What was the New York City Council concerned about in early January of 2002, when a municipal budget crisis loomed, the economy foundered, and downtown residents and workers still struggled to get back to normalcy four months after the terrorist attacks?
The art on the walls.
Yup, art. No sooner was former Black Panther Charles Barron sworn in as one of 38 new council members than he announced that high on his agenda would be ensuring that the portraits of famous figures in municipal buildings depicted more "people of color."
The agitation over art set the keynote for New York’s new and zany City Council. Largely created by a term-limits law that forced many veterans to step down to make room for newcomers, the current council has been by turns comic and trivial, inflammatory and divisive, and almost always destructive. With a veto-proof majority in its Democratic caucus, the council has proven as unfriendly to business as it is unsympathetic to taxpayers. And it is just getting up to speed: After stumbling around for its first six months, trying to figure out the legislative process, the council has started to pump out a wide array of legislation aimed at rolling back many of the Giuliani-era reforms that uplifted the city during the 1990s. While much of Gotham’s attention has focused on the rookie mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and his shaky start, perhaps nothing so threatens the future of New York as a radicalized City Council free to work its will without restraint.
The evolution that got underway when the Board of Estimates was ordered dismantled in 1989 and term limits passed in 1993 became a revolution in November 2001, when political activists scored big victories in City Council elections. This changed the council’s ideological character overnight. Almost a third of the winners ran with endorsements from the extremist Working Families Party, an essentially socialist third party founded by organizers from left-wing unions and radical community groups such as Acorn,for whom New York’s liberal Democratic Party was too conservative.
Worsening the problem with the new council is that Majority Leader Gifford Miller has changed the way the body runs, setting in place a laissez-faire regime that has unleashed the most extreme elements. To win the speaker’s job, Mr. Miller had to promise to depart from the way the council operated under Peter Vallone, who tightly controlled its agenda and its members. After the November 2001 elections, several newly elected councilmen who dubbed themselves the Fresh Democracy Council demanded more power for council committees to set their own platforms and more freedom for individual members to push their interests.
And who was Mr. Miller empowering when he reached out to Fresh Democracy? One of those instrumental in the group was the former Black Panther, Mr. Barron. Just a few months after taking office, Mr. Barron garnered headlines by telling a rally on slavery reparations that sometimes he felt he wanted to "slap" a white person for the sake of his own mental health. A soft-spoken man whose grandfatherly tone often belies the venom of his message, Mr. Barron embarrassed the city further when he threw a council reception for Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe. As Mr. Barron himself says in praise of Mr. Miller’s rule: "I am able to be as radicalto be black as I want to be."
While Mr. Barron’s antics have gotten headlines, the quiet machinations of the rest of the new council have been much more destructive.With unions and activists setting its agenda, the new council is virulently anti-business, threatening the economic future of the city.
Taking its orders from the Working Families Party and Acorn, the council quickly passed a "living-wage" bill, setting a new minimum wage more than $3 above the federal minimum for many private companies that do business with the city. Wall Street veteran David Weprin, the finance committee chairman and a former municipal-finance banker who should know better,argued that the council had to enact a living-wage bill to ensure that low-wage workers had enough money to pay for a property-tax increase the council had recently approved.
Other council legislation makes clear that the members care little for the long-term effects of their measures, so long as they can claim short-term victories. They have already proposed bills that would impose commercial rent control; would force government contractors to ensure that at least half of their workforce on municipal jobs reside in the five boroughs; would make landlords more vulnerable to lawsuits over lead poisoning, even though the city’s lead-poisoning emergency is long past; would ban companies that profited in any way from slavery more than 150 years ago from doing business with the city today; and would resurrect the city’s affirmative-action contracting program, which gives a 10% price advantage to minority firms in competitive bidding, at a time of huge budget deficits, even though the 1990s witnessed unprecedented growth in the city’s minority business community without any such contracting program in place.
A council so cavalier about the city’s business environment is also a council intent on pumping up the city’s already high tax rates to finance its members’ many schemes.When Mr. Bloomberg was briefly trying to hold the line against new taxes, nearly half the council members signed on to an agendaessentially drafted by the Working Families Partythat called for a wide array of new taxes, including reestablishing a tax on stock transactions at a time when Wall Street was already in a deep recession. The council has also called for a personal income-tax surcharge on wealthy individuals, to finance increases in the Department of Education’s $12 billion budget.
Although the council has its greatest impact on budgetary matters, new members are now trying to radicalize a wide range of issues, from policing to social programs. One bill would ban racial or ethnic profiling by the police department; the bill, with 13 sponsors, does little to define these contentious terms and could open up police to unending lawsuits and prosecutions.Similarly,the council has the Giuliani administration’s welfare reforms in its sights. A new city law, which the mayor has said he will challenge, weakens the city’s welfare-to-work program, allowing recipients to substitute education or job training for work, even though these programs have conclusively proven useless at getting recipients off welfare.
When not preoccupied with playing the anti-Giuliani, the council regularly steps in to matters concerning which it has neither power nor expertise. Council members have sparred over resolutions about Middle East policy, for instance, andlike the legislatures of other left-of-center municipalities around Americahave passed a resolution opposing war with Iraq, with one sponsor of the resolution, Robert Jackson, complaining that the measure took so long to approve because of opposition from New York’s Jews.
Nothing on the horizon promises to moderate the council’s growing extremism any time soon, unless the business owners, moderate and conservative politicians, and civic groups who have an interest in sensible and restrained government band together to change the council’s makeup. But these groups often work against one another. To forestall property-tax increases, for instance, some homeowner groups recommended higher business taxes. Business groups, alarmed by the council’s leftward march, are trying to assert their influence by donating more heavily to incumbentsa move that will only make those incumbents stronger.
Separately, none of these constituencies can master the forces that term limits unleashed on New York politics. But collectively, they might jolt some sense into the council’s increasingly self-destructive policies. If they don’t hang together, they will hang separately, as the city experiences a torrent of antibusiness, anti-taxpayer legislation that will damage it for years to come.
Mr. Malanga is a contributing editor to City Journal, from the Spring 2003 number of which this is adapted.
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