Thursday, January 29, 2009

Some 2010 Senate analysis

A little something I posted over at DailyKos, my first "Diary" there, in fact:

These are my initial observations on the 2010 New Hampshire Senate race. I'll concede that my conceptions of New Hampshire are colored in part by my experiences there 2002-2004, which is before the Democratic revolution of 2006. I have done my best to keep up with the times though. Since this was an intro to a different blogging community, it's heavy on analysis and light on wild anecdotes, but that will change in time.

Gregg as formidable 2010 foe Hotlist

Thu Jan 29, 2009 at 09:59:02 PM PST

In light of the Gregg for Commerce Secretary rumors, this is a narrowly tailored diary addressing the 2010 NH Senate election. It seems that some in the community have shown commendable, but perhaps misguided optimism about our chance to take this seat in 2010. If this seat is as unlikely a takeover as I suggest it is, then appointing Gregg and leaving Gov. Lynch to appoint the magical #60 may be in our best interests. This diary does not consider what Gregg would be like as Commerce Secretary, which Black Mage covers here: http:// . So for a crash course on dealing with Rethug Empires in New Hampshire, check out below the fold.

First, Judd Gregg is from one of the three titan families of New Hampshire Republican politics. Jeanne Shaheen took down the scion of the Sununu family, Sen. John Sununu, last year, and Paul Hodes took out Rep. Charlie Bass in 2006. It would appear fitting to knock out Senator Judd to complete the tri-fecta. But Judd is not as much of a lightweight as the other two.

John Sununu was a lame creature, with zero charisma, who would never have been able to match the record of his father. John H. Sununu had been a three-term governor, and George H.W's Chief of Staff. Little John barely beat Shaheen in the 2002 "national security" elections, a race that will always be remembered for the phone-jamming scandal that led to the imprisonment of multiple Republican Party operatives.

Charlie Bass was a third-generation pol who rode the 1994 landslide to victory over the colorfully-named Democratic incumbent, Dick Swett. He held his seat with numbers that rarely left the mid-50s, despite his very moderate positions. As a personal anecdote, I was able to visit his office as a member of a college delegation, and when I asked him what his favorite thing about being a Congressman was, he answered, "It's really fun when the Speaker gives me the gavel and I get to sit up in that big chair and run the show." Cute, but typically lightweight. Still, count me as among the surprised when Hodes, who had lost by 20 points in 2004, knocked him out in 2006.

Judd Gregg is the son of Hugh Gregg, a former governor and powerful leader of the business community and the Republican Party in NH for decades. He is known for his zealous defense of NH's first in the nation primary status, as bi-partisan an issue in the state as any. Judd has far surpassed his father's record, however. After spending four terms in the House, Gregg was twice elected Governor, from '89-93. In '92, Gregg won election to the Senate, and has cruised to re-elections twice since. He is without a doubt the most powerful political institution in the state. Which is not to say, of course, that he doesn't suck, and we shouldn't take him down. I'm just here to point out that it will not be easy.

Paul Hodes is a great guy. He is also coincidentally one of the few people I know who shares my high school and college alma mater. I had the privilege of sharing the stage with him on a panel about the 2004 election (I worked as a Kerry staffer) at our old high school, and he was very friendly. He is a good rep for the 2nd District, and would be an easy candidate to get behind in 2010. But let's be clear- he is not the rising star of the Democratic Party that some on this site, including Kos, make him out to be. He is only four years younger than Gregg (57 and 61, respectively). His candidacy would also certainly throw the 2nd district into toss-up status.

An ARG Poll from a few weeks ago showed Gregg leading Hodes 47-40, which is encouraging (Shea-Porter was also polled, but forget about her winning this seat).
Poll here:
I am absolutely not saying that this seat is 'unwinnable'. But having observed the last few cycles pretty closely, this race seems most similar to Susan Collins v. Tom Allen in Maine. Unlike Conrad Burns, George Allen and Rick Santorum, Gregg is neither a crazy old man, a racist, nor a right-wing lunatic. He is more savvy than the many Republican deuschebag Senators who were too cocky to listen to the rumblings on the ground. Gregg will likely continue to vote here and there for headline-grabbing Obama bills that make him look accommodating.

