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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:

1983: FOUR DOORS FROM KOCH 

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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OCTOBER 1983: TWO DECEPTIVE LETTERS

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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1984: JULY 4 FIREWORKS

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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1985: THE GIFTS, AND A HIT-AND-RUN DRIVER

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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1986: THE MAYOR’S McCARTHYITE ATTACK 

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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1987: SEALING THE TRUTH 

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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THE IMMACULATE DECEPTION 

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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BESS’S GABEL VENDETTA

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.

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Ted Gross: How Did He Get From City Hall to the City Morgue?

I used to feel that I belonged on the Harlem streets. To me home was the streets. I suppose there were many people who felt that… You might see somebody get cut or killed. I could go out in the street for an afternoon, and I would see so much that when I came in the house I’d be talking and talking for what seemed like hours. Dad would say, “Boy, why don’t you stop that lyin’. You know you didn’t see all that. You know you didn’t see nobody do that.” But I knew I had. 
— Claude Brown in Manchild in the Promised Land

It wasn’t so much that Ted Gross actually publicized himself as a “street nigger” as that he never objected to being lionized as one. When people asked him where he was from, he would proudly tell them Harlem, not so much with a smile as with the smugness that comes with viewing oneself as special — a chosen survivor of deprivation. As it was, most people just assumed when Ted said he was from Harlem, that he had grown up in the streets. He thoroughly enjoyed the mystique it swathed him in in white society’s eyes, and the acceptance — the sense of commonness and belonging — it gave him with blacks. The only problem was that after a while Ted, too, came to accept the masquerade or perhaps he never saw that it was one — right up to the time he suffered the type of violent death accepted as part of the street life.

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Ted Gross’s death was more than just a sudden, inexplicable tragedy. Nor was it the death of just another black street hustler. It wasn’t that simple because Ted Gross was no ordinary street hustler. His background contained more book than street learning; he was more house than street nigger.

Gross’s upbringing was decidedly middle class. He spent part of his youth in the East Harlem middle-income Riverton housing development, where the community’s elite lived. His mother, Gerty West Brown, was a socially conscious, upwardly mobile black woman who later became one of the founders of HARYOU, a social-services organization. His father was a schoolteacher. From the time he was seven, Ted lived outside the city. He attended private secondary school in rural Virginia, did his collegiate studies at Shaw University, and, later taught primary school. In the early ’70s Gross began his rapid ascendancy in the John Lindsay administration, rising to become commissioner of the vast and troubled Youth Services Agency. In 1973 he was indicted for taking bribes and misspending close to $400,000 in ­taxpayer’s money. Gross pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in jail. He was released on parole late in 1974 and began a steady decline that culminated in his death on June 9, 1976.

It happened on a deserted thoroughfare in Brooklyn early one Sunday morning when Gross, sitting in his late-model Citroen, was gunned down from behind by a man he had met and befriended in prison. Aided by two strokes of good fortune, police investigators were quick to make an arrest: A woman companion of Gross’s who was also shot survived the fusil­lade and identified 21-year-old Kenneth Gilmore, an ex-drug ad­dict and ex-convict who had already done time for manslaughter, as the assailant. Three days later, Gilmore surrendered to authorities in Charleston, South Carolina.

The arrest, however, answered few — if any — of the myriad ques­tions raised by the murder and by the extreme reluctance of the police to discuss the case. What was Ted Gross involved in that finally took his like?

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When the story broke in the local dailies there were intimations that Gross had been involved in criminal activity. The Daily News story mentioned drugs and numbers. One theory postulated that Gross’s death had been ordered by someone high in the narcotics world. Although they had the suspect identified as the triggerman, the police had little else. They didn’t know what had precipitated the shooting and so went off chasing any leads that emerged, many of them blind, most just fruitless.

***

I had more than a passing inter­est in Ted Gross. I had never met him but had, even in Newark, where I worked at the time, heard about his exploits in the New York City government. I remember once attending a meeting with Amiri Baraka and hearing several blacks discuss how Gross was messing up, buying boats, parading around in fur coats, flaunting white women, and pretty much playing the role blacks had just fought and died in the streets across the country to shake off. Another time, I recall watching a group of black and Puerto Rican kids from the South Bronx on the Dick Cavett show accuse Gross of taking better care of his dog than he was of them.

But it wasn’t these isolated incidents alone that interested me. Neither was it the fact that his name had been tied to drugs and numbers, though that was surely fascinating. What was more puzzling was the fall. Few blacks I know saw it as anything more than further evidence of the white conspiracy against competent blacks who, the rhetoric went, “get too high in the system.” There was more there than that, I suspected. The evidence that sent him plummeting out of office was unequivocal.

But drugs? Numbers? How? Why? I realized that the search would perhaps help me resolve other questions left over from my own childhood — a youth that held painful memories of friends who had died of overdoses or in the crossfire of street violence, or who had just never escaped the magnetic pull of the street life. Deciphering the guarded code might explain what had killed, physically and spiritually, some of my friends — and Gross.

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Ted’s friends and relatives are reluctant to talk about him. There is a disturbing realization by those who considered themselves his intimates that no one really knew him. Everyone I talk to possesses a fragment of recollection that, in light of all that has passed, is clearly not the total picture. Moreover, there is the unsettling thought that there is even more corruption than they will ever know.

