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Avi Zenilman

Why New York’s Other Races Are More Fun Than the Paladino Trainwreck

By Avi Zenilman
Friday, October 15th, 2010

Dr. Nan Hayworth

Carl Paladino has no shot of beating Andrew Cuomo. He is a staple of both the national cable networks and the local news. There are at least five New York Congressional Democrats running for re-election in swing districts facing an array of Republican challengers trying to harness voter dissatifaction into political change. How many of those races have you seen covered wall-to-wall in the tabloids? (And, no, the guy from Ohio who likes Nazi re-enacting does not count.)

It was always expected that Cuomo’s opponent would politically suffocate under a pile of opposition research, but Paladino’s decision to explode — this week, it was his comments about gays – have obscured the fact that even the non-extreme parts of the American polity are leaning Republican this year. In New York, a generally Democratic state with a limping Republican party apparatus, Paladino’s combusting engine of a campaign has fired up the base but possibly blocked the situation’s progress. Forget Pataki, forget Giuliani; the image of the GOP in this state right now is embodied by a man who has condemned gay marriage and allegedly forwarded lots and lots of porn, some displaying pictures of a kind of relationship that he would consider deeply unnatural.

The hubbub has caused headaches for Republican prospectives. At a debate Wednesday night, a retired opthamologist with a Tea party bent who is taking on Rep. John Hall of District 19 (Westchester County, Rockland County, Orange County), was forced to answer whether she’d accept Paladino’s support. She said yes, as long as he could make sure people would be able to comfortably pursue their personal life. Hall, who was elected in 2006 and is basically tied, was asked a similar question about Charlie Rangel, a man who is barely in the news.

This funny dance, where a crazy-sounding gadfly both distracts from and destroys surging Republican support, is a dynamic to watch: Paladino has joined the likes of Christine O’Donnell in Delaware as a national target for Democrats, whether it’s because they are easy foils that make it seem like disaster is not impending or because they are just compelling bogeymen (and bogeywomen). But maybe it’s time we should turn our eyes away from the trainwreck and focus on the Hall-Hayworth race, or Tim Bishop’s surprising durability in the 1st district on the East End of Long Island , or the fact that Bill Owens is somehow still leading in the 23rd district by five points even though it should be an obvious Republican pickup.

All of these seats are the ones that matter, the type of small races that can swing Congress, change the shape of the healthcare system or the national debt. The arc of those races are the ones to watch for the next 18 days — polls are just snapshots, and nothing is set in stone. Except for the fact that Carl Paladino will probably lose.

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Defining Paladino: Will New York Dems Rely on the Rove Playbook?

By Avi Zenilman
Thursday, September 23rd, 2010
Carl Paladino

Carl Paladino

It’s not good news for Andrew Cuomo that the most recent Quinnipiac poll had him leading Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino by only six points. (Yes, that Paladino is the same “Crazy Carl” who, until his surprising nomination victory, was mostly known for his history of forwarding insane, racially problematic emails. While Cuomo has found himself in a much closer race than he’d like, an examination of the dynamics driving the poll results reveals why Paladino is probably peaking — and, more interestingly, sheds light on why Congressional Democrats might not be as doomed as previously thought.

The conventional wisdom right now is that, while the Cuomo juggernaut is insulated, upstate Congressional Democrats will have a tough time fighting the Republican, anti-incumbent wave. When someone like Paladino, who built his insurgent primary campaign on the backs of Tea Party sympathizers, becomes the nominee and creeps to within striking distance of the Governor’s mansion, it seems like further confirmation that moderates like Rep. Michael Arcuri (D-24) or Rep. Scott Murphy (D-20) should start packing their bags. But a new Siena poll shows Arcuri, whose district includes Utica, up by eight against Richard Hanna, the businessman who he barely defeated two years ago. Another Siena poll shows Murphy, who was 700 votes away from losing the special election that catapulted him into office in 2009, leading his rural distract by 17 points.

