Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Chasing a Fantasy

I silently fume at the ESPN stat line for Mario Chalmers. The young Miami Heat point guard has just dropped a total dud of a game: 5 points and 1 assist. The one assist roiled me, because going into the final game of the week I was behind by only two assists against my fantasy basketball opponent. At the very moment I had counted on him, Chalmers had choked and cost me a category. That was the final straw- after weeks of watching Chalmers play poorly or disappear during crunch time, I dropped him from my fantasy basketball team, the Roving Storm.

In these dark and desperate times, few things bring me greater joy than managing the Roving Storm in the online fantasy league, When The Garden Was Dead, where I double as commissioner, competing against eleven friends in a 20-week season. The league’s name refers to the moribund Madison Square Garden crowd, which has had to endure the worst run in Knicks history at the same time it has had to weather the Bush presidency, two wars and an economic collapse. Yes, it’s been a tough decade. In the world of fantasy basketball, however, those problems melt away, replaced by the headaches that come with running a basketball team.

It starts with underperforming players. I curse loudly as I watch Baron Davis shoot 1 for 14, again. The bastard just doesn’t know when to stop! Of course, if he doesn’t respond to his real-life coach, he’s not going to respond to his fake coach yelling at the TV screen. But I can dream.

I make trades to bring balance to the team, including one controversial swap (Ben Wallace for Paul Pierce) that leads to a massive email war over the definition of collusion. I ultimately rework the trade (Marcus Camby for Paul Pierce), placating the more hostile opponents of the trade, who had been rallying other team owners to veto it. I feel like Barack Obama, ending with a lesser deal than I would have liked, but so winning the votes required for passage. My sympathy for the Senate healthcare plan momentarily increases.

Making trades is hard. My opponents are not stupid- no one wants a washed up, injured Tracy McGrady, his impressive career be damned. I am forced to drop McGrady for nothing. Knicks General Manager Donnie Walsh has no such option in dumping his worthless hacks, who are under multiyear contracts.

Sundays, the Lord’s day of rest, are particularly anxious. In fantasy basketball leagues people field their thirteen-player teams against opponents for one week, Monday through Sunday. The teams are matched up according to eight categories: points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, three pointers made, field goal percentage and free throw percentage. Each of these categories can be won or lost in a given week, and these results are compiled over the long season. Most teams are evenly matched in at least some of these categories, and until the final NBA game ends Sunday night, the results for the whole week hang in balance.

Fantasy basketball fundamentally changes the way a fan watches NBA basketball. Other than the Knicks, I now rarely root for any team to beat another, far more concerned with the individual players on the court. Hardly any NBA game being played at a given moment does not involve either one of my fantasy players or one of my opponent’s. This makes rooting during games a truly absurd exercise. When Kevin Love is guarding Carl Landry (both are my players), I root for Carl Landry to score, or, in the alternative, for Kevin Love to block the shot or get the rebound off Landry’s miss. During one very close game between the Bobcats and the Knicks, I was schizophrenically rooting for the Knicks to win, but for the Bobcats’ guard Ray Felton to score as many points as possible in the process.

I worry sometime that all NBA players are becoming a series of statistics, the way insurance companies think of patients or military commanders deploy soldiers. One of the keys to fantasy success is the ability to remove conceptions you may have of a player (“he’s clutch under pressure,” “he’s a good defender,” “he’s an all-star”) with more perfunctory questions: “what is his field goal percentage?” “How many blocks a game does he get?” “How has he played in the last thirty days?”

ESPN pits the four best fantasy teams in each league against each other for four weeks of playoffs, which in turn end with the conclusion of the NBA regular season. That is good. Whether or not I win the “Living The Dream Cup,” I’ll be able to kick back and watch the NBA playoffs like a normal fan, appreciating the beauty of the game, without stat lines racing through my head.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Fear Behind The Fear

Would Jack Kerouac kick back and hammer out his poems in smooth jazz café? Maybe, if it had wireless internet. My current dig has everything you want- great coffee, reliable wireless, plenty of seating, and a happy little collection of local Brooklyn newspapers that old men ingest while they sip tea and watch the first snow of the year fly by their windows.

There are a lot of things that you used to make me afraid of getting old. Doesn’t it make ya wince when you watch an old flick and think, "Man, he used to look like that? And now he looks like this?" It’s bad enough to watch relatives age, but seeing it happen to impregnable famous athletes and movie stars is more sudden dispiriting. Yes, yes, looks are superficial and all that, but what about brains? Until I saw Guido Calabrese majestically and literally hold court in the Second Circuit, I was having trouble wrapping my head around the older and wiser concept. Then you’ve got health issues, oh man, the health issues. It’s pretty easy to picture that part of the journey. Long gone are the days when I would knock myself unconscious diving into a brick wall playing Chinese handball. Recently I pulled a muscle while I was sleeping. Tough times indeed. Nobody ever is what he used to be. But now there’s a new cause for agingaphobia, and it has to with Sergei Brin, Steve Jobs and all the other techno mad men.

Watching a sexagenarian open an attachment is painfully unfair. They worked all their lives to get this far, and now they can’t even open the modern envelope. I gasp- that could be me one day. After all, I declared boldly in 1998 that email would never take off. I was the last guy to get a cell phone, preferring to memorize numbers in my head or scrawl them on my hand as I marched into the night with quarters in my back pocket. I didn’t send a text message till 2006, and learned how to upload pictures what seems like yesterday.

As we get older and stop making sense, our children and grandchildren will play with toys that seem like magic, and young associates will roll their eyes every time we say, “the what?” or “how/where?” Every step you fall behind now is two you’ll have to make up later. Lyndon Johnson knew this- that’s why the Great Society begat Head Start. Every runner knows this- that’s why you’ve gotta work the hills. The internet is no information highway, my friends, it’s a raging river, and all boats are sinkable. My new year’s resolution is to keep my head above water, fear of technology trumped by fear of falling too far behind to enjoy the future milk and honey years


Tiger and Me

“Sometimes I wish I was Tiger Woods. Tiger Woods. Sometimes I wish I was Tiger Woods.”

- Dan Bern, “Tiger Woods”

Sports fans don’t care about athletes’ personal lives. Especially golf players’ personal lives.

Recently, people have been questioning why it took so long for the public (or for that matter, his wife) so long to find out about Tiger Woods’ string of extramarital affairs, even though it was common knowledge on the PGA Tour.

Some have even accused the reticent sports reporters of perpetuating male chauvinism by not considering it news.

In contrast, sports reporters are far more respectable than their political peers, who love pursuing gossip rather than put in the hard time learning about policy and how it affects our country.

Sports reporters operate under two assumptions:

1) Sports fans care more about how an athlete performs than his personal life;

2) An athlete’s personal life rarely, if ever, has a bearing on how he performs.

Believe it or not, sports columnists are evaluated by their readers on the strength of the breaking news and sports analysis they bring to their columns, and only the sharpest writers, like Bill Simmons or the late Hunter S. Thompson, are permitted to deviate into side tangents.

If a sports reporter’s livelihood depends on earning the trust of the players and the franchises he is covering, it is of little interest to that reporter to get 15 minutes of fame (or less) talking about an affair, a drug problem, or a gambling addiction.

These “‘Former Player X’ Hits Rock Bottom” stories usually only surface when an athlete is no longer of use to the reporter for sports-related journalism.

Political reporting used to operate in this way too. It was presumed that serious newspapers had a serious readership.

Reports appropriately calculated that rather than break a story of Marilyn Monroe leaving the White House at three in the morning, they’d rather stay in the good graces of the Kennedy administration long enough to properly cover the Cuban Missile Crisis.

President Clinton’s affairs were the perfect storm- a charismatic leader facing his Achilles heel (adultery), an ideal nemesis in the hysterically hypocritical Republican leadership, and the carefree emptiness of the go-go late 90s.

Soon after, newspaper sales started to sink, and editors realized covering a sex scandal was a lot easier than covering climate change or the Stupak amendment, and less controversial than covering gay marriage or the Stupak amendment.

