The Rockaway Irregular
I first got the idea to spend a day with our new City Councilman, Eric Ulrich, over the summer. Hardly the favorite in the recent special election, Ulrich had been one of only two Republicans facing four Democrats with varying degrees of star power. But what works for Democrats sometimes works against them too. That's what happened in the special. Figuring they had a better than 3:1 voter registration advantage, the Democratic candidates concentrated their firepower on one another, knocking two of their number off the ballot and leaving a bad taste in the mouths of many voters. With the other Republican a virtual unknown and Ulrich already a presence in Rockaway, the young Republican leader in the 23rd AD romped to a surprising win as many mainland Democrats broke for him and the remaining Democratic candidates split the peninsula vote.
Special elections are notoriously quirky because of low turnout, short time frames and the lack of party labels. But the problem for Ulrich now is whether he can repeat his convincing win when the Democratic machine has finally gotten its act together. So I'd suggested to the Councilman that I tag along with him for a day to see what his job is like. Now I was there, on a drizzily morning in September driving into the City. "I usually take the train," Eric apologized, "but I figured this would be better because of the rain." I nodded solemnly and kept my own counsel, glad of the convenience of a car and driver - even if the driver was a City Councilman.
I hit him with a few questions on the BQE. "What do you say to all those people who criticize you from the right for supporting Bloomberg?" I knew he had caught a lot of hell for that from many staunch conservatives in the GOP. He glanced away from traffic and caught my eye. "I was elected by the whole district," he said, "and have to look out for all the people living here. The mayor's a competent manager and being allied with him doesn't hurt my ability to take care of my constituents either. I don't agree with the mayor on everything but no one agrees with everyone a hundred percent. Politics is about finding common ground and working with people. That's what I'm trying to do."
"What about the anger of some of the Queens County activists?" I pressed. "I respect everyone," he replied, "but I don't represent any one group. The city needs a strong two party system, but my job is to look out for people in the 32nd Councilmanic district and for New Yorkers generally. I don't get too upset when people criticize me. It comes with the territory. They're doing and saying what they think is right. I am, too."
As we roll into the City Hall parking area, he's already deep in thought, his mind on a bill he's supposed to be voting on that morning. Sitting on the Transportation Committee, he's been considering a bill that would mandate local school bus companies retrofit their vehicles with devices to prevent diesel exhaust from entering the cabs where kids are. The only problem is that the bill requires the bus companies to pay upfront with reimbursement available only if they win the contract. As Eric explains it, some of the companies are small operations and can't afford to take that kind of risk. So he's asked for a fiscal impact statement before casting his vote.
Walking into the hearing room, Ulrich warns there could be fireworks. As I find my seat and the Councilman goes to his place around the horseshoe shaped table, a swarm of people surround him as others come rushing over with papers in hand. Ulrich sits and looks at the documents as the bill's backers stand over him and others pull up chairs nearby to make their points. Straining to hear the conversations, I just can't get close enough with my camera. He's too far away for me to get a good shot or to hear what's going on.
After about twenty minutes there's a lull and the Committee chair takes the roll call, calling on Ulrich last. The young councilman leans toward his mike. While others who had voted insist on making statements for the record, Ulrich doesn't. All eyes in the hearing room are on him. "Yes", he says quietly. An audible sigh passes through the room.
Afterwards he explained it to me. "They'd promised the fiscal impact statement so I could read and assess it before voting, but I'd gotten nothing. When they asked how I was going to vote, I reminded them of their promise so they handed it to me just before the vote. That's not the way to do this. But at the end of the day I had to make a judgment and the numbers looked okay so I voted to pass it through for a floor vote."
After the hearing Ulrich is on the move again. We run into Councilman Peter Vallone in the hallway and they huddle for ten minutes as I wait. Then it's over to Ulrich's downtown office across the street, through still more metal detectors, where he reviews and signs off on several payment authorizations. "I've got a $270,000 budget," he confides, "but it's not as much as it seems. I'm trying to keep costs down which is essential because I've got two offices, one in Ozone Park and one in Rockaway."
