10:29 am Oct. 3, 2011
When considering the Democrats likely to be running for mayor in 2013, it's remarkably easy to forget about Scott Stringer.
Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, is a short, doughy, 51-year-old with the affect of a hall monitor. The position he now occupies, through no fault of his own, is something of a citywide joke, and for what it's worth at this early stage, he barely registers in the polls. (A recent survey from NY1 and Marist College puts him second to last among likely mayoral candidates, just ahead of Manhattan Media president Tom Allon, and 14 percentage points behind establishment favorite Christine Quinn.)
Still, there are actual, credible political people who will tell you that it's foolish to count Scott Stringer out, including, of course, Scott Stringer himself.
“Well, I haven’t announced what I’m going to run for in 2013,” said Stringer, during a recent interview in his 1 Centre Street borough-president aerie high above Manhattan, before launching into a disquisition on the unreliability of front-runner status.
“Why is it always the front-runners who never end up winning, and then it’s the person that everyone didn’t take a close look at who ends up winning, and then all of the insiders, and intellegentsia folks, say, 'Whoa, that was the greatest upset,' right?" he said, in a slightly nasal, mocking voice. “So let’s look at recent history. Schumer versus Ferraro versus Green. Schumer becomes the United States senator. Back then, people dismissed him. I’m doing better in the dismissal category than he was back then.”
Stringer, who has brown eyes, a cleft chin and a semi-permanent smirk, went on to cite another example, and probably had dozens more at the ready, given the encyclopedic grasp of local politics to be expected from someone whose embrace of the subject matter has been lifelong and complete.
STRINGER ENTERED POLITICS AROUND THE TIME he entered puberty, volunteering for his cousin Bella Abzug's congressional campaign when he was 12. He’s the son of Arlene Stringer-Cuevas, a former city councilwoman and Ronald Stringer, who was counsel to Abe Beame.
In 1977, when he was 16 and still living in Washington Heights, Stringer made the front page of the New York Times in an article entitled, “Sutton Names Two Teen-agers to Community Planning Boards,” referring to then-borough president Percy Sutton.
“Scott, a senior at John F. Kennedy High School, didn’t get home until nearly 6 p.m. yesterday because he was busy working on the school newspaper, of which he is editor,” reported the Times. “'My board could be supportive of after-school programs and at least get a committee going—go into schools and organize activities like escort service for old people, cleaning up the parks and all sorts of things," said the fledgling politician.
In 1981, he moved to the Upper West Side, which would become the base for all of his future political endeavors. In 1985, while finishing his degree at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Stringer managed then-assemblyman Jerry Nadler’s run for borough president against David Dinkins. After the loss, he stayed on with Nadler, working as his district coordinator while also volunteering as leader of the Mitchell-Lama Residents Coalition, which sought to preserve affordable housing right around the time Mitchell-Lama properties began aging out of the program.
By 1989, at age 29, Stringer had decided it was time to emerge as a political principal in his own right, and he he threw his hat into the crowded ring to succeed Ruth Messinger on the City Council. He finished a distant second to Ronnie Eldridge.
He did not give up. A few years later, Congressman Ted Weiss died, Nadler got to run for the seat, and Stringer, as these things go, was selected by the Democrats to fill Nadler’s Assembly seat.
The selection process was a backroom deal, quite literally. The county leaders gathered on a Sunday in October to vote. At first, the results seemed to indicate labor leader William Nuchow was the winner. Stringer and his supporters, disconsolate, repaired to Uptown Local, a bar Stringer co-owned. In an article from the time, Newsday reporter Gail Collins described it as “an interesting combination of nightspot and barbecued chicken takeout counter.” Reviewing the tallies, Stringer and his allies discovered an error and convinced the chairman to declare Stringer the winner instead.
“It is very probable that Stringer did indeed come up with a better count,” wrote Collins. “But to reverse the election in a bar? At 11 o'clock at night? Once again, we are confronted with one of the classic political questions: What in God's name were they thinking of?”
"Not the neatest process in the world," Marty Connor, then a state senator and Stringer’s election lawyer, acknowledged to Collins.
The dispute, naturally, ended up in court. Stringer emerged victorious and became an assemblyman, succeeding his mentor Jerry Nadler on the Upper West Side.
Stringer was only 32. He was as energetic then as he is now, throwing himself into progressive, reformist measures, quotidian NIMBY issues, and the odd animal-rights controversy. He sponsored legislation to strengthen protections for victims of domestic violence. In the early spring of 1995, with the temperature dipping into the 20s, he spent the night with other progressive legislators at “Camp Patakiville” behind the Capitol to protest Pataki-era budget cuts that would unduly target the poor. He sought a tightening of anti-stalking laws, and helped increase restrictions on so-called canned hunting, in which customers pay to kill animals trapped in small enclosures. He also spearheaded a successful push to eliminate “empty-seat” voting, by which the assembly speaker was allowed to record automatic “yes” votes for members if they failed to show up for roll call.
