What Did Koch Know, and When Did He Know It?

Anatomy of a Cover-Up

I’m the perfect route to the downfall of this administration.
— Bess Myerson, New York magazine,
March 30, 1987

In the middle of the afternoon last Friday, Ed Koch slouched in his office chair, with just a cou­ple of cameras to perform for and a handful of print reporters. He’d called a press conference to badger the City Council and the Board of Estimate about the budget, but the reporters wanted one more run through the Myer­son thicket — a complex and mounting series of questions about the mayor’s knowledge of former Cultural Affairs commissioner Bess Myerson’s wrongdoing, which had dominated news coverage at City Hall all week. For the next half-hour, the mayor became a zombie.

“I don’t know,” “I can’t recall,” “I can’t reconstruct that,” were Koch’s answers to question after question. He looked like a man who’d spent the night in an arcade with a pocketful of quarters; a video­game glaze had seized control of him. Having struck out on questions that pushed Koch’s memory about events as far away as 1983, the Voice‘s Wayne Bar­rett asked him to think back to when he first read the Tyler report in early April of this year. Barrett wondered if Koch could recall whether the report’s account of the activities of his close friend and aide Herb Rickman rang a bell with him, sounded like something he’d heard be­fore, or whether it was news to him — the first time he’d ever heard that Rickman had warned both Myerson and Judge Hortense Gabel not to go ahead with the hiring of the judge’s daughter. The mayor paused. The mayor grimaced. The mayor grappled. But nothing came out. He couldn’t remember again.

The mayor’s memory lapses last week were part of a four-year-old stonewall on questions about Bess Myerson. And the stonewall did not end with the confer­ence. Moments after Koch finished, the gray tape recorder that the press office used to record the conference was hurried into a small private office 40 feet from the mayor’s. The office belongs to Herb Rickman, who immediately sat with an assistant, listening to a playback of the mayor’s amnesia.

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Koch cannot be sure that Rickman will decide to match the mayor’s apparent evasions with his own. A former assistant U.S. attorney who voluntarily appeared before Judge Harold Tyler’s commission and the federal grand jury probing Myerson without even retaining an attorney, Rickman has been a sword in Myerson’s gut. If sworn or forced by the press, he might be the same to the mayor. Rick­man knows how many times Koch was warned about Myerson over the past four years and he knows the depths of the mayor’s indifference. Rickman told Tyler a good portion of the truth about Myer­son, but no one, until now, has asked him to spell out his own conversations with Myerson’s stubborn protector, Ed Koch. When Rickman raises his hand for the Ferrick Commission — appointed by Gov­ernor Cuomo to probe the city scandal — ­he may, combined with other evidence of warnings to the mayor, put Koch at the center of a legal firestorm.

The report, news stories over the last week, and Voice interviews suggest the following chronology of cover-up:


Around Labor Day in 1983, Herb Rickman, whose office is only four doors down the hall from Koch’s, learned that his longtime close friend, Bess Myerson, had hired the daughter of another friend of his, Hortense Gabel. The hiring deeply disturbed Rickman, who knew that Judge Gabel was then hearing a difficult divorce case involving Myerson’s lover, city sewer contractor Andy Capasso. A week later, the New York Post reported (on Septem­ber 14, 1983) that the Capasso divorce case was heating up and that Myerson and Capasso had “recently been playing coy” about their relationship. This story appeared the same day that Judge Gabel slashed Capasso’s alimony payments by two-thirds. Rickman says he then ar­ranged a meeting with Myerson to warn her about the appearance of impropriety and to urge her not to go through with the Gabel hiring. Later he went to lunch with Judge Gabel and warned her.

But Rickman, who was so troubled he confronted two of his friends face-to-face, has so far maintained that he said noth­ing to the mayor, even though the con­flict of interest involved the possibly ille­gal use of a city job. The mayor also says Rickman divulged nothing to him, noting that it would have been better if Rickman came forward, but insisting that Rickman did nothing wrong. Rickman’s explana­tion for his silence is that Myerson as­sured him that the major decisions in the divorce case had occurred before she hired Sukhreet and that the hiring had been “cleared by City Hall.” These expla­nations temporarily satisfied Rickman, although a City Hall sign-off on the hir­ing — minus the information he had — ­would have been routine. (Of course if Rickman saw the September 14 Post story, he would’ve known that the divorce case was still active after Sukhreet’s hiring.)

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What apparently bothered Rickman was that Myerson’s hiring of the judge’s daughter was a blatant conflict that could attract public attention. His own actions, if they were designed to both help and protect Myerson, suggested a far more subtle approach. Several months before Myerson offered Sukhreet a job, Rick­man began looking for one for her, at the urging of Judge Gabel, whom Rickman had known for years. At a lunch with Sukhreet in May or June 1983, Rickman picked up her resumé. According to Sukhreet, Rickman took it to city eco­nomic development commissioner Larry Kieves, who interviewed her, but did not offer a job. Myerson had simultaneously begun the wooing of Judge Gabel, whose handling of the divorce case had been reported in a March front-page New York Post story that featured a picture of Myerson. During this period, Myerson, Rickman, the judge, and her husband, Dr. Milton Gabel, had dinner at a restaurant. But it is unclear if jobhunter Rickman was acting only out of affection for Judge Gabel or was aware that Myerson was then engaged in what the Tyler report described as a conscious “courtship of the judge.”

The Tyler report says these various contacts culminated in a dinner party at Judge Gabel’s home, attended by about 14 people, on June 17, 1983. Myerson and Rickman attended together. (Rickman, who is gay, and Myerson have been social companions for two decades.) Myerson met Sukhreet for the first time, and the two spent most of the evening chatting. Tyler concluded: “If Myerson was looking for a way to influence Justice Gabel, and we believe she was, it became apparent by the dinner on June 17, if not before, that Ms. Gabel provided the best path to that result.”

Rickman sought a job for Sukhreet while spending several long weekends at Capasso’s Westhampton Beach house, and listening to Myerson and Capasso’s incessant talk about Capasso’s divorce and Judge Gabel. He saw the divorce papers strewn all over the house. With the collapse of his efforts at OED and the pressure of the critical alimony decisions in the divorce case, Myerson took mat­ters into her own hands. Yet when Rick­man learned that Myerson had hired Sukhreet herself — as her own special as­sistant no less — he says he kept his infor­mation to himself. And the mayor now says that’s all right with him.

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On October 18, 1983, the Post re­ported that Myerson’s agency had hired Sukhreet Gabel while Judge Gabel was handling the Capasso case. Herb Rickman was surprised and outraged because the story indirectly attributed the hiring — which he had op­posed — to him. A Myerson spokesperson was quoted as saying that Rickman had tried to get Gabel a job at the Office of Economic Development, but that prob­lems had developed “so her resumé was sent to me.” Rickman told Tyler he an­grily called Myerson and her assistant, correcting the inference that he had something do with the resumé winding up at DCA. But he did not stop there.

Rickman told the press last week that he also informed the mayor the Post sto­ry was incorrect and made it clear that he’d had nothing to do with Sukhreet Gabel’s hiring. During his press confer­ence on Friday, the mayor could not re­call when Rickman told him about the error in the Post story. But sources famil­iar with the facts told the Voice that Rickman went to the mayor about the story “the moment it appeared.”

The timing is important because the day after the story Myerson sent the mayor a letter that responded to the Post piece and falsely contended that “most of what had to be decided” in the divorce case “had already been decided in the first six months, a major part of it in favor of Mrs. Capasso.” On October 21, the mayor answered Myerson’s letter with a brief note of praise, saying Myer­son had done “exactly the right thing in filling an open job with an able person.” The Tyler report has established that Myerson’s description of the hiring pro­cess in her letter to Koch was a wholesale fraud, designed to deceive the mayor.

But the mayor already had two reasons to question the truthfulness of Myerson’s letter. Rickman had just told him that Myerson’s suggestion in the Post story that he’d referred Gabel for the job was false. And the Post story of September 14 established that the divorce case was at such a critical junction after Sukhreet was hired on August 29 that Capasso and Myerson were trying to conceal their own relationship. These facts alone should have prompted Koch to hesitate before enthusiastically endorsing Myerson’s conduct. His own City Hall personnel staff could’ve told him, had they been asked, that Gabel was hired before the vacancy notice was even published, de­stroying the facade of a search concocted in Myerson’s letter.

