Monday, March 27, 2006

"Steinbrenner Meets New Tammany" in The NY Sun, 3/24/6

Steinbrenner Meets New Tammany

March 24, 2006

George Washington Plunkitt, whose life and philosophy were chronicled by journalist William L. Riordan (in part in the pages of this newspaper's forebear), would approve of events in the Bronx in recent days.

Plunkitt was a New York political leader at a time when the men who ran government did so not from City Hall, or the Albany Statehouse, but from a building on East 14th Street known as Tammany Hall. Plunkitt was the Tammany District Leader of the 15th Assembly District, and conducted his business from a bootblack stand in the New York County Courthouse. He was born poor on the Upper West Side in 1842, and passed on 82 years later, a rich and powerful man.

Riordan's masterpiece, written in Plunkitt's voice, was published in 1905 as "Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics," but is known today simply as "Plunkitt of Tammany Hall." It is still widely assigned in political science classrooms all over America. The book may be a century old, but its lessons are fresh and have not been lost on today's crop of politicians. While its physical presence has receded into history, the concept of Tammany is alive and well.

Just ask George M. Steinbrenner III, the principal owner of the New York Yankees. His pocket has just been picked to the tune of $28 million by today's Tammany, in a modern version of what Plunkitt called "honest graft."

In the most famous essay in the book, Plunkitt defines honest graft. He suggests that if a savvy politico gets advance word that a park is contemplated and buys up all the property in that area, selling to the city for a premium, the profit is honest graft. "I might sum up the whole thing by sayin': I seen my opportunities and I took 'em."

For a while, Mr. Steinbrenner expended enormous efforts to move his team from the south Bronx. It clearly stuck in his craw that the most enduring image of the 1977 World Series was not the Yankee victory powered by the bat of Reggie Jackson, but the images of fires destroying the surrounding community.

Efforts to relocate to the team to the Jersey Meadowlands and then, with the connivance of Mayor Giuliani, to a new stadium on Manhattan's West Side, fell flat. Meanwhile, the Bronx stopped burning and large tracts of the south Bronx were restored, thanks to an ambitious housing program put in place by Mayor Koch.

Despite the problems of the surrounding neighborhood, attendance at the stadium soared to record highs. Mr. Steinbrenner resigned himself to a future in the Bronx, and a deal was cut to build a new stadium on parkland adjacent to the current site, replaced by new parks in the immediate vicinity.

To most of us in the Bronx, the loss of the Yankees would be a blow of unimaginable magnitude, the confirmation that the borough is beyond salvation. But, as Mayor Bloomberg is fond of saying, this is New York. Fueled by left-wing groups that oppose economic development in the Bronx, and environmentalists who view parkland as sacred in perpetuity, a movement to stop the stadium project has gathered steam.

Enter the New Tammany. To run interference for him, Mr. Steinbrenner has hired the Mirram Group for $301,900 to lobby on behalf of the project. Mirram is headed by the former Bronx County Democratic boss, Roberto Ramirez, best known as the architect of Fernando Ferrer's "Two New Yorks" strategy. Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has paid large monthly retainers to Mirram for years, seen by some as akin to paying protection money to ensure minority support. Mirram clients always seem to win the endorsement of the Bronx Democratic machine.

To ensure the continued support of Bronx public officials, a scheme has been concocted to have the Yankees set up a $28 million trust fund to be run by "an individual of prominence" selected by a group appointed by Bronx political leaders. Would it surprise anyone if the "individual of prominence" dispenses the largesse to the groups that pledge fealty to the party bosses?

Also in play is the dispensing of the construction jobs generated by the new project, and 15,000 tickets a year to Yankee games. An opponent of the stadium plan who is estranged from the Bronx Democratic organization, Councilwoman Helen Foster, called this a case of the "fox guarding the chicken coop."

Two weeks ago, a meeting was held between the commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, Emily Lloyd, and Bronx political leaders regarding the construction jobs at the massive Croton Water Filtration Plant being built under Van Cortlandt Park. Ms. Lloyd promised that an increasing number of the jobs will be made available to Bronx residents, and that these opportunities would be made known to the elected officials. Lest there be doubt of what such a promise means, the person conducting the negotiation for the elected officials was the Bronx Democratic Party's lawyer, Stanley Schlein.

Political support for good projects such as the new stadium or the proposed BJ's Wholesale Club comes at a price. Last year, Councilmembers Maria Baez and Joel Rivera opposed the BJ's project. But when Ms. Baez, who had no serious opposition in the last election, received $18,000 in campaign contributions (a figure that city matching funds turned into more than $30,000), and Mr. Rivera got nearly $5,000, they both had a change of heart. Is this "honest graft?" You be the judge.

Rather than the traditional Thanksgiving turkeys, the new Tammany will dispense construction jobs, grants to community groups, and even Yankee tickets to ensure a steady stream of voters and campaign workers who owe allegiance to the party. George Washington Plunkitt might say, "They saw their opportunities and they took 'em."


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