Rad Medicine

Mike Smith is a no-nonsense guy, a thickly built construction worker with a square jaw and steady eyes. So he gives a no-nonsense answer when asked about how he handles health care for himself, his wife, and two teenage kids. “When we go to a doctor, we’ve got to pay for it,” he says. Lacking health insurance, he pays out-of-pocket and takes his medical problems not to a family physician but to an emergency room, where the medicine is expensive and, says Smith, “the wait is all day.”

Smith is one face of America’s health care crisis, which a decade ago proved to be too much for even the formidable Bill Clinton to handle. Now, however, the New York City Council is ready to operate—poised to pass a bill that would require employers in five industries to pay for their workers’ health care.

Unlike a similar proposal that California voters rejected last fall, the Health Care Security Act has backing from several business groups and individual firms. Unions and major health policy groups like the American Lung Association are on board. A veto-proof 40 councilmembers have signed onto the bill, and Council Speaker and mayoral candidate Gifford Miller supports it.

It looks like a slam dunk. But it’s not that simple. There are practical obstacles, and objections from unexpected quarters. Some worry the plan would threaten affordable housing or cost jobs. Others say the bill might not be legal.

Such are the perils that New York City faces when it tries to grapple with the national health care crisis.

The Health Care Security Act would require employers in five industries (building services, construction, groceries, hotels, and commercial laundries) to provide a basic level of health care coverage for their employees. The bill’s backers say it would get 60,000 workers insured.

The narrow focus of the bill is deliberate: By targeting service industries—which are tied to their customer base in the five boroughs—the bill won’t chase businesses out of the city, say proponents. These are industries in which companies traditionally did offer health insurance. But now, those that offer benefits are getting squeezed by less generous competitors.

The proposal is supposed to lift that competitive pressure. “It levels the playing field for those employers who, through collective bargaining, are required, mandated, to provide health care to their workers,” says Richard Wishnie, executive secretary of the Association of Electrical Contractors of New York. “If they’re competing against people who do not have to provide health care, they’re already behind the eight ball.”

That’s why supermarkets, painters, construction firms, and laundries are counted among the bill’s supporters. By eliminating that competitive incentive to drop health insurance, backers say, the Health Care Security Act will protect existing benefits for over 150,000 workers.

Besides the economic rationale, there is a fiscal one: New York taxpayers pick up a $612 million tab for uninsured people who use city hospitals or accept public benefits. Some of New York City’s 1.8 million uninsured are employed, so in a way, the taxpayers are subsidizing bosses who don’t pay for health care.

Then there’s the medical argument: People without insurance don’t get preventive care, so they end up sicker, less productive, and more expensive to treat. And the cost is not just in dollars, but also in deaths. “The lack of health insurance is the number one barrier to people getting screened for detection of cancers like breast cancer and colon cancer,” says American Cancer Society vice president for advocacy Peter Slocum. “Those lead to early detection of those cancers and can save thousands and thousands of lives.”

Saving lives is plainly and simply a good thing. Ordering a company to provide health insurance, however, gets a little more complicated.

The Mayor’s Office of Health Insurance Access, for one, has raised concerns that the act might be illegal. Federal law limits what states and cities can do to mandate workers’ benefits. Supporters of the measure say they’ve developed a work-around, but the legal aspects of the bill were still under discussion by City Council lawyers last week.

Part of the debate is over whether the bill should give employers the option of paying the city a fee instead of paying for health insurance. If the fee operates like a tax, that raises another legal issue, because only the state legislature can impose taxes.

Meanwhile, affordable-housing activists—normally on the same side as the progressives fighting for the bill—are against the measure, saying it will impose new costs on construction and building-services firms and therefore make it more expensive to build housing for low-income families. What’s more, housing advocates argue, federal and state affordable-housing subsidies tend to go to the lower-bidding project, so New York City could lose out on aid.

While the bill has private-sector support, not all businesses are sure that it’s a win-win. Laundry lobbyists warn that city laundries could become drop centers, shipping all the real work outside city lines to escape the law. Retail lobbyists contend the law would put city supermarkets at a disadvantage to those just over the line in Westchester or Nassau counties. If either happens, they say, that would cost jobs.