Playing to the lowest common denominator is fun and easy in America. Look at Huffington Post, which has become a gossip magazine with occasional political analysis. It’s how you bring in the bucks.

Sports, incidentally, will never face this problem, because there will always be a market of (mostly) men willing to pay money for good sports analysis.

I just dropped $26 to buy Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball, even though I can read his articles for free online and I already know a lot about basketball.

Except for hipsters, guys can kick back with friends or strangers, drinking beer and talking sports. And sports fans know A LOT about sports.

Guys who are complete idiots in life- nearly failed out of school, can’t hold a job- they will know the history of a sport.

They will successfully debate you on the fine points of whether a certain shot-blocker is actually a good defender or whether it is possible to compare baseball players from different eras.

It can break your heart to think about what a better country we would live in if sports fans knew a third as much about American history, civics and public policy as they do about sports.

As for Tiger Woods, this is what sports fans know about Tiger Woods.

When he was a teenager, golf reporters were hyping him as potentially the coming savior of golf- the greatest of all time.

Few people under the age of 40 like watching golf, but we were in the halo of the Michael Jordan era at that point, and watching “the greatest” in any sport was a worth a look.

And Tiger Woods delivered.

In a sport that’s incredibly hard to “dominate” in the same fashion as other solo sports like tennis or boxing, Woods in his prime cowered his opponents before demolishing them.

At the 1997 Masters, the 21 year old tied or broke 26 records en route to winning the prestigious event by more shots than any player in history.

From 2000-2001 he became the first modern golfer ever to hold the Tour’s four major championships at the same time (the “Tiger Slam”).

In 2008 he won the U.S Open with a torn ACL, clearly playing with agonizing pain as he labored to a one-shot win. Friends and I watching that called it perhaps the most impressive performance in the history of sports.

I’ve never been remotely interested in Woods’ personal life. He has always struck me as unflinchingly boring, which I had just chalked up to him being a golfer.

It wasn’t until I heard about the four and fifth cuckolder of this unending saga that I started reading about it.

Honestly, it is a fascinating scandal. He seems to have a taste for cocktail waitresses and porn stars.

Rather than a ‘mea culpa’ fling, he seems to be a serial cheater, before and after his marriage to a gorgeous Swedish supermodel. “What hope is there for the rest of us?” one of my female friends sighed.

When I read about him doing it in the back of his car with a pancake house waitress, it occurred to me that maybe something was up.

Maybe the lifelong prodigy, always under the tight supervision of his loving dad Earl (who passed away in 2006), playing in top ranked tournaments since he was nine years old, missed out on a regular youth.

Maybe he was never able to party in clubs and hook up with girls in the back of his car when he was in high school or college (Stanford alums, feel free to comment).

Maybe this is like Michael Jackson’s rebellion at a repressive youth, only instead of taking advantage of little boys, he’s taking advantage of adult women.

His wife has left him, just as Michael Jordan’s wife left him.

Next year he will win the Masters, and in a few years he will pass Jack Nicklaus for the most all-time major championships.

It will be taboo to bring this whole debacle up, kind of like how no one in sports talks about Kobe Bryant’s alleged rape charge anymore.

So there it is. That’s about as much thought as I will put into the Tiger Woods scandal. Back to taking care of my fantasy basketball team.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Reform the Democratic Party- ban conflict of interest donations for Committee Chairs

are this on Twitter - Reform the party- ban conflict of interest donations for Committee ChairsTweet this submit to reddit

Corporate money corrupts politicians, and and corporate money follows them up the ladders of power. That’s why the Max Baucus is controlled by the health "insurance" companies, why energy lobbyists control climate change reform, and why Wall Street always get its way. I have a modest proposal for a reform that is both practical and difficult to assail: prevent Democratic committee chairs from receiving campaign contributions from the industries they have jurisdiction over.


In life it is sometimes difficult to separate cause and effect, but in Congress it is pretty easy. Once a person is on a committee, he or she immediately becomes shark bait for the corporate interests regulated by legislation coming out of that committee. So the donations roll in.


The most notorious example of money for hire is Montana's own Max Baucus, who took in $1.17 million from the healthcare industry during the 2008 election cycle.
Blanche Lincoln has already taken in $353k from the healthcare lobby this cycle.
Money from the defense industry flows in for Rep. Ike Skelton.
The financial sector is already throwing big money at three Democratic challengers, Ginnoulias (IL), White (TX) and Fisher (IL), ensuring another wave of corporate Democrats.
John Dingell, the House Chair of the Energy Committee until Waxman iced him this year, took in $493k last election cycle despite cruising to re-election.
And agribusiness, sweet Jesus, they just throw a lot of weight around.

Advantage, corporate fatcats.
*Anyone clicking on these links will recognize that I am a huge fan of Open Secrets- those folks deserve a tremendous amount of credit for creating such a vast, user-friendly database.


The answer is easy, we should just have publicly financed elections. Election seasons will be six weeks long, we'll vote on Saturdays, corporate influence will be curtailed, and.....
Wait, what? Sorry, I must have dozed off. If we are talking about solutions for right now, fall of 2009, we need a reform that will meet at least two criteria:

  1. The reform cannot be unconstitutional. That is problematic, since right now we have the most conservative, pro-corporate judiciary since the 1920s, at least. Fortunately, parties are allowed to govern their own affairs. If this reform is a rule promulgated by the Democratic party, their members can be made to follow it.
  1. The reform cannot paralyze Democratic fundraising. Ideally, no Democrat would take money from corporate interests. Unfortunately, the wee little people on this site and elsewhere do not make up strong enough warchests...yet.

Using these two criteria, banning committee chairmen from receiving funds from the corporations their committees oversee is a good first step. We learned from BaucusCare that committee chairmen still have a lot of power, decades after James Eastlandhung his hateful hat up. Making them take an objective stake in these issues will help usher progressive issues through tremendously. The rule would be in effect for as long as they remained chairs of their committees. The rule could apply to subcommittees as well.


There are, of course people who would not be down with this. And I use the term "people" loosely, as I am referring to members of Congress. You might here this kind of pushback:

Lame Response #1: Committee chairs run for re-election too! They need those funds.
Rebuttal: No they don't. If they need untold millions, there are other places to find it. Jeff Bingaman , chair of the Senate Energy Committee, got twice as muchfrom lawyers (450k) as the energy industry (220k) last time he ran. So he wouldn’t exactly starve to death without the company of his ConEd and Exxon friends. And if the chairs are really in a pinch, grassroots volunteers and institutions like organized labor and the DNC will fight for them. If they are good Democrats, of course.

Lame Response #2: The money's not for me! It's so I can dole it out to helpless little freshmen members running for re-election in swing districts. I rake in the money for them.
Rebuttal: One friend on the Hill told me that junior members of Congress live in fear of crossing Charles Rangel, who in 2008, donated or channeled money to 156 of them. That's why his ethics investigations will never cost him his seat. It's true that big dogs like Rangel, Frank, and others do channel money to their members. But presumably the corporations are still waiting with those paychecks, and they have to go somewhere. (I finished this diary before the frontpage post on Rangel, and for the record I completely agree with that post).

Lame Response #3: But I get money from the good guys who happen to be under my jurisdiction. If I chair education, are you gonna stop the Teachers Union from giving me money?
Rebuttal: Sorry bro, if they are a "good group", they can spend the money helping other members good on their issues. If you're as good as you say you are, your coffers will fill up, just without the conflicts of interest.

Lame Response #4: I mean, dude, how do you even define "my jurisdiction." If I chair the Judiciary Committee can I take money from a law librarian?
Rebuttal: Now you're just grasping. This is a Democratic Party rule, not the law, so it will only work if people follow it in spirit. It's not like how you spend the rest of your day, nervously skirting around the precipice. If you flagrantly break this rule, you will be stripped. If you accidentally take a contribution from an otherwise legal source, whatever.

Let's discuss this idea, and other ways to clean up the party. We may not have a lot of heroes in Congress, but as they say...

We do have some good people, like Henry Waxman, who as a major committee chair, could set a good example.
So let's throw out some ideas. Let's get some party reform going now. We don't have to wait for an election. Hell, it just might even look nice to voters heading into 2010.