His mother, I sense, feels an enormous, brooding compassion for her dead son. Distraught by the murder and the suggestion of drugs, she went around defending his honor by telling friends that it was a government plot to destroy him. When I arrive at her apartment on the upper tip of Harlem one night to keep our appointment, a young girl answers the door and tells me Gerty is not home. I linger in the lobby a while, then call upstairs. Gerty answers the phone. She tells me that she changed her mind about the interview and won’t be giving any for a while.

Initially, all my attempts at interviewing street people who knew Ted are defensively rejected. Street people will talk about anything but dope. It is everywhere, but the answers to probing questions flow with a lot more difficulty. Writers and narcotics cops ask questions. In the eyes of street people, both spell unwanted attention and trouble. The streets are silent. Most of the people I know from Harlem, or those who hang out but don’t live there, grow quiet and hesitant when I mention the name Ted Gross, except to make it clear that they don’t know anything, don’t know anyone who knows anything, and wish I wouldn’t pursue the story. Even Harlem cops won’t talk about the case. Several people ask me not to take notes during interviews, and just about everyone I talk to asks that his or her name not be mentioned.

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In a Bronx bowling alley that Ted frequented, a man tells me that Gross could not have been involved in dope. “To sell dope,” he says, “you have to hate people. I don’t think Ted could have hated the same young cats he tried to help when he was in office.”

It’s a fair theory, but it’s flawed. There is already evidence that Ted had been involved in dope. And besides, selling dope in no more difficult than sending nameless people off to fight secret wars. You don’t have to face the helpless victims. It’s easy.

I decide to pursue the drug angle if only to establish to what extent Ted had been involved. I go to the office of city narcotics prosecutor Sterling Johnson, half expecting to be searched there, given recent disclosures that Harlem’s major drug dealers have put out a $100,000 contract on Johnson’s head. The story broke in the New York Post, despite Johnson’s request that the reporter not write it, and was more recently alluded to in a New York magazine piece.

I ask if the allegations that Gross was involved in dope are true. Johnson says they are. How involved, I ask. Johnson hesitates, then says he can’t answer that since it might compromise ongoing investigations. He quickly asks me if I know who James Mosley is.

I do. Mosley was indicted along with Gross in the YSA scandal. At the time, police called him the bagman in the kickback deals. Mosley is also the owner of the Bronx bowling alley where Gross bowled on Wednesday nights and where Kenneth Gilmore worked as night manager. Mosley and Gross were close friends at one time and were still on good terms when Gross was murdered. According to newspaper stories, Mosley had turned state’s evidence against Gross in the YSA scandal, a charge he later denied. But I don’t think Johnson is about to tell me something I probably already know.

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“Mosley is a close associate of Pete McDougal,” he says. When I show no sign of recognizing the name, Johnson continues, “McDougal was recently acquitted on a major drug charge.”

The McDougal case was no ordi­nary drug bust. Ten men were named in the massive indictment in a case involving well over 50 kilos of heroin. Of the 10 men including McDougal who were indicted and later acquitted, one was subsequently murdered, another was shot when word circulated that he was a police informer, and a third has turned up missing.

McDougal, Johnson says, is also an established numbers runner in Harlem. “Ted Gross associated with these guys,” says Johnson. “If you saw a guy with faggots all the time, what would you say? Ted was a flashy guy. He liked to hang out with the big guys. He had a jones for the street and fine women. When you hear a name like Ted Gross associated with Mosley and McDougal, you pick that up right away because of who he is. His name came up frequent­ly enough for us to know it wasn’t casual or chance meetings. He was always seen at the bars, clubs, night spots with these guys.”

Johnson tells me that the drug business in Harlem is [so] vicious now that the so-called black mafia has forced out the Italian families who once held tight control over drugs and numbers. Recently things have been complicated by the emergence of a new generation of young blacks who have begun to encroach ruthlessly on the older generation. The old rules no longer apply, and people are dying with alarming regularity.

I ask Johnson if he’s surprised that Ted Gross was killed.

“No,” he says. “I’m not shocked.”

***

Ted has been dead a week. As I walk back from another tense and unproductive interview, I stop at the corner of Lenox Avenue and 125th Street before going down into the subway. The corner is quiet. The languor at dusk will soon build to a disquieting frenzy as night, high humidity, and a mass of hu­manity descend on Harlem’s streets. I watch the faces of the people passing the intersection. People in Harlem always seem to be living life at its most violent extremes. In the group experience of blacks in this country, every­thing is being tried, everything is being felt, but this is especially true in Harlem. This was the Har­lem Ted Gross wanted so much to feel he was a part of, the Harlem he was born in but never really made it in. I search the faces of passersby, looking for what Ted Gross sought here.

I grew up in Newark, not Har­lem, but the streets are the same wherever you find a concentration of blacks living in urban pockets of tenements and projects, and so are other constants: drugs, women, numbers, violent death.

Heroin was the big thing when I was young. We had a lot of names for it, but horse was the most popular. Most of the guys I grew up with couldn’t wait to rush out and start using it. If you weren’t doing dope — mostly just snorting it — then you weren’t hip, and to be accused of being unhip was to be a social pariah.

Just about everyone wanted to be part of the street. It was the first social environment many of us came in contact with, which held out a chance for acceptance and possible success. And though it was insulated, it was, neverthe­less, exciting and alluring. Sure, there were dangers, but that was part of the glamour.