In conclusion:

  1. If Hodes chooses to run, we should absolutely support him to the fullest.
  1. This Senate race will be a tough, uphill battle.
  1. If people really, really want this Senate seat, either right now, or in 2010, the Commerce Secretary offer seems like a decent trade off.
  1. Whether that trade-off is something that can be morally or pragmatically stomached, I'll leave to all of you.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Fear and Loathing in the Purple Tunnel of Doom

It was fitting that we ended the last hours of the Bush administration in a cold, dark tunnel, being fed misinformation. Kate Gage had delivered us three elusive Purple tickets the midnight before the inauguration. Purple section tickets, and their blue counterparts, got you into a viewing area in front of the Reflecting Pool, well in front of the Mall. Weary of possible long lines, despite D.C relative tranquility in the days leading to the Inauguration, we had arrived at the Purple Gate at 7am, two hours before it was set to open. We were greeted by the longest line I have ever seen in my life.

The line flowed about two city blocks before a parked bus wreaked havoc, splintering the official line into a series of hydra-like offshoots. We followed one of these off-shoots for two more blocks before a group of policemen shuttled us, and our purple-ticket bearing brothers and sisters, into the 3rd Street Tunnel. We marched into the abyss, finding the end of the line 20 minutes later. It was now 7:30am. We shivered for the next few hours, finally emerging into the sunlight at 11am, only to realize that there were no longer any policemen in the area, and that people had been cutting the entire tunnel line for hours.

The Purple Tunnel of Doom has become something of a legend, spawning a Washington Post article and a Facebook Group (I Survived the Purple Tunnel of Doom). Nothing awful happened down there, and there was even occasional happy chanting. But Dianne Feinstein’s Inauguration Committee really, really dropped the ball on this one. For hours, there were 20,000 people in a freezing tunnel, where cell phones don’t work, without any police supervision or staffers providing instruction. There was definitely a risk of a stampede or medical emergency, two of the many morbid scenarios we discussed to pass the 3.5 hours we spent down there. The steady flow of people joining the line (masochistically having to push through the packed tunnel crowd only to get in the very back of it) and our slow but sure advancement had convinced me that we were in at least a real line, but alas.

When we got out of the tunnel, and realized our 3.5 hours of waiting had been in vain, we charged towards the Purple Gate, still three blocks away. Thousands of other people had the same idea, and by 11:15am a giant mob had amassed on First and C, where it turned out that the Purple Gate wasn’t even open. Ticket-holders were told to go to another location, which was impossible, because no one could move at all. At this point, we made an executive decision. We are mobile, resourceful, and not afraid to push, so we probably could have made a last desperate effort for the remaining open gate. Even if we succeeded, however, we would probably have terrible spots, lacking proper audio, visual, or both. Bewilderingly, there were no speakers or screens outside Capital Hill, so if we were going to find another location, we’d have to book it.

The first three bars were full or reserved, and by 11:30am we had resigned ourselves to trekking back to Carrie Chess’s apartment, where we could at least watch the Inauguration on television. On the way, however, we spotted an old church with a banner reading, “Inauguration Welcome Center.” Old ladies were selling Obama buttons outside of it. We thought, ‘what the hell’, and asked if they had a TV. It turned out that they were having a viewing party, and had erected a big-screen at the front of the basement. The room was decorated with Obama paraphernalia, festooned in red, white and blue, and about 100, mostly elderly, African-American church members sat watching the ceremonies. There was also free tea, and a handful of soldiers who had come off of their street duties to watch the ceremony. Nearly delirious with cold, fatigue and emotion, this felt like the warmest place on earth. We were settled with our tea just in time to catch the beginning of the ceremonies, including MC Feinstein.

To Feinstein’s credit, she has offered an apology for the debacle, and in doing so, at least acknowledged that it happened. The same cannot be said of the Capital Police, who declared that everything ran smoothly except for the “4,000-5,000 discombobulated people.” That line is deeply insulting to the thousands of people who had flown in from all over the country to see the Inauguration, only to be stuck in a tunnel for the historic moment, at an event where there was no correlation between when you joined the line and whether you’d get in. Additionally, purple ticket-holders included many of Obama’s staffers, who sacrificed a year of their lives to savor this very moment. Just because the Capital Police were either too disorganized or too lazy to run the lines properly does not give them the right to mock all the people who went through that awful experience. Lord knows how angry I would have been had we not found that church. And to people who ask how the Inauguration Committee could have done a better job given the number of people, how’s this?