The alternative is to throw our hands up in despair about our corporate masters. But if you're gonna do that, at least do it George Carlin style.

Friday, September 11, 2009

New York City Democratic Primary Endorsements: September 15th Primary

This has been a painful year to watch in New York politics. Between the Kennedy/Gillibrand appointment fiasco, the travesties at the New York State Senate, and the barrage of scandals at the City Council, this year has done much to discredit New York public officials at all levels. Fortunately, the 2009 elections will allow some new blood to move into office. These people might shake things up, and begin repairing the train wreck that is New York governance. Having canvassed a number of neighborhoods, watched debates, and spoken to a number of people inside and outside the following races, I am prepared to endorse a set of candidates for the September 15th Democratic Primary.

Not everyone who reads this is a registered Democratic voter in New York, but please pass this on to friends, family, neighbors and roommates who are. Local elections are hard to pay attention to- the issues may seem provincial, the differences between candidates less than seismic, and media coverage scant. However, I make these endorsements with the confidence of having measured the people and their districts in person. I am only one person, but unlike unions, newspapers and other interest groups, you can be rest assured that these decisions were made on one basis- who is the progressive who can best represent his or her constituency. Any affiliation I have with any of these candidates began only after properly sizing up the field, and if I have respect for one of their opponents, I will so indicate.

I have listed the neighborhoods corresponding to each district.
The races are listed in order of importance to me. I am not addressing the Democratic Mayoral Primary, as Bill Thompson will win easily. More on the general election between him and Mayor Bloomberg to come at a later date.

Norman Siegel- New York City Public Advocate: All registered New York Democrats can vote in this election.
This is the race I am most passionate about this cycle. The Public Advocate position, created sixteen years ago, seems almost tailored to Norman Siegel, who has spent his career fighting for civil rights and free speech. You read his bio here:
http://normansiegel.com/bio . This is the only political office Siegel has ever run for, and would ever run for. The Public Advocate is a watchdog office, designed to serve as a bulwark against corruption and shortcomings by the Mayor and City Council. Events of the last eight years, like the corrupt Yankee Stadium deal or City Council slush fund, underscore the need for a strong and effective fighter in this position.
Siegel’s opponents, former Public Advocate Mark Green, Councilperson Bill DeBlasio and Councilperson Eric Gioia, all have strong resumes as reformers. However, each also nakedly betrays their ambitions for higher office. Green has lost almost every race conceivable in New York politics, and should he win this race, will be running for Mayor in four years. DeBlasio was running for Brooklyn Borough President before switching to a race without an incumbent. Now, there is nothing wrong with ambition in politics. But the Public Advocate should be someone who is ready to stand up to the Mayor or City Council when the cause is right, not just politically popular. Incumbent Betsy Gotbaum tried to focus on children’s hunger, which is great, but politically easy.
We need a public advocate who is not afraid to go after corrupt politicians and local party bosses, regardless of political affiliation, ideology, or popularity. We need a public advocate who will fight for the rights of the homeless, stand up to police brutality when it occurs, and investigate conditions at Rikers Island. We need a public advocate who will stand up for poor and disempowered people, even if they won’t deliver votes for him during the next election cycle. Siegel’s opponents are on the right side of most issues, but when the going gets politically unpopular, they will choose their careers first, and the people second. Norman will never have any trouble making that choice. That is why I support him for Public Advocate.

Swaranjit Singh
- City Council
Queens (23rd Council District): Hollis Hills, Queens Village, Little Neck, Douglaston, Bayside, Bellerose, Floral Park, Glen Oaks, New Hyde Park, Hollis, Hollis Park Gardens, Holliswood, Fresh Meadows
Swaranjit Singh is a personality and a half, and he would bring a much needed perspective to the City Council. This winter I was looking at fundraising numbers (I know, I’m that cool), and found that Mr. Singh, a political unknown, had suddenly raised more than any non-incumbent running for City Council. I soon met with him in person, and found him to be incredibly engaging and passionate. In the aftermath of September 11th, Mr. Singh was one of the leading Sikhs spreading a message of tolerance and raising awareness, running workshops at schools, police stations and synagogues. Mr. Singh constantly and accurately stresses that he is not a career politician, and though he occasionally will lapse into political incorrectness, he is bursting with integrity, and is deeply concerned with the issues facing his neighbors and would-be constituents. His full bio is here: http://www.singhforcitycouncil.com/meetmrsingh.htm.
Mr. Singh would be the first South Asian elected to New York City or New York State elected office. That is startling, given that New York City houses a quarter of American South Asians, several hundred thousand legal immigrants and citizens. Watching Mr. Singh engage the local South Asian community at events in the Bellarose area was inspiring, as the district has never had a serious candidate of South Asian origin.
Mr. Singh’s race and personality would not be enough to merit full support for him, but his stand against the local Democratic machine seals the deal. Singh is running against the Weprin family. The local political club is named for Saul Weprin, the incumbent councilman’s (David Weprin) father. David Weprin is now running for Comptroller, and his brother, Assemblyman Mark Weprin, is running to replace them. Should David lose his race for Comptroller, he will presumably run for Mark’s Assembly seat. This is the kind of gross family politics that even the Kennedys can’t get away with anymore. If the Weprins were progressive, that would help, but since they are not, its all the more reason to support Mr. Singh.
“I’m not Barack Obama,” Mr. Singh concedes. “But this would still be historic.”

Evan Thies- City Council
Brooklyn (33rd Council District): Brooklyn Heights, Greenpoint; parts of Williamsburg, Park Slope, Boerum Hill
Incumbent: David Yassky, running for Comptroller
I had the privilege of meeting Thies early during this campaign cycle, and was immediately convinced that he would be an excellent fit for this district, both respecting the needs of the longstanding community, and welcoming the hipster crowd that has brought a lot to these neighborhoods. His main claim to fame is serving as Chief of Staff to incumbent David Yassky, which only gets you so many points. As indicated by his lack of a Yassky endorsement, however, Thies is very much his own man.
Thies is a tireless policy wonk, something needed in a City Council full of blow-hards. He knows the issues inside out, and is brimming with ideas to introduce in the Council, including much needed election and ethics reforms. Thies is not exactly an electrifying personality, but in this quirky Williamsburg district, his sanity was refreshing during the debate I attended. While running for office is inherently an exercise in vanity, this is particularly true in the 33rd District, where four of his opponents are either ornery old men or slightly (to significantly) off their rockers. A fifth, Steve Levin, is a pawn of Brooklyn political boss, Vito Lopez. See the always excellent Tom Robbins article on Williamsburg/Bushwick politics here: http://www.villagevoice.com/2009-09-01/columns/power-plays-by-party-boss-vito-lopez/. The final candidate, Joanne Simon, is a perfectly fine disabilities rights lawyer from Park Slope. However, Thies is more attuned to issues in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint area, which is undergoing rapid and important change. He is also, at the risk of sounding agist, younger and more in tune with the changing electorate itself. We need competent, fresh blood in City Hall.

Josh Skaller- City Council
Brooklyn (39th Council District): Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Columbia Street, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Kensington, Boro Park.
Incumbent: Bill DeBlasio, running for Public Advocate
This is the kind of districts that progressives dream about, a mega-liberal bastion within the generally liberal Brooklyn political community. Such a community deserves someone who will unapologetically stand up to corporate interests, and that candidate is Josh Skaller. Skaller recently served as president of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, one of the strongest progressive political clubs in the city, and has been involved in a number of grassroots campaigns in the area.
I canvassed with him twice, and two things about him stood out. First, he is a genuinely great guy. No sleaze, no fake smiles. You will never wake up to news about him being caught in a corruption scandal. Second, his strident anti-developer beliefs are sorely needed in the City Council. Developers provide tons of money to campaigns, including liberal Democratic campaigns, and thus exert enormous influence in shaping city policy. Skaller will not let them run rampant in Park Slope, and hopefully, will stand up to them throughout the city. Finally, Skaller has been endorsed by Norman Siegel, who makes very few such endorsements.
A former councilmember, Steve DeBrienza, and Brad Lander are Skaller’s two major opponents.