Democrats can’t deny the sluggish economy, or hope for affirmation of their performance — they can only lay out that the other guy is terrifying, or unknown, or will make things worse.

What do two overachieving moderate Congressman and one underachieving would-be Governor have in common? Undefined opponents. In each of the polls, the Democrat is a much better known commodity than the Republican. According to Quinnipiac, only 15 percent of likely voters don’t have an opinion of Cuomo, while 31 percent don’t know enough to have a view of Paladino. Arcuri has a similar name advantage: 21 percent don’t have an opinion of him, compared to 44 percent for Hanna. And with Murphy, the advantage is even more striking: only 17 percent have no solid views, while nearly four times as many respondents have no opinion of Colin Gibson, his opponent.

For Cuomo, the advantage is obvious: He has about $30 million dollars, along with endorsements from the likes of Mayor Bloomberg, to sway those who don’t know about every bad thing Paladino has ever done or bcc’d. The other Democrats, tarred and feathered and identified with an unpopular party, are known quantities that still are holding onto a lead. A combination of decent fundraising and some hardball politicking — be prepared for every Republican candidate in the state to be forced to parry questions about whether they support something outrageous that Paladino said — might be enough to hold off the wave.

In 2004, George W. Bush, faced with flagging approval ratings and an electorate angry about a war, kept his grip on the White House by making the election more than just a referendum on his performance; he made it a choice between himself and the shifty Massachusetts senator whose views were consistently called into question. Democrats can’t deny the sluggish economy, or hope for affirmation of their performance — they can only lay out that the other guy is terrifying, or unknown, or will make things worse. (MoveOn now warns, “Stop the Takeover.”) Andrew Cuomo’s courting of former county chairs and old pols like Ed Koch might seem like a weird sop to the establishment in a year when everyone wants to storm the barracks, but it’s also the groundwork for the kind of political dynamic that Karl Rove mastered six years ago. The implicit slogan is simple: more of the same versus terrifying change.

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The Money Trails at Park51

By Avi Zenilman
Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

As the fight over the Cordoba Initiative’s project blocks away from Ground Zero continues to drag into the New York primary season, it’s worth dodging the political footballs flying around and asking the basic question: Will the thing actually get built?

It’s still unclear where the funding for the estimated $100 million community project will come from. Sharif El-Gamal, the 38-year-old developer behind the plan, bought the 17-storey building (which used to hold a Burlington Coat Factory) in July 2009 for less than $5 million (a price that some are now saying was weirdly cheap) from the family that owned the place.

El-Gamal has not sketched out clear programming plans for Park51, nor has he released a design for the community center, nor has he released any feasibility studies. The plan was to raise the first $70 million by selling tax-exempt bonds and the final $30 million through a board filled with local corporate and cultural luminaries. Russell Simmons has already signed on. While the fires of controversy flared up in August when the Park51 spokesman intimated that they’d accept money from Iranian and Saudi sources, it’s been made clear that the project will not accept money from donors with “un-American” values.

But given that local Muslim groups have wondered if the money would be better spent on other projects, and only 35% of New Yorkers actually favor building the center, raising money looks like it will be a constant slog. Anyone, public or private, bank or individual, who finances the project will come under intense scrutiny, especially now that opposition has become a Republican article of faith. It won’t just be a political statement; it will be a political statement with costs in time, money, and investigations.

Tracking the money—a Saudi prince (who is also a major investor in Fox News) helping the Imam who is the de facto spiritual leader of the project, a super-hawkish conservative think tank in D.C. linked to defense contractors that is helping to organize anti-mosque protests — has become the new undercard fight of this political battle, but the amount of money in question is nothing compared to the amount needed to push the project into existence.