There is no ritual to street life but there are rules. They are un­written and unspoken, but all who drift into or grow up on the streets quickly learn them. Primary among these if you are doing or dealing dope is the understanding that death is always waiting. Life spans in the drug trade are fright­eningly short, determined by a law of diminishing odds: The more successful one is — or the longer one stays in — the greater the like­lihood of never getting out un­harmed. Few die natural deaths. It is not uncommon now for newcom­ers to the business to make big money and quit early, attracting little attention from the narc or competitors. There are, however, those who, for whatever reason, choose to ignore the rules and their instincts and stay longer than they should, or start when they shouldn’t — according to several of his friends, Ted was one of them.

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***

It is well over a month after Ted Gross’s death before bits of infor­mation about the last three years of his life begin to emerge — from the time he began serving a 16-month sentence in prison until his murder. I get conflicting pictures of Ted in prison. Some sources describe him as constantly brood­ing and often by himself, suggest­ing that he was not making a successful adaptation to prison. Others, however, describe his prison stay as merely uneventful. Sid Davidoff and Barry Gottehrer (special assistants to the mayor at the time Gross was YSA commis­sioner), who saw Gross frequently in prison, recall he was coping reasonably well. “He had the in­tellectual tools that made it poss­ible for him to deal with physical confinement,” Gottehrer tells me.

The truth is that he did, in fact, experience alternating periods of high spiritedness and severe depression. He blamed himself for his family’s deteriorating condition, particularly his daughter’s emotional problems. At other times he was lively and active in prison programs. At Greenhaven Correctional Facility in Storm­ville, New York, he belonged to what the inmates called the “think Tank,” an inmates’ group that arranged for visiting speakers and helped inmates adjust to incar­ceration. Gross also turned to handcrafts, creating works of glass that he would send to his close friends.

One ex-convict who was in prison at the same time tells me that Gross commanded a great deal of respect from the other inmates. “The cat didn’t come across as an inmate the way he handled him­self. In fact, a lot of the younger dudes used to call him Mr. Gross.”

The first year Ted spent outside of prison was difficult and cata­clysmic. His family was fragment­ed. His daughter required psychia­tric counseling. His wife was emotionally tense from the pressure of keeping the household in­tact while Ted had been away. Ted’s first job after he left Green­haven was selling advertising space for the thousands of cement trash containers that had sprung up on street corners around the city. He was on a work-release program at the time at a facility based in Harlem. Several of his Lindsay administration friends say he often called, seeking con­tacts and potential clients. The job didn’t pan out however — the com­pany eventually ran into financial trouble, and its New York opera­tion folded.

Ted must have thought he had achieved redemption when, after he left the work-release phase of his parole, he secured a job with the Department of Corrections, assigned to the state Chaplains program. Reverend Earl Moore, who hired Gross, tells me that Ted was in his element again, working as a liaison between prison in­mates and their families. He pro­vided counseling for inmates and was wheeling and dealing, just like in the Lindsay days — until a Daily News reporter who learned of his new employment wrote about the irony of an ex-convict working for the corrections department. The story generated enough pressure from high up in the corrections hierarchy to get Gross fired.

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“He was so broken up,” Rever­end Moore recalls, “that he sat in my office and cried. He even of­fered to work for nothing, but he still had a family to take care of.”

After that Ted drifted. And at some point his anxiety intensified. He tried to start a gypsy-cab com­pany, a venture that never got off the ground because the cars he bought wouldn’t run and he didn’t have enough money to repair them. He acquired a franchise in an adhesive glue business in New Jersey, but it was obvious to those around him that he found it unsa­tisfying employment. “This is a cat who used to make $35,000 a year, lived like he was making $85,000, lived in a brownstone, had all the finest women, a boat, fur coats. He was a star. He couldn’t work like that,” says one of Gross’s acquaintances.

Mostly, he spent his time trying to make fast-buck deals here and there. His operative theory was that if he could start several small businesses, he could make a tidy profit. And, in dope, he could make an even bigger one.

Gross’s re-emergence into the street culture had not been met with overwhelming acceptance. He still had numerous friends and acquaintances, but inside the nar­cotics underworld to which he aspired he was anathema. His cre­dentials were, in the street sense, flawed, his tenure in the Lindsay administration having marked him as a different animal alto­gether. His crime — “the white man’s crime,” says one acquaint­ance — was not the stuff of which street legends are made.

Also not in Gross’s favor was the embarrassing fact that he had no money. He came out of prison owing thousands in back taxes on his house in addition to owing on a tidy mortgage. There were also thousands of dollars in long-over­due parking fines and hefty credit­-card bills.

To get money Ted began borrowing from friends and selling nonexistent shares of the glue business, in an attempt to scrape together enough to buy his way into narcotics. Money or no, another man tells me, Ted had no chance of cracking the big-time drug mar­ket. He was intemperate, impetu­ous, kaleidoscopically wild. His instincts for the business were wrong. One man who says his association with Gross was fre­quent, though not intimate, tells me of one occasion on which sev­eral young Harlem dealers were discussing the cutting and distri­buting of a good portion of heroin. At one point, the man says, Gross interjected a suggestion about some facet of the distribution that betrayed his ignorance. Suddenly, everything went silent — it was clear to those who were there that Ted was a rank amateur. He was embarrassed.

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Unable to dent the inner circle, Ted fell back on dealing with the marginal characters, satellites or­biting on the periphery of the drug traffic. Even there, it was possible to turn a fast dollar. It takes only a small initial investment. One can, for example, parlay a purchase of $3000 worth of dope into a profit of close to $15,000. Reinvesting $10,000 of that can reap you a windfall of $50,000. One man tells me that Ted Gross was just begin­ning to master this pyramiding formula when he was killed.