But Paul Sonn, associate counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice and a backer of the bill, tells the Voice that since minimum wage laws haven’t cost jobs, the health care mandate is unlikely to either. “We expect that they really need a base level of staffing to handle the operation of their sales,” he says. Besides, says Frank Watson, an uninsured construction worker, “I’d rather have less money with health benefits for my family. It’s going to cost you more without benefits.”

Still, other critics take a different tack: Rather than going too far, perhaps the bill is too narrowly tailored. “It doesn’t reach far enough to address some of the core issues of lack of health insurance in the business sector,” says Marjorie Cadogan, Mayor Bloomberg’s health care coordinator.

With the council considering the health care bill, Democrats running for City Hall could try to make medical coverage one of the bread-and-butter issues they use to attack the mayor. Congressman Anthony Weiner last week used a health care address to skewer Bloomberg for saying, back in January, “Medical care in this city is arguably one of the few services you can point to anyplace in the world where the poor get better services than the wealthy.”

“If you follow that to its logical conclusion,” Weiner quipped, “then Mayor Bloomberg and his friends would go to a public hospital if given the choice.” But rather than forcing employers to get into the game, Weiner’s health care plan would expand and improve existing government health plans.

The Bloomberg administration emphasizes government-sponsored programs and public-private partnerships like Family Health Plus and Health Pass. Doing anything more ambitious is tough, Cadogan says, because of the scope of the health care problem. “I think the city can always initiate a good idea,” she says. “The ability to come to a viable solution, though, takes the partnership of players at the state and federal level to look at what’s viable across the board.”

After all, health insurance costs are crunching across the economy, rising more than 11 percent from 2003 to 2004, straining the balance sheets of everything from small businesses to General Motors to Medicare. The breadth of the crisis means, according to city Health and Hospitals Corporation president Alan Aviles, that “the city and the state alone cannot address this problem. It must be addressed at the national level.”

But Washington doesn’t seem to be in a rush to jump in. And until it does, the Cancer Society’s Slocum points out, the Health Care Security Act is “a real incremental step. It represents lives saved—potentially many lives saved.”

“I wish national lawmakers would solve it,” says Simon Greer, co-director of New York Jobs With Justice, which is pushing the City Council bill. But for now, he adds, “It’s clear to us in New York: We’ll have to innovate here.”


A Bronx Cheer

The notion of a West Side stadium gets a universal thumbs-down from all four Democratic mayoral candidates, but Representative Anthony Weiner has taken his rap a step further, saying the Jets project reflects something disturbing at the heart of the Bloomberg administration.

The plan “has come to typify” secret deals by the administration that favor “close allies of City Hall,” says Weiner. And, unlike his competitors, Weiner has drawn a straight line from the stadium to another Bloomberg favorite, the Bronx Terminal Market. There, some two dozen wholesale merchants with several hundred employees are being forced out to make way for a mega-mall developed by Stephen Ross of Related Companies, a former business partner of Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff. The market deal was made without competitive bidding, even though Doctoroff has acknowledged that it was he who originally tipped Ross to the site’s development possibilities (Voice, “Market-Rate Giveaway,” March 23-29).

Thus far, Fernando Ferrer has been silent on the market plan, which is supported by his ally and successor, current Bronx beep Adolfo Carrion. The merchants have been asking Council Speaker Gifford Miller to hold hearings on their plight, but so far none have been scheduled.

“This part of the city may need to be developed,” said Weiner in a speech last month, “but it should be done in an open and fair way, not with special deals that raise questions about whether only political allies need apply.”


Weiner Sets the Pace

One of the harder ways to launch a campaign for mayor is to say something that, right off the bat, lands a picket line and a giant inflatable rat outside your office.