Diana Reyna- City Council (Incumbent)
Brooklyn (34th Council District): Williamsburg and Bushwick, Brooklyn; Ridgewood, Queens.
Reyna is a good councilperson under attack from the Brooklyn political machine. I’ll direct you to the same article that I linked to for Thies above. Reyna is by no means perfect, but she is a good fit for the district, and is worthy of another term. She has appeared engaged in local concerns, and her politics are good, particularly her work on affordable housing. She has the capacity to handle a district undergoing significant change. Additionally, her opponent is worrisome.
Among progressives in Brooklyn, it is essential to recognize that Brooklyn will always be a Democratic county, which makes machine politics more dangerous. Plus, as we all know, not all Democrats are created equal. Those in the legal profession should be particularly concerned with the Kings County machine’s approach to boosting under qualified judges as political patronage. Reyna’s main opponent, Maritza Davila, is another Vito Lopez protege, and a director at a non-profit that Lopez has been funneling money through both legitimate and more questionable purposes for years. See article: http://www.villagevoice.com/2009-09-01/columns/power-plays-by-party-boss-vito-lopez/ .

John Liu- Comptroller: All registered New York Democrats can vote in this election.
This is an eminently boring race, so don’t worry if you’ve tuned out. The Comptroller invests the City’s massive pension funds, an audits city agencies. It’s an important position that requires hard work, but also the ability to make yourself relevant to city government, something Bill Thompson, the incumbent failed to do. I support John Liu largely by process of elimination after watching a listless debate a few months ago. Melinda Katz, a former Republican, should not hold city-wide office in New York. David Weprin is a little too pro-Wall Street for my tastes, based on his conduct at the debate. David Yassky is an ever-calculating pol who will probably do the job competently, but he does little to inspire. Experience is a wash, all four of these candidates have roughly equivalent qualifications for the office.
Liu was originally running for Public Advocate, a race in which I would not have supported him. He is a bit of a grand-stander, and is a typical New York politician who would rather be seen than get things done. A recent flap with his mother over whether he worked in a sweatshop as a child has been embarrassing. However, Liu also made history as becoming the first Asian-American elected to office in New York when he became City Councilperson in 2001. Today there are several districts where Asian-Americans have a shot. His politics are good, and he is both relentlessly energetic and optimistic. His clamor for attention will be helpful under a Bloomberg mayoralty that is so good at drowning out dissent. Finally, Liu is simply a likeable guy. If he can use his personality to bring some attention to the role of the Comptroller in running a city and holding the Mayor’s office accountable, that will be a win in itself.


Manhattan District Attorney: All Democrats registered in Manhattan are eligible to vote in this race.
Candidates: Richard Aborn, Leslie Crocker-Snyder, Cy Vance
People shouldn’t make endorsements unless they feel strongly about a race, an intuitive but often violated political principle. I studied the Manhattan District Attorney’s race pretty closely, and though I will probably cast my vote for Richard Aborn, it is not without some hesitation. Of the three candidates, I am most opposed to Leslie Crocker Snyder. She has an impressive resume as a former prosecutor under Morganthau, and is something of a trailblazer as female prosecutors go. But she is also vigorously “tough on crime”, using that playbook against Morganthau in the 2005 DA race, which of course she lost. There are few things that annoy me more than scoring cheap political points at the expense of the criminal justice system, which is already heavily skewed against defendants. One particularly tasteless episode featured an “endorsement” from the victim of a heinous crime who claimed that Snyder would more vigorously pursue justice than Morganthau had been, as if the current Manhattan DA’s office were weak-kneed on crime issues. I have also seen Snyder up close during a panel discussion, which has only reinforced my impression that she lacks the compassion to wield so much power in the New York criminal justice system.
In contrast, both Cy Vance and Richard Aborn speak at great lengths of the need to focus on alternative sentencing, rehabilitation, and prevention, rather than punishment. Aborn is unapologetically to the left of Vance on some of these issues, and if you are voting purely on ideology, Aborn is your guy. What bothers me about Aborn is not his politics, but his qualifications. Though he was an Assistant District Attorney many years ago, his main claim to fame is being a leading advocate for the Brady Bill. Taking credit for an anti-gun bill that passed last century (1993) might mean something if you’re running for Congress, but it has limited utility in a District Attorney’s race. As Norman Siegel likes to point out, different jobs require different skill sets. Nothing in Aborn’s background makes me think he can run the massive operation that is the Manhattan DA’s office, though to his credit he has stayed involved in criminal justice issues as a consultant for various candidates and agencies. One need only go to his website and check out his endorsements to get a sense of how much better the DA’s office would be if Aborn ran it. My question is, can he run it?
Cy Vance is a completely different animal. This guy is pure political pedigree, the son of Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State, Cy Vance. I volunteered at a fundraiser for him at a fancy hotel in Union Square. The guest list was a whos-who of aristocratic New York families, including the Morganthaus. Vance’s politics are perfect for the Manhattan electorate, particularly the elite electorate- moderately progressive policies and tempered rhetoric, behind a clean cut handsome face. He is no threat to the status quo- he is the status quo, which in New York fortunately allows him to talk about the poor and the misguided war on drugs without being labeled a radical or a socialist. He is the most likely of the three candidates to run his office exactly as Morganthau does- so if you’re happy with the way things are, vote Vance. He is not as progressive as Aborn, however. His anointment is also jarring- Vance had lived in Seattle for 16 years before moving back to the city to run for this office. Cy Jones or Cy Smith could never run for DA if they had spent the majority of their careers three thousand miles away. If political nepotism makes you uncomfortable, Vance is not your choice. There is little doubt that he will keep the trains running on time, however- he’ll have the right people holding his hand to see to that.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Mad Hatters and the MTA

“There aren’t enough opportunities for civil discourse like this,” Assemblyman Richard Brodsky beamed as he began his opening remarks Wednesday. The Museum of the City of New York was partnering with former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern’s good-government group, New York Civic, to host a discussion called “The Future of the M.T.A.” “Civil discourse” is one of Brodsky’s favorite phrases, along with “Soviet-style bureaucracy” and “fiduciary duty,” but this panel and audience was the wrong place to find it.

Stern prides himself tremendously on his non-partisanship, though like former Mayor Ed Koch, his neutrality often manifests in defining anything remotely left of center as extreme liberalism. To his credit, the panel he put together ran the political spectrum. Unfortunately, the ideologically disparate panelists were all well-versed on different topics, leading to a wildly disjointed conversation, and a painful Q ‘n A follow-up.

The first speaker, Councilmember Gail Brewer is an oddball by reputation. She is on the right side of tech issues, like expanding wireless access in New York City, but her impact on the panel was minimal. Her main idea seemed to be putting cameras on buses to take pictures of cars blocking bus lanes, an idea rejected by the State Assembly last year.

The second speaker was Assemblyman Brodsky, who I was looking forward to liking, given his work bringing attention to the outrageous tax subsidies Michael Bloomberg gave away for Yankee Stadium and Citi Field. Brodsky decried the lack of political and public will supporting improvements in the transportation, routine stuff. He obviously does not know Henry Stern (aka “Starquest”) all that well, because when Brodsky paid homage to two former state senators in attendance, Stern totally interrupted his flow to ask if he knew their connection to history. Rebuffed by Brodsky, who wanted to finish his prepared remarks, Stern later took the time to explain that the former legislators were responsible for New York City’s “pooper-scooper” laws in the late 70s, eliciting a round of applause from the audience. “We all owe these men gratitude for our streets being as clean as they are today.” Starquest at his best.

The third speaker, Nicole Gelinas of the right-wing Manhattan Institute, vomited five minutes of misleading statistics into the microphone, slamming educational spending, healthcare for government workers, and most importantly, labor unions. Stern loathes the Transit Workers Union, and blames them for most of the MTA’s ills. I can see why he wanted Gelinas on the panel. The two engaged in a decent amount of old-fashioned union-bashing till Brodsky thankfully stepped in, to another round of applause from an increasingly beleaguered crowd. Gelinas fumed that due to rush hour, many subway track inspectors don’t work hard for their entire 8-hour shift, unlike, say, think-tank writers. The vitriol with which she went after “blue-collar workers” was very un-Reaganlike.

