Who Better Represented “the Little Guy” in the Pricing Debate?

New York State Assembly Members Jose Rivera, Richard Brodsky and Adriano Espaillat

Mayor Bloomberg and the Campaign for New York’s Future never really seemed to get that the congestion pricing debate was fundamentally going to be a fight about class, and the widening divide between rich and poor in New York City.

While the Mayor and the Campaign built their communications strategy around little girls with asthma and $500 million in federal funding for transit, opponents hammered away on class issues, arguing that congestion pricing is a "regressive tax," harmful to small business, the middle class and the aspiring middle class. Perhaps a Mayor Weiner or Carrion wouldn’t have been as vulnerable to these clearly bogus class arguments. But the billionaire Republican mayor was.

The Mayor and the Campaign should have acknowledged up front that an $8 fee isn’t going to prevent Donald Trump from driving in to Midtown if that’s what he wants to do. But if CEO’s and hedge fund managers are going to drive anyway, let’s make them pay every time they decide to do so. And let’s take their money and plow it into mass transit for the rest of us, the 95% of weekday commuters who don’t use a car to get to work in Manhattan. Congestion pricing is transportation policy that Robin Hood would approve of.

It’s probably too late for Bloomberg, but perhaps there are some lessons here for a Mayor Weiner or Carrion. The failure to address the class issue head-on allowed a congestion pricing opponent like Westchester Assembly Member Richard Brodsky to present himself as the defender of the little guy. Frankly, nothing could be further from the truth. Brodsky did no favors to New York City’s poor and middle class. He did, however, do a fantastic job of representing the interests of his relatively wealthy, suburban, car-commuting district.

Take a look at the income data from these three State Assembly districts. It’s pretty clear who represents the interests of poor and middle class New York City residents and who does not:

Richad Brodsky, congestion pricing opponent
Assembly District 92

19.6% of residents earn less than $35,000/year
26.6% of residents earn $35,000 to $75,000/year
53.3% of residents earn more than $75,000/year

Jose Rivera, congestion pricing supporter
Assembly District 78

64.5% of residents earn less than $35,000/year
27.0% of residents earn $35,000 to $75,000/year
8.4% of residents earn more than $75,000/year

Adriano Espaillat, congestion pricing supporter
Assembly District 72

63.1% of residents earn less than $35,000/year
28.1% of residents earn $35,000 to $75,000/year
8.7% of residents earn more than $75,000/year

Numbers are based on 2000 census data assembled in 2002 by the New York State
Legislative Taskforce on Demographic Research and Reapportionment.

22 thoughts on Who Better Represented “the Little Guy” in the Pricing Debate?

  1. Problem is, “Mayor Weiner or Carrion” will never support congestion pricing. I know it’s painful for a good Park Slope liberal to admit, but like it or not, your bet hope here is Mayor Kelly. (Maybe Mayor Quinn, but her support for it seems iffy.)

  2. Mayor Kelly? What a civil liberties nightmare that would be. The man should be in jail, not in office.

  3. ack: Name one Democrat in contention for ’09 who will lift a finger for congestion pricing. I’ll be there.

  4. Carrion supports pricing and I wouldn’t rule out Weiner. Keep in mind that NYC is going to be hit hard in the next few years by the MTA debt bomb. Pricing will, increasingly be pitted against transit fare hikes and tax increases. Rising gas prices, traffic congestion, climate change and quality of life aren’t getting any better either. The fastest traffic growth is happening in the outer boroughs, home of Mr. Middle Class pricing opponent.

    So, I think it’s entirely possible that a Weiner or Carrion could come back to pricing and the public may be more ready for it.

    Likewise, a mayor who is perceived as representing and being a part of the middle class might have a much easier time selling pricing than Bloomberg.

    They said a right-winger like Menachem Begin would never give up land to make peace with Egypt. Sometimes, that’s exactly the guy you need to go in and make the hard deal.

  5. The problem, Aaron, is that on an issue like pricing is that it’s not enough to support the issue when another politician forces the issue. It’s enough of a third rail that you have to have it as an actual priority, or you’re never going to do anything about it.

    I mean, I’m glad to hear you “wouldn’t rule out Weiner.” I liked him up until the pricing issue. But the fact is, Weiner ruled out Weiner.

    Frankly, I don’t know if Kelly would push for pricing, either, but it seems at least more possible for a candidate running as Bloomberg’s successor, who is not beholden to an outer-borough base or otherwise dependent on an anti-pricing constituency. (He could also count on the votes of outer-borough residents who don’t like pricing but care about “law and order” issues more. This is not an endorsement, but I do think it’s a reality.)

    Bottom line is, if pricing is important enough to us, that means identifying now candidates for Mayor who are actually likely to be proactive on the issue. Or you can say that other issues are more important, which is valid too. But crossing your fingers and hoping that somebody will have an epiphany somewhere down the road is not a strategy, it’s just rolling the dice.

  6. Swobo, having a mayor who supports pricing is not a guarantee of success, as we have seen. But it is the bare minimum requirement for pricing ever to happen. You think any legistlature or council is *ever* going to take the lead on it?

  7. Weiner didn’t rule out Weiner. Aside from his initial blurt, he was remarkably quiet through the whole thing.

    Still, yeah, he might see a strong anti-pricing position to be a plus in a race against Quinn, Carrion and Thompson, all who came out in favor in some form or another.

    I’d simply try to push Democratic candidates for ’09 not to rule out pricing completely during their campaigns. Just keep it in the toolbox as a possibility.

    But Swobo makes the point: It’s really not so much about what the mayor wants, is it?

  8. Aaron,
    Those are just the income data irrespective of commute type. The numbers are much more stunning when presented this way – Mid-20s for Espaillat’s transit commuters, high 175’s for Brodsky’s drivers.