Tyler concluded that Judge Gabel’s as­sertions that she had not read the Post stories of March and September — which describe her own decisions and link the Capasso divorce to Myerson — were unbe­lievable. Is it believable that the Septem­ber 14 Post piece was missed by Koch, a voracious newspaper reader; Rickman, who had spent much of the summer with the very people named in the story; and the mayor’s chief of staff Diane Coffey, the City Hall liaison to Cultural Affairs who reviewed Myerson’s letter with Koch? At a minimum, this story would’ve alerted them to the falseness of Myer­son’s assertion that the case was virtually over.

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The Tyler report indicates that Myerson called Rickman in March 1984 and left a message regarding a state decision to suspend payments on two contracts with Capasso’s company because of apparent violations of law by Capasso in the use of phony minority fronts as subcontractors. By July 1984, Rickman knew enough about an investigation of Capasso’s construc­tion company, Nanco, to warn Koch not to attend a July 4, 1984 party at Capas­so’s Westhampton Beach house. Rickman declined to go himself and called Koch, telling him that he had “heard there was a problem.” Koch, who had been invited by Myerson, said at the press conference last Friday that he went because “there were no indictments.” Ultimately Attorney General Robert Abrams did indict Nanco on these charges.

Rickman’s rejection of the party invita­tion was part of a conscious decision to distance himself from Myerson. Some months back Rickman told New Yorker reporter Andy Logan that he was con­sciously cutting his contacts with Myer­son during this period, gradually ending their social relationship. The Voice has learned that Rickman told the mayor he was disassociating himself from Myerson, although it is unclear precisely when Rickman told him or whether he told the mayor why he was cutting his ties. These discussions, together with Rickman’s call about the party, constituted a second wave of warnings to the mayor.

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In the summer of 1985, Nancy Capas­so’s counsel, Herman Turnow, met with the mayor’s City Hall counsel, Pat Mulhearn. Turnow says he spoke to Mulhearn “about the interrelation­ship of Judge Gabel’s ruling on the alimo­ny and child support to reports that Bess Myerson hired the judge’s daughter.” Mulhearn says they “never discussed the giving of the job to her” or at least that he has “no recollection of that.” Mul­hearn and Turnow agree that they did discuss the propriety of Myerson, a city official, receiving expensive gifts — includ­ing the use of a Palm Beach condo, a company limo, and a Mercedes sports car — from a company with $200 million in city contracts. Mulhearn maintained there was no ethical violation, saying, “After all, they are friends.” Turnow says he discovered in this visit to City Hall a wholly different set of ethical standards than his own.

Mulhearn passed the issue of gifts on to the mayor, but Koch says that Mul­hearn and then corporation counsel Fritz Schwarz told him that acceptance of the gifts was “within ethics guidelines.” At his Friday press conference, the mayor angrily rejected questions by WNBC’s Gabe Pressman, who was pressing him on the appropriateness of these gifts, none of which were listed on Myerson’s finan­cial disclosure statements filed with the city clerk.

When Mulhearn met with Turnow, he was already sitting on another hot potato involving Myerson. Myerson had refused for six months to fire her city chauffeur after the Department of Investigation found that the driver had been involved in a hit-and-run incident while driving Myerson’s city car, that he’d driven Myerson for two and a half years with a suspended license, and that he had improperly been permitted to carry and dis­play Myerson’s city shield when she was not in the car. Myerson had refused to act on a detailed DOI report sent her in February 1985, and DOI had at first en­listed Mulhearn to try to force Myerson to fire the driver. When nothing happened, DOI Commissioner Pat McGinley brought the subject up at a meeting with the mayor, Mulhearn and Deputy Mayor Stan Brezenoff. The mayor reportedly told Brezenoff and Mulhearn: “Take care of it.”

Of course, as the Tyler report fully demonstrated, the driver had intimate knowledge of Myerson’s activities in the Gabel case as well as information about her violations of city law regarding both the gifts and the illegal use of his own services by Myerson. Myerson, who had directed the driver to falsify his mileage reports to the city, was protecting her own accomplice. Despite Mulhearn’s in­volvement, the driver was never fired, but resigned and was placed in a job deliver­ing payrolls for the City University of New York.

By the time the issues of the gifts and the driver were brought to Koch’s atten­tion in 1985, the mayor was wading in Myerson warnings. But he did not ask the city’s Department of Investigations, which was clearly already involved with a serious Myerson matter, to examine the gift issue, nor did be refer it to the Board of Ethics, though on its face the legal question merited more than informal as­surance from in-house counsel that ev­erything was okay.

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After the Manes suicide and the explosion of the city scandal in early 1986, the Daily News published seven investigative articles on Myerson, from May 1 to May 15. Rickman was featured in many of these stories. We know Koch read them closely because on May 2, at a City Hall news conference, he accused the News of “Mc­Carthyism.” (Koch must have meant Mary McCarthy for her brilliant renderings of the decadence of the rich.) It is certainly reasonable to assume that Rick­man, whose photo accompanied the first piece, discussed the articles with Koch.

These stories — written by Marcia Kramer, Marilyn Thompson, and Barbara Ross — revealed that U.S. Attorney Ru­dolph Giuliani was investigating Capasso and “reviewing records of Capasso’s re­cent bitter divorce.” Myerson was quoted as saying, at this late date, that she and Capasso are “friends, that’s all.” These articles demonstrated that the heart of Myerson’s defense for the hiring of Sukh­reet Gabel, contained in the 1983 letter, was fiction. Judge Gabel had, according to the News, “sharply trimmed the ali­mony payments of a businessman linked romantically to Myerson one month after Myerson hired the judge’s daughter.”

At his Friday press conference, Koch could not say why he hadn’t asked Myer­son to explain the discrepancy between the News stories and her assertions in the 1983 letter. He recalled calling her and said she simply referred him back to the 1983 exchange of letters. That was enough for the mayor to reject what was by now a mountain of evidence. He did nothing. (Giuliani told the Voice this week that the investigations of Myerson and Capasso began in his office and were not a referral from DOI. Although DOI was never asked by Koch to investigate Myerson, this week DOI called in for questioning several employees of the Ap­pellate Division, First Department, to try to find out who leaked the Tyler report to us.)

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Even when Myerson’s decision to take the Fifth Amendment in a federal grand jury appearance was revealed early this year, Koch’s respons was muted. He still proclaimed at a press conference that he had “faith in her integrity” and refused to fire her, although she had hidden this appearance from him. Instead, she agreed to a 90-day suspension while Tyler did his investigation.

Tyler urged Koch not to release the full report to protect witnesses from retalia­tion and safeguard Giuliani’s ongoing probe. But Tyler did not object to revealing the report’s basic conclusions. The mayor’s decision to summarize the report in five simple sentences — one of which was exculpatory — was one more cover-up gesture. As a Times editorial noted last week, “Surely more of Mr. Tyler’s story about Ms. Myerson’s sordid manipula­tion of the judge and her daughter could have been safely revealed.” To keep the report sealed, the mayor’s attorneys had railed on in court that the lives of witnesses would be in jeopardy if it were released. But Giuliani said that after the Voice broke the story last week, “no witnesses needed protection.” Everyone “is fine,” said Giuliani, “there are no problems.”

Why has Koch gone to such great lengths to protect Myerson?

He has attributed it all to friendship. In fact, no public of­ficial is less loyal to his friends than Ed Koch. In his best-selling memoir, Mayor, he wrote about how he reduced his longtime aide and then deputy mayor Ronay Menschel to tears. He has written critically about his loyal special assistant John LoCicero. In fact, inti­mates of Koch say that he has not been personally close to Myerson for years, rarely seeing her socially. It is indeed an irony that though she is widely and accurately credited with having played a piv­otal role in making him mayor, he never mentioned her in Mayor.

The fact is that Koch has protected Myerson because he has long recognized that there is no way that a damaged Myerson wouldn’t also damage him. And perhaps turn on him. The two went to such lengths to manufacture a fictional relationship that Koch is now a captive of it. In the end, the cover-up that has insulated Bess so long was designed to protect the mayor, who was joined to her in the public mind by creative advertising. As that cover-up unravels, so does he. ❖

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There is a great irony in the fact that Ed Koch’s gravest crisis comes from his perceived inti­macy with Bess Myerson. The irony goes back to the Immac­ulate Deception of the 1977 campaign for mayor.

During that campaign, Koch and Myerson kissed in Co-op City, hugged in Forest Hills, held hands in a syna­gogue on Rosh Hoshanna, and looked into each other’s eyes in Pelham Park­way. The Koch campaign wanted to convey the idea of a romance to refute the whispering campaign that Koch was gay.

