Monday, January 12, 2009

The Prospect of Caroline Kennedy as a New York Senator

The New York Times is reporting that Governor Paterson met with Caroline Kennedy to discuss Ms. Kennedy’s interest in being appointed to the United States Senate. (See: Paterson and Kennedy Meet to Discuss Senate, by Nicholas Confessore, January 10, 2009.) We suppose then that it is time for us to write about this.- That is, to write about the prospect of Caroline Kennedy as a United States Senator.

A Working Relationship: Speaking Legally

It can properly be said that Ms. Kennedy, who had summer legal internship at the State housing finance agencies, once worked for me. As a lawyer, I was, as a technical matter, asked to formally oversee her assignments.

Rather than write about what kind of senator I think Ms. Kennedy might be based upon my experiences with her, I would like instead to write about the kind of senator I hope she would be, the kind of senator I think New York desperately needs. The truth to tell, I did not get to know Ms. Kennedy very well on a personal level. It was a busy time: she had a wedding coming up and I was too good at respecting deep personal privacy and too much in the habit of keeping relationships professional.

Two Irish Gentleman, Generations Back

In retrospect, I regretted not having gotten to know Ms. Kennedy better when I discovered years later that Ms. Kennedy’s grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy, and my grandfather, Thomas Justin White, had corresponded extensively. The friendly connection between our grandfathers was due to the fact that they were both prominent and successful Irishmen. My grandfather was president and general manager of the Hearst Organization. Among other things these two friendly Irish gentleman wrote about how the nation’s economic depression needed to be effectively addressed and dissatisfactions (perhaps particularly my grandfather’s) with the way that Roosevelt was handling things. Given current state of our national recession/depression, I would like to have integrated more discussion of this into this post but it will have to wait for another day. I learned from the correspondence I reviewed that, based on how my grandfather was sounding out Mr. Kennedy, that my grandfather toyed with the idea of making a happy career switch from publishing to film executive. (In addition to his other business ventures and later political appointments, Mr. Kennedy had connections with film studios including the old RKO Studios.)

Given the friendliness of my grandfather and Mr. Kennedy, my father was acquainted with the next generation of Kennedys but this is not something I raised with Ms. Kennedy. Though I didn’t get to know her very well, I have nothing but good things to say about her personally and perhaps one rather silly one: I appreciated the casual nonchalance of how she wore just a simple Swatch watch. (I myself tried Swatches later on but abandoned them when I discovered that their plastic crumbles when exposed to sun screen, a seemingly little known fact.)

What Would NNY Like to See? Some Kennedy Family Examples

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

What would Noticing New York like to see from Ms. Kennedy if she is appointed senator for New York? There are some things we know about Ms. Kennedy’s family that would cause us to hope for the best in terms of that which we value. Ms. Kennedy’s mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, fought for landmarks preservation and was a key player in the fight to preserve Grand Central Station. In fact, the “highest honor” of the Municipal Art Society is the “Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal.” MAS is an organization dear to our heart and one of the very most important in the city in terms of things Noticing New York believes it is absolutely imperative to see happen in this city.

Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.

We know that when Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. was appointed to be the first head of the newly created Securities and Exchange Commission, people said that it was like appointing the fox to guard the henhouse. The appointment seemed counterintuitive and was resisted for months because Kennedy himself had been a major stock speculator before the Depression in a stock market where game playing at the expense of the common investor was rampant. In the end, however, Mr. Kennedy’s appointment was generally regarded as a success because he was so familiar with what needed to be fixed and guarded against to protect the general public. President Franklin Roosevelt, whom Kennedy served, was a member of the upper classes but he knew that the interests of the upper classes can often be at odds with the interests of the general public.

Robert Kennedy, Jr.

Another Kennedy doing things we believe in is environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy, Jr. who works with the Riverkeeper organization to prevent pollution of the Hudson River in which our city of islands floats. Robert Kennedy is also keenly skeptical of the fairness and propriety with which some of our elections have been conducted which, in our book, places him on the side of the general populace. (See his article in Rolling Stone Was the 2004 Election Stolen? Jun 01, 2006, which dared to ask truly legitimate questions about the 2004 Bush Kerry election that far too few people were willing to ask.)

Ms. Kennedy’s Positions

We read one article listing most of Ms. Kennedy’s positions on issues (Kennedy Offers Hints of a Platform, and a Few Surprises, by Nicholas Confessore, December 20, 2008 ). We found that it left us mostly thirsting to know what we consider most important at this time: Where our politicians stand on what David Cay Johnston has defined in broad terms as the “rigged economy” (Listen to: The Leonard Lopate Show: Sick Economy, Wednesday, January 07, 2009.)