That was one result last spring when Congressman Anthony Weiner opened his Democratic mayoral bid by releasing a study condemning the Bloomberg administration’s plan to build a stadium for the New York Jets on Manhattan’s West Side. Weiner said the plan was too expensive for taxpayers and aimed at the wrong site. Better to build it in Queens, he said, in Willets Point near Shea Stadium, where the transportation infrastructure already exists and the public costs are far cheaper.

For his trouble, Weiner found himself denounced by the Jets, City Hall, and construction union leaders. The unions sent members to razz Weiner at his press conferences, drowning him out when he tried to talk above the buzz on the City Hall steps. They also picketed his office, bringing along their trademark 10-foot-tall rat, originally adopted as a symbol of rage at exploitative non-union employers.

Weiner, who has a 100 percent rating from the AFL-CIO for his congressional votes on labor legislation, said the unions were confused, and that his Queens stadium would produce just as many jobs as the one in Manhattan. Meanwhile, he kept refining his analysis of the stadium and, to the chagrin of the Bloomberg administration and the building trades organizations, critiquing other projects that he felt shortchanged small businesses and taxpayers.

At the time, Weiner’s aggressive posture stood out. Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president and nomination front-runner, had declared the Jets scheme “nuts,” but hadn’t offered an alternative. Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields had questioned the project’s financing, but not the stadium itself. And Weiner’s most direct competitor for the Democratic nomination, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, was stuck in neutral, refusing to take a clear position, even telling a business gathering that he was “not reflexively opposed to a stadium for that site.”

A year later, all four Democrats seeking the mayoral nomination are outright opponents of the plan. But they do so from a far more comfortable posture than the one held by Weiner when the skinny congressman from Brooklyn was being taunted by husky men in nylon union jackets.

Weiner, 40, a former councilmember and four-term congressman representing sections of south Brooklyn and western Queens, entered the race as the darkest of dark horses. He was widely perceived as a (literally) lightweight, Mini-Me version of his mentor and former boss, Senator Chuck Schumer. But a year after his lonely confrontation with that rubber rat, as the four candidates speak at forums and political clubs, it is Weiner who is attracting attention. While most stories have focused on his relentless bent for nifty economic development ideas and comedy-club shtick, his candidacy has sounded the toughest notes on the Bloomberg administration’s shortcomings, while laying out his own ideas for reforms.

George Arzt, the crusty ex-Koch aide and political consultant who once represented Fields, said that he viewed Weiner as the clear winner of last week’s important Crain’s breakfast forum.

“He wowed them,” said Arzt. “A lot of insiders think he is the real up-and-coming guy. He has the facility. Numbers roll off his tongue. He knows the issues. He is more articulate and unambiguous than his rivals.”

Hank Sheinkopf, a former campaign adviser to Ferrer and 2001 Democratic candidate Mark Green, agreed. “He is the one creating the excitement right now,” said Sheinkopf. “He has energy and is willing to take on the mayor and his opponents, and that makes him newsworthy. He is getting more mileage than anyone else in what has been a very dull venture.”

Even Bill Lynch, an architect of David Dinkins’s 1989 mayoral victory and a key member of Ferrer’s brain trust, acknowledged that the debates have revealed Weiner to be a comer. “He has all those Schumer tendencies going,” said Lynch. “He keeps coming at you. You can tell he is a 24-7 kind of guy. I think he is the one Freddy has to watch in this whole thing.”

Not that those plaudits are reflected in the polls as yet. Weiner and Miller are running neck and neck, barely breaking double digits; Ferrer, despite the fallout from his Amadou Diallo missteps, has remained at the top of the pack, the only Democratic candidate who can beat Bloomberg, polls show. Fields’s numbers have inched up, largely by default as a result of Ferrer’s miscues.

But if voters get a look at the kind of moxie Weiner has shown at the early forums and debates, it could make him a formidable contender, say some observers.

“He has that New York spunk,” said Gerson Borrero, the El Diario columnist and Latino activist. “He comes off like a pissed-off citizen—people like that. If the guy ever gets the money to be seen by New Yorkers on TV, he becomes a big problem for Freddy.”