The romance was the invention of the brilliantly cynical David Garth, who was Koch’s chief strategist and media adviser. Once, early in the campaign, Garth told Jack Newfield he had to cancel a meeting with him because he was hav­ing lunch with “the Smith Brothers.”

Newfield asked who were the Smith Brothers.

“Oh, that’s my nickname for Ed and Bess,” Garth replied.

“I don’t get it,” said Newfield.

“Two beards, shmuck,” Garth said. and laughed.

There never was any romance be­tween Koch and Myerson, although they were good friends. It was Myerson who arranged for Koch to meet Garth, and it was Myerson who pressured Garth to mastermind the campaign, in which Koch started with 2 per cent city­-wide recognition.

Gossip columnists began to print items saying that Koch and Myerson might get married after the election, a notion that surely helped Koch with working-class Jewish voters, who might otherwise have voted for Abe Beame or Bella Abzug without considering Koch.

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Late in the campaign, when political reporters started to ask Koch and Myerson about a real romance, they would give coyly clever answers, like, “Anything is possible,” “We may have an announcement after the election,” or, “For now, we’re just good friends.”

In appearances with Myerson, Koch would say to audiences, “Wouldn’t she make a great first lady in Gracie Man­sion?” On television, Koch was asked if be planned to marry Myerson, and he said, “It’s always a possibility, but I don’t want to talk about it. She’s an incredible person, a warm human be­ing that I truly adore.”

Myerson acted like a surrogate wife in the 1977 campaign. She stood next to Koch on the basic campaign post­er — the only time in anyone’s memory that a nonfamily member was used in such a fashion. She made television commercials for Koch, asking, “Have you no character, Mr. Cuomo?”

It was all a charade — a consumer fraud perpetrated by the former con­sumer commissioner. Koch and Myer­son agreed to use each other to create an illusion. Koch needed to win an election and Myerson wanted a politi­cal career. Three years later, Myerson would run for the Senate with the sup­port of Koch and Garth.

But for the past six or seven years, Koch and Myerson have not been really close friends, in the way that Koch is close to Dan Wolf, David Margolis, Leonard Sandler, or Herb Rickman.

As the Myerson scandal unravels, Koch will be paying a price for his fantasy politics of 1977, which the vot­ers believed and now remember.

— W.B., J.N. & T.R.

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The head of the city’s Human Rights Commission says Bess Myerson demanded that Sukh­reet Gabel be fired from her second city job, a top post at the Commission, which she obtained on the recommenda­tion of her mother, state supreme court judge Hortense Gabel.

At a meeting in Myerson’s Depart­ment of Cultural Affairs office on Au­gust 7, 1984, Myerson urged human rights chairwoman Marcella Maxwell to discharge Gabel without giving any rea­son. “Bess told me I had to fire Sukh­reet,” Maxwell told the Voice. “She didn’t say why, just that I had to. I was so shocked I almost fell off my chair.”

Maxwell had in fact already decided to dismiss Gabel because “she was un­able to relate to people at the agency.” But before telling Sukhreet, she took Judge Gabel — a 20-year friend — to lunch and told her that her daughter would be sacked. “She told me, ‘You can’t do that, she’ll kill herself,’ ” says Maxwell, who agreed to Judge Gabel’s request to let Sukhreet resign.

Myerson’s demand to Maxwell two days later seems puzzling. It may have been one more lurching turn on the roller coaster of affection and rejection to which Myerson subjected Sukhreet. But it came in the midst of increasingly aggressive legal strategies by Capasso’s wife, Nancy, in their divorce case, being handled by Judge Gabel. On July 25, while being deposed by his wife’s formi­dable new attorney, Herman Turnow, Capasso balked at answering questions about his business relationships with city officials — including Myerson.

Less than a week later, on July 31, Nancy Capasso secretly recorded a dra­matic conversation with her husband in which he said she knew enough about his business dealings to put him in jail “for 400-500 years.” Capasso proposed a cash settlement of the case for $1 mil­lion to $2 million; Nancy Capasso coun­tered with $7 million to $8 million. Ca­passo clearly felt a rising desperation as Nancy and her lawyers began closing in on his business dealings, his relation­ship with Myerson — and perhaps Myer­son’s favors for Judge Gabel.

Maxwell’s hiring of Sukhreet came af­ter Judge Gabel, along with many oth­ers, had written the mayor, recommend­ing Maxwell for the Human Rights position. “Hortense told me I’d need someone I knew and trusted,” Maxwell told the Voice. Even though Maxwell barely knew Sukhreet, she took Gabel’s suggestion that she hire her daughter. Ironically, Maxwell had wanted Sukh­reet to serve as an executive assistant, at a lower salary. But no such job exist­ed, and Sukhreet was instead offered the agency’s third-highest job, a $40,000-a-year deputy commissioner­ship — more than double her DCA salary of $19,000.

Myerson displayed her protective side when Maxwell asked her to approve Sukhreet’s release from DCA. Although Myerson had demoted Sukhreet and denigrated her work, Maxwell said when she called Myerson from Judge Gabel’s apartment in June 1984, “Bess was very reluctant to let her leave.”

Myerson may have had good reason to want to keep Sukhreet close by and at the mercy of her fickle attentions. Although Judge Gabel had already sharply reduced Capasso’s child support and alimony payments in September 1983 (following Myerson’s hiring of Sukhreet at DCA), several important motions were pending, and the case was still a ticking time bomb for Capasso.

But Sukhreet’e new job also quickly began to unravel. The only task Gabel seems to have been given on her own was arranging a huge swearing-in bash for Maxwell at City Hall on July 11. Gabel told the Voice she had no further dealings with Maxwell after that. “I sat isolated and alone in my office.” Once Sukhreet began to get the same treat­ment at Human Rights that she had gotten at DCA, Myerson’s attentions re­sumed. “I hadn’t seen Bees for a long time,” said Sukhreet. “I was rather de­pressed. When Marcella started treating me horribly, I showed my work to Bess and she praised it.” When, in early Au­gust, Maxwell told Sukhreet she would be fired, Sukhreet called Myerson, and got a very different reaction than Max­well later received. “Bess was support­ive,” said Sukhreet, “she made nice clucking noises.” Gabel was at a loss to account for Myerson’s demand that she be fired. “Bess is crazy,” she said, “but Marcella is mean and vicious.”

— W.B., J.N. & T.R.

Equality From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Washington, D.C.

Black History Month: The Great Black Hope

Lorain, Ohio — The kind of hope Barack Obama promised to deliver was nowhere craved more deeply on Election Day than in this battered old manufacturing city on the shores of Lake Erie.

Hope got scores of local residents up before dawn to bounce over rutted streets that haven’t been repaved in decades. Hope had them standing all day outside of polling sites at schools forced to lay off 300 staff members last month for lack of funds. Hope sent them scurrying back and forth across town, picking up voters in need of a lift. It sent them past the mammoth, mile-long steel mills by the Black River, mills that once offered their own brand of hope, employing more than 13,000 workers at gritty but solid jobs with benefits and pensions. Barely a tenth that many jobs remain.

Hope got retired auto worker Joe Gonzalez, 59, over to his church, Sacred Heart Chapel on Pearl Avenue, before sunup to pilot a van to pick up stranded voters. Gonzalez put in 30 years at the vast Ford auto plant on Lake Road, alongside 15,000 other workers, turning out Falcons, Thunderbirds, and Econolines, often at a breakneck clip of more than 50 an hour. The speed didn’t help. The plant was shut in 2005, taking $2.2 million in city tax revenues with it, according to the local Morning Journal, which tabulates plant closings the way other dailies list obituaries.

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“I came out of the Army in 1967, went to apply at Ford on Wednesday, got called to work on Thursday,” Gonzalez said, sipping coffee under a basketball hoop in the church’s hall. “Once, they had so many workers at the plants that some people pitched tents because there wasn’t enough housing around.”

That’s no longer a problem. There are 1,000 foreclosures in the city of Lorain, officials say. Many of the homes belong to laid-off auto workers forced to walk away. The vacancies are a green light for scavengers, who rip out the copper piping, rendering the homes uninhabitable. Even some of the fancy new condos built along the river on the site where George Steinbrenner’s huge American Ship Building plant operated, until he closed it in 1983, have been seized by lenders.

Broadway, the city’s main strip, is neat and tidy, with stylish late-19th-century buildings. But it’s like a movie set. Most stores and offices are empty. There’s a lovely waterside park, built with federal funds, that’s dedicated to Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize–winning writer who was born here, and the Underground Railroad, which offered runaway slaves a last stop before freedom in Canada on the far side of the lake.