  1. Have a police or volunteer/staffer presence at least at every block to direct the line.
  2. Make periodic announcements, through those people or others, on what is happening.
  3. Post signs!
  4. Open the gates at 6am, when there was already a huge line, instead of waiting until 9am.
  5. Open all the gates! Why have a gate if you aren’t going to use it? It’s a one-day event….
  6. Observe the madhouse at the Sunday free concert, and note that maybe extra preparations should be taken for Tuesday.
  7. Don’t give out so many tickets! I realize that I may not have gotten a ticket myself had this idea been implemented, but someone really fucked up here. I totally understand the logic of overbooking an event, especially one where the televised visual will be so pronounced. The Committee could probably have overbooked tickets by 10-15% and had certainty that the Purple section, and others, would fill up. Instead, they overbooked by way, way more than that, perhaps 100%. Especially when combined with the other cited failures, that was a recipe for a fiasco.

The people who ran the Inauguration are not fit to run a high school dance, much less a foreign war. I was relieved to find out that Feinstein and the Congressional Inauguration took responsibility, but Obama’s team is in charge now, and this is their bad too. I hope they have learned from this mistake.

Since we all saw the Inauguration itself, I have little to add about its substance. Rev. Warren stuck out like a lame sore thumb, Aretha was wonderful, Yo-Yo Ma and his crew were fantastic, Justice Stevens looked like the most relieved man on earth, and Rev. Lowry just kicked ass. Justice Roberts may have looked like a fool screwing up the oath, but the only person who deserves vitriol is Justice Alito, who arrogantly skipped the traditional meeting between the President and the Supreme Court earlier in the week, the only Justice in recent memory to pull such a stunt. To this day, Alito childishly refuses to walk on the sidewalk in front of the Senate Office Building because of his disdain for the Senators who votes against his confirmation.

When PRESIDENT Obama stepped up to the podium to face the largest crowd in Inauguration history, he seemed like a man calm and poised, ready to lead us through rough waters. It seems the nation agrees with me- his current approval rating stands at 77%, a level surpassed only by President Truman as World War II drew to a close, Obama’s speech echoed his campaign themes: restoring America’s position in the world, respecting the Constitution, and working to help Americans suffering here at home. The church crowd rallied behind him with affirmative exclamation of “yes”, “that’s the truth” and “tell it!” The most touching moment came when Obama spoke of a segregation policy that only fifty years ago would not allow his father the chance to be seated in a restaurant. An old man with gray hair raised his hand, and slowly rose to his feet. He doffed his cap at the television, and sat back down.

When I first began working on the Obama primary campaign in South Carolina, a group of volunteers were scattered across the Charleston area to reach out to churches. Shilpa and I were assigned to a small United Church of Christ congregation, where the pastor eschewed our pre-written statement and spoke of what an Obama presidency would mean to her, the congregation, and the country. The Charleston church also had a small, elderly, African-American congregation, and as I sat in that D.C basement I thought of them, and all of the incredible people I have met since this journey began more than a year ago. For at least a day, the whole world believed that democracy had delivered as a man ready to lead us together. There were no protesters, and the pundits shut up for a few precious hours. Less than an hour after the speech, the Mall seemed almost empty. D.C was still, and the Obama administration went to work.

Friday, January 16, 2009

It's Hard to Stop a Moving Train- 2009 Edition

6pm, January 13, 2009. Overcrowded, dysfunctional, with poor, inaudible communications? If you guessed the MTA, you are absolutely right- but this was no subway ride. I was standing on line for the first of eight public hearings on the proposed fair hikes and services cutes. After scheming my way into over a dozen Obama events over the past year, there was simply no way I was going to penetrate these lines to see the MTA Board of Directors- it was the hottest ticket in town. Hundreds stood outside of the Hilton Hotel ballroom with me, while hundreds more were giving the MTA a piece of their mind inside, after braving metal detectors, armed guards and bomb dogs. I wondered if this level of security was required in years when the MTA wasn’t advertising fare hikes and service cuts. The Gothamist reported that the hearings went on until 1:26am. Their excellent coverage of the event can be found here:

I was part of the 6:45pm crowd, which, exiled outside, had started chanting, “Let us in! Let us in!” A group of cops, MTA and regular, spread out along the line, silently shepherded by an extremely overweight man with a mustache and a cowboy hat. He was the head of the Hilton security, and his police spokesman announced that protesting was not allowed inside the Hilton. “You are going to have to take your chants outside,” he said. “The Hilton is a protest-free zone.” Leave it to the MTA to hold their hearing at a luxury hotel, pick a room too small to accommodate the crowd, in a building designated as protest-free zone. For future occasions, I don’t think the MTA or any public agency should be allowed to hold public hearings in such environments. Of course, the upcoming Brooklyn meeting will be at the Marriot, which I imagine walks the Big Hotel line on protesting policy. That hearing, which you should show up early for, is on:

Wednesday, January 28th, is at 333 Adams Street, at the NY Marriot under the Brooklyn Bridge. The hearing begins at 6pm, and registration ends at 9pm.

Elliot Sander, the Executive Director of the MTA, is taking heaps of abuse, and for a while I began to pity the man who has little role in the fate of his agency. It’s worth backing up and thinking about how the MTA was created in the first place. Created in 1965, the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority was responsible for overseeing state-run commuter rails. It was one of the few state institutions untouched by Robert Moses, whose power was then in decline. Public transportation did not interest Moses anyway, and he is in many ways the biggest culprit of today’s woes for his relentless advocacy for expressways in lieu of public transportation investment. As Robert Caro lays out in The Power Broker, Nelson Rockefeller was the politician finally capable of toppling Moses, who survived five New York City Mayors and six New York State Governors, due to his independent financial and political power base. Rockefeller knew that Moses’ chief source of his power was the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.

In the 1930s, Moses had concocted a brilliant scheme: while public authorities had traditionally existed so that municipalities could raise money for individual projects, with the intent of turning the projects over to the city once bonds were paid off, Moses designed the TBTA to use its enormous revenue flow to cover ‘any corporate purpose’, which meant he literally had to keep building with the vast sums of money New York City bridges and tunnels were bringing in. That money could not be touched by the Mayor, Governor, or anyone except people accountable to Moses. Governor Rockefeller moved to merge the MTCA with the TBTA, promising Moses a significant role in the new entity. Normally, the TBTA bondholders, who were still owed $367,000,000, would have sued to block such a merger, especially the chief stockholder, Chase Manhattan Bank. The Bank, however, was controlled by Nelson’s brother, David Rockefeller, and the arrangement was made. So, in essence, the newly formed MTA, which to this day controls bridges, tunnels, subways and commuter rails, was created to defeat the tyrannical reign of Robert Moses. As politicians learned, however, there was a tremendous side benefit.

The MTA, as a public authority, effectively shields the Governor, Mayor and legislature from blame with respect to the finances and functionality of this enormous transportation infrastructure. One of my first political memories, from the 1990-91 recession, is Mayor Dinkins explaining that the city had no responsibility for the subways, which confused the hell out of me as a nine-year old. The MTA Board is comprised of 17 members, all appointed by the Governor. ‘Recommendations’ come in from the Mayor, suburban counties and unions, but ultimately donations to a governor’s campaign are prospective Board members’ best bet.

New York had the unfortunate distinction of being governed for 12 years by George Pataki. It hurts a little to criticize him, both because of his Hungarian ancestry and because his son Ted is a great guy I used to attend summer camp with. But those things don’t make up for, among other things, stacking the MTA with Board members who couldn’t take advantage of boom years in the late 90s and earlier in this decade to shore up the MTA’s finances. While leaving Republican appointees in charge of any public work is inherently dangerous, I am not sure what interests the Spitzer and Paterson appointees serve, including Spitzer’s man, Mr. Sander.

Individual legislators can denounce the MTA, but they collectively can supplement its funding. A subsidy from the government is absolutely not unwarranted- New York transit users pay a higher percentage of their transportation budget in fare costs than riders in any other major American city (approximately 80%). If Pataki were still around, I’m sure this would all be a lost cause. But David Paterson is from Harlem, he is supposed to be as good a public transit governor as anyone. Sure, he could try to pass the buck to Obama, but one would think that public transportation would be an issue he might try to tackle head on, rather than punting.

Wishful thinking, I’m sure. The MTA for too long has been an offensive line, shielding political figures from their duty to make public transportation work, while allowing them to criticize it as perpetual outsiders. This system works particularly well in New York City, where everyone is hungry for power, but no one wants to take any responsibility.

