The man behind the horse-carriage fuss

man-behind-horse-carriage-fuss
A prototype of a horseless carriage proposed by NYCLASS, the organization led by Nislick. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
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As salt water eats away at New York City subways, mold sickens children living in public housing, and record numbers of New Yorkers flood homeless shelters, New York City's political class has been compelled to reckon with a different issue entirely: the fate of the Central Park carriage horses.

The stubborn—and, for some officials, exasperating—prominence of this issue is due in large part to Steve Nislick, the low-profile former real estate executive whose wealth and skillful manipulation of the political process helped get Bill de Blasio elected mayor.

De Blasio, a former political operative who believes in honoring his debts, pledged before he took office to ban the iconic carriages in his first week in office.

The mayor failed to do that, but he has continued to talk about the issue and promise action on it, prompting anger from union groups, editorial boards and Liam Neeson, and causing increasing perplexity and discomfort among the Democrats in the City Council.

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Above all, what de Blasio has done—or what Nislick has done, really—is take an issue affecting some 300 drivers, 200 horses and four horse stables on prime Manhattan real estate, and make it inescapable. 

IT'S THE PART ABOUT THAT LAND, ON THE FAR WEST SIDE, that looks the funniest to people. It's long been the source of innuendo—and more recently an explicit call-out by the editorial board of the New York Timesabout what Nislick's real motives are in trying to put the carriages out of business. 

Nislick, a diminutive 70-year-old, says he gets that. 

“Listen, I think people have a difficult time believing someone like myself would do this for the purpose that I did it,” he told Capital on Thursday, in conference room overlooking Fifth Avenue near Union Square, in his first interview since de Blasio became mayor. “They’re just like, I’m a real estate guy, I’m a business guy in a city that’s driven by money, and so, suspect.”

Still, he contends that's unfair, and says the whole thing—the million-dollar ad campaign Nislick's organization helped fund that sunk the mayoral hopes of then-Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and all the efforts to keep the pressure on since then—really is just about getting horses off the streets. 

“It’s maybe low-down,” said Nislick, but animal rights is “part of a social justice agenda. So whether it’s living wage, affordable housing, or the proper treatment of animals, this country and this city in particular can afford to treat its animals fairly. And it hasn’t. It’s been probably the worst city in the United States for animal welfare.”

Nislick sat for the interview with Wendy Neu, his comrade in the fight against horse carriages, and his employer: Since September, Nislick has worked as chief financial officer for Hugo Neu Corporation, the recycling and industrial real estate company run by Wendy. 

They also run New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets, the organization battling to ban horse-drawn carriages—the one that helped fund the ads against Quinn. Nislick is the president. Neu is on the board. 

“[Animals] experience much the same feelings that we have, whether it’s depression, sadness, fear, anxiety, all those things,” said Neu. “I don’t care whether it’s a dog or cat or a rabbit or a horse or a gorilla. ... It is our responsibility to ensure that they don’t suffer. That’s my biggest goal in life, is I can’t tolerate suffering.”

Together, Nislick and Neu have made their personal belief in the sanctity of animal life an unlikely, and also inescapable, part of New York City politics in the era of de Blasio.

No one but the mayor can say for sure why he's so enthusiastic the issue, but certainly, the anti-carriage group supported his mayoral ambitions at a pivotal time, and he offered backing—in a big way—for their cause. 

"We are going to quickly and aggressively move to make horse carriages no longer a part of the landscape in New York City," he said last December. "They're not humane. They're not appropriate to the year 2014. It's over. So just watch us do it now." 

Early this month, a year after de Blasio promised action, council members who themselves have received donations from Nislick introduced a City Hall-backed bill that aims to do away with the horse carriages. 

But the bill is facing a groundswell of opposition from the horse carriage drivers, their allies in organized labor, and organized labor's political allies. It's also facing opposition from people who don't understand why, in a city full of crippling societal problems, so much political capital is being expended on demolishing the horse-drawn carriage industry. 

“How progressive is it to VOTE union workers out of a job ?” Assemblyman Michael DenDekker wrote recently on his Facebook page. “Maybe WE should VOTE them out of a job in the next election ! UNION workers UNITE and take a stand. Call your NYC Councilmember today and tell them to vote NO.”

The effort has also come under withering criticism from both tabloids and the Times (whose "editorial page editor's brother is a competitive carriage horse driver," noted Politico).

Many councilmembers resent being put in what could rightly be construed as a no-win situation: back the horse-carriage drivers and anger the mayor; back the mayor and anger the unions.

Councilman Ritchie Torres, who like most of his colleagues has yet to take a position on the carriage ban, and who like the overwhelming majority of his colleagues is a Democrat, recently told Capital, of the whole debate, "This is an utter embarrassment. I have so many more important priorities in my district and this is not one of them, so I can't believe we are spending time on this."

De Blasio made his most recent comments on the subject at a press conference last Thursday, after a reporter asked him about the legislation’s repercussions for horse carriage drivers, who the mayor proposes to find new employment driving electric replica antique cars through Central Park (a greensward run by a conservancy that opposes more cars in the park).

