Observer: Top of the Heap—New York’s Political Winners of 2016
Two New Yorkers running for president (three if you count Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders)—what could be better?
Well, just about anything, it turns.
The ball dropped Sunday on an uncertain and despondent city, fearful for the future. Will our native-born billionaire president-elect follow through on vows to sap sanctuary cities like this one of federal funding? Will he set in motion a global trade war? Or, you know, an actual war? Will he at least get Congress to pick up the tab for the NYPD security around his family and properties?
Last week, we gave a glimpse of those New Yorkers who entered 2017 more broken up than Mariah Carey.
But what about those who got to pop their champagne bottles early? Read on.
1. James O’Neill
There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Homer tries to get himself out of an escalating series of crises by explaining “it’s my first day.”
On James O’Neill’s first day as commissioner of the country’s largest police department, a bomb went off in Manhattan while the president of the United States was in town. The newly-minted top cop was not a nationally-known quasi-celebrity crime fighter or terrorism-crusher like his two immediate predecessors. He was a Flatbush, Brooklyn native who had spent more than three decades rising through the ranks first of the old Transit Police, then of the NYPD.
It was in the former role that he forged a bond with Mr. Bratton during the 1980s. O’Neill’s ascent slowed during the 2000s, but Bratton promoted him to Chief of Patrol in June 2014—then Chief of Department just four months later, after the resignation of Phillip Banks. When Bratton revealed his plans to depart the department in August of this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced O’Neill would fill his role.
Working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and New Jersey authorities, NYPD identified the bomber as Ahmad Khan Rahami. After a brief, desperate manhunt, Rahami was in custody, and calm restored to the city.
If the administration’s grand plans prove successful, that may prove just a footnote in the ledger of O’Neill’s accomplishments. Even before reaching his current perch, O’Neill was charged with designing and implementing de Blasio’s “neighborhood policing” program, aimed at healing the rifts between the department and many nonwhite communities.
Just a month after the Chelsea bombing, an NYPD sergeant fatally shot a mentally unstable baseball bat-wielding grandmother in the Bronx. The commissioner’s response was jarring in its candor.
“What is clear in this once instance, we failed,” O’Neill said. “We do have policies and procedures for handling emotionally disturbed people and it looks like some of those procedures weren’t followed.”
This comment predictably outraged the Sergeants Benevolent Association, but it’s unclear that anger permeated the rank and file that O’Neill came up from.
Bratton was immensely popular among officers even during his boss’s darkest days. But his abrasive persona and tough reputation alienated reform-minded members of the City Council and the activist class. Many of those same people, including Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams and Bronx Councilman Ritchie Torres, greeted O’Neill’s promotion optimistically, and praised his record of cooperation and diplomacy.
If O’Neill can enact his agenda with success, and while appeasing cops and advocates alike —and while keeping crime rates down—he will have succeeded where his predecessors never could.
The new commissioner has one other item on the agenda, and it’s a doozy: he’ll inevitably have to make a pilgrimage to D.C. to beg Congress to reimburse his department for its work shielding Donald Trump and his properties. But while plenty of Republicans revile New York City, respect for the NYPD is common to both sides of the aisle, and with a little Irish luck O’Neill will leverage that to his advantage.
2. Preet Bharara
None of the U.S. Attorney’s victims this year matched the scalps he collected in 2015: those of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. But he took out Norman Seabrook, president of the powerful city correction officers’ union, a handful of top NYPD brass and a top de Blasio money man, and a raft of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s most important aides and campaign donors.
On top of that, thanks to some finangling by his old boss Sen. Charles Schumer, Bharara will get to keep his post in the Trump administration—an almost unheard of triumph, since presidents usually like to have their personally picked prosecutors in the powerful Southern District Office. This will let the ambitious anti-corruption crusader to continue to target big game, with the mayor and his top political aides now in his sights. It’s unlikely he’s done taking shots at the governor, either.
Bharara is clearly positioning himself for a higher post. Under the Obama administration, he was known to covet the office of U.S. Attorney General. That honor eluded him. With two well-cemented U.S. Senators in New York and a Republican regime in Washington, all that appears to remain for him is the top job in Albany—meaning he will have to evict its current occupant somehow.