There are also downsides. “He is a little bit of an I-doctor—’I did this,’ ‘I did that,’ ” added Arzt. “If he can curb that and propel his message out to the voters, he will be tough in the primary. If he gets into the runoff, he would give Bloomberg a run for his money.”

That Weiner was the one catching notice last week was even more significant in light of Ferrer’s almost desperate effort to break out of his post-Diallo funk. The former Bronx leader launched the week with a carefully orchestrated speech at Pace University calling for a new stock-transfer tax before an audience that included teachers’ union president Randi Weingarten, whose crucial endorsement is still in play. At the Crain’s forum, Weiner jumped on Ferrer’s proposal, calling it a “mind-bogglingly bad idea,” saying the tax could push the exchange to relocate jobs elsewhere.

The stock-tax notion isn’t new, and was frequently urged by liberal politicians in the 1980s as one way to add revenue without hurting average New Yorkers. But a lot has changed since then. “The technology has caught up with the times, and it is not a viable option anymore,” said Harvey Robins, a former adviser to mayors Koch and Dinkins. “Ferrer could rightly be faulted for not doing his homework.”

“We’ve lost jobs in the securities industry while the rest of the nation has gained them,” said Jonathan Bowles of the Center for an Urban Future. “The industry really is decentralizing and doesn’t have to be here anymore.”

Weiner’s own proposal to cure city budget ills is a tax hike on millionaires, a notion that has so far generated little criticism. “It seems like that is a progressive tax that would hurt taxpayers the least,” said Bowles.

Thursday night at a Democratic mayoral candidates’ forum at Hunter College, sponsored by radio station WWRL, the Urban League, and Brooklyn Young Democrats, the crowd appeared to be clearly pro-Ferrer, judging by the hoots and applause as he was introduced. Later, however, Weiner got the biggest hands, mixed with laughter at his own expense. The crowd laughed good-naturedly at his steady self-promotion as he repeatedly urged them to consult his website for his “50 ideas for the city.” And they laughed again, this time with cheers, when he talked about how he would substitute “a little vinegar” for the “sugar” approach he said Michael Bloomberg had used to win increased aid from Republican leaders in Albany and Washington. “I might not look like much,” said Weiner, “but I can handle myself. And I relish a fight.”


A Real Chance at Reform

A year away from his re-election campaign, Mike Bloomberg is suddenly sitting pretty in the polls and taking potshots at anyone who might dare challenge him.

Consider the odds: David Dinkins was the only incumbent mayor in the 20th century to lose a general election. He was also, you might have noticed, the only nonwhite mayor. Ed Koch and two other incumbents lost in primaries, but the once hot prospect of Bloomberg facing a GOP primary from ex-Queens councilman Tom Ognibene has faded, ostensibly due to family health issues. In any event, when Mayor John Lindsay lost the Republican primary in 1969, he won in November anyway, on the Liberal line alone. Bloomberg could do the same—albeit on the Independence Party line.

Couple the extraordinary power of incumbency in a strong mayoral system with a $100 million self-financed campaign and it’s a wonder that three prominent Democrats—2001 near-winner Fernando Ferrer, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, and Brooklyn congressman Anthony Weiner—are still preparing to take him on. The pre-campaign jockeying going on now all involves money, with both Bloomberg and Miller moving to redesign the playing field to their own advantage, pushing dramatic changes in the city’s much celebrated campaign finance system.

Bloomberg, of course, won in 2001 by spending $73 million of his own billions outside the system, and he plans to do much the same in 2005, even though his prime 2001 rationale, namely that he was an unknown running against the well-known, is no longer applicable. His rationale for such wanton behavior now is much like Bill Clinton’s: because he can. Opting out of the finance system does have its potential costs—no citywide candidate has ever done it and won the Times‘ endorsement, for example—but Bloomberg hasn’t let his own willful nonparticipation slow down his determination to transform it. And, as usual with Merit Mike, he’s come up with a promising idea, just as he did with the 2003 proposed charter change to move the city toward nonpartisan elections.

Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo sent a June 8 memo to the five members of the Campaign Finance Board outlining a proposal to set a $250 limit on contributions for all those doing business with the city. Cardozo defined city business to “include non-sealed bid procurements over $50,000, municipal bond transactions, real property transactions, land use approvals, grants, concessions and franchises” over a year-long period, and extended the limits to lobbyists and the family members “of persons actually having such business dealings.” Contractors, like any other donor, can currently give $4,950 to a mayoral candidate, inducing a $1,000 match in public funds. Cardozo’s letter would also bar the match.

Since Bloomberg has no need to solicit a dime, this sort of long-sought reform would only damage opponents like Miller, whose comparatively paltry $2.5 million campaign committee is a magnet for every inside player in town. Steve Sigmund, Miller’s spokesman, told the Voice, “The fact that the guy who is destroying the system says that this is how you should change it is laughable.” In a NY1 appearance last week, Miller said the council would “look at” the plan, raising a host of technical problems such as enforcement and launching an ad hominem attack on its origins. “I would like to see everybody opting into the program,” Miller said, calling it “the strongest” in America. “It would be appropriate for those who want to change the system to be willing to abide by the rules himself.” In fact, Miller created a committee outside the system in 2001, raising contributions in excess of CFB limits and funneling it to the councilmembers who elected him Speaker.

Ferrer, who has always participated in the system and was recently fined $223,000 by it for 2001 mistakes, says Bloomberg’s plan “lacks credibility” because the mayor “believes in nuclear disarmament for the other guy.” Ferrer adds he would “support the proposal unreservedly” if the effective date were post-election, a suggestion Bloomberg may be willing to adopt, just as he ultimately did on the nonpartisan election issue. Asked about the timing, Bloomberg communications director Bill Cunningham said, “We’re only trying to get this issue debated. No one has found a problem with the merits of this plan, other than that it doesn’t cover Mike Bloomberg. If we ever get to the point of talking about the effective date, fine. Let’s determine if it’s good for the city. Then, if we want to talk about how to execute it, that’s a different conversation. We’re not going to negotiate against ourselves.”

Cunningham says they’ve heard nothing from the CFB about the proposal, pointing out that the voters passed a referendum in 1998 that required the board “to regulate the acceptance of contributions from individuals doing business with the city.” Stymied by the absence of a comprehensive database that identified everyone covered by that language, the CFB has yet to take any action on this mandate. CFB chair F.A.O. Schwarz seems quite willing to do that. “We welcome the opportunity to focus on it,” said Schwarz, who championed a similar reform in the ’80s as corporation counsel in the Koch administration. “We want to look at it on the merits—not who’s helped and who’s hurt by it.” Schwarz agrees with Cardozo that “it’s possible” that the CFB could adopt this change on its own without any council legislation, saying that the agency and Cardozo were “starting discussions.”

Both Schwarz and Cunningham expressed interest in a requirement that anyone giving more than the $250 limit would have to file an affidavit swearing that they did not do city business, exposing themselves to the possible penalty of losing that business if the assertion were false. Ferrer and Schwarz were unsure the limits should apply to officers of nonprofits, as Cardozo’s proposal did. While Schwarz would not comment on a post-election starting date, he said, “It will be hard to do it carefully quickly.”

The Bloomberg plan may wind up linked in negotiations with CFB-backed legislation already wending its way through the council with Miller’s implicit support. The bill, which Miller endorsed in a Voice interview—and said will go through a second set of hearings in September—increases the bonus matching funds available to the eventual Democratic nominee against Bloomberg from the current five-to-one match to eight-to-one. That could add millions to Miller’s, Ferrer’s, or Weiner’s coffers, which makes it all the more surprising that neither Weiner nor Ferrer supports it. Ferrer said it would be “gross” to raise the match that high when the city is “shutting down firehouses.” Weiner says it looks like “the law is being changed to get one guy.” Unlike Ferrer and Miller, Weiner is even willing to say he supports the Bloomberg proposal on contractor contributions, adding that he has “no big problem with doing it as soon as you can,” rather than delaying it until 2006.