But the most riveting sight there is the open drawbridge over the mouth of the Black River, where Route 6 links the east side of town to the rest of Lorain. Built to let the huge freighters pass through on their way to deliver ore to the steel plants, it’s been stuck open since June. Its big arms stand 50 feet high in the air facing the Great Lake, as though the city were offering to surrender. State officials say that it’s a computer problem and they’re working on it. Still, it’s too late for the Dairy Queen on East Erie Avenue, a town favorite that closed last month after 33 years because customers couldn’t get there.

The way Gonzalez and several hundred other Lorain residents figured it, the 2008 election was their last best chance to respond to these insults, to register their voices with the political powers-that-be, and to keep their own hopes alive. They would do it by turning out as many voters as possible, a show of force to be ignored at any politician’s peril.

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Obama was the big draw at the top of the ticket — the former community organizer inspiring a new wave of organizing. But their own platform was strictly nonpartisan. They made their slogan, “Reclaim Lorain,” and issued a manifesto calling for neighborhood revitalization and anti-crime initiatives. Starting in 2006, they began the grunt work of rallying their neighbors. They put their slogan on lawn signs and on bright orange T-shirts that they wore as they tramped up and down the cracked sidewalks of the poorest city wards in the months leading up to Election Day.

Leading the effort is Laura Rios, a Lorain native and mother of three, who decided to start organizing when she was laid off after 15 years as a marketing director at a nearby manufacturing firm. “It gave me the first chance in a long time to take a look at what was happening in my community. I’d be driving around, and it was like, ‘Wow, when did that building get boarded up empty?’ “

Another nasty nudge came when drug dealers moved into a rented home next door. “I live in a quiet neighborhood. It was a real wake-up call about what was going on.”

Rios received training from the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Saul Alinsky–inspired advocacy group that helped create Brooklyn’s famed low-cost Nehemiah homes. IAF dispatched Jonathan Lange, a former textile workers organizer, from Baltimore. “We know that the most effective way to get people out to vote,” said Lange, “is face-to-face meetings with people like themselves, who love their town and also want change.”

Lorain’s population is about 70,000. Whites — a polyglot mix of ethnics drawn to the mills — are in the majority and hold most local offices. Blacks are 16 percent; Latinos, 21 percent. A fifth of the city’s residents fall below the poverty line. There’s a large Puerto Rican population, thanks to a recruiting drive that U.S. Steel conducted on the island in the 1950s. Both of Rios’s grandfathers came to Lorain that way: “They were looking for men who could work long hours in very hot conditions — like working in sugarcane fields, which is what my grandfathers did.”

At the group’s first meetings, Rios said, people talked about the good old days. “People had a nostalgic view of what Lorain used to be — that it had jobs, movie theaters, restaurants. People were going through a grieving process for their loss of that city, like mourning a lost loved one.”

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Christina Futchko, a Lorain native who taught public school for 13 years and helped organize Reclaim Lorain, remembers visiting her grandmother who worked on Broadway at Ted Jacobs, the town’s largest apparel shop. “It wasn’t Fifth Avenue, but you could buy a nice dress there. I couldn’t believe it when it closed.”

Gloria Nieto, a soft-spoken mother of five, got involved through her pastor at Sacred Heart, Father Bill Thaden, who urged parishioners to speak out about local conditions. “When I grew up, we had everything,” Nieto said, whose father and three brothers worked in the steel mills. “We never had to worry about crime. I just feel like, if we don’t fight back, this city is going to disappear.”

Obama came to Lorain in February during the Ohio primary to visit National Gypsum, a plant where Nieto’s husband worked hauling wallboard. “It was supposed to be just the media and the workers, but I wanted to go so badly and I got in,” she said. She listened as the ex-organizer preached about creating “green” jobs and ending tax breaks to corporations that shift work overseas. A few weeks after Obama’s visit, company officials closed the plant, laying off 58 workers.

Four years ago, on election night, I stood in the rain a few miles away in East Cleveland — another of Ohio’s poorest cities — watching a different group of church-based organizers work their hearts out to get voters to the polls. The rain fell in dismal buckets day and night, but people still turned out in droves in an overwhelmingly Democratic city with a history of underwhelming turnout. The grim weather matched the mood after early returns showed Bush winning Ohio and its critical electoral votes. The day was made brighter only by echoes of the cheers that were raised at the polls every time a young man in full hip-hop regalia showed up to cast his first proud vote.

Election Day 2008 saw Ohio bathed in warm sunshine. Reclaim Lorain dispatched some 100 local volunteers — along with three dozen energetic students from nearby Oberlin College — to its base of operations at Sacred Heart Chapel and to a dozen polling places around the city. Their marching orders, in addition to turning out the vote, were to assist those whose residence or identity was challenged. “We don’t want to see people forced to vote by provisional ballots,” Rios instructed her troops. “They usually don’t get counted until days after the election.”

Outside the polling place, at General Johnnie Wilson Middle School on the city’s west side, a first-time voter named Diraus Wagner Jr. asked for help after being told he wasn’t registered. A volunteer in an orange T-shirt called the church office, where someone typed Wagner’s name into a voter database. A van was dispatched to pick up Wagner and take him to the right polling place.

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“I just know the one thing I’m going to do today is vote,” Wagner insisted. “I’m out of a job, and even the temp agencies are cutting back on hours. I’m hoping a lot of people make the right decision today for a president who’s going to bring change.”

Beside him, Kenny Gordon, 59, a big man with a graying beard wearing a Cleveland Browns cap stood in the parking lot holding a large “Obama–Biden” sign. He said he’d been dispatched by his local chapter of the steelworkers’ union. “I’m in the mills 40 years. I swore I’d never be there as long as my father; he did 42. But I’m getting there.” After high school, Gordon worked for awhile at Steinbrenner’s shipyards before switching to steel. “Back then, you could quit one job and get another that afternoon. There were 7,500 men in my mill when I started. All the closings have taken their toll. Jesus, there are so many empty homes now. One day, I’m watching TV, and it shows these people down in Texas living under a bridge. I look, and it’s one of my old neighbors. I couldn’t believe it. He told me he was going to get a job down there in oil because he heard it was busy. He ends up living under a bridge.”

Gordon said he’d been following the presidential polls closely. “I think it’s Obama. I just feel good. McCain is just an extension of Bush. We can’t keep going that way. It has to change.”

Lorain voted better than 2 to 1 in 2004 for John Kerry. But many polling sites showed turnouts of 50 percent and less. Efforts by Obama’s campaign and Reclaim Lorain helped increase city registrations by 25 percent, officials said. Final tallies of early and absentee votes from this year’s election are still under way, but preliminary results show a sharp drop in Republican votes, with dramatic spikes in Democratic votes at the city’s poorer precincts. On Election Day, the big question was whether Lorain’s many white Democrats would cancel out that surge by refusing to back an African-American candidate.

There were many surprises. Richard Schuler, a 63-year-old white man who owns a paint-contracting business, talked nothing like McCain’s Joe the Plumber. “I am happy to see there’s an intelligent candidate stepping up to run,” he said after casting his ballot at St. Cyril & Methodius Church. “I like his speeches, like what he has to say, how he handles himself. I voted for Bush the first time, then changed my mind. I felt the country was headed in the wrong direction. Let’s just hope it can get turned around now.”

A few minutes later, a pair of young white men in work clothes emerged from the polling site and jumped into a mud-spattered Jeep Cherokee. “I did Obama,” said Jason Hilton, 25, a laborer. “I wasn’t even registered. Someone gave me a form at the racetrack, I filled it out, and here I am. Hell, I could’ve watched those debates till 2 a.m. Obama cleaned McCain’s clock every time.” His pal, Chris Hartman, 22, an auto mechanic, nodded. “If we had another 9/11, I think McCain would freak out — have a heart attack, drop dead — and then we’d have her for president.”

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On Lorain’s southeast side in front of Southview High School, a pair of middle-aged white men stood outside the polls talking about bowhunting season. One man, who gave his name only as Steve, wore tattered camouflage pants and a bandanna around his head. The other had on a rumpled gas-station attendant’s shirt bearing the name “Bill.” Both looked like sure bets to have one of those “NO-bama” stickers — sported on cars around the state — on their bumpers. Wrong again. “I thought about McCain for awhile,” said the man named Bill. “People said Obama was from the Middle East and has Arab blood. But I changed my mind. Obama’s more the right man.”