The entire premise of the MTA needs to change. These crazy economic times represent the strongest arguments for and against overhauling a massive system. I’d argue that if we are going to have major transportation disruptions anyway, we might as well rethink how the city and state operate the business of transit.

First, the New York City subway and bus lines, which only service New York City, should perhaps be returned to City jurisdiction. Second, other facets of the MTA, should they remain under state jurisdiction, should be established as an agency directly under the governor's control, to create accountability.

All of this brings me back to the genius of Sander. He knows who he is. He knows he pulls no strings. Perhaps the most useful thing he can do is stir the furies. Why else would you announce that a public hearing is “about fare hikes and service cuts?” Perhaps so that every public figure in attendance can go on record recording his outrage, demanding and promising an increase in MTA funding? If Sander gets enough legislators outraged, we’ll pretty much have to see the legislature propose more funding. Or at least whine that Obama is not giving enough federal aid. So it goes. So it went. And so it will keep going and going... Join us again, as we continue our investigations into the MTA, and cover the Battle to Save Public Transit. Semper Fi Subway.


Digging through the inter-webs for an article to verify some of my facts, I stumbled on a fantastic 2003 article by the then little-known Matt Taibbi, writing at the time for the New York Press. If any publication could bring together Taibbi, Wayne Barrett and Frank Rich, they would be able to do to the media world what the Allen-Garnett-Pierce-led Celtics did to basketball in 2008. You can read Taibbi’s article here:

Thursday, January 15, 2009

More Than a Bike Lane

I was bringing it all back home. After a road trip that took me and Kittens Ablaze through nine southern cities in nine days, the goal was to dive back into the local political scene. The recession has had a pointed impact on the Greenpoint/Williamsburg area, halting the ooze of gentrification dead in its tracks, leaving unfilled condos floating empty in the sky. The rapid integration of weird-looking young people into an old Catholic community has often felt unnatural, but at least with the flow of the people slowing down, those already here will all get to know each other a little better. After all, we share the same concerns- affordable housing, reliable transportation services, and the survival of small businesses. I decided to check out the Community Board 1 meeting this past Tuesday night to see what was going down these days. I had heard that there was some dispute over the bike lanes on Kent Avenue

Community Boards are a New York institution long responsible for politically organizing the City’s many neighborhoods. There are 59 Community Boards throughout the City, with limited powers designated by the City Charter. Up to 50 voting members serve on each board, appointed to two-year terms by the Borough President, usually upon recommendations from the relevant local City Council members. Some complain that this renders them simply tools of machine politics, but when it comes to local issues, community members are generally on the same page in politically opposing City Hall, Albany or the Feds. When it comes to corporate interests, of course, things get more complicated. Incidentally, some credit the expansion of Community Board powers in the late 1960s and early 70s as a direct backlash against the Robert Moses era. And though Community Boards are often criticized for their ineffectiveness, Community Board 1 has a particularly strong reputation for organization and clout.

The meeting took place in a cafeteria on Ainslie street, and despite the innocuous-looking agenda, you could hear many of the 120 residents present whisper, “Stick around, it’s gonna be an interesting night.” After a laborious 45 minute presentation from the Parks Department and City Planning about a new riverfront policy, which apparently won’t affect CB 1 at all, since they pioneered the model being used, we were on to the main event, the public session.

My friends, it is hard to give a short version of the facts here, but it starts with a bike line.

Kent Avenue, which runs along the East River, is a widely used transportation belt on Brooklyn's western perimiter. When bike lanes appeared on Kent Avenue, to large community support, bike riders throughout Brooklyn rejoiced. Despite its convenience, connecting Greenpoint to Forte Greene and the Williamsburg Bridge through Williamsburg, Kent Avenue had been labeled a “death trap” for bikers, who shared the road with cars driving up to 50mph. Data supports the intuition that painted bike lanes significantly increase biker safety. One casualty of bike lanes, however, was parking spaces in the largely Hasidic Kent Avenue community. There was also an argument that small businesses were having trouble having supplies unloaded, but the obvious remedies to that problem, like replacing the “No Stopping” signs with “No Parking” signs,lead me to believe the real issue is parking. There is also a rumor that some Hasidic leaders were offended by scantily clad women riding past their community on the bikes, but I likewise find it hard to imagine that such a side-issue could generate such a furious policy argument.

