2010-07-30 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

The Weiner Machine
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

Writing in the Juniper Park Civic Association monthly magazine this past September, Association president Robert F. Holden offers an eerily familiar description of our Congressman, Brooklyn-based Anthony Weiner. A former aide to one-time Congressman Chuck Schumer, Weiner succeeded to the seat vacated by Schumer when Schumer went on to claim a United States Senate seat. It’s a common practice in this town, where political competition is hard to come by, for staffers to inherit the mantles of their bosses when the bosses move on. Just ask Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer.

She took over for her old boss back in 1987 when former Assemblywoman Gerdi Lipschutz, rocked by a local scandal, had to step down unceremoniously. As with Weiner, Pheffer stepped up and grabbed the boss’ chair and has had an easy time of it ever since. New Yorkers, even those in Rockaway, tend to vote the Democratic line out of long, atavistic habit and people like Weiner and Pheffer benefit from it. Pheffer’s been in her seat for so long that few under the age of fifty can remember anything else.

Of course, it’s always hard to take on an incumbent with all their advantages of visibility, access to the bureaucracy and their ability to spread taxpayer dollars around to local civic groups and community based organizations. Few of these are keen to upset the gravy train and so they routinely support and stump for incumbents. But sometimes even edges like these may not be enough. Now comes Juniper Parks President Robert Holden with a three page indictment of Congressman Weiner. It’s an account of outright deception, omissions and misleading promises. As Holden recounts, Weiner “will do anything that is remotely advantageous for him and everyone else be damned.” Heady stuff coming from a civic organization!

Holden notes that in a number of instances Weiner told them “outright lies” and was nowhere to be found when they needed him. In 2003 the Juniper Parks Civic Association was fighting the Elmhurst Gas Tanks, according to Holden. Congressman Weiner had approached him saying he wanted to get involved with local issues as a way of reaching out to the Juniper Park area which had been recently added to Weiner’s district. The Congressman dropped out of sight shortly afterwards, Holden reports angrily, leaving his civic group to push for a solution on their own. Eventually Holden says Mayor Bloomberg stepped in but, he notes, “When the going got tough, Weiner got up and left.”

There were other problems. A federally funded state highway project, involving the Long Island Expressway through Maspeth and Middle Village, had resulted in increased noise levels because the replacement surfacing was concrete rather than smoother asphalt. Given that the issue involved federal monies and “U.S. guidelines did have a provision that noise must be abated if federal dollars were used,” Holden sought Congressman Weiner’s aid once again.

In any event the Congressman was again missing in action. Holden explains that they eventually sought and gained the assistance of their local politicians to have the state install a sound barrier along the highway and to use “diamond grinding” to resurface the concrete and reduce noise levels by “30%.“ While the barrier eventually went up, thanks to their state level representatives Holden explains, “by 2003, the diamond grinding still had failed to materialize.”

Reaching out to the Congressman’s office, Holden got a call-back from a Weiner staffer informing him that “the state would not do the diamond grinding but that AW (Anthony Weiner) had convinced them to install the sound barriers.”

“That’s when I hit the ceiling,” Holden writes. The sound barrier, of course, was already being installed thanks to the efforts of his own civic association and the state representatives they had reached out to and he advised the staffer that he had informed her of that “a month earlier.” When Holden told this story to other elected officials “the universal answer I got,” he writes ruefully, “was, ‘that’s Anthony Weiner.’ ”

When I read Holden’s account I nearly fell out of my seat. In fact I had a similar story of my own. Back in the late ‘90s when I was Assistant Commissioner for Operations for the New York City Health Department, I had responsibility for managing and maintaining 27 departmental facilities around the city. One of these was a rundown affair in south Brooklyn. Unfortunately, in those days we didn’t have a lot of money in the till and had to stretch our dollars despite years of accumulated neglect. In the case of this building the roof was leaking during heavy rain, causing indoor waterfalls and driving staff from their offices. There was evidence of severe efflorescence and mold on the walls from all the moisture. I made a decision to invest some of our limited funds in that facility in my first year there.

We contracted for a new roof (ultimately we had to add in brickwork along the ramparts, too). Given this substantial investment, we decided to look for some smaller things we could also do to spruce things up inside and at the building’s entrance, including interior repainting, new signage and graffiti removal.

One day I got a phone call from my manager at the site. Weiner’s office, he informed me, had stopped the Department of Sanitation trucks we had requested to clean the graffiti. It turned out that a few years earlier Weiner had allegedly provided funding to a local youth organization for graffiti removal and he didn’t want anyone else doing that job.

The only problem was that no one at the site could remember it ever having been cleaned at all. Through my manager, I advised Weiner’s office to bring their people in within the next three days to do the work or we would proceed as originally planned. In any event, we actually gave them about a week. When nothing happened, I contacted Sanitation and arranged for them to complete the job Weiner’s office had summarily halted. Later, in an effort to be cooperative with them, I suggested to my manager that he assure them we would be willing to share credit if they could secure funding for us to do more at that site. Unfortunately, that was the last we heard from them until a few weeks after all the work was done when my site manager brought me a press release from their office announcing that Weiner had secured the funding we used to refurbish the facility. Like Robert Holden of the Juniper Civic Association today, I hit the proverbial roof.

Holden has other horror stories including Weiner’s prolonged failure on a proposal to address what the civic association president deemed a dangerous pedestrian crossing in his community. According to Holden, the Congressman is now supporting a major capital improvement project he once opposed, the Cross Harbor Tunnel, claiming it will reduce traffic on city streets when the draft environmental impact study suggests the opposite and Weiner, himself, is on public record opposing the project before he was for it. According to a clearly angry Holden, “On September 30, 2004 before 350 members of the Juniper Park Civic Association,” the Congressman publicly stated that, “. . . at the end of the day there should be some proposal to get the trucks off the road. I don’t support this (Cross Harbor) plan.”

Holden’s indictment of the Congressman is alarming but we have seen it all before as voters apathetically return incorrigibly non-responsive and untrustworthy politicians to office — year after year after year. This November is shaping up as a once-in-a-lifetime chance for voters to do something different. This time we can stop the runaway national spending freight train that began in 2009 and of which Congressman Weiner is an integral part. This year, for the first time in many moons, there’s another choice: Bob Turner, a retired television executive from Breezy.

It takes a lot to take on one of these incumbents but Turner, frustrated and angry like so many of us, has decided to do it. Given Weiner’s remarkably slippery track record, Turner, a man without political pretensions or ambitions for higher office, may be just the guy to pull it off. At the least his challenge to a politician who has rarely faced a real opponent, gives us a real opportunity to halt the headlong rush to fiscal oblivion we’re now witnessing in Washington.

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