The final speaker, Paul White, from Transportation Alternatives, seemed aware by the time things got to him that he was visiting the wrong zoo. He helpfully listed some MTA history, attributing much of the authority’s woes to city and state budget cuts in the early 90s, which led to an increased debt load, which everyone now agrees is the MTA’s biggest problem- the MTA is $28 billion in debt, spending $2 billion a year just on debt service. White also blamed the Feds, noting that federal highway programs requires as little as 10% in local matching funds, while local transit systems had to pay as much as 40%. Michelle Young, of Untapped New York, pointed out to me that there is no hard rule dictating these percentages, and that they are the result of competitive bidding, but that still means the federal government is clearly making local transit systems claw harder for smaller scraps of federal funding than rural highway programs.

Much of the crowd seemed unfamiliar with Stern, which is too bad, because golden moments, like his citing of Rule 18X6 (“The Devil Made Me Do It” – 18 letters, an excuse, 6 words) make absolutely no sense to someone unfamiliar with his Parks Department practice of proliferating dozens of insights to live by and codifying them as rules. After bizarrely attributing the MTA’s woes to the TWU, a union still weak and reeling from getting its ass kicked during the 2005 transit strike, he tried to be more even-handed, going after the corruption of the Pataki administration appointing Al D’Amato hacks to the MTA board. Man, what a sad state we live in.

Starquest's most charming anecdote involved his visit as a young councilman to Deputy Mayor Stanley Friedman’s office. Friedman apparently had a poster reading “Crime Doesn’t Pay… As Well As Politics” on his wall, and had his initials carved into the lenses of his glasses. Friedman, the notorious future Bronx Borough President, was eventually sent to jail for corruption. Starquest has more interesting anecdotes about New York City politics than anyone I know, but the crowd was not in the mood, hissing for him to let the ever growing line of audience members ask their questions.

The disappointing panel was followed by a more depressing question and answer period. I had assumed a certain level of intellectual self-selection for people attending this event, most of whom either are on the New York Civic mailing list or members of the Museum. Indeed, many of the audience questioners were well-dressed folks with lofty titles, or bizarre ones (“I own the air rights under the 148th street 2-train station.”). One questioner proposed that the MTA be placed under the control of the Port Authority. Another asked why there weren’t more bikers in Westchester County. Honestly, this is why we have such few “forums for civil discourse.” The fact is, most of our elected officials are either corrupt or incompetent, and the citizenry they represent is largely apathetic or crazy.

My friend Rachel once expressed disappointment that her computer repairman was having trouble fixing a hard drive issue. The repairman solemnly looked up at her and remarked, “It’s pretty amazing that this computer can work at all.” That’s how I feel about New York City and the United States of America, but so it goes, so it went, and so it keep going and going, all of us just keep trucking along.

When a short, wide-eyed gentleman took the mic, he finally added some common sense into the discussion, asking why New York City couldn’t take control of the subway and bus systems and regulate them as city entities, noting that Councilman Tony Avella has introduced such a bill in the City Council. Unfortunately, even the most rational question had to be asked by a man shouting into the microphone at the top of his lungs. It was jarring.

Brodsky, who chairs the Transportation Committee in the Assembly, readily promised to hold hearings on the matter, should it pass the City Council, calling it a “reasonable question.” This startling concession could be chalked up as typical political blow-hardism, but Brodsky is one of the few people in the state with the clout to make this idea move. Since only one reporter and very few of his constituents were at the event, I doubt he’ll ever follow up on it. Plus, having Avella sponsor the bill won’t exactly endear it to the Bloomberg/Quinn cabal. Oh well, I’ll bring the issue up if I ever see him around. Thank you New York Civic, for a bizarre evening. Democracy is entertaining, just don’t expect too much from it.

Oh, and the future of the MTA? I suppose it too will keep trucking along, carrying its mad hatter passengers, operated by its unwieldy union, managed by its incompetent political hacks, criticized by rabid ideologues, discussed by New York’s mad hatter citizens, and still standing, always barely, forty years after it was created by the Rockefellers to stop Robert Moses. Like the War of the Titans that consumed Mount Olympus, the MTA was born out of a power struggle beyond the grasp of regular citizens, and if anyone wants real MTA reform, they need to wait for the participants of that next great struggle to declare themselves. I’m guessing State Senator Pedro Espada will not be one of them.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Check out new Janos blog!

Dear all,
I know this site has been dormant forever. There are good reasons/excuses for that. I've been heavily involved in a few local campaigns, to the point that I wouldn't feel sharing information that the campaigns might consider internal. Clearly that was not a problem on the Obama campaign. I've also been evaluating options for livingthedream.org, which should go live this summer. Finally, I have started a new site that will feature daily posts, GeneticsLaw.blogspot.com. I encourage you to check out the intro post. The opportunities to foster discussion about some critical issues that affect all of us are limitless. I hope to see you all there.

Again: GeneticsLaw.blogspot.com

And should the muses give me a kick in the ass, you may see a dispatch down the road. It's not as if Michael Jackson coverage, Obama's broken promises, the future of the NBA and the situation in Iran don't stir the blood!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Janos v. Kos

Earlier this evening, Kos, founder of DailyKos, one of my favorite sites for several reasons, launched into this misguided screed: http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2009/4/16/720821/-Why-yesterdays-protests-were-stupid
It slams the tea-baggers, which we all know was a tough journalistic assignment, but also totally disses Code Pink and street protesting generally in the process. Why Kos felt compelled to rip apart another aspect of the same broader movement he's part of is beyond me, but my response is below, and cross-posted at DailyKos here:
Why Tirades Against Code Pink Are Wrong and Unhelpful

While I back Kos about 95% of the time, his bizarre screed against Code Pink makes no sense. Kos should not belittle activists who work towards the same causes he does, but if he is going to slam two organizations whose anti-Bush opposition predated DailyKos, I’d like to at least rebut with what street protesting has meant to me, and the specific experiences I’ve had with these organizations.

I’ll start by agreeing with Kos on a couple key points. Street protests often accomplish little individually. They are sometimes poorly run, and the messaging can be very muddled. ANSWER peddles simplistic and trite anti-imperialism lines that no one takes seriously. This much I’ll concede.

In mid-September of 2001, when like most New Yorkers, I was shell-shocked from 9/11, I trudged up to Dartmouth to begin my sophomore year of college. The country was rumbling towards war in Afghanistan. Something in my heart told me that it wasn’t right to bomb a destitute country “back to the stone age” over the actions of terrorists hiding out in caves. With some effort I tracked down a group of students going down to Washington to protest the war. Twenty of us in two vans drove through the night to attend the ANSWER-led protest rally, joining between 10,000 and 15,000. We were a proud part of the 9% that did not support a reckless invasion and a lengthy occupation.
I can speak to the sentiments offered by Cas2 in response to Kos, part of the benefit of the trip was a “feel-good/solidarity” notion. But it was more than that.

When we returned to campus, the core from that trip formed the Dartmouth Progressives. Over the next three years (and beyond, though I graduated), this group published our campus liberal newspaper, hosted speakers, and led efforts in local and national activism. To this day, I can count several close friends from that van ride. Stepping back more generally, protests are a chance for people to see, not just hear, but to see before their own eyes, that there are thousands of people who think like them, who are passionate about the same causes as them (at least!). That was truly eye opening for me at that first rally, and lord knows how many of my friends had similar experiences during the protests leading up to the war in Iraq, which featured thousands of “normal” people marching in the streets.

They felt GOOD at those rallies! And why not? There is an empowering feeling to walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, chanting “whose streets? Our streets!” Sometimes, sorry, almost all the time, America has to be woken out of its slumber. Why did it take Camp Casey to wake people up to the war, Katrina to expose the Bush administration, the AIG bonuses to get people asking questions about bailout money? A good protest is like a strong cup of coffee in the morning.