3. Eric Schneiderman
The state attorney general is the epitome of an activist prosecutor, and courts press attention at every opportunity. Some of his suits have failed, and his recent attempt to indict oil giant ExxonMobil for defrauding investors about the prospects of climate change appears to have run into a reef. But he has enjoyed tremendous success over the last several years wringing big banks for massive settlements over their role in the 2008 financial crisis, thanks in part to President Barack Obama, who appointed him chair of a national task force probing the mortgage industry.
Yet Schneiderman has languished in relative obscurity compared to his predecessors, Eliot Spitzer and Cuomo, lacking both Spitzer’s steamroller persona and Cuomo’s bankable name. And Schneiderman clearly longs to follow them into the governor’s mansion.
But Trump’s improbable ascent to the White House has offered Schneiderman a chance at some of the recognition he craves. He led a multi-state case against the dubious Trump University real estate seminar, and helped secure a $25 million settlement from the president-elect—$1 million of it going straight to the State of New York. His ongoing probe of the president-elect’s personal foundation, its unlicensed fundraising and its questionable expenditures, could reap even more headlines in the months to come. Already it appears the A.G. will try to block Trump from shutting down the sketchy charity, which could turn into a legal showdown with national repercussions.
Schneiderman has also joined Bharara in indicting Alain Kaloyeros, the former State University of New York Polytechnic Institute president and point man for Cuomo’s flagship economic development programs. Kaloyeros stands accused of rigging multiple contracts so that only donors to Cuomo’s campaign could qualify.
A successful conviction could open up a path to the governor’s office for an ambitious prosecutor—but there’s only room for one. Hungry as Schneiderman is, he’s shied away from going after Cuomo directly, even though the governor has repeatedly flouted and embarrassed him during their shared six years in statewide office (Cuomo also favored Schneiderman’s 2010 primary rival, then-Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice).
Bharara, on the other hand, has shown he’s willing and eager to bite down hard, promising “gory detail” on the corruption at the heart of the governor’s signature initiatives. If the Silver and Skelos cases are any indication, the trials of Kaloyeros and indicted Cuomo confidante Joseph Percoco are bound to be ugly and humiliating affairs, deeply compromising to Cuomo. Schneiderman will have to develop a taste for the governor’s blood, or the U.S. Attorney alone will feast on the spoils.
4. Wall Street
You know you’re a real winner when you bet on the wrong horse and still get to take the pot. The Masters of the Universe put their money—literally—on Hillary Clinton capturing the presidency, in one of their finest predictions since forecasting that the housing market would continue to expand indefinitely.
Goldman Sachs forbade its employees from donating to Trump. Citi warned immediately ahead of the election that a devastating global economic crash would ensue should the Queens-born businessman triumph—though the company gave him only a one-in-three chance of winning.
Both banks had hosted the former first lady for a few of her infamous speeches, as did JPMorgan Chase, and their money-handlers flooded her campaign coffers. This, of course, became fodder for both Sanders and Trump, who depicted her as a pawn of a vast financial conspiracy. The Republican nominee even included an image of Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein in a late ad assailing the “global power structure.”
Yet doomsday came and went without Citi’s predicted crash. Quite the opposite—the Dow is close to smashing through the 20,000 point barrier, riding a wave of trader euphoria over Trump’s imminent trashing of the post-crash Dodd-Frank regulations.
Trump placed JPMorgan Chase CEO James Dimon (a longtime Clinton donor) on his “Strategic and Policy Forum,” and reportedly offered him the job of Secretary of the Treasury. Dimon turned him down, and that role instead went to Steven Mnuchin, a Goldman Sachs alum.
Moral of the story: win or lose, these guys get paid.
5. Jeffrey Klein
Since 2012, the leader of the State Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference has enjoyed some kind of coalition agreement with the State Senate Republicans, granting him many of the perquisites of power his former colleagues in the mainline Democratic caucus once sought to deny him. Shortly after New Year’s Day, he revealed he would collaborate with them again.
That decision was coming for weeks, even months. Klein peeled two seats away from the larger Democratic deputation—those of Brooklyn State Senator Jesse Hamilton and freshly elected Upper Manhattan State Senator Marisol Alcantara—ahead of Election Day, finally adding some members of color to the previously snow-white IDC and swelling their ranks to seven.