  9. Cross posting:

    I want to encourage everybody who bothers to post on this blog to write a letter to the New York Times about your disappointment that congestion pricing was killed in Albany. This morning’s paper had three letters on CP: two against and one in favor, and the favorable letter was written by someone living in Washington DC! I assume that the Times publishes pro and con letters in numbers roughly representative of what’s in the mail bag. So — lets get our words out where more people can read them.

  10. Look, Bloomberg has been a master at playing the press (and us) like a fiddle.

    $4.4 Billion budget surplus, and only $200MM went to transit. At the same time, acting like a $3 fare is unavoidable and that a $500MM federal grant necessitated passing his bill NOW with no questions.

    NY has a solid congressional delegation in a Democratic congress. You really think we can’t get that $500MM next year?

    And now everyone’s crying because congestion pricing is dead. More melodrama. CP is not dead. Let’s keep working on a plan. The Mayor’s plan was not perfect. We can, and must, do better.

  11. Gary, you make some good points. Bloomie is no messiah. The fact remains that any “better” CP proposal still has to boil down to (1) fewer people from the outer boroughs (and elsewhere) driving in Manhattan and (2) making it much more expensive for them to do so.

    You either have a mayor willing to advocate for that or you don’t. If you don’t, you don’t have CP. Albany’s not going to go out of its way to make that happen; neither is the City Council. Bloomberg will be a lame duck next year, so the fact is, finding a mayoral candidate who supports CP more than passively does matter.

  12. Who can remember the assembly or senate asking any good questions. Most of the “concerns” seemed to revolve around an astonishing commitment to ignorance. Brodsky demanded that the mayor pay for mass transit improvements before he approved the plan even though the plan itself was all about improving mass transit prior to the implimentation of congestion pricing. I understand why the Mayor was so upset at the end of this. Having to listen to people asking the same quetsions over and over again(almost all of which were answered in the planning documents) must have been infuriating.

    For the record, good questions do not include:
    1.Won’t this hurt the middle class?
    2.Why aren’t we implimenting transit improvements before congestion pricing?
    3.Isnt’ the charge going to go up?
    4.Won’t you just make more traffic elewhere?

  13. Why were these arguments not made by the people in charge of the Campaign supporting congestion pricing? I find it hard to beleive that NO ONE on the pro-pricing side saw the calss issue coming. Aaron? Any thoughts/ideas?

  14. I blame Sheldon Silver. He could’ve pulled this together. As a Manhattan resident in his district I find it appalling to discover that he provided no support to his own constituents.

    Brodsky – no surprise there! His constituents can afford a $700 parking spot and they can sure afford the congestion fee.

    Meanwhile – we get to ingest their exhaust while they retreat to their leafy suburb.

    Thanks Shelly!! (Perhaps I’ll send hime and email directly)

  15. Very interesting — but is it accurate that Bloomberg DIDN’T make these very points about class, and about the fact that drivers into the city tend to be more affluent than the average schlubs who use mass transit? Or is it more the case that his opponents used spin and subtle (or not-so-subtle) digs against the billionaire mayor to transform it into an anti-congestion pricing class issue? It may have been that Bloomberg, by virtue of his tax bracket and his Republican past, was bound to fail on this one. Just a thought.

  16. The Mayor’s office and the advocates involved in the Campaign repeatedly debunked the class issue in statements, press conferences and TV/radio appearances. Pretty much every statement mentioned the 95 percent of us who take mass transit to work. Environmental Justice advocates hammered home the impact of traffic on their communities. Groups issued reports on the issue. I think the Drum Major Institute had the seminal piece on the topic. Just because the media gave more ink to the anti’s, doesn’t mean anyone yielded on that argument. In fact, the big problem with the press coverage is that they treated everything with so-called balance – giving well-researched and documented RPA reports the same weight as glorified press releases from the anti side.

    And before anyone bashes the Mayor’s press operation, consider that they managed to get the Post, Daily News and NYT all to agressively support the plan – a very rare trifecta that should be admired.

  17. By the way, Anthony Weiner is openly hostile to the whole notion of congestion pricing. If the mayor gets it up and running and it works, a Mayor Weiner might be hard pressed to roll it back…but he’ll never be the one to push it through. And if the initial reaction is negative to CP, he’ll make it a campaign platform

  18. The Mayor’s statements about class were successfully dismissed by “little guys” Brodsky and Weprin. Part of the problem was that there were several well-known progressive voices that are thought to represent lower-class Black people who were AWOL. Sharpton? Charles Barron? Tish James? Yvette Clarke? Where were Assemblymembers Darryl Towns, Michele Titus and Vivian Cook? Hakeem Jeffries was a big disappointment, coming out against the plan two days after it was announced.

    If some prominent Black and Hispanic leaders were able and willing to mobilize supporters in favor of congestion pricing, the hypocrisy of people like Jeffries and Brodsky would be obvious. Part of the problem is that many of those Black and Hispanic leaders have “made it,” and now drive cars and seem to be incapable of representing people who ride the subway.

    It didn’t help that at least one rally was reported as being packed with people who were paid by the hour.

  19. Bloomberg’s biggest misstep was not in failing to anticipate the class issue, it was in failing to anticipate the politics. Within the boundaries of NYC, the mayor is all-powerful; the City Council is merely a minor impediment to his policy initiatives. But when Albany gets involved, it’s a whole different ballgame. To say that Bloomberg’s autocratic style falls flat in Albany is a vast understatement.

    Blame Mayor Mike for and the yes-men and women who surround him for blowing the deal politically. And if he can’t handle Albany, does he really expect ot be able to deal with Congress?

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