Would I ever suggest that marching up and down a pre-selected march route will change a policy by itself? Of course not. Neither will blogging. Would I prefer that a different group than ANSWER run these big protests? Probably. And I will show up when well-organized, on message, politically pragmatic people start regularly organizing major demonstrations. But I won’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

Now on to Code Pink. Kos laid out four principles for protests to live by, based on his vast experience/observations.
1. Be novel or unexpected
2. Have a sympathetic, singular, and media-friendly message
3. Provide great visuals
4. Tap into a hot-button and timely issue

1. How often do you see old women leading a protest movement? Or even women, which is part of their point.
2. Say what you want about Code Pink, but they have a simple message (end the war) delivered by sympathetic (ok, sometimes sympathic) women. Code Pink also delves into other tangents now and then, but war is their bread and butter. No more wars. Simplistic, but right more often than not looking at the past fifty years.
3. Um, they are DRENCHED IN PINK.
4. Even though this answer applies more to ANSWER, any issue that can get thousands of people in the streets is a hot-button and timely issue. And the war in Iraq is a timely issue. People are still there dying. The escalation in Afghanistan is timely- it was just ordered. I actually admire Code Pink, both for taking off Inauguration Day from protesting, and for continuing the protests the next day. It will be untimely for Code Pink to protest war when we don’ have any more war.

In the interest of full disclosure, anyone who clicks on my profile will see that I helped put together weekly events in Union Square, NYC, from February-April called “Make Out Not War”, which were affiliated with CodePink. Though Make Out Not War never garnered many spontaneous make out sessions like we envisioned, we handed out hundreds of Make Out Not War stickers, posed for many photographers, from amateurs to local media, and we spoke to primarily young passerbys about the war. We had regulars who joined us, and of that group, few had any serious activist history. And as far I know, we followed the Four Kos Principles. It wasn’t the best protest ever organized, but if it reminded even a few people that we are still fighting a senseless war, campaign promise or not, then it was worth it.

In closing, I’ll say this- it takes all kinds to make a progressive movement. We all know this. That’s why we donate money to our favorite progressive candidates. That’s why we knock on doors. That’s why we stop work to read a diary post by a blogger we’ve never met or heard of. I’ve been reading DailyKos since 2003, and touting it since I first laid eyes on it. But some people just want to march in the streets. I, for one, think every part of the movement helps it move forward, and at different times have contributed to as many parts as I can. So thank you, Kos, for helping keep this excellent site running, and let’s please not pretend we can get anything done without being in the streets, where all the people are.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Fear and Loathing in the Graveyard of Empires

I have always appreciated the freshness that President Obama brought to a broken, artificial political process. Only a few years removed from anonymity and relative powerlessness himself, Obama understands and fears the power of the mainstream media and special interest groups to shape and drive debate in this country. Throughout the campaign, particularly the more intimate settings of early primary season, I saw Obama plead for us, the Democratic primary voters, the progressive supporters, to hold him accountable once he won. He does not want people like me to support him blindly, he wants us to tug on him to the left, make some noise, and raise some hell, because God knows how many insidious forces will give no quarter in dragging him in the wrong direction.

That is why my honeymoon period with the President is over. Let’s start with the first issue to ever move me to the streets, the senseless war in Afghanistan. From the beginning it was a misguided adventure, where we sent 15 year old boys with pitchforks and rifles as proxies to fight the Taliban on the ground, carpet bombing and incinerating the already devastated countryside with 15,000 pound Daisy Cutters and dropping yellow cluster bombs that looked tragically like yellow food package drops. Children continued to be maimed by cluster bombs that failed to diffuse on impact long after our initial invasion. And despite the death of as many Afghani civilians as died on our soil on September 11th, we had little to show for our effort- most of Al Qaeda’s leadership had escaped, along with one-eyed Taliban leader Mullah Omar. We installed an oil hack, Hamid Karzai, as the glorified mayor of Kabul. Seven years later, the Karzai presidency faces its first serious electoral test, facing Haji Baryalai, whose main platform is reconciling with moderate members of the Taliban. Yeah democracy! That was worth it! Can we leave now?

Unfortunately not. President Obama wants to double-down, sending at least 30,000 more troops to a land that is actually called “the graveyard of empires.” It’s funny, during general elections all candidates are expected to make promises they don’t keep- just part of the game. When Obama would constantly bring up sending more troops to Afghanistan, it seemed like a pretty transparent ploy to make him seem tough, given his very well known (some chicken hawks would call it ‘weak’) position on withdrawing from Iraq. Especially when the recession could have given him an economic excuse, or at least sufficiently distracted the public, it seemed like the Afghanistan troop surge would quietly exit. And yet, here he is, sending more troops without any political demand whatsoever. It’s one of the few campaign promises he’s been able to follow through on. This insistence not only surprised me, but probably our European allies, who probably also thought he had been bluffing all along. When he went to Europe last week to ask him for more troops, the main response was, “No, are you joking?” Italy, France and Germany may send something like 2400 troops to help monitor elections, but then they’ll bounce. No, it will just be us, hanging out, living out a wretched, doomed plan.

Shockingly, the American people may actually come around on Afghanistan faster than the President. A USA Today/Gallup poll released on March 17 showed that 42% of Americans thought the U.S “made a mistake in occupying Afghanistan”, a number so mind-blowing that I did a triple-take when I passed a newsstand that morning and saw it. The recession is clearly a factor- the number was only 30% a year ago, and has been on a steady trajectory since its all-time low of 6% in January of 2002, back when we “won.” Maybe Americans don’t see the point in propping up a corrupt government in a country that exports 75% of the world’s heroin (though not 75% of the world’s heroines). Whatever the reason for the change of heart, I’ll take it, because that’s a number that will only go up.

I’d feel worse about opposing the troop escalation if it had any logical basis to it. Apparently, the current problem in Afghanistan is our troops are too centralized, and when we raid outposts in the countryside, extremist groups/Taliban/Al-Qaeda/local tribes tend to regroup as soon as we leave. Our solution is to send these reinforcements to stay at the outposts, so these enemies can’t regroup. And I imagine that these people, who have lived in the area for thousands of years, will eventually be discouraged by our makeshift barracks and surrender, bringing true democracy to Afghanistan. Assuming our presence in those regions last…forever?
Oh, and how could I leave out the “training”? You know, training the troops and the police officers. The thing we were so good at in Iraq. I’ve actually spoken to someone who had to train cops in Afghanistan, who told me the biggest problem he faced was illiteracy. “You can’t even give them a manual, assuming you had one in their language in the first place.” I understand that Obama is genuinely nervous about that region of the world imploding. After all, Pakistan is a deeply unstable nuclear state, and Waziristan is truly a threat to regional and global security. Sending unmanned drones in to blow up wedding parties and civilian homes isn’t going to solve the terrorist recruitment problem, though. The solution lies in partnering with India and Pakistan, both of whom have serious concerns about Waziristan-driven terrorism.

The politically savvy-to-the-point-of-cynicism in me says that perhaps Obama is only out front on Afghanistan to neutralize Republicans on the only issue that they could even lay a glove on him for in the ’08 elections, which is national security/foreign policy. Republicans have completely lost the battle on social issues (See Iowa) and Obama’s domestic plan, including the stimulus, is extremely popular. Cut off on foreign policy, Republicans will likely turn to nativist anti-immigration screeching and try to tie Obama to the bailout crisis, the latter being Obama’s biggest political vulnerability today. If all this ruminating is correct, Obama will turn around once his cute little “Afghani-surge” is over and bring the troops home.

On a related note, please continue to join us for Make Out Not War on Saturdays, 4pm-5pm, in Union Square. In my mind, this is the war I am making out against.

On a happier note, please enjoy David Bowie and Bing Crosby singing Christmas carols: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-OTQmVOqJU
I know. It’s been a weird day.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Make Out Not War!

This was cross-posted over at dailykos.com . Hopefully I'll get to posting the photos here too, not just providing links...

Yesterday the latest CODEPINK production, Make Out Not War!, celebrated its third session in Union Square, New York City. Merging with Free Hugs movement and a few anti-war musicians, we had an absolute blast, and can't wait to return in ever greater numbers until the war comes to an end. More below the fold, including pics.


