Was it a struggle over: substance or merely style, firm belief or acceptance of reality, earnest pursuit of truth or simple biding of time until the silly electoral season ends? For most of the participants in New Rochelle’s Great Debate, nothing was more important than appearing amiably un-Republican on behalf of a lawless local GOP faction or demonstrating reliable loyalty to an imperious Democratic machine. The League of Women Voters (LWV) production featured more self-adulation, strutting of credentials and overall posturing than an annual beauty pageant in Peoria. (And apologies to Peoria!).
It certainly was no clash over philosophies or managerial technique.
With little passion and no rhetorical flourish, an onlooker might have felt short-changed, hungry for more meat on the bone of the New Rochelle body politic at the end of the evening. But for anyone with even a passing familiarity with the city, the absence of controversy or just differences of opinion should not have surprised.
New Rochelle, you see, is a political oddity; an often teeming, virtually world-class city contained within a Spielbergian suburban shell. An independent school board dispenses an annual quarter billion dollars on its own sanitation staff and truck fleet, as well as the education of youngsters. Thanks to state law and the citizens choice by referendum, its weak mayor presides only in meetings of the city council, the appointment of some bureaucrats and the cutting of ribbons at business openings and street fairs; day-to-day management of its $156 million 2014-2015 budget is left to the appointed city manager. Owing to a turning-point decision of the United States District Court in 1993, the six more councilmembers represent only their own districts (assiduously Gerrymandered into Vampiric vehicles of political perpetuity by a prevailing Democratic confederacy in 2011), taking no responsibility for districts not their own and scant regard for the sum of parts, the city as a whole.
New Rochelle is New York’s seventh largest city with nearly 80,000 souls hailing from a cornucopia of birthplaces and speaking numerous tongues. It once headquartered manufacturers producing foods, books and even Desberon motor cars. Its retail/wholesale district flourished with furnishings, housewares and foods, but its unusual length (10 miles) and constricted width (1.5 miles), prohibits easy social or commercial interaction of its diverse neighborhoods. Even participation in the occasional outburst of urban vitality in its central business core is choked off by congested north-to-south street passage and inconvenient highway access.
It is no political statement, but rather a matter of socioeconomic fact that those populating New Rochelle’s leafy, more suburban-type north-end development tracts and estates more often scan their library, credit and debit cards in Eastchester and Scarsdale than in the city’s distant downtown. It’s just easier.
The political scorecard in New Rochelle is representative of what has evolved in Westchester County and New York State. A formerly Republican majority has been displaced by a Democratic one, facilitated by regional economic and political trends and exceptional party organization, as well as a seismic shift in national immigration and housing policy. Readers of this and other news sources will recognize the Sound Shore and up county party realignment and need no description here.
It should suffice to say that because of its unusual organizational and geographic characteristics, New Rochelle exhibits its own lesson in civic behavior. Communities within the distinct districts get bottled up in own parochial concerns (traffic congestion; condition of streets, parks and public works; the operation of marinas; sufficiency of public parking; pedestrian sidewalks to schools, houses of worship and shopping) and ignore matters of New Rochelle-wide import (downtown development/beautification; Sound Shore improvement and facilities access; local employment opportunities; environmental and waste treatment; general overcrowding and saturation of public services; code enforcement).
The city is in fiscal tumult as haphazard development has compromised commercial competitiveness with neighbors in White Plains, Mount Vernon, Yonkers and the Bronx. A comparison of sales tax revenue per resident between New Rochelle and White Plains (circa 2014-2015 adopted budgets) may exemplify the disadvantage; New Rochelle, population 78,000, sales tax revenue $26 mm. sales tax revenue per resident $333; White Plains, population 56,000, sales tax revenue $46 mm- sales tax revenue per resident $821.
With so much data courtesy of the internet to available to politician, policy wonk and voter alike one would think the year’s only general campaign event would address the specifics of local government; public administration, operational and human resource utilization and finance, policy and practices in development and public works. With today’s revolution to employee relations and incentives, we could expect to hear about maximizing productivity from the 355 public safety employees (including 158 fire and 180 police personnel) and 233 additional more workers in the rest of city hall.
Instead of focusing on pertinent indices of public safety, identifying the quantity and quality of fast response and adequate complements of personnel, for instance, the League’s questionnaire was directed at what is now ancient history; votes on the benighted and unlamented Echo Bay development scheme, a petty revenue-raising small/retail business registration gambit and the city’s late obsession with forcing leaf mulching upon its somnolent real property-owning, taxpayer class.
Valuable time was expended hearing how one aspirant voted one way as a member of the Board of Education, and now promises to vote the other way campaigning for the district five council spot. The incumbent candidate for the seat, Barry Fertel, reproved his challenger, clamorously citing support for his own campaign by all the former chairmen/chairwomen of the New Rochelle School Board.
