Adolfo Carrion opposes 'party dogma' on wage mandates (and Cuomo's convention center)
Adolfo Carrion, the former White House director of urban affairs who spent eight years as Bronx borough president and four years in the City Council, has had a lot of time to think about New York City. The million dollars he has sitting in a campaign account, presumably, will have Democrats around New York eager to listen to him.
It's not clear which office Carrion will ultimately seek and it's not clear Carrion himself knows. Congressional lines aren't finalized and embattled city comptroller John Liu is moving ahead with plans to vacate the office in order to run for mayor. As for Carrion, who declared he wanted to be city comptroller in 2009, before getting a job in Washington, the future is wide open.
This morning, he attended the State of the Borough speech by his predecessor, Ruben Diaz Jr., who he says is "doing a good job."
In Diaz's short tenure, he has raised his profile by opposing one initiative—the opening of retail stores at the Kingsbridge Armory, because the publicly subsidized project isn't guaranteeing high enough wages to employees—and supporting another, a multi-million-dollar tax break from the city and state to help FreshDirect relocate to the Bronx from Queens. The company said they were considering moving to New Jersey.
When I asked Carrion about these and other projects, he said he'd prefer to look at each deal separately, and not through an ideological lens.
"I refuse to be locked into party dogma, life is too short," he said, sipping coffee and picking at a piece of pound cake at a Starbucks near Battery Park City.
He was wearing a black sweater underneath his suit jacket. No tie, naturally.
"When I left the borough presidency, the project was ready to go," Carrion said, speaking about Kingsbridge. "And my successor, who I think is doing a good job representing the Bronx, decided that this was an important issue, that he should try to carve out a deal for the workers. The problem with that was always that there is no precedent that I know of, of national retailers carving out special wages for markets around the country."
Carrion, who is an urban planner by training, said it's not realistic to demand retail stores pay workers salaries that enable them to lead their household.
"I think what they do generally is they pay a rate that is whatever the market will absorb and with the understanding that retail jobs go to relatively young people, semi-retired people, students; that they are not really career positions," said Carrion. "You don't grow up in Kingsbridge and aspire to be a retail worker at, you know, Modell's. You just, you know, you don't."
He said, "You do it as a way to complement your family's income as a participant in that household, as a student, as a young person, or because you're transitioning out of a difficult situation. Temporary, in a bigger sense of the word."
But Carrion said he agreed overall with the idea of paying workers "a better wage, especially if a project receives public subsidies."
On the Fresh Direct relocation, which included $128 million in tax breaks, Carrion said he was glad whenever a New York-based company remains a New York-based company, but that "it shouldn't be so costly for us to do that."
"Look," he said, "every time you strike a deal it's in a different economic and political environment. In the sense of an economic environment, if you struck a deal in the last two years in this town, it's very different from the boom years of just a few years ago. You didn't have to be so generous and try to lure businesses here. The details of a Fresh Direct deal, that type of deal is always very complicated."
He was less cautious when evaluating Governor Andrew Cuomo's plans to open the county's biggest convention center in Queens and replace raze the Javits Center in Manhattan.
"Right now, I'm skeptical about the convention center in Aqueduct, racetrack or whatever that area is called," he said.
He echoed Charles Bagli's story in the Times, which reported overall skepticism in the convention indiustry about the plausibility of the project.
"Either we're going to have a lot of fancy vans shuttling back and forth from the convention center to the central business district or conventioneers are not going to choose this location," he said. "The host community, in order to accommodate a convention center, will have to lay down some infrastructure, some pipes and wires. That doesn't come cheap. I know because we did it around Yankee Stadium. I doesn't come cheap, you know?"
Carrion complained about the lack of diversity in the state Democratic Party, and he raised the possibility that a new congressional district may be drawn in the Bronx, with a significant number of Latino voters in it.
I asked if he'd run for that seat if it meant running against another Latino congressman already in office there, Rep. Jose Serrano.
Carrion was silent for a few seconds before saying that Serrano "has been a tireless advocate for his district for a long time. I have great respect for him. The idea of running against Jose Serrano doesn't even register. He is a friend."
Then he said, "This is business not friendship. I think people forget that sometimes. At the end of the day, if you're not producing for the people that hired you, there should be some competition associated with that office. But that's not, that's not even on the radar for me."