Ted Gross had, indeed, been a manchild who mistakenly thought he had found his idyllic promised land in the ghetto subculture of hustlers and pushers, fast money and fast women. But the fact is that Ted had come to the street life late, ill-equipped to deal with the harsher realities of living on the treadmill of a fantasy. By the time he had graduated from Shaw, Ted had spent 15 of his 22 years away from the street. In a way, Ted Gross was actually just living his Harlem childhood for the first time.

Gross was of that Harlem gener­ation which painfully gave birth to Malcolm X and a whole movement of black pride and social and polit­ical activism. Many who had grown up in the streets went through a metamorphosis, trading partying for politicking, numbers for nationalism. Ted missed that, too. Instead, he came back to a Harlem again benumbed by ne­glect and overrun with dope.

No one who knew him could fail, in some way, to be affected by Gross’s vitality. He was highly articulate and impassioned, drawing people into the center of himself. The immediacy, the impatience, the tumult of his emotions — all were staggering. He was driven, it seems, by a need for constant attention and a gluttonous hunger for approval. He was in fanatical pursuit of affection. And the street, to a certain extent, provided that. But Ted Gross was also a naive man, flirting with self-destruction. And the street provided that, too.

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Mayor De Blasio to City Hall Staff: Keep My Name Out Your Mouths (Until After Election Day)

One of the few small pleasures of being the mayor of New York City is being able to take credit for the good things you do while you are mayor. For Bill de Blasio, that means universal pre-K, overseeing a continued reduction in crime, or presiding over a rent-freeze for rent-stabilized tenants. But until November 8, 2017, City Hall employees are not to use the mayor’s name or his picture in any “ordinary” communications to New Yorkers.

According to an email sent yesterday to staffers in the Mayor’s Office from the mayor’s deputy communications director, Dan Gross, de Blasio’s “name and likeness will not appear” on any “ordinary” communications. Instead, staffers are directed to use “the generic NYC bubble and ‘Office of the Mayor.’ “

Chapter 49 of the City Charter prohibits public servants running for office from appearing in government-sponsored communications or using public funds and resources to transmit “an electioneering message,” but Section 1136.1 exempts “ordinary communications between public servants and members of the public,” from elections laws, as well as “ordinary communications between elected officials and their constituents.”

Gross acknowledges this in the email, but nevertheless, “The mayor has determined to limit the exceptions to the maximum extent possible and, specifically, on ‘ordinary’ communications, his name and likeness will not appear,” he writes.

The restrictions are in place from January 1, 2017, “through the day after Election Day, 2017,” and Gross states that the directive was created “in conjunction with the Office of the Counsel to the Mayor.”

A former City Hall official pointed to the ongoing federal and state investigations into the mayor’s fundraising activities as a possible reason why the administration “is going far above and beyond the rules here.”

“Thousands of parents are going to get mail accepting their kids into Pre-K programs in the next few weeks. Homeowners will get routine letters about reductions of property tax assessments,” said the former official, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardizing working relationships. “Since un-sequestered grand juries can watch or read news media, stories that question whether the mayor is playing fast-and-loose with mail and materials could catastrophically influence their views on his innocence on other possible crimes.”

Eric Phillips, a spokesperson for the mayor, said the email “has zero to do with anything other than the rules promulgated by the city.”

Asked if the rule included tweets and press releases, and if this 2009 press release from Mayor Bloomberg would run afoul of de Blasio’s initiative, Phillips replied, “We’re not in the business of interpreting prior mayors’ compliance with ethics rules.”

Austin Finan, another spokesman for de Blasio, acknowledged that “the Administration is going above and beyond restrictions imposed on the Mayor’s appearance in communications produced with government funds or resources during election years.” Finan said the restriction will apply to “certain ads, flyers, and PSAs.”

Last Friday, the mayor met with investigators from U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office for four hours. The investigators are reportedly looking into whether the mayor and members of his administration traded favors for political donations.

“I’m a progressive. I’m a reformer. Everything I have been doing is to change the status quo in the city and we have followed the rules every step along the way,” de Blasio told NY1 anchor Errol Louis on Monday. “So, you know, people can look into it all they want and we will cooperate fully because we are very comfortable we have done things the right way – it’s as simple as that.”

You can read the text of the email sent to City Hall staffers below. Emphasis theirs.

With additional reporting from Max Rivlin-Nadler

Hello Everyone,

Over the past several months, many of you have inquired about the use of the Mayor’s name in election year by your respective agencies. In conjunction with the Office of the Counsel to the Mayor we have devised guidance moving forward. This will be in effect starting January 1st 2017 through the day after Election Day, 2017. To be specific, the exact date you can resume use of the Mayor’s name is November 8th, 2017. It is expected you will disseminate this information to your internal teams.

In an election year the use of the Mayor’s name or likeness is limited in documents distributed to the public. The exceptions to the limitations permits the use of the Mayor’s name or likeness in “advertisements and other communications required by law,” “communications necessary to safeguard public health and safety,” “standard communications in response to inquiries or request,” and “ordinary communications between [the Mayor] and members of the public.”

The Mayor has determined to limit the exceptions to the maximum extent possible and, specifically, on “ordinary” communications, his name and likeness will not appear, using instead the generic NYC bubble and “Office of the Mayor.” If existing brochures or other public facing communications with his name or likeness have been previously used, they may continue to be used as “ordinary” communications. If the supply of these materials is exhausted or reprinted or if anything new is created or produced, they should use the generic “Office of the Mayor.” The goal is to minimize the use of materials with the Mayor’s name or likeness during the election year.