“[W]hat I've said from the very beginning of this debate, way back last year, was we believe that, as part of this legislative process, we'll be able to create a new pathway to jobs for these very same people, in work related to horses, and-or related to tourism," said the mayor. "And I want to see these same people have employment opportunity. I want to see them do well. I don't want to see any discontinuity in their income. But I also don't think we should have horse carriages in New York City.”

Nislick and Neu, who said they have conference calls “regularly, not necessarily with the mayor, but with his staff,” are confident de Blasio will stand by them.

“I have a tremendous amount of personal regard for him, as a person” said Nislick. “And when people say, ‘Oh he’s going to back away from this,’ he’s not. It’s just not who he is as a person. People don’t understand him as a person.”

STEVE NISLICK HAS A SLIGHTLY HUNCHED BEARING and a pointy bald head. He was born in Newark, raised in South Orange, and educated at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He trained as a certified public accountant and, after working in that field, joined his first cousin Jerry Gottesman’s parking lot empire.

When he started at Edison Properties in 1973, the family owned 30 parking lots. He helped build the business to more than 200 lots and garages nationwide before retiring as C.E.O. in 2012 (he’s still a consultant to the company).

During his tenure there, Edison Properties also developed Manhattan Mini Storage into the locally ubiquitous concern known for its liberal-sounding subway ads. (“If you store your stuff outside the city, it may come back Republican.”)

He has two daughters and three grandchildren. Assemblyman Micah Kellner, who dropped his bid for re-election this year after being sanctioned for sexually harassing members of his staff, is his nephew.

Nislick owns four horses, and recently broke his arm riding one. To the consternation of his condo board at 25 Central Park West, he and his second wife Linda Marcus have nurtured baby peregrine falcons on their bathroom window ledge.

The Gottesman family, whose Edison Properties is a member of the powerful Real Estate Board of New York, controls one of those big, under-the-radar real estate empires that most people haven’t heard about.

“For people who are in the know in the industry, it’s not hard to discover that their holdings are vast,” said David Schechtman, an executive managing director at Eastern Consolidated, a commercial real estate brokerage.

Nislick was Edison’s C.E.O., and he has a good reputation among people who dealt with him in that capacity.

“He struck me as a good businessman,  smart, focused, I’d say prepared to reach sensible accommodations with others,” said Al Koeppe, who led the Newark Alliance, a coalition of city corporations that facilitated negotiations between Edison, Newark and the Devils, who wanted to build a stadium next to Gottesman-owned land.

In the realm of animal issues and now also business, Wendy Neu is Nislick’s other half. She’s dark-haired and light-eyed with a husky voice. Her mother is from Manchester and her father from India, and she spent her early years in England before the family relocated to Jersey. As an adult, she worked six years as a social worker at maximum security prisons before joining Hugo Neu and marrying the boss.

He died last year.

She has no children, but her interest in animals knows few bounds. She has a 48-feral feline cattery, runs a trap, neuter and release program at a Hugo Neu facility in New Jersey, and a nonprofit that helps senior citizens keep pets. She has four rescue dogs, two of whom accompany her to the office. She has never ridden a horse.

“I have no connection to horses other than the fact that they’re sentient creatures and I care about animals, whether domestic or wildlife or species that are becoming extinct,” she said.

Most of the time she’s vegetarian. Nislick eats meat.

”If you ask me about gestation crates, I go crazy,” said Nislick. “If you ask me why I’m not a vegetarian, I don’t have a good answer, I’m sorry.”

Nislick dates his interest in horses to the ‘80s, when he first started keeping some of his own.  He has occasionally taken part in eventing, which the United States Eventing Association describes as an “equestrian triathlon” involving show-jumping, dressage and endurance riding. A 2012 Time article described eventing as a “sport enjoyed frequently by the wealthy and sometimes even by royalty” and “perhaps the most dangerous sport in the Summer Olympics—to both horse and rider.” 

Ask him when, precisely, he set out to rescue New York City’s carriage horses, and Nislick will say there was no Rosebud moment: He and his wife just really hated having to walk by those sad-looking horses every day.

“It always just bothered me seeing those horses,” said Nislick. “I just knew from my own experience that horses don’t belong in the middle of New York City traffic. They don’t belong working nine hours a day under the conditions that they’re being asked to work, being treated the way they have to be treated if they’re going to live in New York City—small stalls, and the way they shoe them.”

Though neither he nor Neu has visited the stables where the horses are kept, they've seen video and they consider the horses’ lives an ongoing act of animal abuse.

Their notion of what makes an acceptable horse life is fundamentally and philosophically irreconcilable with that of the horse carriage drivers. They disagree on basically all of the subsidiary facts, from whether horses have adequate stall space to the amount of monthly horse turnover, to where the horses end up when they leave the city.

