The secret superpowers of borough presidents

Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. helps his neighbors recover from Sandy. Photo: jaydensonbx/Flickr

They have grandiose titles, but the city’s five borough presidents are actually invested with little power by the city charter. Blame the U.S. Supreme Court, which 24 years ago said it was undemocratic for tiny Staten Island and massive Queens have equal voting power, and forced the end of the once powerful Board of Estimate.

Candidates are nonetheless swirling to replace the four beeps who are being term limited out of office this year, in Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Staten Island. So far they’ve convinced donors to throw more than $5.3 million their way, and are poised to qualify for nearly $1 million in public matching funds.

Why would anyone want a job whose power appears so slim? Maybe it’s because borough presidents have grown highly creative in finding ways to wield what relatively little they’ve got. Sometimes, they’ve accomplished great things for their communities. And sometimes for themselves.

The new crew can learn from the moves of veteran masters:


1. Make nice with developers

Real estate developers need borough presidents on their side, and few have been as loyal as Brooklyn’s Marty Markowitz. As his borough boomed in the last decade, dozens of development projects and city proposals to pave the way for new building went up for review by his office. More than 90 percent of the time, Markowitz gave them the thumbs up.

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz breakfasts with bloggers in 2009. Photo: Chris Kreussling/Flickr

While a beep’s vote on real estate project approvals is merely advisory, his or her support or opposition influences the City Council or City Planning Commission’s demands — and their votes do count.

Among the mega projects Markowitz boosted were the City Point mall and apartment tower in downtown Brooklyn, the remaking of Fourth Avenue in Park Slope as a condo-lined boulevard, the transformation of the Williamsburg waterfront into a high-rise haven, and plans for a revamped Coney Island. (He also enthusiastically supported Atlantic Yards, which skipped local review because it occupies a state-owned site.)

The friendship isn’t one-sided. In the 2009 borough president races, employees of real estate companies gave at least $150,000 to Markowitz’s campaign. Industry firms were also generous donors to nonprofit organizations with ties to the borough president’s office.

But a close look at his votes shows that his zeal for new high-rise development in older, poorer neighborhoods did not extend to parts of Brooklyn dominated by middle-class homeowners, like Sheepshead Bay, Canarsie and his own neighborhood of Windsor Terrace. Between 2005 and the present, the Bloomberg administration advanced more than a dozen proposals to “downzone” such areas to reduce the size of new development — and Markowitz supported every one of those plans.

With the 2013 elections approaching, real estate interests in other boroughs are on the lookout for their very own Markowitz. Melinda Katz, who served as chair of the City Council’s Land Use Committee, has received $29,000 so far from employees in the real estate industry. Her competitor, Paul Vallone Jr., collected almost $40,000.

Taxpayers for an Affordable New York, a lobby group for the Real Estate Board of New York, has targeted borough presidents’ races for its spending. So far, it has contributed a total of almost $10,000 to Katz, Vallone Jr. and a third Queens candidate, and is also sponsoring candidates in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

The game is being played for the highest stakes in Manhattan, where real estate developers William Macklowe, William Zeckendorf, Steven Witkoff and Edward Minskoff are among the donors giving the maximum allowed to borough president candiate Julie Menin, while Donald Zucker, Howard Milstein, principals of Durst Fetner, and Empire State Building co-owner Peter Malkin are backing rival Jessica Lappin.

– Ana Komnenic


2. Clean up Sin City

For Staten Island’s Jim Molinaro, a product of the values-obsessed Conservative Party, the borough presidency is a perfect platform for preaching against the decline of decency. Since he took office in 2002, Molinaro has repeatedly sounded off about signs of a decaying social order: He has called on Mayor Bloomberg to halt entitlements to young mothers as a way of discouraging teen pregnancy, and pushed for Staten Island libraries to stop allowing access to pornography on their computers. In one inspired celebrity tie-in, he called Lady Gaga a “slut” for her “glorification” of drug use.

Staten Island Borough President Jim Molinaro, who has used his office as a pulpit to preach morality. Photo: William Alatriste, New York City Council

Molinaro must leave office because of term limits, but he may have a successor across the Verrazano-Narrows bridge, in Brooklyn Borough President hopeful Eric Adams. The former NYPD officer and civil rights activist turned State Senator launched a campaign to rid Brooklyn’s streets of a crack problem — but not the narcotic kind.

Launched in 2010, his “STOP THE SAG” campaign plastered billboards in Brooklyn with images of young men wearing their pants below the butt, jailhouse style, and implored those who might go beltless to reclaim their dignity. Adams’ tagline: “Raise your pants, raise your image.”

“We are better than this!” the billboards screamed. “Stop the sag!”

Morality politics cut both ways, nowhere more so than in the Bronx, where Borough President Rubén Díaz, Jr., faced a highly inconvenient liability: his own preacher-father, State Sen. Rubén Díaz Sr., is a vocal force in the borough and in Albany against abortion and gay rights. The borough president struck back with funding for a Bronx LGBT Center.

The family battle came to a head in late March, as Rev. Díaz headlined a “March for Marriage” rally in Washington in support of the federal law banning recognition of same-sex unions. While Díaz Sr. and his bus convoy were en route back to New York after the event, Borough President Díaz released a statement in support of marriage equality.

“Individuals who love one another, regardless of their sexual orientation, should not be denied the benefits of marriage,” Díaz Jr. said. “It is time for the Supreme Court to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.”

—Luke Kerr-Dineen


3. Bank on the capital budget

The borough presidents have at least one power that is more than symbolic: tens of millions of dollars to hand out to organizations in their borough.