Any uncertainty about a particular item should be raised with me or the Office of the Counsel to the Mayor for resolution.

Thank you all for your incredible work!

Kind Regards,
Dan Gross
Deputy Communications Director
Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio

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Waiting On Trump To Bring The Pain, De Blasio Releases NYC’s Budget

Outlining the city’s preliminary budget for the next year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he was confident that it would “deepen the investments” his administration has been making in the city’s social services and infrastructure, while also shoring up reserves to weather the storm brewing in Washington as the Trump administration begins to upend the nation’s social and fiscal order.

“We’re assuming there will be profound challenges from Washington,” the mayor told reporters this afternoon at City Hall. The budget proposal does not preemptively identify or provide extra support for line items like hospitals and housing that might be without federal in the coming months, but de Blasio explained that he would be revising the budget as the Trump administration begins to identify the drastic cuts it has hinted at. The mayor added that the budget was meant to project the “strength” and values that the city stands for, something he believes that Trump will respect.

The $84.67 billion preliminary budget sees spending increase under de Blasio by $2.6 billion from the final budget last year and sets aside $340 million for increased action on street safety initiatives (including Vision Zero), $303 million for the eventual completion of Water Tunnel No. 3, and $495 million to create 38,487 more school seats across the five boroughs.

De Blasio touted the city’s strong employment record under his administration, where the city has added more jobs itself than 46 other states in the union. Unlike last year, where the city’s budget was thrown into disarray after governor Cuomo made several seemingly random cuts to state support during his own budget announcement, the city’s funding from the state appears secure.

The mayor also played up a $10.4 million dollar investment in bulletproof windows for NYPD squad cars, as well as $162 million in flood mitigation for southeast Queens.

Missing from de Blasio’s plan entirely was his streetcar proposal, the BQX, which heretofore had been a priority of the de Blasio administration.

“A 10-year $1 billion commitment to public housing might sound substantial but it represents crumbs,” Bronx councilmember Ritchie Torres told the Daily News. “The city should be stepping up. If the city can invest $2 billion in an elaborate street car, surely it can invest more in public housing.”

In the new budget, the administration set aside just $1 billion for public housing improvements over the next ten years.

The mayor also shot down the idea of the city subsidizing MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers, just as the fare is set to rise to $3. Calling the proposal a “noble goal,” de Blasio said that the city “can’t afford it,” and that the state, which operates the MTA, “should fund it, because we’re not in a position to fund it.”

In addition, de Blasio confirmed that a $529 million dollar new jail on Rikers Island remained in the executive budget, but that work had been paused on the jail. He told reporters he would wait on the report from a City Council commission on the feasibility of closing Rikers Island before revisiting that line in the budget.

With “historically” high saving and reserves, de Blasio appeared confident that the city would be able to weather whatever happens in Washington over the next few months. With federal support for the city down to 8%, a possible federal funding nosedive would still be glancing, but not as catastrophic as in the past.

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The Most Important NYC Campaign You Don’t Know About Is Well Under Way

The New York City Council has always been a little bit like high school. There are poseurs and nerds and cool kids and outcasts. The gossip can be fierce. The politics, when not practiced on behalf of the city, may get personal and petty. In a year from now, the 51 members will elect a new Speaker. The current Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, is term-limited. Since many council members, rightly or wrongly, assumed Mark-Viverito was lobbying for a job in a seemingly inevitable second Clinton administration, the race to replace her has long been underway. It’s quietly consumed much of her speakership.

Here are the caveats about any speaker’s race: All the action occurs behind closed doors and the public has no say. Council members have a right to elect their leader. A candidate becomes speaker thanks to the right amount of hustle, savvy, and luck. Circumstance and timing very much matter.

Why fight for a post most New Yorkers aren’t all that familiar with? The speaker is arguably the second most powerful elected official in the city, working in concert (or against) the mayor to craft a budget north of $70 billion and enact significant pieces of legislation. Every speaker so far has run for mayor, though none has ever been successful.

Mark-Viverito has no clear successor, but council members and political operatives watching the backroom contest agree there are three front-runners: Councilman Corey Johnson, Councilman Mark Levine, and Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras. A fourth candidate, Councilman Robert Cornegy, is also competing.

Councilman Corey Johnson
Councilman Corey Johnson

Geography, race, gender, and sexual orientation are all factors that could determine the next speaker. In the overwhelmingly liberal body, it’s not particularly advantageous to be a straight white male, though it’s entirely possible the council ends up with its first white male speaker in more than a decade. Johnson and Levine are white men from Manhattan. Ferreras is a Latina from Queens. Cornegy is a black man from Brooklyn.

The white men, though, do offer some diversity: Johnson would be the body’s second openly gay speaker after Christine Quinn. Levine, like Mark-Viverito and Ferreras, is a fluent Spanish speaker. They are also from Manhattan, the borough that has produced the last three speakers.

Before 2013, speakers were typically elected this way: A palatable candidate was picked from Manhattan and the Democratic organizations of the Bronx and Queens, the only two party machines well-functioning enough to command absolute loyalty from a significant number of councilmembers, agreed to back a Manhattanite in exchange for patronage jobs at the council and plum committee assignments for their favored councilmembers.

Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras
Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras

The different factor in 2013 — and the unknown quantity for this year — is the mayor. Mayor Bill de Blasio, a former city councilman, used the leverage of his resounding victory to push councilmembers toward Mark-Viverito, once a long-shot candidate. Labor unions, progressive groups like the Working Families Party, and a bloc of left-leaning councilmembers also rallied around Mark-Viverito, shattering the traditional model of speakership elections. De Blasio, a Brooklynite, then helped bring the Brooklyn Democratic Party to Mark-Viverito’s camp, defying the Bronx and Queens.