“I’ve got 14 guns, and if I thought he was going to take away one of them, I’d be against him,” said Steve, a construction worker. “But I sorted everything out. We’ve had eight years of getting porked by this Bush, and that’s enough. I want the guy who’s going to do right by working people.”

For that matter, not every minority voter matched the Obama profile. Luis Rosario, 34, wore gold studs in his ear and an African-style necklace to the polls. “We don’t need someone with no experience in the White House,” said Rosario, an ex-Marine who’s spent five years as a correctional officer at Lorain Correctional Institution, a state prison in nearby Grafton. “We don’t need Kuwait, places like that, trying to test us.”

It was a day that tested many stereotypes. One of the leaders of Reclaim Lorain is a middle-aged black woman from Louisiana named Jo Ann Charleston, who is pastor of a local house of worship called New Birth Church. On Election Day, Charleston worked as a roving troubleshooter at the polls, helping voters and volunteers alike figure out how to cope with poll judges intent on handing out provisional ballots at the first sign of trouble.

In between answering voters’ questions, Charleston filled in the rest of her remarkable résumé. If Lorain’s problems are mired in its rust-belt past, Charleston stands for its hopes for a different future. An engineer with double degrees in divinity and chemistry, Charleston has worked for NASA for 30 years, where she helped design a battery that the agency plans to use in the next moon launch. She’s received numerous awards for her work, including being named one of the agency’s top five women employees. These days, she heads NASA’s educational-outreach efforts, coaching high school students into becoming scientists: “We’ve got a shortage of students pursuing math and science,” she said. “There’s no reason we can’t turn out a new generation of scientists right here in Lorain.”

She turned to speak to an older white man wearing plaid pants — another likely McCain–Palin voter. He’d been told he was at the wrong polling site. Charleston made a call on her cell phone. “You’re in the right place, just the wrong precinct,” she told him, directing him to the proper table. “Everyone’s vote should count,” she said as he shuffled back into the polling site.

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Wayne Barrett: A Brilliant New York Beacon and Political Warrior for Justice

The evening before he became the nation’s most powerful Democratic official last week, Chuck Schumer pecked out a couple of tweets in honor of a veteran city journalist who had breathed his last just an hour earlier. “If Heaven has a flaw, we’ll find out soon,” wrote the minority leader of the United States Senate. “Wayne Barrett will have a detailed, impactful story on it in a wk.” Barrett, he added moments later, was “a brilliant NY beacon, cleaning up our politics.”

The notes might have been just a careful pol’s nod to a popular constituent. But, as with almost everything involving Wayne Barrett, the Voice‘s mightiest and longest-running warrior of investigative reporting, there was a backstory.

Schumer long ago acknowledged that it was Barrett’s last-minute reporting in the Voice in 1998 that gave him the narrow edge he needed to overtake Al D’Amato, then the three-term Republican incumbent and a poster child for the politics of deals and patronage. D’Amato had made great hay about Schumer’s many missed votes as a congressman during the campaign, needling him in ads for “putting political ambition over the people’s needs.” Meanwhile, D’Amato’s Nassau County pals had done their best to hide the attendance records of the board of supervisors where D’Amato had been a member when he first won election to the Senate in 1980. But using a combination of tips from county insiders and his intrepid army of interns, Barrett managed to track down minutes showing D’Amato had missed more than six hundred votes while campaigning, an absentee rate of 91 percent. The story ran on election eve, but not too late for Schumer to trumpet Barrett’s report in his own TV ads.

Barrett, however, was always an equal-opportunity muckraker, and there was another reason to appreciate the Senate leader’s gracious words, this one buried even deeper in the Voice‘s archives: Back in the late 1970s, Barrett and his mentor, the late Jack Newfield, had hammered away at then–state assemblyman Schumer’s own political maneuvers, showing how his legislative staff had managed to log many hours on his congressional campaign. The stories prompted some uncomfortable prosecutorial scrutiny of Schumer until the probe was eventually dropped. But for Schumer, the experience had to make Wayne’s fourth-down rush at D’Amato all the more appreciated.

There were many marvels about Wayne Barrett, who died on January 19, at 71, from complications of a lung disease that plagued his last years. One of them was his remarkable ability to rekindle relationships with those he had skewered in print. Despite his often ferocious takedowns of those he felt had violated the public’s trust, his focus was almost always on the sin, not the sinner. And there was always an open door at Barrett’s crowded office for those seeking redemption or bearing credible evidence of unreported malfeasance.

Thus it was that in his final days Barrett found himself in friendly chats with some of the worst wrongdoers cited in City for Sale, the seminal account of corruption in the administration of Mayor Ed Koch that he and Newfield authored in 1988. Thus it was that Koch, years later, came to publicly dub Barrett’s journalism “superb.” Thus it was that a top state official, one often excoriated in Barrett’s columns and later a guest at a state correctional facility, was a regular visitor to the Windsor Terrace limestone where Barrett was investigative-reporter-in-permanent-residence after the lung ailment hobbled him.

Another ardent admirer, despite Barrett’s lances, was Andrew Cuomo. Barrett had merely put him on the Voice‘s front page as the man who sparked the nation’s mortgage meltdown by way of his actions as Bill Clinton’s HUD secretary. Cuomo followed in the footsteps of his dad, who enjoyed calling Barrett at home in the morning to tweak him about his writings. Mario Cuomo would often renew his offer to Barrett’s wife, Fran, that should she ever decide on divorce, he would happily represent her for free.

Barrett’s last outing before his final trip to the hospital was to the New Year’s Eve party held by Andrew Cuomo in celebration of the opening of the Second Avenue subway. In a wheelchair, Barrett rolled through a crowd of well-wishers, many of them pols who wanted their picture taken with him. The city’s foremost political scalp-taker, as he laughingly told me later, was treated like a rock star, even by leading members of the tribe he had long pursued.

He made a point of telling the governor that his clemency announcement the day before, including the commutation of a life sentence for Judith Clark, the fourth-longest-serving woman in the state’s prisons, was one of the finest deeds he’d ever done, one that would have made his late father proud. The governor embraced him, planting a kiss on his cheek.

Days later, when the governor called him at the hospital to wish him well, Barrett delighted in suggesting to him that the pneumonia he’d developed may have been the result of that Cuomo kiss. It wasn’t true, of course, but it was the last great laugh I saw him enjoy.

Another marvel of the life of Wayne Barrett, one less apparent to his readers, was that this reporter — whose focus on the inequities of race and poverty shaped every story he ever tackled — was a white import from the South. Born on July 11, 1945, he was raised in Lynchburg, Virginia, home base of Jerry Falwell and his far-right empire and a place deeply steeped in segregation. Barrett managed to avoid the worst of that foul practice in the Catholic schools he attended. He also absorbed the lessons in Christianity and brotherhood offered there.

But the racism was inescapable. In his first foray into journalism, as a summer reporter-trainee at a local newspaper, Barrett turned in a story about an upcoming hog show. An editor looked at the story, looked at Barrett, and asked: “Is this a white hog show or a colored hog show?” Barrett said he wasn’t sure what color the swine were. After it was established that the story he had composed focused on an event for the town’s black farmers, he watched as a group of cackling editors made their point by ripping his copy into small pieces.

When he moved to New York, he and Fran chose Brooklyn’s Brownsville, Lynchburg’s polar opposite. Overwhelmingly African-American, it was then the city’s poorest community. Barrett’s first journalism reflected what he saw there: the local vassals of the borough’s Democratic political machine who siphoned off all they could from any funding trickling in to its mean streets; the costly day care center leases that enriched connected political donors and shortchanged families; the public school boards dominated by a teachers union focused more on the needs of its members than its students; the housing and subways allowed to decay as City Hall officials openly discussed the possibility of simply “shrinking” places like Brownsville out of existence.

There was only one journalism outlet in those days receptive to the torrid words Barrett began pounding out. Voice senior editor Newfield traveled to Pitkin Avenue to hear Barrett’s primer on local poverty barons. When Newfield failed to recall the name of one such offender, Barrett’s eyes bulged. “You haven’t listened to a single word I’ve said!” he fumed. Newfield, thankfully, recognized a gem when he saw one. Barrett’s first cover story for the Voice appeared in May 1978. Co-authored with his friend and future newspaper publisher Andrew Cooper, “Koch’s War on the Poor” was a scorching condemnation of a then-brand-new mayor’s policies.