The bright glare of interest is bad for any complicated real estate project. Now that opposition for the mosque has become a point of political pride among every Republican candidate in New York (much less the rest of the country), a strange dynamic has taken hold: defenders of the first amendment must articulate their support for the mosque, but it’s hard to see any of them funding it. Like any slow-moving real estate story, the facts on the ground become secondary when they are charred by the white heat of a political campaign. For the time being, the question isn’t who is funding the mosque, but more straight-forward politics: who is funding the Republican political campaigns this fall, and which Democratic donors are making their bets based on support for the mosque?

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Bloomberg’s Worst Enemy

By Avi Zenilman
Monday, August 30th, 2010

State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver

The fight over Park51 has, for the most part, divided along partisan lines. Republicans have almost unanimously lined up against the plan, while most of the plan’s supporters are Democrats. But the endless media scrum doesn’t capture the ideological split at the heart of the mess: ward politics versus technocratic planning, expedience versus idealism, defensive pride versus elite aspiration. In other words, the best way to look at fight over the “Ground Zero Mosque” is to see it as another clash in the worldviews of State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Silver is a career politician, the personification of Albany. He has served in the Assembly since 1976, and his openly parochial concerns have stymied Mayor Bloomberg’s grander designs. The congestion tax, a wonky and high-minded attempt by Bloomberg to use the cutting-edge logic of urban systems to reduce emissions and traffic, was killed by Silver. He drew a line in the sand, framing Bloomberg as an opponent of commuters and a lackey for snobby cosmopolitan hipsters before letting the bill die in the legislature. Mayoral control? He looked askance at that, too, until he realized that Bloomberg, while still an anti-politician, had harnessed economic concerns and anti-teachers’ union sentiment into a viable coalition.

Unlike Paterson, unlike Sarah Palin, Silver controls both pursestrings and votes in Albany, and he still has the strength of a political boss; he can easily make sure that the construction of the center is bogged down by red tape.

Now there’s the mosque. Silver, who lives downtown and represents a district that covers a wide swath of lower Manhattan, is on the side of the grumbling populists. “In the spirit of living with others, they should be cognizant of the feelings of others and try to find a location that doesn’t engender the deep feelings the currently exist about this site,” he said last week, at a press conference with Governor Paterson. “I think the sponsors should take into very serious consideration the kind of turmoil that’s been created and look to compromise.”

The anodyne, incremental suggestions do not resemble Bloomberg’s stirring rhetoric — on Tuesday he called the fight over the cultural center a “test of our commitment to American values” — but that’s besides the point. Unlike Paterson, unlike Sarah Palin, Silver controls both purse strings and votes in Albany, and he still has the strength of a political boss; he can easily make sure that the construction of the center is bogged down by red tape. All politics is local, and it’s now clear that Bloomberg is operating on Silver’s turf.

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The Farce of Charlie Rangel’s Last Hurrah Continues… and Continues

By Avi Zenilman
Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Rep. Charlie Rangel

When Charlie Rangel said he wouldn’t back down from ethics violations charges and calls to step down from his seat in Congress, he really meant it.

At a debate on Monday night with his primary opponents, all of them a couple decades younger than him,  he mocked President Obama for saying that the 20-term Democrat from Harlem should “retire with dignity.”

“Frankly, he has not been around long enough to determine what my dignity is,” Rangel said about the president. “For the next two years, I will be more likely to protect his dignity.”

The fall of a leader may be a tragedy for Harlem, but national (and local) Democrats have reduced Charlie to a footnote — at open, empty war with the president, he does not sound like a threat to any Democrats’ electoral hopes except for his opponents. Despite the pro forma celebration of his birthday a few weeks back — attended by Senator Schumer, Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Paterson — his decision to fight for his political life seems more of a nuisance than an obstacle in the way of national Democratic hopes. (For obstacles, turn to Fox News and wait five minutes or less for the next mention of the words “Ground Zero Mosque.”)

But oh, what a nuisance. His strongest opponent, Adam Clayton Powell IV, has now taken off whatever gloves he was wearing beforehand, last week holding a big press conference on the street named after his father (who was himself an aging congressman stumbling in a fog of corruption when Rangel defeated him in 1971). He was supported by Assemblyman Jose Rivera, and drove home the point that Rangel was too corrupt to do well by Harlem.