De Blasio, still hampered by a variety of corruption investigations and middling approval ratings, will likely have less clout with councilmembers this time around. Progressives are less united than they used to be and view the mayor with more skepticism. If de Blasio recovers to easily win re-election this year, however, this tableau may change, and the Council could be ready once more to pay deference to a Democratic mayor. (As Republicans, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg had no say in speakership fights.)

Johnson is running as the most anti-de Blasio progressive, pitching members on an emboldened, feistier council that would be willing to push through legislation the mayor dislikes. Mark-Viverito has never forced de Blasio to veto any bills, something that happened routinely under Bloomberg and Quinn. Johnson is also, by all accounts, hustling the hardest, bundling for candidates who may take office next year and pressing his case with as many lawmakers as possible. His aggressive posture has rubbed some the wrong way; a New York Post story about a hospital bed visit to pro-life, anti–gay marriage State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., now a front-runner for an open council seat, raised eyebrows.

Councilman Mark Levine
Councilman Mark Levine

Levine, so far, has offered a toned-down version of Johnson’s candidacy, and may position himself as everyone’s second choice if a deal falls apart for Johnson or Ferreras. A soft-spoken, brainy liberal from Upper Manhattan, Levine speaks three languages, including Hebrew, and has challenged the mayor far less. For councilmembers uncomfortable with a white male running the body in a majority-minority city, Levine can point to his own district: largely Latino, with blacks and upwardly mobile whites mixed in.

Ferreras may be the most intriguing contender of the three. She’s widely believed to be de Blasio’s favored candidate, at least at the moment, and would be the choice of the same progressive coalition that rallied around Mark-Viverito. Representing a heavily Hispanic district in central Queens, Ferreras chairs the Committee on Finance, responsible for hashing out the budget, and long considered one of the two or three most consequential posts in the council. Her campaign team is already starting to resemble Mark-Viverito’s: Jon Del Giorno, a prominent lobbyist who quarterbacked her 2013 bid for speaker, and the MirRam Group are both assisting Ferreras.

Holding Ferreras back is the possibility that re-creating Mark-Viverito’s path to victory will be harder this time around. The party bosses of the Bronx and Queens are more powerful, thanks to Carl Heastie’s rise to assembly speaker and Rep. Joe Crowley’s move up the congressional ladder. Crowley is no fan of Ferreras, who defied him in 2013 to support Mark-Viverito, and if she encounters a primary challenge from a local assemblyman, precious energy and resources will be drained for that fight.

No candidate has fully fleshed out a vision for the office. In 2013, Mark-Viverito, like de Blasio, promised a clean break from the Michael Bloomberg era. Quinn worked in concert with Bloomberg to water down progressive bills in the council or quash them altogether; one of Mark-Viverito’s first acts as speaker was to pass into law a bill that required paid sick leave for employees.

Councilman Robert Cornegy
Councilman Robert Cornegy

This time around, no candidate for speaker promises such a profound departure from the status quo. The three front-runners are members of the Progressive Caucus, a bloc of nineteen members originally formed under Quinn to counter her centrism. They will likely maintain what will amount to Mark-Viverito’s greatest legacy within the legislative body: rules reform that took at least some of the blatant politicking out of governing.

Under Quinn, funding individual councilmembers controlled for projects in their districts was determined solely by how much she liked or hated the lawmaker. Charles Barron, a proud radical, saw his low-income, primarily black district get repeatedly shortchanged for funding because he was a loud Quinn critic. Vincent Gentile, another Brooklyn Democrat Quinn reviled, spent more than a decade in the council before he could finally chair a committee. (Mark-Viverito appointed him chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Investigations in 2014.) So-called member items for council members are now needs-based, derived from a formula that takes into account the poverty of the district. It is very difficult to imagine any successor undoing this approach.

Closing out a tenure that has been marked by efficiency (meetings start promptly) and a notable lack of scandal, Mark-Viverito still has a tight hold on members, something the next speaker may promise to loosen. No bill makes it to the floor for a vote without Mark-Viverito’s say-so, despite her promises for more democracy.

For progressives begging the Council to pass the Right to Know Act, common-sense police reform legislation with more than enough sponsors to make it to de Blasio’s desk, this has been particularly frustrating. In 2018, de Blasio — assuming he’s still at City Hall — may have to finally break out his veto pen.

In the meantime, the behind-the-scenes jousting for Speaker will continue. Look for the mayoral race this fall to set the tone — and the fighting to intensify after Election Day.

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Sit Down Reporters, and Let the Mayor Tell You What ‘Real’ Journalism Is

Among Mayor Bill de Blasio’s responsibilities as the leader of the biggest American city is the important task of determining for the public which press outlets are “real,” and which ones are fake. The New York Post, once again, didn’t make the cut.

In a weekly news conference today, the mayor, who not all that long ago admonished city agencies for their lack of transparency while serving as public advocate, iced out the New York Post completely, declining to answer a single question from the paper’s City Hall bureau chief, Yoav Gonen. He was apparently displeased with a Post report that highlights a 140 percent increase in “special assistants” in his administration that costs the city $18.7 million.

City Hall is a paying subscriber to the apparently fake paper. The mayor has previously said the paper has a “clear right-wing agenda” and is a “propoganda rag” after a reporter asked why he pushed back a meeting with blind New Yorkers impacted by the Chelsea terrorist attack to go to the gym. He continued to lash out against local reporters today, downplaying the many investigations into his administration. 