CODEPINK women and men believe that it is important to create a visible reminder that the President has to stick to his promise to end the war. Therefore, we are launching a new campaign: Make Out Not War!

Here are a few pics from first two MONWs:

Union Square is always full of activities on sunny Saturdays, and one steady presence is the delightful Free Hugs Movement. Yesterday we realized how much we had in common, and initiated one of the more successful mergers of 2009:
Hopefully the Free Huggers will be a permanent part of our coalition!

The festivities will continue every Saturday from 4pm-5pm, in Union Square, underneath the George Washington statue, around the inexplicable lifeguard chair- until the war ends. So BYO lovers, friends, kissing partner or find a friendly peacemaker in the street! Also, while making out is encouraged, you can also hand out stickers, or just engage passer-bys about the war. As if you need more of a reason to come, we have wonderful after-parties.

Sign Up For the Facebook Event:

Feel free to start your own MONW chapters around the country. We had some friends in Miami kicks things off this weekend. We can send you MONW stickers to pass out in the streets.

If you want to let us know about a branch you're starting, or send us fun pictures, just email makeoutnotwarnyc@gmail.com .

Everyone have a great week, and do your part to make out, not war.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Tale of Two Hearings

A Tale of Two Hearings

The desperate attempts to salvage New York City’s public transportation have led to a convoluted political chess game, theater and reality hopelessly blurred together. The fourth wall is down. A few weeks ago I had the immense privilege of attending the Brooklyn Borough MTA Public Hearing at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriot. Still stinging from being shut out of the Manhattan hearing, I showed up especially early, and even got myself on the speakers list, representing the Williamsburg/Greenpoint community group, Neighbors Allied for Good Growth. A friendly woman handed me a placard that said, ‘Speaker.’

“You’re one of the first people not on the pre-registered list!”

I frowned. “How many people are on the pre-registered list?”

“About 100. Maybe more. But you’re probably tenth on the second list.”

I churned the math real quick. Three minutes per speaker, give or take 100 speakers- that had me speaking at 12:30am, assuming the meeting started on time and ran smoothly.

I took a seat in the fifth row. My section was about as diverse as a New York City subway car. Behind me were a few angry black women holding signs. To my right was an old Russian man missing most of his teeth. Next to him were several blind women and a Marxist MTA union organizer. In front of me was a Hasidim crew, surrounding the bubbly Councilman Simcha Felder. I was with my friend Rachel and a journalist from the Williamsburg Courier.

It was 7pm, a half hour late, when the meeting was finally called to order. The Marriot ballroom was filled with hundreds of rambunctious subway and bus riders ready to make hell. They got their chance right away as the MTA Board Members took their seats. These politically appointed hacks, mostly from the Pataki administration, were seated across a long table facing the crowd, about thirty feet from a velvet rope line, reminding the audience that they were very different people. On our side of the rope line was the podium, equipped with a little scoreboard to let speakers know how much time they had left. I thought that was neat.

The MTA Executive Director, Lee Sander, introduced each of the 12 Board Members present one by one. Each name was greeted by a tremendous round of booing.

“Andrew Saul.”


“David Mack.”


“John Banks.” Mixture of booing and scattered applause.

“Carl Wortendyke.”


The Courier journalist turned to me. “This is like going to a Knicks game- booing the home team before we’ve even started.”

Having just been booed for several minutes, Sander announced that despite the 200 person waiting list of speakers, the evening would begin with testimony from elected officials. Felder and I later shared our discontent about this policy in the men’s room, agreeing that elected officials had ample platforms to make statements, and should not cut into the only time allotted to regular citizens to address the MTA Board. Felder has a good sense of humor, and had declined to sit with his City Council colleagues so he could heckle them from the peanut gallery.

Things started off with a thunderous tongue-lashing from Brooklyn Borough Prez Marty Markowitz to the Board, who are legally not allowed to respond during these hearings. Things were uneven thereafter- the parade of City Council members, Assembly members, and State Senators included the shrill, the redundant, and the hopelessly inarticulate. We were awakened from the soporific drone when fierce Bloomberg critic, Councilwoman Letitia James, got to the mic and began, “I’m just gonna throw this out. This is a racist board!”

At that point I looked up and realized that, in fact, on the stage in front of me were ten old white men, a white woman, and a black man. Of course 11/12 doesn’t mean the Board members themselves are racist- there probably just weren’t a lot of minorities who donated heavily to the Pataki re-election campaigns.

The accusation did stir the room up though. The Marxists went back to distributing their literature (their main argument was that the subway should cost a dollar per ride, which seemed ridiculous until I realized that their plan also called for a revolution, at which point subway costs would probably not be the most pressing issue). Staffers for elected officials distributed little placards reading “B75”, “B48” and such, so that when their boss railed against “the service cuts to the B25”, audience members with B25 placards would wave them and shriek. Many of the speakers ended their rants with “Praised be to our President Barack Obama!” at which point the whole gallery would burst into cheers. Supporting “change, like our great President Barack Obama” seemed to be the only thing the whole crowd could agree on besides how much they hated MTA Board Members. I kicked myself for not having a flask so I could take a swig every time a speaker used the word “Draconian” to describe the budget cuts. It was the most fun I’d had on a weeknight in a while.

After about 55 speakers, however, no theme seemed novel anymore. When even the sun-glass toting Mr. X couldn’t get me fired up, I knew it was time to go. The momentum in the room had discernibly shifted from tirades about bus and subway lines to the topic of Access-A-Ride. This little known service essentially runs semi-regular van routes for disabled persons. The disabled community had come out for full force, at least 100 deep, and they were PISSED. Apparently, the MTA fare hikes included a proposal increasing Access-A-Ride from $3 to $6 in some areas, and from $3.50 to $7 in others. This was bad enough to elicit gasps of horror, since most of Access-A-Ride riders are on fixed income due to their age or physical handicaps. But their point went beyond that- Access-A-Ride is also apparently a disastrously run operation at its current cost. One after another, individuals told horror stories of waiting in the cold, or waiting in the dark for hours, waiting for their van ride that never came. If the imagery of an old blind woman waiting on a dark street by herself in the middle of winter for three hours isn’t bad enough, imagine telling that woman that now she’ll have to pay 100% more for the same service.

The Brooklyn public hearing may have been fun, but its usefulness as anything but a ventilation of frustration was questionable. That’s why this afternoon I braved the rain to Borough Hall, Brooklyn, where my own State Senator Martin Milave Dilan, the Chairman of the State Senate Transportation Committee, was holding hearings on the Ravitch Report. Also in attendance were my former State Senator Bill Perkins, the new political hotshot, 29 year-old State Senator Dan Squadron, and the gay-bashing State Senator Ruben Diaz, who left about ten minutes into the second presentation. With all due respect to the State Senators, who I’m sure had fundraisers to attend to later, 1:30pm-4:30pm seemed like an inconvenient time to have a hearing of this importance. It turned out that the room could only hold about 60 people, however, so between staffers, press, speakers and one curious law student, everyone was accounted for, and there was no room for the public anyway.

The hearing was scheduled for 1:30pm, with twenty minutes allotted per speaker. Aware of how local New York political events operate, I arrived at 2:30, having missed only one speaker, Comptroller Bill Thompson. We actually bumped into each other rounding a corner. We made weird eye contact, and I was going to tell him that whoever is running his Mayor’s race volunteer operation is terrible at getting back to people, but I didn’t feel like getting an underpaid campaign worker in trouble. Besides, Richard Ravitch, the illustrious maven of New York transportation, was about to begin his testimony.

Ravitch is one of those people who just exudes gravitas. He’s been around the political block- after starting his career in affordable housing development and working on an Urban Problems commission under LBJ, Ravitch worked for Governor Carey during New York’s budget crisis in the late 70s, was credited for salvaging the MTA as its Chairman from 1979-1983, and ran for Mayor in 1989 Democratic primary, where he got swamped by Ed Koch and the victor, David Dinkins.