However, Powell IV may not be the best man to call for a restoration of dignity, given his drunk driving record and other legal troubles. He’s aware of that problem now. “My mistake was one night of having maybe one too many, if you will, so to speak. His mistake has been a pattern of years and years and years of abuse of disrespect for the laws, of thinking that he’s above it all,” he said at the press conference. It’s a sign of the absurdity of this race that the reformist candidate’s strongest card is the one where he points out that his crime was less problematic.

Powell has added in a wrinkle to his attacks in recent days, saying that Rangel intends to actually step down upon re-election, which would open up the race to a hand-picked heir apparent like Assemblyman Keith Wright. While Rangel dismisses these accusations as crazy-talk, it also is becoming clear that Harlem voters might really need it to be true. Despite what Powell says, the only way they can really have a choice, after all, is if Charlie gives them one.

But he probably won’t. And the slow march until the September 14 continues, sounding like a circus, feeling like a tragedy. The morning after the election, no matter what happens, there is little chance it will feel any different.

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If Ground Zero Was No Longer a Hole in the Ground, Would Anyone Care About a Mosque?

By Avi Zenilman
Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Sally Regenhard at the Landmarks Commission hearing in July.

Depending on where you stand, in both senses of the word, the debate is either about the “Ground Zero Mosque,” or the Islamic cultural center named the Cordoba House slated for development on Park Place. (Yes, it’s not actually at Ground Zero, but the Imam behind the center picked the location, about two blocks away, deliberately.)

When Michael Bloomberg addressed it last week, after a near unanimous Community Board vote approving the plan, he was applauded for straightforwardly demanding religious tolerance, it seemed like a New York development story with strong political undertones. As the days have gone by, as Newsweek puts it on its cover, and as every prospective 2012 Republican presidential candidate — from Minnesota, Alaska, Arkansas, and other outer boroughs — comes out against the building, it has taken on a stranger hue. Everyone who is not a prominent Democratic politician seems to have a formal opinion, including John McCain and the two other Senators who publicly called the location of the building an “insult.”

Democrats in the city have been essentially quiet — the best example is Rep. Anthony Weiner, who sent a letter to Bloomberg that was nearly indecipherable: he praised the speech, but used bureaucratic language to hedge what seemed like support, writing, “I feel strongly that the constitutional protection of religion from the overreach of government means that elected officials should endeavor to stay out of the business of deciding where houses of worship may or may not be.’’ 

The reason the words ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ have so much resonance is because Ground Zero is still a place, a hole in the ground somehow approaching its ninth year of emptiness.

The swirling feuds have led to a whole range of public spokesmen and intellectuals staking positions like votes, like Senators in a new legislative body known as the news cycle. Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (the organization behind the Museum of Tolerance) said it would be too offensive to victims of 9/11 to build the center in the shadow of the twin towers. That, in part, echoed the concerns of the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish civil rights organization. Most Jewish groups did not agree with the ADL’s stance. And Fareed Zakaria disapproved so much that he returned an ADL award he received in 2005. And so on.

The situation, overly fraught to the point of dark comedy, is no longer about New York, and especially not downtown development; it’s about what you think about how America sees itself, or how you can get some attention to your cause. Barely anyone complaining has the ability to do anything — and, according to a recent news report, it’s no guarantee that the center would be able to get the necessary financing.

But this confusing, loud argument strikes a nerve that hits harder than Sarah Palin’s twitter feed: The reason the words “Ground Zero Mosque” have so much resonance is because Ground Zero is still a place, a hole in the ground somehow approaching its ninth year of emptiness. (It’s hard to see people caring about “Freedom Tower Mosque,” even if it was actually located in the building itself.) The hope of a higher principle that could trump parochial interests seems sillier by the day — why would a mosque be able to fix things where the Port Authority couldn’t?

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