And he had this advice for pesky reporters, whose job it is to ask questions:

While City Hall reporters commiserated on Twitter in a self-righteous First Amendment fit, I had only one question: Where is Chirlane?  

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Build It Back Is Sucking Hundreds of Millions Out of Other Vital Resiliency Projects

New York City Councilmembers spat criticism and frustration at members of the de Blasio administration yesterday after learning that the city’s Build It Back program is $500 million over budget and will now require the administration to shift taxpayer money from other vital resiliency projects to pay for it.

Councilmembers first learned of the issues with the Superstorm Sandy recovery initiative in a Wall Street Journal report published on Wednesday night.

“It is an outrage,” said councilmember Mark Treyger, chair of the resiliency and recovery committee. “It is unacceptable and insulting that this council was notified about these cost overruns literally at the eleventh hour.”

According to Build It Back’s director, Amy Peterson, $350 million earmarked for other storm resiliency projects in the city’s budget, which is funded by tax dollars, will help cover the overrun. The remaining $150 million, already spent on other Sandy resiliency efforts, will become ineligible for reimbursement by the federal government.

Peterson insisted that no other projects, including the planned seawall on Staten Island’s eastern shore, would suffer delays or changes from the funding shift, but couldn’t tell the committee exactly which programs the money would be drawn from within the budget.

Build It Back was intended to help at least 22,000 families when it was launched, according to Treyger. In the oversight meeting yesterday, he asked Peterson exactly how many New Yorkers had been helped thus far. She had no answer for him.

The Voice recently reported that there are about 8,640 applicants in the program, less than half of the original number; in typical disaster recovery efforts, about 50 percent of all applicants to similar programs end up benefitting from it, according to Peterson.

Mayor de Blasio initially pledged to complete the Build It Back program by the end of 2016, but some are concerned the rush has driven costs unreasonably high and encouraged disregard for safety protocols. In light of the cost overrun, Peterson said the mayor will soon announce new goals for the program, and pledged to work to meet his ambitious deadline.

The program helps New Yorkers either demolish and rebuild or elevate homes along the coast and in the floodplain that were badly damaged in the storm four years ago. The initiative blew through $270 million just making repairs on single-family homes, and residents have complained of frequent miscommunication. In June, a Build It Back home under construction in Gerritsen Beach collapsed. No one was injured.

Councilmember Donovan Richards expressed concerns that contractors might be taking advantage of the city’s rush to meet self-imposed deadlines and inflating the cost of their services as a result, comparing the practice to bootleg DVD sellers on Jamaica Avenue. He plainly asked Peterson if current construction costs — a Tishman Construction bid will reportedly cost $50 million to rebuild just 53 homes in Queens —was cost-effective.

“That is not cost-effective for the city of New York,” Peterson replied, and added that the city is trying to renegotiate the bid.

Residents, many of them elderly or whose first language is not English, have struggled with confusion and delays, some of them still living among boxes, awaiting relocation according to Treyger and councilmember Steven Matteo, who oversee Coney Island and a large swath of Staten Island, respectively.

“How long are we going to go through this?” asked Matteo. His constituents, he said, are “going through hell.”

Treyger asked if the administration would be willing to consider extending or softening deadlines imposed on homeowners, stressing that helping as many people as possible is more important than meeting deadlines in “some public relations victory.”

Peterson’s answer was, in effect, no.

“To move this program forward and help these homeowners, we need to establish deadlines,” she said. Specific hardship cases, such as families who struggle to find temporary housing for the length of construction, are considered for extensions and special accommodations on a case-by-case basis.

Peterson explained that delays and cost increases were the result of the complex job of elevating low-lying houses in areas such as Broad Channel and Edgemere, both in Queens. In some cases, homes are lifted off their foundations, only to reveal that they need to be rebuilt altogether before they can be elevated and the houses set back down. Attached homes are even more complex, and require cooperation from both homeowners, even if one is not enrolled in the program. Demolition and rebuilding, including approval of home design, takes time, too.

She cited a city construction boom as one reason for the ballooned contractor costs. In many cases the cost of repairing a house far exceeds its value, though rebuilding them is not always a cheaper alternative. The program is also spending more money to relocate families while their homes are repaired and help them with rent payments, and to offer buyouts or resettlement elsewhere in the city, outside of the floodplain.

You can read more about the city’s sometimes-contradictory waterfront policy in last week’s Voice.

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Assemblyman Nelson Castro Resigns After Ratting Out Eric Stevenson (and Maybe Others)

There’s a good chance this week will go down in New York City political history textbooks. And not for the best reasons.

If you’ve watched the news (or Twitter) over the past three days, you’ve come across the Dan Holleran/Malcolm Smith story that involved bribing and mayoral rigging. Then, of course, the outgrowth of blame directed at Christine Quinn. And don’t forget even more drama between her rivals–all of which directly leads back to the exposure of Holleran’s illegal use of city funds.

And, yesterday, yet another politico was booked for corruption. South Bronx Assemblyman and Democrat Eric Stevenson was caught by federal authorities for accepting bribes of upward of $20,000. With this money, he planned on passing a law that would solely benefit four adult day care developers. Like Holleran and Smith, somehow he expected to get away with it.

As if this story couldn’t get any wilder, the mole was Stevenson’s fellow assemblyman, Nelson Castro, who’s currently facing perjury charges from 2008. And late afternoon yesterday, he resigned from his seat and described just exactly what has been going down over the past four years.