"Personally, I think Nislick and Neu are elitist rich people who have no idea about the real lives of working horses or of working people," said Christina Hansen, a carriage driver and a spokeswoman for the New York City carriage industry. "They have shown absolutely no regard for the carriage drivers in this business. If anything they have been full of contempt for us. We're treated like objects who can just be told what to do, and we won't care because we're not ‘real people’ to them."

Initially, Nislick and his wife got involved in the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages, where they met a volunteer who had this idea for replacing the carriages with electric cars.

“I said well, how hard can this be?” recalled Nislick. “This is, like, a great idea. We’ll simply replace the carriages with the electric car. And that was seven years ago.”

He founded NYCLASS with the support of the ASPCA, the organization that was, at the time (and critics say in very conflicted fashion) also tasked with policing the welfare of horses. The idea was to develop the replacement car and also create an organization that was more politically sophisticated than the typical animal-rights group.

Nislick says he wasn't political at the time. But he found mentors in John Phillips, of the League of Humane Voters, and Jon Kest, the late leader of New York Acorn and New York Communities for Change, and one of the founders of the Working Families Party.

Phillips introduced him to de Blasio when de Blasio was a councilman.

"When I met [Nislick], he wasn't really political," said Phillips. "He just understood, as a horse lover, that having horses pull carriages in traffic was cruel. I was the executive director of the League of Humane Voters. I helped him to understand that what moves an issue is having an organized voting bloc—that it isn't enough to just be right, we've got to deliver the political support friendly candidates need in order to win."

Initially, de Blasio “did not support the horse carriage ban,” said Nislick. “He was a union guy. We sat here, I can’t tell you how many times, trying to convince him that this was the right thing to do.”

Nislick helped fund de Blasio's public advocate campaign. And at some point, amid what the Daily News referred to as the "stream of campaign checks from the anti-carriage crowd," de Blasio came around.

“It was funny, we would have these rallies at City Hall,” said Nislick. “Twenty-five people would show up and Bill de Blasio. He has a very strong moral compass.”

“I agree,” said Neu.

Along with Nislick’s and Neu’s direct contributions to de Blasio’s campaign, both they and NYCLASS funded a PAC called New York City is Not for Sale, which, in turn, underwrote ads attacking Christine Quinn, who defends the carriage drivers, and who was at the time considered to be the Democratic front-runner.

The Advance Group, the political consultancy that coordinated NYCLASS’s independent expenditures against Christine Quinn and on behalf of some Council candidates, was also helping run the campaigns of those candidates. NYCLASS has since cut ties with the Advance Group, and the two parties are now accusing each other of wrongdoing. (The Advance Group is, however, still working for Edison.)

Last week, on the same day as the Capital interview with Nislick, NYCLASS agreed to pay a large fine for violating city campaign finance law.

In a follow-up interview, Nislick was asked whether he felt NYCLASS had conducted its campaign finance operations correctly.

"The Advance Group was our agent and they were responsible for all those filings and our contract was clear that they were supposed to do all filings that were necessary to meet all government regulations,” he said.

De Blasio’s involvement with NYCLASS has also not escaped notice. A labor union that was once run by his cousin John Wilhelm donated $175,000 to NYCLASS during the campaign. NYCLASS, in turn, donated the money to the anti-Quinn campaign.

The Daily News, which has been conducting an aggressive pro-carriage campaign, has reported that the F.B.I. is looking into the mayor's pledge to ban horse carriages. Nislick said the F.B.I. has "never" reached out to him.

Nislick said de Blasio played an intrinsic role in the anti-horse carriage effort in other ways. It was he who convinced Nislick to move forward with developing a prototype for the electric replica antique car that they hope will replace the horse carriages.

“He said, ‘Just build the car,’” said Nislick. “Once you build the car, people will see it. They’ll be enthralled by it. And I believe he will ultimately be proven right, because the people that have seen the car, that have been in the car, they love the car."

In Nislick’s ideal world, one that closely resembles de Blasio's, the city would ban the horse-drawn carriages and then give the people who own the 68 horse carriage medallions the replica antique car medallions instead. The city's horse carriage drivers would get licenses to drive green borough taxis.

He, Neu, and their allies in the animal rights world would underwrite the care of the roughly 200 horses who would have to be “re-homed.”

“There’s no question in my mind that driving the electric car around Central Park is a far more successful business, a safer business,” said Nislick.

Contrary to earlier statements, they are open to some sort of indeterminate compromise.

“Whatever compromise the mayor will agree to, we would be happy with,” said Nislick. “We trust him.”

Nislick and Neu seems eager for the horse fight to end, so that they can focus on other causes, like a bill they're backing that would make it harder to buy puppy mill dogs in New York City, and the effort to open full-service animal shelters in the Queens and the Bronx, which don't already have them.

They’re animal people, after all.

“I hope after just spending some time with us, that you can see the sincerity and the authenticity that’s here, and that we’re not going to stop with just this issue either,” said Neu.

The mayor's press office did not respond to requests for comment.