Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Quintessential Speaker

In a editorial in Sunday's NY Times the paper encourages the Speaker Quinn to "steer the council to more openness and democratic ideals and against special interests." One aspect of this suggested course is for the speaker to "establish priorities independent of the county bosses..."

All of which sound melodious but demands a good deal of explication, especially when it comes to the term "special interests." Increasingly the term is in danger of becoming reified, a concept used in political incantation but devoid of any real substance. It is important to put the whole idea of special interests in a New York City context.

When people focus on special interests they are generally employing the language of C Wright Mills, who pioneered the investigation of how democratic political structures became increasingly under the sway of powerful elites (thus diminishing democratic responsiveness). In NYC, as many have pointed out, the dominant industry, and therefore the concomitant power structure, is real estate.

The focus on the party bosses, while offering up some colorful examples of petty and not so petty corruption, misses the way in which these political leaders are responsive to the real estate folks whose visions need to be translated into political reality. So when the Times focuses on these county party bosses it needs to clarify the symbiosis and interplay between politics and real estate development, otherwise the term "special interests" is denuded of its true meaning.

Which brings us to the first real test facing Speaker Quinn and the City Council this year: the BTM fiasco. As we have outlined in depth throughout the past nine months, this project reeks of special interest pleading. On top of this, however, is the fact that the entire deal rests on a patently absurd interpretation of the City Charter that strips the Council of some important powers that are delegated to the legislature in that document.

The Times is right but just needs to be more specific. In the case of the BTM there are numerous examples of how the special interest symbiosis operates. The deal is an affront to any good government sensibility and because of the way it was crafted is a direct challenge to the council.

We agree with the Times that "New Yorkers have reason to have high hopes for Ms. Quinn." She is someone who has a "strong activist spirit" and has always shown an ability to be responsive to "communities at the grass roots level." Her challenge is to find a way to exercise power in her new position while incorporating her historical concern for fairness, small businesses and local neighborhoods.