Castro was indicted in 2008 for lying about a certain civil matter–the details of which are currently unknown. In an agreement with the feds, he wired himself; he would be a mole for the government, seeking out public corruption that was happening in private back rooms. He would be referred to as Assemblyman-1 in the complaints filed, subjecting himself to a forced resignation once the details of the investigations hit headlines. And, yesterday, that is exactly what went down.

Here’s his letter for further clarity:

Today I announce that I am resigning my seat in the New York State Assembly, effective Monday, April 8, 2013.

On July 31, 2009, I was indicted by a Bronx County Grand Jury for committing perjury in a 2008 civil matter, held prior to my election to the Assembly. I appreciate the seriousness of my misconduct.

Thereafter, I agreed to cooperate with the Bronx District Attorney’s Office and, later, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, in conjunction with various investigations aimed at rooting out public corruption. As one result of this cooperation, among other things, this morning a complaint was unsealed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York charging Assemblyman Eric Stevenson and four others with various federal crimes. I continue to cooperate with State and Federal authorities in this prosecution and in other investigations.

I am very proud of my accomplishments and the many benefits that I have secured on behalf of my district over the last four years. These include helping thousands of constituents to apply for U.S. citizenship on a no-fee basis, and providing educational programs focusing on the Citizenship & Naturalization Exam; obtaining funding for technology purchases and initiatives for the schools in my district; sponsoring events for senior centers and youth programs in my district and beyond; and securing additional low cost housing units in the area. Most of all, I take pride in how our diverse population has united to transcend racial and ethnic differences and work together.

My district is comprised of hard working and honest people, devoted to their families and to their community. I deeply regret my misconduct while campaigning before I was elected to office. It is my sincere hope that my constituents remember me most for the good I have done as their representative, rather than for the poor example I set as a candidate.

Because of the sensitive nature of ongoing prosecutions and investigations, I must direct all further inquiries to my attorney, Michael C. Farkas, Esq.

The key phrase: “One result of this cooperation, among other things…”

Stevenson could be the first of several targets exposed by Castro’s wiring. That means the trouble isn’t over any time soon for Albany. And it’s only just beginning for everyone watching from the sidelines.

Maybe U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara was right when he said, “Political corruption in New York is indeed rampant.” Yes, Mr. Bharara, this indeed feels like Groundhog Day.

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Comptroller John Liu Will Officially Join Mayoral Race On Sunday

Looks like we have another candidate to keep in mind come November.

The New York Observer‘s Colin Campbell reports that multiple sources have told the publication that Comptroller John Liu will announce his bid for City Hall this Sunday. Like with Christine Quinn’s official video released a few days ago, the Democratic candidate’s announcement is no surprise for most spectators, as Mr. Liu has been making appearances at debates and talks for the coveted position.

And, akin to Ms. Quinn, this will be his first time running for Mayor. Also, the two will both have ground-breaking campaigns: Ms. Quinn’s as the first woman and openly gay individual and Mr. Liu’s as the first Asian-American. So many similarities.

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Although he won his Comptroller position with 76% of the vote, Mr. Liu will have to fight down critics left over from a federal corruption trial involving straw donorsfrom his campaign. And the fact that, because of this scandal, he has told the Associated Press that he could understand why this would disqualify him as a mayoral candidate.

But, for the blue team, Mr. Liu will be joining a cast of frontrunner heavyweights. Ms. Quinn’s already in, former Bloomberg challenger Bill Thompson has made it clear he’ll be running and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has already started seriously campaigning around New York.

On the other side, we’ve got ex-MTA-head Joe Lhota, billionaire grocer John Catsimatidis and homeless defender Greg McDonald.

Oh, and we cannot forget Adolfo Carrion – the third-party candidate who’s fighting to get on the Republican ballot.

There is the list of your future Mayor choices, New York. You have eight months to make a decision. Best of luck.

[jsurico15@gmail.com/@JSuricz]

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It’s Official: Christine Quinn Wants To Be Your Next Mayor

Yesterday, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn released this video to the Internet. And her campaign tweeted the below out, too. Both were an affirmative nod to New Yorkers that, yes, she is officially running for Mayor and, yes, she is fighting for the middle class. If elected, Ms. Quinn will be the first woman and the first openly gay individual to occupy Gracie Mansion.

It’s been common logic for the past few months (years?) that Ms. Quinn would run for Mayor. Her moves as City Council Speaker have been viewed in a future mayoral light, she has a favorable lead in the polls against her Republican opponents and talks of her possible candidacy have revolved around whether she is Bloomberg Act II or not. So this video announcement only does one thing: makes it official.

In it, the Speaker tells the emotional tale of her past, as the daughter of a union leader in Glen Cove, dealing with her mother’s death to breast cancer at an early age. She then runs through her list of experience, in which she posits herself as a fighter for the working class of New York, displaying her legislation for a living wage bill and mandatory kindergarten. The phrase ‘middle class’ and ‘affordability’ are mentioned more times than one, coming off a proposal she made a few weeks ago to dedicate more dollars to middle-income housing.

It could be said that her electoral shift in attention towards the middle class is a clear sign that she wants to cut all ties with the Bloomberg administration – a reign that has rarely been associated with the lower classes of income. Or, if we’re thinking positively, not politically, here, it could be a sign that she actually does care that Manhattan and Brooklyn are two of the most expensive places in the country. We’re gonna have to wait to find out.

But the big news here: the frontrunner has stepped into the ring.