Under the City Charter, the city allots 5 percent of its capital budget to the borough presidents to spend as they see fit. City Councilmember Dominic Recchia, who briefly sought to replace Markowitz in Brooklyn, called these grants one of the office’s most important powers.

If the next borough presidents take their cues from the current batch, most of that money will be spent on facilities for libraries, parks, education, and cultural affairs groups, figures from the mayor’s Office of Management and Budget suggest.

But while discretionary funding allow borough presidents to support pet projects, which organizations actually get these funds is often far from clear.

Both Stringer and Díaz provide lists of recent recipients capital budget awards on their websites. Some of Stringer’s larger grants went to Hunter College, a solar schools project, Manhattan School of Music and the Boys and Girls Club of Harlem. Díaz spent $4 million on environmental cleanup at the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market, and another $1 million on new courts for the Junior Tennis League.

In contrast, Markowitz, Marshall and Molinaro do not detail capital spending on their websites (though Molinaro does announce some grants via press releases). The Brooklyn Borough President’s office asked The New York World to file a Freedom of Information Law request for information. The Queens and Staten Island borough presidents have yet to respond to requests made earlier this week.

– Beth Morrissey


4. Be king or queen of your own nonprofit

Brooklyn’s Marty Markowitz will leave office at the end of the year thanks to term limits, but another legacy lives on: a nonprofit organization, Best of Brooklyn, he founded in 2002.

Back then, Markowitz obtained special dispensation from the city Conflicts of Interest Board to raise money from local merchants and other donors, to pay for cultural and youth programs boosting the borough.

Since then, Best of Brooklyn has turned into a juggernaut, getting funds not only from Markowitz’s own office (more than $1 million since 2005) but also from many of the real estate developers seeking approvals for their gleaming new projects dotting the Brooklyn skyline. Among the biggest donors was Forest City Ratner Companies, the developer behind the Atlantic Yards project, which bestowed $1.7 million to the charities connected with Markowitz. Other donors included City Point developer Acadia Realty, Target and Wal-Mart.

Markowitz added a second nonprofit, Camp Brooklyn, in 2009, and continued to steward two groups founded by an earlier borough president that host summer concert series. All four organizations have at least one board member who was or is currently working for the borough president’s office.

For the most part, Markowitz has used the charities to raise his public profile. The free concerts draw large crowds and the borough president is usually front-and-center at the events, playing host and M.C. Each year he hosts Camp Brooklyn’s annual fundraiser.

Citizens Union suggested that Markowitz used his charities as “pseudo campaign accounts” — using them to promote himself through contributions that aren’t limited by campaign finance laws.

Markowitz was not the first. The Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation was founded in 1981 by county Democratic leader Stanley Friedman, who was appointed by Borough President Stanley Simon. Back then, borough presidents wielded power over city contracts and other major decisions through their seats on the Board of Estimate. Friedman was forced to resign as he faced criminal charges for his role in a bribery scandal. But the organization lives on, and receives $300,000 annually from the Borough President’s office.

In collaboration with the corporation, current Borough President Rubén Diaz Jr. has pursued business development and environmental projects, including a green roof initiative and an economic summit.

— Ana Komnenic 


5. Nerd out

Since taking over the post in 2006, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has brought the office of Manhattan borough president to a whole new level of wonkiness. He has used dozens of detailed policy reports to weigh in on everything from school overcrowding to toxic boiler systems to the city’s potential to be the next Silicon Valley.

Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer, pictured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute gala benefit. AP Photo/Evan Agostini

Stringer’s reports have contributed to conversations about public policy in the city that have at times brought about concrete change. One influential study examined bike lane blockages and other threats to cyclist and pedestrian safety. A 2011 City Council measure requiring police to share data on bike accidents and violations folllowed recommendations made by Stringer in his report and in testimony.

Stringer hasn’t kept the policy wonks to himself — he has also brought them into every neighborhood in the borough, by embedding graduate urban planning students inside each of Manhattan’s 12 community boards. There, the community planning fellows helped advise board members on zoning, policy research and other planning business. The program has since expanded to community boards in other boroughs.

Several of Stringer’s prospective successors seem poised to carry on his policy-details legacy. Julie Menin recently released a five-point plan to improve land use reviews in Manhattan. One of Menin’s opponents, City Councilmember Jessica Lappin, has put out a policy paper of her own, recommending ways to make community boards more representative and effective.

A third candidate and current City Council member, Gale Brewer, built up years of her own nerd cred while serving as the chair of the council’s Committee on Governmental Operations and the Committee on Technology in Government.

— Rebekah Mintzer 


6. Why show up at all? Just take a vacation!

During her 12 years in office, Queens Borough President Marshall proved skeptics wrong by successfully promoting Queens as a destination of choice for vacationers.

She put her weight behind the creation of the first Queens license plate, planted a subway car next to her office and turned it into a tourist center and trumpeted at every occasion the borough’s slogan, “Visit Queens… See the World.”

A decade ago, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall celebrated the opening of a terminal at JFK airport. AP Photo/British Airways, Bob Goldberg

But some would say that Marshall took her encouragements to holiday in Queens a bit too personally.

First, last year, the New York Post quoted exasperated sources in the president’s entourage venting their frustration at the president for being “AWOL” throughout much of the summer.

More recently, the Daily News got hold of her schedules and calculated that Marshall had taken a total of 41 business days off of work in 2012 alone — the equivalent of eight full weeks.

Conveniently, the City Charter doesn’t specify how many days of vacation borough presidents are allowed to take.

The 83-year-old Marshall fought back. She said she had been taking care of her husband, who had back surgery.

— Sebastien Malo

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