Alcantara in particular is a valuable pick-up, given her ties to the Rev. Al Sharpton and new Congressman Adriano Espaillat.
With a GOP majority so fragile a well-timed sneeze could blow it apart (another defecting Democrat, Brooklyn State Senator Simcha Felder, gives the Republicans just a one-seat advantage), the IDC can provide the votes necessary for a quorum if somebody falls ill, leaves the chamber or gets arrested. The splinter faction also has more money in its campaign fund than the other Democratic delegation, and Klein one of the few people left in Albany with an amicable relationship with the governor.
But by absorbing Hamilton and Alcantara, Klein has taken something of a risk. The other IDC members hailed from districts with a decent Republican population, or at least some conservative inclinations, where relatively few would see propping up a GOP leadership structure as an outrage or apostasy.
The two new members represent fiercely blue areas, where many might frown on empowering Republicans. And so Klein will have to extract some liberal concessions from the GOP on their behalf. Majority Leader John Flanagan is probably receptive to this, but his moderate Long Island delegation makes up a shrinking share of the Republican conference, relative to hard-right upstate members.
6. Staten Island Republicans
Since the election there’s been a lot of jawing in Manhattan cable news studios about Trump’s surprising performance in once solid-blue counties of the old industrial Midwest, and plenty of fretting about how “coastal elites” have lost touch with the American core. But if any of these hand-wringing coastal elites bothered to take a short boat ride, they’d find themselves in a county with a five-to-three Democratic enrollment advantage that Trump won with nearly 60 percent of the vote.
Staten Islanders broke for Obama in 2012 and Cuomo in 2014. But in 2016, they favored the candidate who shared their accent and worldview. Trump showed up at the local GOP’s Lincoln Day Brunch two days before the New York primary April, and subsequently carried Richmond County by his bigliest margin in the whole state.
South Shore Councilman Joseph Borelli became one of the braggadocious developer’s earliest and most ardent supporters, and made multiple TV appearances as a surrogate. It was Staten Islanders who booed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz the loudest when he refused to endorse Trump in his speech at the GOP convention in July.
But Borelli and party chairman John Antoniello weren’t the only Republicans who scored points last year.
Congressman Daniel Donovan scarcely drew a challenge for what was once a hotly-contested seat, and appears to have ingratiated himself with the mayor and the rest of the city’s Democratic political class.
Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis and Assemblyman Ronald Castorina, meanwhile, obtained an injunction in December blocking de Blasio from going through with plans to flush the records of his municipal identification program. Part of the idea behind IDNYC initiative was to provide a government-verified credential to people lacking other forms of paperwork, allowing them to do things like open a bank account. The city’s files are believed to contain the personal information of thousands upon thousands of undocumented immigrants.
To prevent these logs from becoming a deportation database under a hostile administration, the City Council deliberately wrote a clause into the legislation that created the program enabling the administration to purge the files when the clock struck midnight on 2017.
But Malliotakis and Castorina argued that wiping those records could compromise a future criminal investigation into a cardholder who used his IDNYC for illicit purposes—for instance, to open a bank account that financed terrorist activity. They triumphed in the preliminary round of legal proceedings, stopping de Blasio from dropping the records at year’s end, and prompting the mayor to announce the city would no longer retain any records relating to the municipal I.D. program at all.
Politically speaking, this actually benefits all parties: Malliotakis and Castorina get to tell their voters they’re fighting de Blasio, de Blasio gets to tell his base he’s fighting Trump—everybody wins.
Unless, of course, the Trump administration actually requisitions the records and uses them to start deporting people.
7. Joseph Crowley
The Queens congressman and county Democratic boss had an uneven batting average at home this year, but his stats on the road were great.
He got an evening speaking slot at the party convention in Philadelphia, where he recalled how a firefighter cousin of his gave his life on 9/11—and how Trump, a fellow Queens native, “cashed in” on programs aimed at helping small businesses in the aftermath of the attack. His colleagues voted him up from vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus to chairman, making him the fourth-ranked Democrat in the House, bolstering his status as the top New York member—and potentially positioning him to one day replace Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Several of his colleagues reportedly even encouraged him to try to topple the San Francisco Democrat, and his pitch to his colleagues invoked his working-class roots, and sounded an awful lot like the argument Ohio Congressman Timothy Ryan gave in his bid to oust the incumbent leader.