The Important Issue: The “Rigged Economy”

We believe that businesses, industries and organizations need to protect themselves against disruption and preserve their ability to serve as the social infrastructure that will make society productive in the future. But too often these days this self-protection tilts into something adverse to society. That’s when we get what Mr. Johnston is able to document numerous examples of: a world were those with an already existing cumulative advantage; the already wealthy, powerful and already gigantic corporations rewrite the rules to give themselves additional unjustifiable advantages. Too often these advantages are reaped by creating special subsidies that turn sensible economics upside down. On the national level, why should we tolerate the subsidization of corn ethanol as an alternative to “replace” petroleum if we actually use more petroleum manufacturing the ethanol than is saved by substituting the ethanol produced. On the local New York level we get equivalent abuses of subsidies and they are very much a Noticing New York concern because they are so exceptionally prevalent in the real estate industry.

The Exhortation of Another Kennedy Family Member

This is where we should mention Ms. Kennedy’s father, President John F. Kennedy, Jr. Those that are too young to know little else about her father will probably remember as his most ringing words: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” The abuse of the economy and subsidies as documented by Mr. Johnston and others represents the complete disregard of that exhortation. It represents, instead, its inverse.

Abuse of Subsides

Abused or carelessly used, subsidies can result in startlingly absurd results. The results seem explicable only if you consider that almost invariably the common citizen is being robbed to pile privilege and advantage onto those who are already privileged and advantaged. Disturbingly, and you can take as examples the various stadium finance deals paying for stadiums and arenas at public expense, it seems to represent the essence of billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s style and it isn’t working.

Bloombergian Abuse in the World of New York Real Estate

Though the details may vary, huge swaths of the Bloomberg administration city: West Harlem, Coney Island, Willets Point, Hudson Yards, the Moynihan/Penn Station area, Ground Zero, and Atlantic Yards are being turned over to single developers without public planning or appropriate breakdown to allow for effectively rigorous competitive bids. Since the goal seems to be to benefit the big developers, property is wrested from those who would own and use the property better. Destruction proceeds inappropriately and precipitously. Design quality for what will come next is soulless and we are slowly winding up with holes in our city where once we had things of value. Witness the destruction of Coney Island, the Atlantic Yards developer’s (Forest City Ratner) unnecessary destruction of the Ward Bakery Building, what the city wants to do at Willets Point, and the parks put asunder to build Yankee Stadium that may now not be replaced in the foreseeable future.

In essence, Bloomberg is selling off the public realm piece by piece. In the Village he is selling off a portion of the Greenwich Village Historic District to let unmerited private profit be extracted in the form of the high density of the Rudin/St. Vincent’s real estate deal.

These are examples of how the “rigged economy” manifests itself in the world of Bloombergian New York City real estate development and they are central to Noticing New York’s concerns about the city, but the same thing is happening writ large in multiple ways across the country. We think that what is required of a New York senator in this time of national economic crisis is an understanding that projects like the Brooklyn developer-initiated and developer-driven Atlantic Yards megadevelopment represent the root cause of our economic distress and not any form of ”shovel-ready” solution to it.

When It Comes to the “Rigged Economy,” New York Doesn’t Need Another Senator Schumer

In our day, we have had a lot of respect for New York Senator Chuck Schumer, always rooting for his rise. We have been watching him with respect for decades since he has always been a friend of affordable housing. After the 2006 elections we were pleased to be able to personally congratulate him on the significant role he played in the Democrats taking back the Senate, which we viewed as an exceedingly crucial thing at the time. Schumer is highly capable but we are thinking that the last thing we need now is another Senator Schumer. Why? Because he has supported Atlantic Yards though if you call his office you are likely to find them vague or obfuscatory on the subject. If Schumer supports Atlantic Yards, then he doesn’t understand the issues critical to the nation at this juncture. By the same token, Paul Krugman in one of his recent columns inserted a well deserved shout-out and call to action directed to Schumer, analogizing the Madoff scandal to the misfunctioning of the economy at large:

At the crudest level, Wall Street’s ill-gotten gains corrupted and continue to corrupt politics, in a nicely bipartisan way. From Bush administration officials like Christopher Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who looked the other way as evidence of financial fraud mounted, to Democrats who still haven’t closed the outrageous tax loophole that benefits executives at hedge funds and private equity firms (hello, Senator Schumer), politicians have walked when money talked.
(See: The Madoff Economy, by Paul Krugman, December 19, 2008.- Emphasis supplied. We highly recommend reading this piece in full.)