Look, parking in New York is tough, even in Brooklyn, so the Hasidic community was understandably frustrated. And in their frustration, they pulled what seemed to be their considerable political strings, and convinced Borough President Marty Markowitz and Council Member David Yassky to send a letter to the Department of Transportation in early December to paint over some of the bike lines and reinstitute parking. Theoretically, bike lanes and parking can coexist on the same street, but bikers argues that the twin flanking dangers of people opening car doors and fast speeding cars make that an untenable remedy on Kent Avenue. When the public session began, nearly fifty people were lined up to testify on behalf of their bike lanes. They had another cause too.

Soon after the Markowitz/Yassky letter, CB 1’s Chairman of 30 years, Vinnie Abate, and his top deputy, Gerald Esposito, sent a letter, on CB 1 letterhead, seemingly in their official capacity, concurring that the bike lines had to be amended, in contravention of CB 1 vote that had been taken in November. When that letter and an accompanying article ran in the Brooklyn Eagle, CB 1 Transportation Committee Chair, Teresa Toro wrote to the paper to clarify that Abate had spoken for himself, and not for the Community Board. As her punishment for going to the press without coming to him first, Abate fired Toro, within his legal right, though on ethically questionable grounds, given that he was firing her for committing essentially the same infraction he had- going to the press without Board authorization. Additionally, Abate's transgression seemed worse, as it publicly altered CB 1's stance on the bike lanes without a proper Board vote.

Person after person testified to what a great leader and visionary Transportation Chair Toro had been. I have to confess I was a little taken aback. There was more testimony about how great she was than you are likely to come across at most weddings. Her accolades include serving as a liaison between the community and the MTA during the subway strike, working for the expansion of parking spaces in Greenpoint, and leading the proliferation of bike lanes throughout Williamsburg. I have met Toro once, and found her both friendly and incredibly knowledgeable on transportation issues. That Abate remained steadfast in his decision to fire her means that either there is some ego thing going on between them, in which case staging a Community Board meeting coup could not have helped her cause, or this stuff between the Hasidim and bikers is heavier than I originally thought.

For those of you who do not live in Williamsburg/Greenpoint, this story might have been about as interesting as one of my Student Assembly war stories. Indeed, the similarities were tremendous, and having been both the berated Chair and the angry dissident, it was not only fascinating to be the objective observer at this meeting, but also amusing to sit through an argument fueled entirely over the organizational consequences of airing disputes and grievances to the press, when in fact multiple members of the press sat there for THREE HOURS while CB 1 members essentially aired their disputes and grievances. I guess the nice thing about being a blogger ( a word still not recognized by this edition of Microsoft Word) is that while you aren’t given the status of being press, that lack of status can get you closer to the action than you might be otherwise allowed.

Anyway, this dispute is bigger than just the personalities involved for two reasons. First, the argument for more bike paths will continue to gain momentum, especially if service cuts make public transportation less attractive. Second, the meeting was an eye-opening introduction to the inner-workings of Community Boards, the New York City unit of governance that is closest to the people. While I understand the importance of organizational discipline in regard to contacting the press, the real question is whether it is appropriate for such an institution to mask its discussions and dissents. After all, if we don’t know what our own Community Board members are up to, who can we hold accountable in a democratic system? I feel privileged to live in CB 1, where most of the Board members seem to be good, progressive people, with an eye towards both the short-term and long-term needs of the community. But if the Obama campaign taught us anything, it is that our communities can always stand to be organized a little better.

The decision to fire Toro will not fade gently into the night. At its worst, it could fissure CB 1, perhaps reopening the wounds between the old guard and the new wave (though it should be noted that Toro and many of her allies are longtime residents). And, after all that, the Kent Avenue bike lines remain an unresolved issue in the fast-moving politics of Brooklyn, in the crippled New York City transportation infrastructure, another dagger threatening the quest for unity in the Age of Obama.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Roving Storm Returns

The Roving Storm: Straight to the Source

It’s 2009, and the fear is back, bigger than ever. 2008 was the “Year of Hope” and the “Year of the Underdog”; from the Giants victory of pompous Patriots, to President Obama’s historic triumph in November, it was truly a year to not stop believing. In contrast, 2009 will be the “Year of the Survivor.” Things have been brutal recently for Governors, NBA coaches and young Wall Streeters, and soon enough you can add 2009 college graduates and MTA riders to the top of the list.