Weiner has already borne the brunt of one politically charged proposed CFB change. The council has been considering a retroactive amendment to bar or limit transfers from a federal campaign committee such as Weiner’s—which currently contains nearly $1.8 million—into a city campaign committee. Weiner says that the council’s “stalled this change for months”—possibly “as part of a plan.” So Weiner has recently begun “reaching out to the bulk of my donors by letter and phone,” asking them to take their donations back and refile them as contributions to his city committee.

Bloomberg may attempt to link the timing of the contractor limits to the timing of the eight-to-one bonus, trying to push both to 2006 and beyond. But, despite Weiner and Ferrer’s forbearance, the problem the bonus hike is attempting to solve is Bloomberg—and who knows when another billionaire mayor will come along. Narrowing the stratosphere between the airtime Bloomie will buy next year and what the Democrat can buy is perfectly legitimate policy, no matter how self-serving it is for Miller. (“Are Ferrer and Weiner going to turn it down?” asked Miller.) The Bloomberg proposal, on the other hand, tackles a problem of historic and lasting significance that will shape the politics of the post-Bloomberg era.

Research assistance: Abby Aguirre, Daniel Magliocco, Marc Schultz, and Ben Shestakofsky


Humanizing Mike

Ed Koch took a camel ride in Egypt, donned a ranger hat to conduct a Central Park orchestra, and invented the talk-directly-to-the-camera sound bite, sassily bypassing reporters. Mario Cuomo donned sweaty basketball shorts, ridiculed his own baggy eyes, and challenged the church on choice. Rudy Giuliani went to Yankee games and early-morning sewer-pipe breaks with his mistress/press secretary. John Lindsay walked Harlem in shirtsleeves; Fiorello LaGuardia read the comics over the radio; Louie Lefkowitz and Nelson Rockefeller shared knishes.

Anthony Weiner, the congressman from Brooklyn who’s the first to put himself out there as a possible Bloomberg opponent in 2005, says he won’t criticize the mayor on substance since the city has such serious problems. All Weiner wants to talk about is the mayor’s style. He’s remote, said Weiner the same week that Bloomberg struck a rare street pose and was photographed cooking wieners. I might run against him, Weiner suggests, because he has a weak handshake.

Early in his first year, Bloomberg blew off reporters, refusing to tell them when he hightailed it off to his Bermuda mansion for the weekend. But it’s not just Mayor Mike’s weekends that are top-secret. It’s Mayor Mike himself. He’s lost in his own Bermuda Triangle.

Koch sounded a populist note.
(photo: Fred W. McDarrah)
With the city in a state of collapse, Mike does an elaborate phony wedding with Barbara Walters. He buys a $700 bike to beat a transit strike. He tells people that if they’re upset about the potholes on city streets, they should take the subway like he does. In fact, the common-touch mayor now rides the subways so often that the press has decided it isn’t news. But, instead of championing his fellow straphangers when the Pataki fare hike comes, Bloomberg’s MTA appointees vote for it.

No Saturday Night Live or Letterman. No hot town hall or radio show exchanges with real citizens. No vitriol with presidents or governors. No public display with the daughters, friendly ex-wife, or current girlfriend. Few weekend walks through neighborhoods. He goes to Flatbush last week for breakfast with 150 Caribbeans, but the prime picture that appears the next day is of his afternoon meeting with stuffy Margaret Thatcher. He muffs Joe Torre’s name and joins the campaign to put Pete Seeger in the Hall of Fame, disguised as Pete Rose.

The polls have him bottoming out even though people celebrate his integrity, intelligence, and work habits. They don’t even want to have dinner with him. Strangely enough, he has no need to dominate dinner conversations as Koch did, preferring to dine with others, like he governs, quietly at the end of the table, preferring peanut butter to pâté and diners to deluxe restaurants.

Cuomo took to the streets.
(photo: Fred W. McDarrah)
When Bloomberg ran for mayor, Dave Garth, his media whiz, had him in the streets and on park benches in his commercials, wearing a tie in only one ad, right after 9-11. Now he’s always got a tie on, and is usually pictured at City Hall, often with his arms folded guardedly in front of his chest.

