency financial plan, committing to no increase in personal or corporate income taxes or sales taxes and imposing a local property tax cap.” That amounts to freezing spending while not increasing revenue—which hardly seems like a sufficient remedy for the state’s current $9 billion deficit. Cuomo may not want to squander his current popular support, but unlike the current governor, he does have political capital to expend. If not an open call for renewed progressive taxation, he could have at least kept that option on the table.

While the Agenda initially trumpets Cuomo’s intention to “truly regulate Wall Street,” that laudable goal ends up in the section devoted to social issues like marriage equality and abortion rights. The only specific proposal offered involves “consolidat[ing] the regulatory functions of the Banking Department and the Insurance Department into a single regulatory agency capable of regulating modern financial services organizations.” This is most uninspiring stuff, especially considering that the bulk of the first 125 pages of the blueprint repeatedly stresses how corrupt and inefficient Albany is. And while the proposed agency would “protect” consumers against predatory lending, a more forceful position would be to declare all forms of predatory lending illegal in New York State.

A populist assault on a legislature comprised of scoundrels like Pedro Espada, Jr., is an easy charge to lead, whereas taking on the easy money boys on Wall Street is another story. But clearly the time is ripe. Voters of all parties are rightly outraged that people who crashed the economy collected record profits with taxpayer money and then gave themselves what the Agenda repeatedly—but emptily—calls “outrageous bonuses.” Yet any effort to make those with the most money pay more to redress the budget deficit is cancelled out by the no-new-taxes pledge. In mid-May, the Fiscal Policy Institute, a labor-backed think tank, issued a report that outlined four options “to temporarily tax Wall Street firms”: a bonus tax; a windfall profits tax; disallowal of the use of prior year losses to offset tax liability; and a reduction in the automatic stock transfer tax rebate. The FPI report, issued by deputy director James Parrott, stated that a millionaires tax should also be considered. Even with a high bonus tax, London’s financial sector is growing, and as Parrott notes, there is “no evidence that [an] income tax increase drives the wealthy away from NY.” Talk of any such taxes, though, does drive the editorial boards crazy.

Like many crusaders before him, Cuomo is vowing an end to business as usual in Albany. How successful that effort becomes depends on what happens in Lower Manhattan, too.

Lindsay’s New York

In last month’s column, I wrote about the city in the late 1960’s and early 70’s as viewed through the perceptive eyes of the writer Nora Sayre. On view through early October at the Museum of the City of New York, the exhibition “America’s Mayor: John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York” vividly recreates the tumultuous era through the work of its defining figure. Edited by New York Times veteran Sam Roberts, and published by Columbia University Press, the show’s handsome eponymous companion volume features the recollections of many other notable writers and public figures about Lindsay’s reign. In the book, one influential voice from the era even tries to settle a score—with himself.

Lindsay, as many essays in the collection explain, made considerable attempts to reach out to the city’s growing but under-represented populations of color. In addition to appointing the city’s first black fire commissioner (Robert O. Lowery), Lindsay and his administration helped launch the political careers of black leaders including Eleanor Holmes Norton, Major Owens, and Carl McCall. And Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez recalls that as a founder of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group in East Harlem, it was “much to our surprise [that] an idealist patrician Republican named John V. Lindsay became one of our biggest allies.” Across the city, Lindsay’s efforts to decentralize City Hall and the Board of Education empowered black and Latino neighborhoods. Meanwhile, when riots brewed in those same areas—as on the night of MLK’s assassination—Lindsay was not afraid to show up and walk the streets.

Those same integrationist efforts irked many whites, as Pete Hamill documented in his classic 1969 New York magazine essay, “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class.” In that piece, Hamill sought to convey the racial anxieties of outer-borough whites—“They call my people the White Lower Middle Class these days,” he begins. During the Lindsay era, the city became increasingly expensive and thrown into chaos by transit and sanitation strikes. Feeling pinched, Hamill’s people resented Lindsay for his efforts on behalf of minorities instead of them. As an angry ironworker told Hamill in a Park Slope bar, Lindsay “don’t care whether my kid has shoes…[but] the niggers get new playgrounds.” The hard hat proceeded to add “schools,” “summer camp,” and “nursery schools” to that list.

While Hamill acknowledged that there were numerous causes of racial inequality, including that the Iron Workers Union historically excluded blacks, most of the piece emphasized white gripes about Lindsay. Brooklyn Congressman Hugh Carey told the writer that “Lindsay has made a number of bad moves as mayor of this town, but the alienation of the white lower middle class might have been the worst.” Hamill concurred, saying that the future New York governor was “probably right.”

Hamill’s influential essay helped give voice to the idea that Lindsay’s City Hall favored blacks over whites, a perception that made the outer-borough white vote a force to be reckoned with in city politics for years to come. In the Roberts collection, Hamill softens his critique. Lindsay’s efforts now seem well-intentioned, whereas the real problem was the provocations of black militants. There was “vocal anti-Semitism” in the Ocean-Hill Brownsville strike, and “too many younger African Americans were raising the clenched fists of black separatism.” According to the latter-day Hamill, it was thus black nationalism, rather than Lindsay’s integrationism, that pissed off his people.

Surely the Sonny Carsons of the era fueled white rage. But it strikes me as highly unlikely that a drunk ironworker angry about black playgrounds and summer camps was ever ready to join Lindsay in a chorus of “We Shall Overcome.”


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2010

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