"What are you aiming to do while you're in office?" I ask as we literally fly back across the street to City Hall.
"I'd like to give people real representation," he shouts as he sprints across the busy street. "Whatever happens in the upcoming election, I want them to remember that when I was representing them they had someone they could count on."
"What do you think of term limits?" I'm thinking of the residual anger so many voters now feel because Mayor Bloomberg took the lead in overturning them. "For 'em," he answers without missing a beat. "People shouldn't be here forever. This isn't supposed to be a lifetime job. You put in your time representing people and then you move on."
"Are you planning to move on? Maybe move up to some higher position, like being mayor?" I sense an opening here. "I don't think that's in the cards," he laughs. "But truthfully, I don't want to do this forever. I could see myself teaching political science after this. Why not? Who knows more about the political game than someone who's played it?"
"How about your personal life? Isn't that affected?" The Councilman looks straight at me. "Yudira understands that this is my life for now," he says, referring to his fiance, a lovely Dominican gal he met while at St. Francis College. Their wedding's scheduled for this November, after the election. Win or lose, Ulrich figures to be a happy guy.
As we make our way into City Hall and head up the stairs again, he's back on his cell phone. Several folks buttonhole him in the hall for more impromptu conferences. This has been going on since we arrived. When he can break away he stops to call Yudira but can't reach her, leaving a message while checking the computer screen in the City Hall room he shares with the miniscule Republican caucus.
By lunchtime we're heading downstairs to the Council Lounge for sandwiches and Eric consults with a colleague and makes a few phone calls for her. They're soon joined by another Councilwoman and the chief of staff for Council Speaker Christine Quinn who comes by to schmooze several times. I eat my tuna sandwich as unobtrusively as I can while they talk about the upcoming full Council session that afternoon. This is the first time Eric's stopped to eat since we rolled into City Hall.
After a working lunch, Ulrich has a photo shoot for City News. An independent Hispanic reporter jokes that that paper is only read by other politicians. "Politicians talking to themselves," he says as Eric laughs and joins several other "Young Turks" for their photo op. City News is doing a piece on the City Council's youthful upand comers. Outside on the steps again, an exhibition whiffle ball game with Staten Island Little Leaguers is underway. Suddenly everyone's ears and eyes are turning in the same direction. I follow their stares and see the mayor entering the perimeter with his entourage. He looks tan and rested as the center of gravity in front of City Hall shifts his way and someone from the Little League runs over to get him for a photo op. All the politicians on the steps, including Eric, move in a tidal wave of motion to get in the picture, too.
While they're doing the shoot a guy with a yarmulke approaches me. Eric had introduced us a few minutes before. "We have to stay here," he explains as he hands me one of his cards. "They don't let lobbyists inside anymore so we try to talk to them here." That explains a lot, I thought, especially why it's so hectic out there on the open steps and why Eric's been conferring with several groups of people as I watched the ball game. I ask what he thinks of Ulrich. "An up and comer," he smiles broadly. "He brings new blood to this place. He's the kind of change they need around here." By this time I notice Eric speaking with the mayor and hastily excuse myself to grab a photo. The mayor, seeing my camera, stops talking and offers to pose with Eric as I set up to snap but it's been a long day and my camera suddenly punks out. "The lens is closed," the mayor says sourly and when I look I see he's right. The battery's dead. As I fiddle with it, the mayor turns away but he and Eric are still talking and suddenly my camera comes back to life. Without hesitating I raise it and grab a shot, just before it dies again.
"I got it," I tell Eric as the mayor walks away, but he's already talking to someone else. When he finally turns my way he asks, "You ready to go in for that afternoon Council session?" He has a meeting with a constituent group after that, too. "You know what," I say, "I think I'm gonna call it a day." It's only 1:30 p.m. but I'm beat. I don't know how Eric keeps up this kind of pace. "You sure?" he asks. "I thought you wanted to see me in session?"
I nod. "I think I already have," I say.