“He has a bright line in his head between government and politics,” says Richard Bryers, a Garth associate. “He wants to keep the politics out of government.” If he doesn’t let us see more of his human side, Mayor Mike might be out of both.


Vendor Bender

Many New Yorkers may think of Wednesday’s citywide vendor protest as a day without hot dogs, but the shutdown–and the controversy that spurred it–actually involves all variety of street salespeople. Book sellers, art peddlers, and sunglasses hawkers alike will be vanquished from the sidewalks in July, when the city implements the Street Vendor Review Panel’s plan to ban selling on 144 city blocks. And more street closings may soon follow.

The unprecedented enforcement of an obscure city ordinance on the grounds that vending causes sidewalk traffic congestion has left vendors of all stripes fuming at Mayor Giuliani and the panel he controls. But, while the mayor’s campaign to clean up the streets has unified its targets, many of whom have longstanding conflicts with the mayor, the coalition of street activists is an extremely loose and unusual one, each group peddling its own agenda.

Thomas Dukleth, who represents street booksellers, for instance, focuses on how the proposal to restrict sidewalk sales will further diminish the exchange of ideas. ”If someone can’t erect a stand and sell books that otherwise wouldn’t get distributed, then those ideas are suppressed,” he told the Voice. And, while many merchandise peddlers express solidarity with the vendor movement, they complain they have already been restricted from many of the blocks due to be closed this summer.

Meanwhile, free speech activist Robert Lederman, a veteran of Giuliani’s war on street artists, is using the controversy as an opportunity to promote First Amendment protests, advising food vendors to attach anti-Giuliani posters to their food carts. ”That way, every time you sell a hot dog it will be a protest,” Lederman told a crowd of vendors.

Even within the food vendors fighting the regulations, there are significant differences. Allem Alaa, who sells doughnuts on Cortlandt Street, for instance, owns his cart, while Maria Jordan and her son sell biryani rice and chicken from a leased cart on Sixth Avenue. Compounding their obvious sweet and savory differences, these situations make for different financial concerns–and have been historically divisive.

In fact, the mayor used the issue of owning a cart–and the permit technically required to operate it–to squelch vendor activism the first time sidewalk restrictions came up under his administration back in 1994, giving the organizers of the current vendor movement their own personal beef in the latest street selling wars.

Jeff Cicio, for instance, president of the Big Apple Food Vendor Association and helmsman of the day without hot dogs (and knishes, sunglasses, used books, etc.), lost his cart-leasing business in changes instituted in the last vendor go-round.

A few years ago, Cicio owned hundreds of pushcarts, which he leased to vendors. When the city began restricting some midtown blocks, Cicio organized those leasing from him. But shortly after the vendors’ first protest, the City Council, backed by the mayor, changed the city’s permit policy, restricting each person to one permit–and winning the allegiance of pushcart leasers whom Cicio had had on his side. ”He waved permits in front of their faces,” says Cicio. ”It was a good strategy to disband us.”

While the Department of Health and some vendors credit the one-permit policy change with democratizing the business, the elder statesmen of food vending disagree. ”The people who wanted permits didn’t end up getting them,” says Dan Rossi, Big Apple’s vice president and a pushcart manufacturer. Rossi says the effect has been devastating to old-style New York vending, and will ultimately pave the way for bringing in big conglomerates to vend. ”After they destroy us little guys, they’re going to contract with Disney or some other big company,” predicts Rossi. ”It’ll be like the new Times Square. They’re already talking to McDonald’s.”

But Cicio and Rossi are determined not to let City Hall get them this time. In addition to organizing protests, the two have been venting their frustrations to City Council member Anthony Weiner, who is sponsoring bills that would not only keep the streets open to vendors but also allow them to get their permits back.

Given the political muscle of their opponents in the restaurant and real estate industries, the council member is probably the vendors’ best hope. ”You don’t see many members of Democratic clubs out pushing carts,” says Weiner. ”My name is Weiner and I’m the closest thing to an ally that they have.”