Schumer’s Inappropriate Deference to ACORN

Wonder whether Schumer is being appropriately responsible on Atlantic Yards? An acquaintance of ours told us the story of cornering the Senator in a Park Slope barber shop and challenging him on his support for Atlantic Yards. What did the Senator say before fleeing? “I just accept what ACORN tells me about the project.” We called the Senator’s office and offered them the chance to elaborate on this point. When they didn’t get back to us, we didn’t put any effort into following up. Perhaps we will some day in the future. We put no stock in what ACORN says about Atlantic Yards. Our analysis about the lack of public benefit ACORN is shilling for and the questions raised by the improper cover-up of significant embezzlement is at: Selling out the Community for Beans (A Giant Wrong) (Saturday, June 28, 2008) and Falling Acorn! How Far from the Tree? (Thursday, July 24, 2008).

For good measure we refer you also to the recent reporting on secret and inappropriate handling of large conflict-of-interest ensuring loans to ACORN from the Atlantic Yards developer, starting off with this recent Atlantic Yards Report article: More details emerge about Forest City Ratner bailout of ACORN: did Bertha Lewis mislead her board? (Monday, January 05, 2009).

We don’t need another senator like Schumer carelessly putting stock in ACORN and not recognizing that it has sold out the community. ACORN must be recognized as contributing to the problems that need to be solved.

Ms. Kennedy and Mayor Michael Bloomberg

Back to Ms. Kennedy: Where might she stand on the important problems we face with the : "rigged economy?" The Times article listing her positions offers only one clue. It involves a fudge on the subject of New York’s master economy-rigger himself, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the fudge and what the article elaborates out it worries us. To quote the article:

But Ms. Kennedy did not answer a question from Politico about whether she would support a Democratic candidate for mayor during the 2009 elections or supported Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s controversial but successful effort to alter New York City’s term-limits law to allow him to run for a third term.

Ms. Kennedy’s Senate effort has been managed by Josh Isay, a consultant to Mr. Bloomberg, who won his first term as a Republican and is now an independent. And she is also being aided by Kevin Sheekey, one of Mr. Bloomberg’s top deputies.

This lack of an answer could provoke Democratic officials in New York, many of whom had little relationship with Ms. Kennedy until she undertook a whirlwind tour of meetings this week, and some of whom will expect her to back the party’s nominees in general elections.

“As the last Democratic nominee, I would be very upset by a response like that,” said Fernando Ferrer, the Democratic nominee for mayor in 2005. “I don’t know if this is a disqualifying nonanswer, but it certainly doesn’t make Democrats comfortable.”

Mr. Ferrer noted that politicians were expected to back their party’s nominees in general elections, though some Democrats broke ranks to endorse Mr. Bloomberg in 2005.“I assume she would want Democratic support if she won a primary, and I presume she wanted Senator Clinton to support Senator Obama in the presidential race when it became clear that Senator Clinton did not have the delegate votes.”

A spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party, Carly Lindauer, said in a statement: “The mission of the New York State Democratic Committee is to help elect Democrats, at all levels, across the state. We hope that as a member of the party, the next senator would share that commitment and work with us to achieve our goals.”
We understand why Ms. Kennedy might let herself be helped in her bid by some of the same experienced political aides that have helped Mr. Bloomberg, but if Ms. Kennedy is not in the end able to recognize how bad Bloombergian style is for what ails America, we have a problem. There is also the question of recognizing how Bloombergian billionaire maneuvering on term limits was antithetical to fair play and respect for the rules by which the elected officials are supposed to honor and be accountable to the public. It represents, once again, making additional accretions of power by the privileged and powerful a priority over the common decency and respect the general public deserves.

For some of our thoughts on Bloomberg’s term limits extension, you might start with: The Mayor, The Times’ Timing, and a Proper Ordering (Saturday, November 15, 2008). For Times Columnist Clyde Haberman’s thoughts on the subject which we recommend there is a list of links in our article: Remembering; Not Forgetting in Chinatown (Tuesday, November 4, 2008).

The Obama Future: Finding New Common Ground

We note with interest and hope that Barack Obama has often spoken of effort to find common ground between right and left, red and blue, Democrat and Republican. We would like to think that this new common ground will be founded upon common sense. In other words, rejecting the bad economics and faulty policies of the “rigged economy.” Unfortunately, in the past, the common ground found between Democrats and Republicans tended to be just the opposite, a capitation to the big money spent in politics that sought to rig the economic rules to favor special interests, the special interests that asked only “what their country can do for them” at the expense of the taxpayer with little though of what they could do in return.

We look for and imagine change. To quote Robert F. Kennedy, who once held the senatorial seat for New York that Ms. Kennedy now seeks: “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.” Except this is not exactly to dream things as they never were. Abuse of subsidies and things like eminent domain have not always been known to the extent that they now are. We hope that Obama and those who will be in Congress to work with him will do something different and we hear hope for that in his recent speech discussing the need for economic stimulus last week when he said (emphasis supplied):

No longer can we allow Wall Street wrongdoers to slip through regulatory cracks. No longer can we allow special interests to put their thumbs on the economic scales. No longer can we allow the unscrupulous lending and borrowing that leads only to destructive cycles of bubble and bust.
Deus Ex Machina Desperation?