And of course he handled the countless picayune issues that cross the desk of your average local elected official, like complaints about idling buses and public urination at Dallas BBQ, overly stringent leash-law enforcement and illegal commercial traffic on West End Avenue.
Stringer ran for public advocate in 2001. The field was crowded. Councilmembers Steve DiBrienza and Kathryn Freed were in the race, as were former Parks Department commissioner Betsy Gotbaum, Bronx salsa musician Willie Colon and the former New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Norman Siegel.
Siegel, a childhood friend of DreamWorks SKG co-founder David Geffen, got a lot of Hollywood support in the race, in a manner not dissimilar from Stringer’s present-day courting of the Hollywood vote. (This week, Scarlett Johansson, whose brother worked for Stringer as a community liaison, hosts a fund-raiser for Stringer at the Plaza Hotel residences, with an afterparty at The Jane. Tickets for the former range from $2,500 to $10,000.) But ultimately, Siegel couldn't overcome Gotbaum's establishment support.
Stringer finished at the bottom of the pack.
Nothing if not determined, Stringer made yet another run for higher office in 2005, setting his sites on the Manhattan borough presidency, a launching pad for mayors like David Dinkins and Robert Wagner. Again, the field was packed. This time, however, conditions worked in Stringer’s favor.
The candidates divided up the city, voting bloc by voting bloc: there were two black candidates, three Hispanic candidates, two gay candidates, and four white candidates. (These categories are not mutually exclusive).
The Times gave Stringer a ringing endorsement, lauding his “sterling reputation as a catalyst for reform.”
His main opponent for the seat, Moskowitz, a staunch opponent of the teacher’s union, won the endorsements of the tabloids. The race was hard-fought and bitter. Moskowitz even filed a complaint with the Board of Elections, in which she faulted Stringer for failing to report in-kind contributions from the Working Families Party in the form of phone calls and mailings on his behalf. Stringer said the expenditures were not coordinated with his campaign. The Times, notwithstanding its earlier endorsement, editorialized against the practice, writing, “This page endorsed Mr. Stringer in the borough president's race. But he should have been able to win without the Working Families Party's large thumb on the electoral scales.”
The complaint was later dismissed. Stringer’s Jewish Upper West Side base carried the day, helping him win 26 percent of the vote, to Moskowitz’s 17 percent. He gave his inaugural address at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Just a few months later, the New York Post spotted the new borough president “convincing a meter maid to stop writing a ticket for his illegally parked city car outside Zabar's on the Upper West Side . . ."
ON A RECENT THURSDAY, SCOTT STRINGER JOINED Mayor Michael Bloomberg for a press conference announcing an amnesty for young library users who neglected to return their books on time.
At the appointed time, Stringer, in his standard uniform of dark suit, conservative tie and rimless glasses, took the podium.
“I just want to channel Chris Christie for a second and tell all of our 100,000 young readers who have those fines, get back into the library, enjoy this wonderful opportunity,” said Stringer, in a gently nudging, distinctly non-Christie fashion. “You won’t be fined, but you will actually have an opportunity to uplift your lives and learn in the greatest city on earth, and in your local community, and I think that’s very important.
“First of all I just want to say, Scott, that was the worst Chris Christie impersonation I have ever seen,” said Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, during his turn at the lectern, a minute later.
Stringer is undoubtedly no Chris Christie, and Stringer's office, unlike the New Jersey governor's, is nearly powerless.
It was not always thus.
The office of the borough president dates back to 1898, and the consolidation of five boroughs into New York City. The borough presidencies had power because they had votes on the Board of Estimate, which oversaw the city’s budget and land-use. In 1989, the Supreme Court declared the Board of Estimate unconstitutional, because it violated the one-person one-vote rule by giving New York’s least-populous borough, Staten Island, as much power as its most populous borough, Brooklyn. In 1990, the city abolished the board, and the power once belonging to the borough presidents evaporated along with it.
Walk past the gold-painted grillwork framing the door of the Manhattan borough president’s offices and into the waiting area, and you will find photos of all 26 people to have held the post, hanging above black leather couches: August W. Peters, the first borough president; Stanley Isaacs (1938-1941); Percy Sutton (1966-77); Ruth Messinger (1990 to 1997); and Scott Stringer (2006-).
“Whatever your charter-mandated responsibilities, you take water from a rock and you make sure that you take advantage of all of that opportunity,” said Stringer.
The day after the library event, Stringer sat at the head of the conference table in his spacious office on the Municipal Building’s 19th floor. He was wearing a pinstriped suit. His cheeks were rosy. Outside, 1 World Trade Center pierced the fog.
His charter-mandated responsibilities are few, and he has, as he suggests, attempted to make the most of them.
He gets a vote on the Franchise Concession Review Committee, which gave Stringer leverage in his opposition to the Parks Department’s plan to let private schools get prime playing hours on Randalls Island, in exchange for underwriting much of the construction of new ball fields there.
His appointee to a powerless position on the mayor-controlled Board of Education has attracted an outsize amount of attention by doing his best to open up, and slow down, what is ultimately a rubber-stamp process of the administration's charter-school-friendly policies.