After a year of writing political dispatches on the presidential campaign, I’ve decided that instead of scouring the country for meaty 2010 Senate races (as usual, keep your eyes on North Carolina, Ohio and Florida) or speculate about what slaughtered lamb the Republicans will offer up in 2012, I am taking things back to the streets of New York City, where clearly not all is well. Think of RovingStorm as channeling the “Powers of Ten”, covering events from the Presidential Inauguration to a dispute over bicycling lanes in South Williamsburg. I’m telling you now, reading some of the new dispatches might remind you what it felt like to hear “Everything In Its Right Place” after you’d waited three years for a new Radiohead album. That’s because we are going Straight to the Source.

In “More Than a Bike Lane” (coming tomorrow) and “Cash or Credit” (written by guest columnist Zaid Hydari), we are going to be doing the best we can to bring information to the community with as much first-person investigation and reporting as possible. In future Dispatches, you can expect significant coverage of the MTA Crisis, the 2009 New York City elections, and the rise of the progressive movement in Brooklyn. And, of course, we’ll keep our eye on the big stage, because any politico will tell you that unlike a sports season, campaign season never ends. Ironically, the first political team to grasp the concept of a ‘permanent campaign’ was Jimmy Carter’s administration (Pat Caddell, Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell), but its best efforts were not enough to spare the peanut farmer four brutal years in the White House.

In recognition that this is, above all other things, The Brief Age of Transition, below are my thoughts on New York’s search for a Senator. Incidentally, if you want to get to deep into the Caroline Kennedy saga and read a staggering journalistic tour de force, see the iconic Wayne Barrett’s take on the topic here:

“Hi, I’m Caroline Schlossberg, and I’m interested in your open Senate position”

As I write this, NPR is broadcasting Senator Clinton cruising through her confirmation hearings, which means the hour of Governor Paterson’s choice is upon us (Chairman Kerry implied that the Senate vote could come on Thursday). As much as Paterson would love to answer clamors for a Hispanic, female or upstate appointment, and pick someone who can win a 2010 race, there is no prominent political figure who can kill all of those birds with one stone. That leaves Caroline Kennedy, Andrew Cuomo, Kristin Gillibrand and Brian Higgins as the leading candidates. Despite Kennedy’s media blitzkrieg, her verbal stumbles have catapulted Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to the top of the list, as far as New York voters are concerned. The selection of Cuomo, my potential employer next year, would be politically safe and sound. Though Paterson and Cuomo are often talked about as rivals, they both have what they want for now: Cuomo is most likely weighing whether he’d rather run for Governor as the favorite in 2014 (leaving Paterson to cruise in 2010) or head down to Washington as a Senator.

And while I never thought the day would come that I’d actively oppose a Kennedy, Caroline’s coming out party has been a big disappointment. First, her non-answer to whether she would support the Democratic candidate against Mayor Bloomberg this year calls into question whether the party should give her its most coveted appointment. Sure, Democratic leaders like Ed Koch have crossed party lines in the past, but as much I hold my nose at such actions, at least those individuals can contrast such endorsements to a history of working for the party. Kennedy, who until this year has done almost nothing to help the Democratic Party, has no such capital. Her support for Bloomberg bothers me because much of her allure seems to be based on the notion her voting and legislative record will mirror that of her uncles, former Senator Bobby Kennedy and Senator Ted Kennedy, despite a complete lack of transparency about where she stands on issues and which issues matter to her.

Second, there’s this:
The “you knows” avalanche in Caroline Schlossberg’s first interview about being Governor Paterson’s Senate appointee is revealing. Not because it suggests she is unintelligent (she is a Columbia Law grad), or even unable to articulate when she has to be (her stumping for Obama on the campaign trail went fine). The “you knows”, the refusal to disclose her finances, the terse and rehearsed press statements are all signs of someone who has never had to prove herself before. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, as jealous as the rest of us might be, but the fact is, those privilege will not follow her to the U.S Senate. As one of 100 Senators, you bet she’ll have to prove herself. Starting with the day she is appointed, she will have to prove herself to a vicious press. And most of all, her Republican opponent, likely the class-warfare hawk Peter King, will make her prove herself. Are we, as New Yorkers and/or as Democrats, ready to take the chance that Kennedy doesn’t have the stomach, toughness or ability to handle the rigors of being the Junior Senator from the Empire State?

