Mocked, resented, and now dead: De Blasio’s horse debacle makes history
Capping one of the more bewildering political debacles in recent New York memory, Mayor Bill de Blasio's third State of the City speech was overshadowed — before he so much as delivered a word of it — by the implosion of his widely mocked, ill-supported deal to get horse carriages off New York City streets.
It was a proposal in which the mayor invested an extraordinary amount of political capital. The result has alienated, in no particular order, park advocates, council members, union leaders, community boards, real estate interests, pedicab drivers, political donors, and, ultimately, animal-rights activists.
This is occurring just weeks before the City Council will consider his actually consequential push to allow more density in New York City, a proposal that is integral to his affordable housing plan — perhaps the centerpiece of his mayoral agenda — and which the council members will only approve if they are willing to defy blowback in their districts.
The horse carriage compromise would have severely restricted the size of the industry, keeping what remained of the carriage horses in Central Park while banning pedicabs from the park's southern precincts.
The labor-friendly de Blasio administration has sought to pin the deal's demise on the Teamsters union which, on behalf of the horse carriage drivers, agreed to the compromise with the City Council and the administration in December.
But the mayor will have a hard time making that stick. He has chosen to own the issue, and will own the blame for the lack of a resolution, unless some small share is also apportioned to his hand-picked City Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito. Despite her confounding protestations to the contrary, she controls Council scheduling, and could have scheduled the horse carriage vote for a more propitious week than this one. (Which is to say almost any other week.)
“The mayor had made this an issue,” said George Arzt, who has covered City Hall, worked for City Hall, or dealt with City Hall on behalf of clients since the Lindsay administration.
“I can’t recall anyone getting so hooked on such an infinitesimal issue as this,” he said. “No one in the electorate cared about this issue.”
This is one of the worst political debacles “maybe in all-time memory,” said Bill Cunningham, who was Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s communications director.
The thing that makes this particular debacle so unusual isn't that the stakes were high, but that they were so very low. All mayors lose big battles, but here was the spectacle of a mayor taking a high-profile stand on a matter of importance primarily to one of his donors, and then refusing, in defiance of his critics, allies and all political common sense, to let it go.
“They're not humane,” he said in 2013, before he took office. “They're not appropriate to the year 2014. It's over. So just watch us do it now.”
And so he tried, with the staunch backing of New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets — an organization bankrolled by a wealthy real estate executive that helped knock his rival Christine Quinn out of the mayoral race.
“It always just bothered me seeing those horses,” said the executive, Steve Nislick, in an interview in 2014 about his motivations and what he wanted from the man he helped elect. “I just knew from my own experience that horses don’t belong in the middle of New York City traffic.”
Ultimately, Nislick and de Blasio settled for a compromise. The horse carriage industry would be drastically reduced and housed inside Central Park. The city would pay some $25 million to repurpose an old building for the cause. Pedicab operators would be banished from the tourist-heavy southern portion of the park. The city announced that a deal had been reached.
Then it began to fall apart. The Central Park Conservancy and surrounding community boards panned it. The editorial boards reacted with horror. The Transport Workers Union organized the pedicab drivers and promised a lawsuit. The Teamsters, who represent the drivers, agreed to support the deal, until they didn't.
The truth is that the deal was imperiled from the outset, since so few people bought into the premise: that de Blasio was taking a principled stand on how New Yorkers treat animals, rather than forcing an entire city to live through an entirely discretionary drama in the service of settling a political debt.
In a recent interview, Peter Singer, the Princeton bioethicist who, arguably, founded the modern-day animal rights movement, described the horse carriage issue as a relatively trivial one.
"I'd prefer to see carriage horses abolished from the city, but compared to the suffering Americans, including New Yorkers, inflict on billions of animals each year by paying people to confine them in factory farms and then transport and slaughter them, this isn't a big issue,” he said.
Council members, likewise, have had a hard time seeing the point.
"This is an utter embarrassment," Ritchie Torres, a Bronx Democrat, said back in December 2014, during an earlier iteration of de Blasio’s bid to ban horse carriages. "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."
The mayor appears to have applied all the leverage he had at his disposal: It is probably not coincidental that the Council's vote on the horse deal was scheduled right around the time of a vote on Council pay raises — which the mayor is technically empowered to veto.
Now, the raise vote will proceed, even as the horse vote won't.
“Hopefully this is the end of this issue,” said Councilman Rory Lancman, a Democrat from Queens. “The public doesn’t care, the members don’t care, the carriage horses don’t care.”
But City Hall insists the fight is not over.
“The mayor has been clear since the time he was a public advocate that this is something he believes in,” said de Blasio spokesman Wiley Norvell. “When we say we will do things, we do them. We don’t leave things on the cutting room floor. That’s how it works."
De Blasio himself, speaking to a throng of reporters outside City Hall shortly after news broke of the deal's demise, said, "Obviously we are disappointed that the vote won’t happen tomorrow, but we are going to find a way forward."
--additional reporting by Gloria Pazmino