To the surprise of many, he then offered detail how he, a Democrat, had assisted new retailers and business in general, voting: against intrusive regulation and reporting requirements, and in favor of shopping district enhancements. Shari Rackman, an incumbent denied re-nomination because of Stalinist-era-type deviationism, (departure from the party line) recalled her once-every-four-year possession of a single independent thought in casting a vote against the Echo Bay farrago. She intoned, I won’t take bullying and pressure again supposedly from her Democratic political-machine handlers, the very same group that hoisted her into office in the first place. Well maybe not from that machine again; but has she contemplated what it will be like if she is so fortunate as to endure wrangling by her latest enablers and handlers, the Republican machine-let?
The new face in the passel of candidates belonged to Lisa Fried, a former PTA president, and executive of a multi-national financial institution. Her business background and masters economics degree from Columbia University struck many in the hall. She garnered praise for her commitment to corporate-quality fiscal oversight to a city hall budget process more accustomed to accounting and legal triangulation than plain truth-seeking.
Fried and Fertel’s presentation won kudos for frankness and substantiality, especially within the LWV-dictated confines of the evening (Is there no alternative to the cramped and austere manner of LWV debates? How about opening up the proceedings to inter-candidate exchanges, monitoring their civility and entrusting the city’s own residents to moderate in a reasonable manner? Oh, another time I guess!). Few listeners expected to find economic sensibility and devotion to real business growth from any of the prospects, Republican or Democrat. Fertel and Fried provided the only surprises of the night!
The audience was subjected to the sordid side of local burgher politics when unchallenged incumbents bloviated on their supposed accomplishments; the lack of opposition reinforcing such fantasies only to the information-deprived. The pusillanimity of the Republican fraction and the Democratic automata was thankfully revealed when Al Tarantino, a downtown jobber of inexplicably-priced jewels, could offer not a single utterance persisting in the memory of a single attendee. Another purveyor of hyper-priced jetsam, Ivar Hyden, congratulated himself for the GOP clique’s refusal to oppose him. In the after-event camaraderie, one observer declaimed Good job, Ivar, I’m great at One on Zero too!
In the evening’s main event, incumbent mayor Noam Bramson offered his almanac of New Rochelle’s claimed rebirth. Retirement of debt as well as unprecedented tax receipts. Of course, in a virtual open city of expanding population, in a county, state and country that have been engorged with immigration growth of some 10 per cent in the decade preceding, how could business activity not increase in consequence? Without adjustment for inflation and population change, what could this tendentious exercise prove at all? Still, his mastery of the trappings of office was impressive.
Missing was a legitimate challenger, brimming with rich, new public policy ideas and stressing the malaise of doddering 20-year old designs. After Echo Bay and the ongoing failure to incubate both business activity and youth/displaced adult employment, this would seem to be day to exploit discontent and giving real battle. Conservatives, independents, hapless Republicans and even lifer Democrats have admitted of weariness from the hum of the Machine.
And the confusing saga of EnvisioNR (an abortive 2011 effort in community-based crowd sourcing to create an ersatz Comprehensive Master Plan) and RDRXR (the newest mega-construct, outsourcing the master development process to developers; crony capitalism, or creative masterstroke?) offers titanic opportunities for contrarian business-models.
But Westchester Guardian fans will recall the recent debasement of New Rochelle’s GOP when party conclaves were cleared of limited government/free market party-activism, leaving mainly friends, family and favor-seekers in their wake. A life-long Republican’s bid to self-finance a race refused by party elders; one James O’toole, a regular questioner at council hearings and political emerging as the city’s best hope?
Just a fusillade at sorry employment and economic growth and New Rochelle’s nagging stagnation in sales tax receipts should have dampened Bramson’s gratuitous self-confidence, but none was forthcoming. Sadly, while blessed with compelling earnestness and a fluid voice, O’toole simply lacks the tools. Little cash, virtually no fund raising, no identified treasurer; so, no statistical research, press relations, mailings or chance.
What could have been an emotional head-clearing for the city’s harried taxpayers, fee-payers and mandated-mulch-mavens ended in a circus of self-glorification and excuse making. The Republican subversion of loyal opposition has left New Rochelle voters under-represented, voiceless and choice-less. One may blame vexatious party machinations, the erosion of popular media choices, the instant concerns of bedroom suburbia, even the distractions of baseball playoffs; but the ultimate task remains. For a disenfranchised silent minority (no majority can yet be claimed), how to capitalize on the sorry state of incumbent statesmanship, which continues to ensnare New Rochelle in the economic doldrums of its history?