The temperature never fell over the next three-plus decades. He mined the city’s contracts, budgets, and legislation, emerging with nuggets unnoticed by other scribes. He wasn’t only the first to spot that brash young developer from Queens using his father’s money and Mob-tied lawyers to bully his way into wealth and city prominence. He was also the first to recognize the hacks appointed to city posts where they could feather the nest of their political sponsors while paying little heed to their public mission. When bricks fell from a schoolhouse roof in Brooklyn in 1998, killing a fifteen-year-old girl walking below, only Barrett noticed that the man responsible for monitoring construction there was the husband of a local political district leader. Records he dug out showed that the man’s past arrests should have prevented him from ever getting his job.

That was Wayne Barrett, whose idea of a day at the beach was literally to relax in the sun with a stack of campaign contribution filings. The Voice‘s decision to dispense with his services in late 2010 was simply the worst of many self-inflicted wounds by the paper’s former owners. It signaled that Barrett-style deep investigative reporting was no longer considered a premium. If he wasn’t good enough for the paper, I reasoned, why stick around?

Naturally, he never stopped working. In his final bedridden weeks he was digging away at another bit of journalistic gold, this one an astonishing item from the presidential election, again unnoticed by others. As Fran and his son, Mac, drove him to the hospital he was on the phone, conducting yet another interview.

Tom Robbins is the Investigative Journalist in Residence at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He worked at the Village Voice from 1985–88 and 2000–10.


The Voice of the Voice: Nat Hentoff, 1925–2017

Before age and health caused him to hole up in his West 12th Street apartment in the past few years, you could often spot Nat Hentoff trudging the Village streets, toting a huge, Santa-size sack of books and periodicals. He’d be headed home from his impossibly cluttered closet of an office wherever the Voice was then camped. Or else he’d be on his way to Bradley’s, the old piano bar on University Place where he would perch on a stool to eat, read, talk — and talk. Among the many gifts that Hentoff bestowed on the newspaper where he labored for fifty years was his eagerness for discussion and debate. If this bow-shaped man, with a face like an Old Testament prophet, wasn’t pacing the Voice‘s halls with his latest column in hand, he was deep in conversation with whoever crossed his path. It didn’t matter if it was the paper’s youngest intern or an equally illustrious columnist — Hentoff would furrow his brow, pull on his beard, and listen. And then expound. And then listen again.

Hentoff, who died on January 7 at the age of 91, started writing for the Voice in 1958, shortly after the paper was launched. As he wrote in his last column as a staff writer, in 2009, “I wanted a place where I could write freely on anything I cared about.” Born in Boston on June 10, 1925, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he was raised in a tough, left-leaning Roxbury neighborhood. As he described in his 1986 memoir, Boston Boy, at the age of twelve he publicly scarfed down a salami sandwich while seated on the family porch near a synagogue. He wanted to know what it felt like to be “an outcast,” he wrote. A devotee of jazz, he ran a local radio station for several years, then followed the music to New York, where he wrote for Down Beat and other publications.

Nat Hentoff will hopefully long be known for his prodigious writing. Books, columns, criticism — my God, the man wrote album liner notes for everyone from Bob Dylan to Miles Davis. But the secret to his craft was that he was a great listener, and gave his subjects the room to stretch out. My friend David Lewis, who made a marvelous documentary about Nat, The Pleasures of Being Out of Step, pointed that out to me after he had waded deep into the mighty Hentoff archive: Jazz musicians loved Nat, Lewis reported, because he was the only critic who let them speak in their own voice.

For sure, there were grand explosions at the Voice between Nat and the rest of us over stances this contrarian would embrace. Abortion was the big one. Later it was Scalia, Iraq, Bush, mosques. Irascible in every way, he was perfectly capable of picking up the argument you’d had in the hallway in his column, blasting you in public for whatever wrongheaded opinion you’d voiced. He relished the debate, loved stoking the fire.

And yet no one was a stronger, more loyal colleague. One day, as my first tour as a Voice contributor was coming to an end in the 1980s, after the editors had failed to offer a staff writer slot and I headed to another weekly, Nat presented me with a sheaf of papers. It was a petition he’d circulated on my behalf, denouncing the editor for failing to give me the job. He’d never even told me he was doing it.

His motto was one he attributed to tenor great Ben Webster: “If the rhythm section ain’t making it, go for yourself.” But despite his solo approach to journalism and politics, the notion of solidarity was a core issue for Nat. He played a key role in bringing the union to the Voice in the late Seventies after Rupert Murdoch bought the paper. And the one person he scorned, refusing for years to talk to him, was a talented writer Nat believed had whispered union secrets to management back then. When the writer passed by, Nat would sneer, “Gypo Nolan!” It was a perfect Hentoffian slur, obscure enough that few understood his devastating reference to John Ford’s 1935 film The Informer.

It was at the Voice that Nat met Margot, also a writer, his wife of 58 years. She survives him, along with five children and ten grandchildren. His son Nick said he died at home of natural causes, surrounded by his family, listening to Billie Holiday sing.

His visits to the Voice offices were fewer and fewer in his last years at the paper, but his great, resonant voice rattling through the newsrooms always announced his presence. He spoke like he wrote, in measured sentences, offered with emphatic assuredness, always laced with a quotation from Duke Ellington or Louis Brandeis. And like the jazz musicians he adored, he could never resist breaking away from the melody to deliver some delightful echo of an earlier day. It was ever a pleasure and honor listening to Nat Hentoff being out of step.


Eat the Rich

If you want a true picture of New York’s current economic plight, take a look at a remarkable graph showing the share of income going to the top 1 percent of earners over the past 100 years.

The chart is the product of the Fiscal Policy Institute, the labor-backed group that is one of the lone voices trying to be heard over the ever-growing roar demanding that wages and benefits for workers be knocked down as low as possible.

If you look at this chart for a while, an image comes to mind: It is a long hammock with a slumbering tycoon stretched out in blissful repose. His head is tucked comfortably on the years right before the Great Depression when he and his pals controlled almost 25 percent of all income earned. His back and posterior then slide down in a long graceful arch from the late ’40s through the ’70s. This is the period considered the Golden Age of America’s middle class, when workers managed to capture a greater share of the pie, standards of living rising accordingly. Back then, our upper strata did just fine, too, enjoying a robust 10 percent of the pot. Then, in the ’80s in the Reagan era, the graph starts to climb again. From there, it spikes up and up. This is where the snoozing baron now has his feet comfortably planted atop his magnificent wealth, while the rest of us tread water.

The numbers on the chart show that nationally, America’s top earners are now taking in 24 percent of the income, back to where they were just before their gluttony crashed Wall Street in 1929. But they are pikers compared to New York. Our state’s most privileged class holds 35 percent of the dough. Here in the city, the fat cats do even better, with a whopping 44 percent. This is why New York State ranks last in terms of the income gap between rich and poor. And it is why New York City is the most polarized of the nation’s 25 biggest urban areas.

“If New York City were a nation,” reports James Parrott, economist for the institute, “its level of income concentration would rank 15th worst among 134 countries, between Chile and Honduras. Wall Street,” he adds, “with its stratospheric profits and bonuses, sits within 15 miles of the Bronx—the nation’s poorest urban county.”

Yet while this income inequality grows by the hour, the talk in Albany and City Hall is that we cannot ask this luxury class to carry any more of the burden. These politicians hold that the only acceptable solution to an estimated $10 billion state budget deficit is to cut programs that mainly serve the poor and middle class, while asking state workers to do more with less. The no-new-taxes zealots are so wedded to this notion that they are even looking to immediately shut down the modest so-called “millionaire’s tax,” which expires at the end of this year.

If you make the rich pay more, this argument holds, they will vote with their feet and head to Florida and places where they get an even freer ride than they do here. Mayor Bloomberg makes this point every chance he gets, even though when he won his own high-income tax measure to meet the post-9/11 fiscal crisis, he dismissed that same argument as so much nonsense.

Then we have this new group of millionaires and business representatives that is being hailed by the new governor, Andrew Cuomo, and which calls itself the “Committee to Save New York.” A better name would be “Committee to Save Our Advantages.” One of the co-chairmen of this group is a young man named Rob Speyer who is heir to one of New York’s great real estate fortunes. I am sure he has matured enormously since then, but some 15 years ago, when we were reporters working in the same newsroom, his idea of a big investigative scoop was a sting on cab drivers: He left wallets with $100 bills in the back of taxis, and then waited to see if drivers returned them, cash safely tucked inside. Those that didn’t pass this test got their pictures in the paper, labeled as rip-off menaces. You read the stories and wondered, if the tables were turned, how many photos of reporters, editors, and real estate tycoons we might see.