Given the lack of upstate representation in the higher ranks of New York’s elected officials and the dire economic problems that have pained upstate New York even before this recession, I think it would be a slight (yeah, short of an injustice) to pass over two qualified Congressmen in Brian Higgins (Buffalo) and Kirsten Gillibrand (Gerrymandered district on the east border from the Catskills past Saratoga Springs) in favor of someone who steadfastly refuses to provide her critics, the press or prospective voters with anything except her name. Plus Gillibrand graduated from Dartmouth in the 80s, so she will know how to bring good times to the Senate.
Enjoy 2009, my friends. Things look bleak, but in our dreams even slumdogs can become millionaires. Oh yeah, and the MTA is shutting down the Z-line, to the chagrin of Jay-Z historians everywhere. The JM line, however, remains. Does that mean I can take my place as the new king of Brooklyn?

Cash or Credit?

A Guest Column by Zaid Hydari

Over a year ago, there was buzz around the city about ‘GPS’ and credit card machines in yellow cabs. Word on the street was that drivers were upset about the new technology, which lead to a series of strikes. Many people didn’t think twice about the issue – they either didn’t take cabs or found one pretty easily on the strike days, comforting themselves with what their scab told them about the new imposition of gadgets – the minority driver view that it’s fine, it may even increase business. The press, as usual, claimed to uphold journalistic integrity by presenting the issue neutrally – a concept that those of us born before yesterday know is unlikely, improbable, and almost never actually achieved. Instead, the press started writing stories about dishonest cabbies who would lie to passengers – saying the credit card machine doesn’t work or that there is a surcharge for using it. Anthony Ramirez of the Times wrote a piece detailing his experience trying to use a card in 92 cabs – of which 10 cabs allegedly made excuses and resisted. None of the press had the courage to tell the whole story – that drivers are getting screwed by the machines.

And then, after a few weeks, everyone pretty much forgot about the whole thing. GPS….credit cards….cabbies…whatever. If you don’t have cash, just swipe – all the hoopla is over.

Well, its not. To this day, drivers have suffered hardship due to the credit card machines. And this week, the City Council may take a very initial step in addressing the problem. Intro 705, which was first introduced in 2008, would allow for drivers to be merchant account holders.

You see, when a business wants to accept credit cards, they have to have a merchant account, which allows for the payment to be processed by the credit card company. A number of fees are involved, including a discount rate which is usually a percentage of each transaction. So a business actually gives up a small percentage of sales when someone uses a credit card– that’s why most bodegas and delis have a minimum – so they don’t have to give up a portion of the $2.80 you spend on Vitamin Water and a bag of the newest ‘Doritos Collisions’ flavor.

Most drivers lease their cabs from garages – and up until now the garage has been the merchant account holder for the credit card processing. So when you swipe in a cab – the garage gets the money – then takes 5% out of it and gives it to the driver. The 5% includes tip and tolls. They say 5% is for all those fees. But the reality is the fees don’t really amount to 5%. And the fees are only a percentage of the fare amount – not the tip and tolls.

Such small margins may seem negligible – but any hard working person knows that it all adds up. To a lot of money. And its not like Obama is about to hike drivers’ taxes because they make over $250,000/year. These are guys who drive 12 hours a day to make little money – the lease system is such that they pay the garage upfront – somewhere around $100 per day, and pay for gas themselves. What other jobs can you think of where you start off the day in the red? Their first few fares of a shift are just to break even.

Intro 705 won’t overhaul the whole industry and make the unjust system fair for drivers. They’ll still be disrespected public servants – not provided the benefits of city employees, like bus drivers and MTA workers. They will continue to be without health insurance. It will still NOT be a felony to assault a cab driver, resulting in continuous violent actions taken against these vulnerable workers. But Intro 705 is a baby step in the right direction.

The Transportation Committee will be having a public hearing on Intro 705 on Wednesday, January 14th at 12:30. Its on the 2nd Floor of City Hall. If you can – swing by and show the City Council that you support this initiative. Or call your Council Member.

Support Intro 705 however you can – because it’s the first step being taken to give drivers what is rightfully theirs.