Last year, when it dawned on elected officials and MTA leadership that their budget was a train wreck, they created the Ravitch Commission, so that the aging former chairman could take the heat for making the unpopular proposals that the politicians were too cowardly to make themselves. To cushion the blow Ravitch was sure to deliver, the MTA released its own “solution”, which called for 23% fare increases and massive service cuts. Seeing Ravitch and MTA CEO Sander speak back to back clarified it all of for me. All the wild public hearings, which I had suspected were just a ruse to for the legislature to give Sander more money to play with, were more specifically a ruse to make the Ravitch Report seem like a more palatable alternative. Sander, after all, is on the Ravitch Commission.

For fifty minutes, Ravitch hammered home the major findings of his report, which, by the way, clocks in at a bathroom reading-worthy 19 pages. Apparently 19 pages are all it takes to solve the biggest budget deficit in MTA history. You can read it for yourselves here: http://www.ny.gov/governor/press/pdf/press_1204082.pdf

The proposal has a few key recommendations.

First, a payroll tax in all 12 MTA-serviced counties. This would raise $1.5 billion.

Second, toll the currently free East River bridges: the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge and 59th Street Bridge.

Third, raise tolls and fares by 8%, and raise fares by smaller amounts on a steady basis, so we don’t need a major one-time hike like this in the future.

That’s essentially it. They got the best minds on this issue into the room together, and they solved it- raise taxes, charge tolls on free bridges and raise fares. That’s how you avoid cutting services, Ravitch proudly proclaimed. The report has been endorsed by Governor Paterson, Mayor Bloomberg, environmental groups and construction groups.

Ravitch made a strong case for his report. The elephant in the room, of course, is that Dilan’s district is home to several of the bridges that would suddenly face these tolls. It is a sensitive issue. To some extent the free bridges symbolize New York as one city, as opposed to the gilded isle of Manhattan and its ugly step-brothers. I’ve certainly driven across the Williamsburg Bridge to take care of errands in Manhattan that required a car, and more often I’ve shared inexpensive cab rides home across the bridge from the Lower East Side, in no small part because of the L Train’s pitiful late night performance, especially on weekends. But I ultimately agree that it is not fair for one random community of New York to have access to all of these free bridges, when all City taxpayers are billed for its maintenance. As the Environmental Defense Fund later pointed out, the ratio of Brooklynites who use public transportation over driving to work in Manhattan is 17 to 1, and the tolls come with a promise of increased bus service over the bridges. Oddly, the toll proponents are quite insistent that the tolls be unmanned and cash free, a system that has been enacted many places, but certainly not in New York. They didn’t have time to explain how that detail would work or how long it would take to set up in the confines of the 19-page report.

Among Ravitch’s most interest revelations was that his group had considered Comptroller Bill Thompson’s idea to raise revenues by increasing car registration fees based on car size. The Commission had not pursued that lead after learning from Governor Paterson that he completely supported the fees, but wanted to use them to pay for the costs of state bridge and highway repairs. If Paterson follows through on that plan, it will strip Thompson of one of his most potent issues, one of the few ways he has articulated how a Thompson administration would handle a major issue differently than a Bloomberg administration.

Next up on the bill was MTA CEO Lee Sander. He was generally smooth and in sharp control of his presentation, beginning with a recitation of how sweet the MTA’s progress had been over the last 27 years. Ridership is up 50% in the last ten years. Crazy! We should give these guys a medal. How did they pull it off? Oh wait, that’s when Sander dropped the first of his dreary states.

Today, the MTA faces at least a $1.2 billion budget gap. The MTA has always spent some money on debt servicing, but it seems that in the 90s the Board got a little carried away, borrowing heavily to pay for capital improvements. While ten years ago the MTA was paying $500 million for debt servicing, that figure has tripled to $1.5 billion (hence the payroll tax) and will soon reach $2 billion, accounting for 17% of the MTA’s entire budget. This places the MTA as the fifth largest debt holder in the United States, behind California, New York, Massachusetts and New York City.

That’s just the beginning. Another way the MTA has traditionally stayed afloat has been taking a percentage of tax revenues, including the real estate transaction tax. The lost revenues for the upcoming year figure close to another BILLION dollars.

In the face of these calamities, Sander essentially went on the record today saying that if the Ravitch Report was not adopted, New Yorkers should get used to a $3 single ride, $7 tolls, and the elimination of the free subway to bus transfer, in addition to a “drastic reduction in non-peak subway services” and the laying off of 1100 MTA employees, or “as many as civil service laws will permit.”

Somehow this wasn’t the worst news. Sander then explained that the $30 billion capital budget, separate from the $11 billion operating budget, was completely unfunded. He broke down the capital budget as follows: $22 billion was needed to replace buses, train cars, fix station platforms, train signals, etc. Approximately $5 billion was needed to continue the Second Avenue line, which has run out of federal grant money. Another $3 billion was needed to plan for future growth to meet growing demands in burgeoning communities. Apparently, out of that $30 billion, Sander is sure that he has secured… zero dollars.

At this point, Senator Perkins asked the question on everyone’s mind: “Can we expect some help from Obama’s stimulus? How would that affect his numbers?”

Sander explained that he was expecting a little over $1 billion in aid from the federal government. Of that amount, $500 million would go to the Fulton Street Transit Center, which won’t even begin construction until 2010.

The next time you hear Republicans bemoaning all the “pork” in the stimulus, thank them and those heralded “moderate Senators”, because the compromise bill that was practically written by Arlen Spector and Susan Collins cut three BILLION dollars from the House bill that would have been directed to fixing New York City’s transportation infrastructure. Congressman Nadler has been legendary for years for his ability to secure New Yorkers transportation funding, and he probably lies in bed every night, staring at the ceiling, wondering where that three billion ended up.

When the Ravitch Report was released in December, Ravitch warned ominously that if the legislature did not act immediately, the dreaded fare hikes could begin as soon as January. Today, Sander warned the Senators that if they did not act quickly, they could see fare hikes and service cuts as soon as March. We’ll see.

I left Borough Hall a little overwhelmed, but also feeling a sense of deja vous. If our public officials have learned anything, it’s that the American people are extremely reluctant to embrace big change unless they are scared to death. Invade a country halfway across the world? That’s absurd. Throw in some terror-mongering, and we support invading Iraq. Spend money on healthcare or education? Never! Henry Paulson says he needs $700 billion TODAY or the financial system collapses? Oh, ok! For better or worse, it seems like the Ravitch Report is our only option. But that is, of course, what we have been trained to believe.

Thus, after all that, the MTA, already a tragically unaccountable institution, has placed its entire future in the hands of two men, one of whom hasn’t held a government position in decades, another who was appointed by Eliot Spitzer. No accountability, just a lot of money, and no clear way out. Mark my words, friends, New York City public transportation is about to get a lot worse. Take a good look around your next couple commutes. Breath in your surroundings, so you’ll always remember what moderately decent service was like.

But I won’t let this end on a “the economy is doomed forever” note. The economy actually might be doomed forever, who knows, but the MTA- it will eventually turn around.

It’s like George Harrison said, “It’s not always gonna be this grey, all things must pass, all things must pass away: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vm_N3bjqlr4&feature=related .

No, I’m not worried about New York City. This city will always be destination for the third world immigrant who can take the low paying job we don’t want and still find a way to send money home. New York will always have an apartment for purchase from a trust-fund baby who loves the city as much we do. New York will always welcome the gorgeous aspiring theater girl, the starry-eyed poet from the Midwest, the rock and rollers who hop on a Greyhound bus with a duffel bag, a guitar and a pair of forties. People will come from across the country and world to study at our incredible colleges and graduate programs. Scientists will work in our labs. Star athletes will play on our fields and in our arenas (Hi, Lebron). Tourists will always visit us to see the sites and buy cheap electronics. People will always pursue their dreams in this city, and hopefully enough of them will swipe their Metrocards to turn this MTA crisis around.

For now, we’ll just need to wait a little longer for the next train. My advice: for the next couple years, when you’re using public transit, always have something to read. If you’ve been reading this, I hope you’re enjoying your ride.

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://http://www.dailykos.com/story... . 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: http://www.bluehampshire.com/...
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.