Speyer’s most recent foray was to buy Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village in hopes of replacing rent-regulated middle-class tenants with free-market apartments filled with upper-income residents. This enormous greed resulted in default and the biggest real estate debacle in recent city history.

All in all, this group does not inspire great confidence, and it is fairly frightening to think they may be setting our state’s agenda. Cuomo has much smarter people right around him who hopefully have his ear.

This kind of broadside at the ruling elite seems as good a swan song as any. I could just as easily write again about the alleged leader of New York City’s unions who is supposed to be leading the people’s charge against these forces, but who is too distracted trying to cover up his own earnings. Or I could reminisce about my very first Voice article, co-authored in 1985 with Wayne Barrett, which recounted how city housing funds for the poor were secretly spent to build a lush, mob-controlled restaurant in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. That story, too, links back to today’s debate about the way forward for New York, but I will leave it in the archives for now. Suffice to say that it has been an honor to have held the floor this long in an honored institution. Many thanks to many wonderful readers.


Guy Velella, 1944-2011, State Senator, Rascal, Stand-up Guy

It is October 14, 2000, and Guy Velella — the ex-state senator and convicted felon who died yesterday at 66 — is in his home base in the north Bronx practicing the fine art of retail politics. Nobody does this better, and the tell-tale silver-streak in his careful pompadour is seen bobbing up and down as he pumps every hand he spots. He is escorting his friend George Pataki on a Saturday afternoon campaign swing. It is up Crosby Avenue and under the el on Westchester. “Say hello to the governor!” Velella hoots to the ladies coming out of George’s Restaurant on the corner.

The politicians are followed by a retinue of aides, kids on bikes, and a single reporter who, never-mind the governor, is there to ask Velella a few questions. It is necessary to track him down here to his Bronx homeland since the veteran senator doesn’t like to get on the phone with the Voice which has dedicated more ink to chronicling his many escapades than any other newspaper.

The opportunity arrives when Pataki is gone and the senator and his followers are trooping back to his district office. The questions have to do with a transcript of a remarkable conversation that appears to be an unblemished description of how raw politics is practiced in the Bronx. The transcript is the alleged product of another rogue politician named Pedro Espada Jr. Espada claims to have been secretly taping his talks with Bronx political powers in a bid to get out from under his own pending corruption indictment.

The transcript has Velella, the Republican county leader, advising Espada that his best bet is to make peace with Democratic party leader Roberto Ramirez in order to get Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson off his back. The Republican boss also graciously offers to do what he can for Espada with his own GOP allies, including former U.S. senator Al D’Amato, the political brains behind the governor.

But there is also the possibility that this is the wily Espada running his own scam on a reporter, which is the reason for the weekend trip to see the senator in person. All Velella has to do is say he doesn’t remember ever having such a conversation with Espada or anyone else, and he doubts he would ever say things like, “With Johnson you’ve got to go through Ramirez.” If he says this, then the document becomes worthless as it is just one man’s word against another.

But Guy Velella makes no bones about it. “Somebody told me he had a tape of me,” he says as he strolls along. “What did I say?” He reads the transcript as he walks. Then he shrugs. “He said he had a problem. I said go see Ramirez. The U.S. attorney? Go see the United States senator. What do you think, I’m stupid? ‘Oh let me go talk to the judge for you?’ I’m a lawyer and that’s illegal. I honestly don’t remember this,” the senator continues, “but I know I talked to him a few times because he wanted me to give him the Republican line to run on.”

The tale of the tape runs a few days later and not one word of carping is heard from Velella about it. Say what you will — and we said plenty over the years — about his finagling on behalf of law clients doing state business, his many underworld allies, and the patronage hacks he foisted upon the taxpayers, Velella, when confronted, was a stand-up guy.

When Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau finally caught him in 2004, the strongest evidence of alleged bribery was against his father and law partner, Vincent Velella, who was 90 years old, wheel-chair bound, and ailing. On the D.A.’s own tapes, Vincent Velella, who started out working for Vito Marcantonio in East Harlem in the 1940s, is heard opening a drawer in his desk and instructing a briber to drop his cash right there.

This was strong evidence and, in exchange for prosecutors dropping the charges against his dad, the son agreed to plead guilty, accept a jail term, and give up his own license to practice law.

On the day of his plea, he wheeled his father into court where he stood in front of a judge and made his admissions. Afterward, he ran a gauntlet of swarming photographers who rushed to capture close-ups of him pushing his old man down Lafayette Street to a waiting car and then awkwardly try to boost him inside. The pictures made every front page the next day.

Jail was hard on Velella — harder than you would’ve thought for someone who liked to hang around with wise guys. But those of us yet to serve our own term in Rikers really have no way of knowing about it. This didn’t stop the tabloids from making great fun. After he got out the first time, he had to go back to jail when a perfectly legal mechanism used to grant him early release became a political embarrassment to the mayor. Since Mike Bloomberg probably wouldn’t have been elected without Guy Velella’s support, that second stint in Rikers was exceptionally painful.

After his release, he gradually worked his way back to the politics he knew. He was hoping this year to mount a modest comeback as a man of some influence among the senate’s new Republican majority. It wasn’t to be. The lung cancer that seized him cheated him out of that chance, just as it cheated a family of a husband, a father, and grandfather several times over, as well as the crowd of friends who will see him off at his wake this weekend at Giordano’s funeral parlor, right there at Crosby and Westchester avenues — the heart of Velella country.



More Glenn Beck Outrage: Right-wing Ranter Attacks Co-op City, the Bronx; Natives Up in Arms

“Well, there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.”

This fine free advice, first offered by Humphrey Bogart to Nazi swill in Casablanca, is here offered to Glenn Beck who — after offending almost all of America’s rabbi’s, as reported by our Joe Coscarelli here — made another bone-headed miscalculation on his show Tuesday when he maligned a certain section of the Bronx.

As the Daily News‘ Mike Jaccarino reports, Beck compared Co-op City to a failed socialist state, thus setting off tremors of rage throughout the borough.
“Do you want to live there?” says Beck as photos of the north Bronx’s towers flickered across the screen. “This is Co-op City. Oh, man! This is so beautiful,” the Beck man gloats sarcastically. “That’s the Great Society for you, and those are the lush [buildings].”
The slide show was part of one of Beck’s trademark history lectures, this one on dread socialism, in which he says that everyone has “exactly the same stuff, which sounds like these beautiful complexes.” (Presumably this is as opposed to capitalism, where all you get is the same schlock strasse in every town filled with Olive Gardens, Wal-Marts and Home Depots.)

But here’s Co-op City resident Leonard Murrell, who bought his three-bedroom apartment there in 1971 for $5,000, as quoted by the News, putting a fine boot up Beck’s butt: Co-op City “gave me a chance to have a place to call my own. I was renting when I came to Co-op City, and now I own. It’s my piece of the pie.”

And here’s Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr., rushing this morning to defend his borough: “It is unfortunate that, in an attempt to promote his ideology, Glenn Beck felt the need to attack Co-op City. Co-op City is a great place to live, evident in the fact that close to 55,000 people make their home there. Glenn Beck is wrong on just about every issue–from gun control to immigration to health care–and now he is wrong about the Bronx as well. Glenn Beck does not know the Bronx and does not know Co-op City.”

Diaz goes on to invite Beck to visit the borough, a tour we would enjoy covering. Mayor Bloomberg has not been heard from on this score, but since he has just shut down city schools and government for a sunny snowy play day he is busy getting ready for that OEM presser.


After 40 Years, Peace in LES’s Seward Park; Middle East Is Next

The first 2011 Nobel Peace Prize nomination goes to the Lower East Siders who hammered out Monday night’s near-unanimous community board vote approving new housing for those five acres of weed-strewn parking lots sitting forlornly behind chain-link fences these past 40 years along Delancey Street.

The deal okayed by Community Board 3 calls for 1,000 units of housing, half of it targeted to middle and low-income families, plus new non-Wal-Mart-style retail and open space.

For those wondering what’s the big deal, or what took so long, consider these facts:

This is the largest clear parcel of land in Manhattan, where unfettered real estate is the single most precious local resource.

And this: Just three years ago, a public meeting to consider a similar plan to resolve the decades-old problem dissolved into hostile hoots and jeers.

The battle over what to do with this remnant of what’s known as the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area has raged since 1967 when the land was first cleared to make way for a failed Robert Moses pipe dream called the Lower Manhattan Expressway.