We recognize that Ms. Kennedy has been the subject of criticism for coming from a life of privilege and seeking to be appointed to this senate seat in a nonconventional, not-by-the-numbers fashion, not coming up through the ranks, and without “waiting her turn.” That is something to consider. By the same token it is tempting to hope that coming to us from outside the system, Ms. Kennedy, not saddled with the usual political debts, obligations, allegiances and compromised past, might be able to rescue us from the complicated mire in which the general public is regularly coming in second to the machinations of money in politics. That was also once a selling point for putting the billionaire Bloomberg in the mayor’s office, a candidate who theoretically would be immune to the pull of special privileged interests. With Bloomberg, things turned out to be quite the opposite, particularly as his lust for ever-extending his personal power is increasingly on display.

Our hopes for a deus ex machina rescue from the abuses of the privileged class by members of the privileged class is perhaps an indication of just how desperate for salvation we are. We have recognized this desperation once before when writing about whether politically active billionaire Tom Golisano with his Responsible New York organization has might step in to champion the cause of eminent domain reform. (See: Sunday, November 2, 2008, Still Looking for a Chance to Vote on Eminent Domain Abuse.) We have pointed out that it would be a natural for him to do so since the “issues he has been championing are almost all things that eminent domain abuse tend to tie in with: no-bid contracts, special tax abatements and exemptions, lack of transparency, favoritism, inequitable distribution of assets, back-door borrowing, out-of-control authorities and special big-developer real estate interests.” Ms. Kennedy will either align with the privileged class from which she came or, like other members of her family (and the aforementioned Franklin D. Roosevelt), Ms. Kennedy might step outside that convention to do something different. We can hope for the best but nothing is assured.

Roads to Greater Certainty: Grass Roots vs. Declarations

The fact of the matter is that if we place our hopes for rescue from the abuses of the powerful by members of the privileged class, we may find ourselves just waiting, waiting for what was once theoretically promised by Bloomberg, waiting for Mr. Golisano, waiting for Ms. Kennedy. Therein lies the argument for doing things grassroots from the ground up. Perhaps Barack Obama, the man Ms. Kennedy was one of the first to support for president, is an example of this very thing. We note, of course, that Ms. Kennedy has the opportunity of alleviating suspense by announcing herself on the issues we care about and that she can do so sooner rather than later if she so chooses.

What We Would Expect from Any New York Senator

We have said here what we would hope for from Ms. Kennedy as a senator, but from our references to Senator Schumer and our disappointment with him over his poor conduct on Atlantic Yards, it should be clear that what we are seeking and hoping for here is what we would seek and hope for from any New York senator. That includes not only Ms. Kennedy and Senator Schumer but anyone else who might attain a New York senatorial seat. That list could include Andrew Cuomo (with whom we also once worked), Carolyn Maloney or anyone else in the list of qualified candidates in the running.

The Beauty of Truth Through Design . . .

One last thing: There are many ways to come to realizations about the way that things are off kilter and what needs to be done to fix them. Insight, for example, can come simply from an appreciation for good design. We think that an appreciation of good design is what invariably leads the Municipal Art Society and Noticing New York to positions that are so close. Usually the main difference in what we have to say is that, for various reasons, Noticing New York is generally much less delicado when speaking truth to power. We also see much less reason to advocate compromise when process and power structures are abused. Noticing New York comes to its positions on New York politics principally from being dedicated to the proposition “that developing New York and appreciating New York go hand in hand.” Noticing New York, for example, was led to many of its conclusions by the exceedingly poor design of our favorite poster child for bad development, Atlantic Yards. (See: Tuesday, November 11, 2008, Jane Jacobs Report Card for Atlantic Yards . . .Megadevelopment Gets an “f”)

. . . And One Last Kennedy Family Member

We will mention one last member of the Kennedy family in regard to the question of appreciating good design; not Ms. Kennedy’s mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who fought for landmarks preservation, but Ms. Kennedy’s husband, Edwin Schlossberg. Mr. Schlossberg is in the design field. The founder and principal of ESI Design, he is an internationally recognized museum exhibit designer, author and artist. Perhaps, such an appreciation for good design will lead to a convergence of paths and insight. Some time ago I wrote to Ms. Kennedy telling her that I was sorting out questions about the pursuit of public purpose, the roles in the world that are out there to be played and how urban planning and skills as a lawyer (which we both share) can best be used. I won’t say whether I should ever expect to receive correspondence back, but there are interesting discussions to be held in this regard.

We Hope. . .

In conclusion, if Ms. Kennedy is appointed Senator for New York as might quite probably happen, we can hope that she will be a good one and there is certainly cause to believe that this might be so.

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