issue 178 - December 1987
City government from Sao Paulo to Jakarta is a playground
for corrupt powerbrokers. New York's famous Tammany Hall
political machine set the pattern back in the 19th Century.
Tom Robbins investigates how today's political élite
continues the grand old traditions.
It was a remark never meant to be overheard by others. The aging Democratic Party boss of the New York borough of Brooklyn had just hung up the phone after speaking with a prominent Congressman from the neighboring borough of the Bronx. The two men had just settled on a cover-up strategy to explain the Florida vacation the boss had given to the Congressman and an attractive redhead.
The boss turned to an associate in his office: 'How much we got in [Congressman] Mario-fucking-Biaggi?' he asked.
'Ten-two,' came the unhesitating response, meaning a $10,200 'goodwill' investment in Biaggi. The Congressman's help had been useful to a ship repair company in whose well-being the boss had a large financial stake. Further wiretaps by federal investigators revealed that the boss thought Biaggi's vacation was 'a damn good investment'.
Both Congressman Biaggi and political boss Meade Esposito went on trial in August on federal bribery charges. The case treated New Yorkers to a rare glimpse into how the city's political powerbrokers operate. 'I made 42 judges in Brooklyn,' the 81-year-old Esposito was heard to say at one point. At another he bragged, 'For five years I was boss of the fucking state.'
For the city that holds all records in municipal corruption in the person of Boss William Tweed, these latter-day brokers pale by comparison. Tweed was the roguish chieftain of Manhattan's Tammany Hall who ran mayors, governors and even a president in the 1870s.
But since January 1986, a continuing corruption scandal has peeled back layer after layer of the body politic in New York City. The scandal has been a rude awakening for many New Yorkers who thought Tammany-style politics were a thing of the past.
The corruption trials, which have already resulted in convictions for over 20 top political figures, have unveiled a broad panorama of deal-making and influence-peddling that has penetrated much of everyday city life - from the sale of taxi meters to the awarding of contracts to collect overdue parking fines.
These revelations are particularly shocking because they contrast with the largely successful efforts of Mayor Ed Koch over the past ten years to convince the city's electorate that his administration was being run effectively and productively.
Koch, a brash, wise-cracking former Congressman from Manhattan, has tapped the frustrations of white middle-class New Yorkers who have seen their own kind leave the city in droves for the suburbs. Until recently, the mayor has dominated the stage with the politics of celebrity. Politics have been reduced to an elaborate celebration of Koch's ego, massaged by the Mayor's own two 'tell-all' books, an off-Broadway play, and national acclaim that has put his face on the covers of the country's major news magazines.
Koch was first elected Mayor in 1977 on an 'efficient government' platform following New York's traumatic confrontation with bankruptcy. Indeed, much of Koch's first mayoral term displayed many of the hallmarks of a no-nonsense administration. Some of the best veterans of the socially conscious administration of the 1970s were put in charge of important city agencies. Other recruits were enlisted to clean up mini-empires established with anti-poverty funds by overlords in the city's black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Koch was able to point out proudly that the city's coffers, near empty when he took over, were slowly being replenished. Business confidence from the all important banks and investment houses who buy city bonds was on the road to recovery.
But the veneer of success has proven very thin. Koch's housing and social service commissioners have shown more interest in bank-inspired austerity than in the vital tasks of neighborhood reconstruction. 'Planned shrinkage' of government programs, although officially denied, seemed often to underlie major decisions. This theory dictated that the city should collapse services to 'less economically-viable' regions - i.e. low-income black and Hispanic neighborhoods. The result? Diminished health, transit and educational services.
Less reluctant growth sectors - a renewed real estate market for offices and luxury housing and fast-growing financial and Insurance industries - were encouraged by lightening their share of the tax load. Fortunately for Koch the missing revenues were made up for by a spurt in the national economy and increased foreign investment in New York - or at least Manhattan.
But a pattern had been set - and relationships established. By 1981, when Koch ran for a second term, recipients of government largesse stoked his campaign treasuries to the tune of over $5 million (an amount that swelled to $8 million in 1985). Koch and his supporters were creating a glitzy and more profitable Manhattan. The gloom in the neighborhoods and outer boroughs remained untouched.
But Koch could not have coasted to his two successive re-elections without constant signals to white middle and working-class communities that he was not going to allow the city's growing minority population to take over.
When black critics blasted his closing of city hospitals in poor neighborhoods he denounced them as 'rabble rousers.' His chant for the passing of a state death penalty, begun in 1977 and strengthened in following campaigns, comforted white neighborhoods worried about racial tensions and crime. Koch's decisive pluralities in 1981 and 1985 were based on continuing white, middle-class allegiance despite deteriorating essential services. After repeated investigations of Koch's aides, the two pillars of his support, business and the white middle class, remain intact.
Through it all the same political bosses that have always run New York have gone on much as before - indeed they have become even more entrenched. A major part of the boss's expanded power stems from what Village Voice writer Jack Newfield calls the Mayor's 'Faustian contract' with the bosses. He has handed over whole city agencies to the hacks in the political clubhouse in exchange for their political support.
A truly pluralistic city government might have challenged that control. But New York is very much a one-party town. In this way it does not differ much from the way the Congress (I) Party runs India or the Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) political machine in Mexico. All the members of the governing Board of Estimate (made up of the Mayor, Comptroller, City Council President and a president of each of the five boroughs) belong to the Democratic Party. The party itself remains centrally controlled through a county leader in each borough, who is able to name judges, extend patronage and assist favored businesses in gaining city contracts. Up against that clout - and the money it is capable of amassing - genuine reformers, many of them also Democrats, have a hard time winning more than isolated seats.
A few dissidents, like City Councillor Ruth Messinger from Manhattan's Upper West Side, are reduced to effective gadflys operating on the fringes of political power. In 1985 an attempt to build a New York 'rainbow' coalition of Blacks, Hispanics, labor and progressives to challenge Koch fell apart amid bitter bickering.
When Meade Esposito spoke unwittingly into that FBI microphone, claiming that he'd been 'boss of the fucking state', he used the past tense. But in the 1980s the seeds of corrupt power still find fertile soil from the Lower East Side right up to the furthest reaches of the Bronx.
Tom Robbins is a writer specializing in the politics of New York City.