The fight over what should go there pitted the largely white residents of the Grand Street co-ops vs. mostly Latino low-income residents displaced from the site, and their Loisaida allies who insisted that the city live up to its promise to provide affordable housing.

It was a fight in which everyone who prefers living indoors to the streets had a stake.

In 1980, then-Manhattan Borough president Andrew Stein shot down an effort to break the log-jam, declaring that low-income housing automatically spells crime. As City Limits magazine noted back then, there were more broken peace treaties buried in Seward Park’s rubble than in the Middle East.

A big part of the stall was due to Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, a Grand Street regular, who preferred the status-quo (parking lots) to a questionable future (new housing brings new voters, which could mean new challengers!).

But on Monday night the peace was finally won. It was due to long, painstaking work by a bevy of heroes, including community board leaders David McWater and Dominic Piciotta, Val Orselli of Cooper Square Mutual Housing, Harriet Cohen of Seward Park Area Redevelopment Coalition, Michael Zisser of University Settlement House, Linda Jones, and the peacemakers from Grand Street: Joel Kaplan of the United Jewish Council of the East Side, and former Silver staffer Jessica Loesser, who earned big cred as a possible successor to her former boss.

In a preview of Obama’s state of the union call for bipartisan hands-across-the-aisle, UJC stalwart Joel Kaplan sat next to former foe, Lisa Kaplan, chief of staff to councilwoman Rosie Mendez and a veteran advocate for a fair deal for low-income residents on the site. Tears were shed, as they well might be.

Silver instantly offered his own cheers: “While there were, at times, deep and principled disagreements among stakeholders, I believe that ultimately this process brought our community together. The final guidelines that were approved by the committee tonight strike an appropriate balance between the needs and concerns of all stakeholders and will result in a development that will ensure our neighborhood continues to thrive. ..There is no problem too great that we can’t solve together as one community.”

There’s no comment yet from Andrew Stein, but he’s otherwise occupied, dealing with a possible year-long stretch in the pen thanks to his guilty plea to a federal tax evasion rap in December.


Why the Mafia Still Matters

On the same day that federal officials launched their mega-Mafia rollout last week, a handsome silver-haired businessman named Joseph Watts stood before a judge in Manhattan to plead guilty to his own mob crimes.

Despite the “biggest-mob-case-ever” and “Mafia crippled” headlines, there were some not unreasonable gripes about the media carnival staged by Attorney General Eric Holder: Much of the 16 indictments is repackaged crimes, including chump change like construction coffee-wagon shakedowns and electronics-store heists. There’s also a high geezer quotient to the biggest names among the 127 defendants: The former boss of New England’s mob family is 83; the feds picked him up in the same place everyone else goes to retire—Fort Lauderdale. A top figure in John Gotti’s Gambino crime family was charged with what Holder correctly called “senseless murder”—a pair of barroom killings over a spilled drink in 1981. Unmentioned was that Bartolomeo “Bobby Glasses” Vernace, 61, beat that same murder rap in state court back in 2002.

But there’s a bigger point to Holder’s full-scale federal blast. The intent is to send a message to the mob—a wake-up call as loud as Gotti’s old “Put a rocket in his pocket” orders for those who crossed him. The message is that, despite major distractions like terrorism and Mexican drug cartels, the feds aren’t forgetting that the American Mafia—no matter how many TV gag lines and blogging giggles about nicknames—remains a real and potent threat. And if you have any doubts about how real it is, you don’t have to look any further than Joe Watts.

Standing before federal judge Colleen McMahon, Watts admitted to helping plot the 1989 murder of a Staten Island newspaper-editor-turned-mob-real-estate-developer named Freddy Weiss. The confession is expected to cost him 13 years. That’s about all Watts, 69, has left.

Watts isn’t an official member of Cosa Nostra. He doesn’t have enough Italian in him to qualify. In fact, his pals call him “the German.” But what he lacks in bloodlines he has more than made up for in mob success. He ran a very profitable construction-materials company in New Jersey. It was considered must-stop shopping for lumber and nails for contractors under the mob’s thumb. His loan-shark business—high-priced loans to those in need—brought in some $30,000 a week, according to a roly-poly Gambino defector named Dominic “Fat Dom” Borghese, who for years picked up the cash for him. Fat Dom figured he delivered about $11 million to his boss.

Watts was also a born entrepreneur. In 2007, he launched his own high-energy drink, calling it “American Blast.” Pumped full of vitamins and caffeine, it was marketed in red, white, and blue containers. Fat Joe—the rapper, not the gangster—performed at the launch party.

He lived well. In 2001, reported that Watts had a splendid $6 million spread on the west Florida coast. It was guarded by high walls and enough security cameras to make locals whisper. Prosecutors said the cautious man kept the property under the names of front men. One of them was the owner of an exclusive Art Deco antiques gallery on Madison Avenue. Joe Watts traveled in classy circles.

But he wasn’t above getting his hands dirty. The Weiss killing is just one of 11 hits Watts allegedly helped handle for his Gambino family superiors. Actually, his own efforts to kill Weiss were a flop. A day before the assassination, he’d waited with a gun in his hand for the ex-newsman to arrive at a pal’s garage. He even had a grave dug. But Weiss never showed. A day later, a New Jersey crew—the real Tony Soprano wing, the DeCavalcante family—caught Weiss coming out of an apartment near the Staten Island Mall. Weiss died because Gotti was worried he was turning informer. He was wrong. The feds later said Weiss wasn’t cooperating. Not that it mattered. In gangland, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Here’s where it gets a little personal. In February 1989, Freddy Weiss spent a lot of time trying to persuade me and Jack Newfield not to report in the Daily News that vacant land he held near the Staten Island Expressway was being used by mobsters as a dump site for toxic chemicals and medical waste. Weiss was a fast-talking charmer. A former city editor at the Staten Island Advance, he was the type who thought he could walk between the raindrops and not get wet. He was so sure he could head off a bad story that he brought his business partners, a pair of major mob garbage carters named Anthony Vulpis and Angelo Paccione, right into the newsroom to meet with us and our editor, Art Browne. Weiss introduced them as “legitimate businessmen.” “Ask them anything you want,” he said. “Do you know Jimmy Brown Failla?” we asked, referring to the veteran Gambino captain who handled the mob’s garbage empire. The carters glared at Weiss, mumbled about having to be someplace, and walked out. A few months later, Weiss was dead.

That’s how real this mob business gets sometimes. And despite the massive legal firepower unleashed last week, it’s not likely to close up shop anytime soon. At the press conference, Holder underscored that staying power. He pointed out that the next day—January 21—was the 50th anniversary of the installation as attorney general of Robert F. Kennedy, the first to focus on the mob menace. “They have a framework that lets them survive,” says Selwyn Raab, the great former Times reporter whose Five Families is the best recent Mafia book. “There’s always someone waiting in the wings, willing to risk long prison sentences, because of the power and riches glittering before them.”


Harper’s Magazine Writers Weigh In on Union Battle

Some of the nastiest union battles erupt with employers whose hearts beat firmly on the left side of the political spectrum. Partly this is the result of hurt feelings: How could my workers be so distrustful? Another accelerant is the assumption that well-meaning bosses know best, a perception shared across the political divide. Whatever the cause, these fratricidal battles have scarred the best non-profit organizations. They’ve also torn-up unions themselves when their own workers announce they’d like the same bargaining rights as those they represent.

Based on Gabriel Sherman’s reporting this week and last in New York Mag‘s Daily Intel, the current fight at Harper’s Magazine seems to be breaking along these lines. The latest development is a sharp letter from a roster of writing celebrities taking publisher Rick MacArthur to task for laying off employees who were key to the recent unionization drive there. Novelists Jonathan Lethem, Madison Smartt Bell, Robert Coover, William Gass, Breyten Breytenbach, and poet-critic Eliot Weinberger are among the 84 signatories who include Harper’s contributors and former editors.

The union involved is Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers, which also represents the Voice — including this writer who, however short-termed, remains a loyal member. So our own views are immediately suspect.

But it’s worth noting that MacArthur, who keeps the place afloat with his own deep pockets out of a belief in great journalism, wrote an important pro-union book back in 2001 when he chronicled the demise of decent-paying blue-collar union jobs courtesy of Bill Clinton’s NAFTA. One of the lessons of “The Selling of Free Trade: NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Journalism” was that unions can balance the scales, both in the workplace and the country, when it comes to free trade and fair play.