On top of all that, Congressman Steve Israel, a rival Democrat whose district covered parts of Nassau County and Queens, just retired.
So far, though, Crowley has risen in stature without actually expanding his power. Democrats are still in the minority in the House. The Queens delegation wields little influence in the City Council. And Queens State Senator Michael Gianaris, a county loyalist who heads the Democratic State Senate Campaign Committee, failed to lead the party into political dominance in the upper chamber of the State Legislature.
Crowley is in a position to help his party create a message that will allow it to capitalize on the anti-incumbent spirit of the midterms. He can also seek to reassert his influence at City Hall in the aftermath of local elections this fall, as the now-dominant Progressive Caucus appears poised to fracture.
Finally, Crowley’s district stretches well into the Bronx, and he and State Senator Klein share both considerable turf and a close relationship with Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, the borough’s Democratic boss. The congressman unsuccessfully sought to boot Queens State Senator Tony Avella, a member of Klein’s caucus, from office in 2014. Still, few are better positioned than the Queens chairman to try to forge a coalition deal between Albany’s fractious Democratic factions following the next round of elections.
The question is, does he have the juice to do it?
8. Hakeem Jeffries
The Brooklyn congressman enjoyed a reputation as one of the city’s most promising political talents even before his election to the House in 2012. He’s used his seat as a pulpit to advocate for his signature issue of criminal justice reform, and occasionally as a platform for taking shots at de Blasio. But he was still a junior member of the Democratic minority, and seniority determined that if any benefits accrued to a representative from New York, they would go to Crowley.
Rumors flew that he might challenge the mayor in next September’s primary, but it appeared a daunting prospect, given that they share a base in Central Brooklyn’s black community.
The presidential race gave Jeffries a chance to burnish his star. He became an early supporter of Clinton’s candidacy, and an early basher of Sanders’. Throughout the campaign, he regularly unloaded on both the Vermont socialist and the billionaire GOP nominee, perhaps seeing a more prominent role for himself in an incoming Democratic administration.
That didn’t happen. But when Minority Leader Pelosi faced a challenge for her perch in November, Jeffries publicly aligned with her, as she had indicated she was “open-minded” about letting newer members have a role in leadership.
The congressman secured such a role for himself last month, becoming one of three members elected by his colleagues to lead the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee—which will craft the minority party’s platform.
9. Edward Cox
Rumor has it the state GOP chairman personally favored Ohio Gov. John Kasich for the nomination last year. He stayed neutral during the primary, even as many local Republican leaders flocked to the state’s native son.
Apparently Trump hasn’t held it against him. Cox, who famously married Richard Nixon’s daughter, got front-row seats at the party convention and attention not usually given to a Republican leader from an overwhelmingly blue state. For once, it wasn’t such a lonely and thankless job.
Cox’s apparatus raised cash for the Trump Victory Fund, and lent its precious tax-free postal indicia to mailings in swing states. The New York chairman is also tight with Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman and Trump’s chief of staff-to-be, and his son may soon receive an ambassadorship.
On top of that, one of his chief rivals for the president-elect’s affections (and a general irritant), Buffalo developer Carl Paladino, has finally sunk so deep into his own vile racist juices that even Trump wants nothing to do with him. What clinched it was when the failed 2010 gubernatorial candidate, who co-chaired Trump’s New York campaign, told a local newspaper that his biggest hopes for 2017 were that Obama would die of a bovine ailment after having intercourse with a cow and that the first lady would take up residence with a gorilla in Zimbabwe. And yes, that’s actually what he said.
Back on the topic of Cox, the New York Post has it that he snagged 200 D.C. hotel rooms for the inauguration on the cheap from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Now all that’s left for the chairman to do is actually win a statewide election.
10. Hillary Clinton
Yeah, she notched the unlikeliest election loss in human history, but on the other hand, she doesn’t have to put up with this crap anymore.