Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
The First Ever Political Currents AMA/Mailbag!
I answer many of your questions
A few days ago, I decided I would do something a little different here at this Substack and open up the floor to you. I asked you to email me your questions about anything you wanted to ask. Politics, books, sports, life. It was up to you.
What’s great about this newsletter is the audience. I love hearing from you and interacting with you. It’s a dialogue and I want to keep it that way.
My guess is a fair amount of you did not receive the email about submitting questions. That’s part of my nudge to make you a paid subscriber. To reward the loyalty of those who paid to subscribe, I gave them the opportunity. My plan is to do more AMA’s—Ask Me Anything’s—in the future so if you didn’t get a chance now, you will have one again.
But since I do want to get more of the 3,500 of you who don’t currently pay to pay, I’m going to have to restrict asking questions to paid subscribers.
Without further ado, here are all the questions I was able to answer. They were great. I decided not to include names to protect the privacy of the senders. If you want your name included in the future, let me know.
We know Cuomo amassed an enormous amount of power throughout his decade as governor. He was notorious for concentrating authority in a tiny inner circle that micromanaged every level of government. Now he and most of his henchmen are gone. What has substantively changed? How is New York, especially the agencies under direct control of the governor, run differently?
The powers of the governor, under Hochul, have not changed, but from what I understand—in conversation with those who work in state government—is that agency heads and lower-level bureaucrats have far more autonomy these days. Cuomo, for example, was notorious for meddling directly in the affairs of the MTA. It’s grown increasingly clear that the new head of the MTA, Janno Lieber, has a fair amount of discretion. Transit experts will be in charge of transit policy. Hochul’s embrace of the Interborough Express and her decision to kill the LGA AirTrain have made that apparent. Hochul is not involving herself to such an obsessive degree in day-to-day operations and is not politicizing most of what state government does.
One Cuomo henchman who has remained in power is Robert Mujica, his budget director. Mujica is a former Republican staffer who was the architect of whatever austerity-minded initiatives Cuomo wanted to pursue over the last decade. He wielded, and still probably does, inordinate power in state government. The state legislative session has begun and a new budget will be delivered at the end of March. This session will show, truly, how much power Hochul and Mujica possess and what has changed a lot—or what has not changed at all. I am very curious to see how Hochul negotiates with the Democrat-run legislature and how much leverage she has. So far, there has been comity. With progressives pushing bills like Good Cause eviction, that might change.
It’s important to remember the State Constitution has not changed. The governor still wields great authority over the budget process and the state agencies. Hochul is new and seeking re-election. It will be important to see, assuming she wins re-election, how she seeks to consolidate authority. Cuomo was arguably the most dominant governor since Nelson Rockefeller. Hochul has a long way to go.
What do you think about Governor Hochul’s proposal for term limits for statewide elected offices and why has she chosen to highlight this issue?
I like the idea. I’d prefer to see state legislators term-limited as well. Three four-year terms seem reasonable, for twelve years in office. Hochul probably chose the issue as an olive branch to the legislature because she was only proposing limiting herself and the statewide elected officials, not the state lawmakers. I do think it’d be odd to only term-limit the governor, attorney general, and state comptroller. The president is term-limited and Congress is not, but that’s not a dynamic I love. Since turnout for presidential elections is high and both parties are competitive, it doesn’t make sense to limit a president to eight years. If we had a parliamentary system, Barack Obama could be seeking election again in 2024. Why not? Harold Wilson did it in the U.K.
Most interesting person you ever interviewed and why!
I’ve been mulling this one a lot. There are many ways to answer. I could give a big-shot response—Bernie Sanders, Stephen Breyer—but I can’t say these were overly interesting in that the answers were what I expected. I very much enjoyed speaking with the overlooked writers Jarett Kobek and Marvin Cohen. On the political side, you never quite knew what Charlie Rangel would say on the telephone. If you get a lot of time with Eric Adams, you won’t be bored either.
When I was twenty-three, I got to cover the Anthony Weiner mayoral circus up close. Weiner, beyond his scandals, was not a terribly substantive politician. He was a lazy legislator. He did not think deeply, but he thought quickly. There is some argument to make that Weiner 2013, in the way the media devoured him, was a precursor to Trump 2016—with the great irony that Weiner himself, by inviting the Comey FBI investigation, might have actually cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 election.
Since a senior colleague of mine at the New York Observer believed Christine Quinn was going to be the next mayor, I was free to cover many of the other candidates. I spent a lot of time with John Liu, Bill Thompson, and Bill de Blasio. I was also frequently with Anthony Weiner. The unpredictability of a Weiner event will probably never be matched, at least on the local level. You quite literally didn’t know what people would say to him, what he would say back, and how a situation could devolve. I was there for the infamous kosher bakery blow-up. For me, it was the beginning of the surreal turn of American life, the absolute merger of politics and entertainment. You could laugh off Weiner. Trump was another matter.
Will Trump ever be arrested?
My gut leans no. He’s been out of office for a year now and it doesn’t appear the Justice Department is intent on building a particular case. For Jan. 6, it is difficult to make a successful legal case because it ultimately comes down to Trump inciting violence through speech. That’s a high bar to clear on First Amendment grounds.
On other grounds—with his businesses, his taxes—anything is possible and I’m not an expert. Trump enjoyed immunity as president that he no longer has. It could be possible that Letitia James and Alvin Bragg in New York prosecute him on business done here. The Manhattan DA’s office, under Cy Vance, has already brought an investigation resulting in charges last summer against Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, and its longtime finance chief, Allen Weisselberg. Trump himself remains under investigation.
Where will this go? I truly don’t know.
With remote work becoming a permanent option, what is going to happen to Midtown and Lower Manhattan? Are there creative solutions on the table to, say, make those neighborhoods more explicitly residential?
It will be hard to tell. My hunch is Midtown and Downtown will not be the same for a very long time. Companies are realizing remote work is cost-effective and profits won’t suffer if some or all of the white-collar workforce stays home. It might take many years—or never—to return to the world of 2019. Eric Adams and Kathy Hochul can demand in-person work all they want but the world has moved on. This isn’t the worst thing. As someone who used to do a lot of long subway commutes to Midtown, I can say I don’t miss losing hours in my day.
The creative solutions all revolve around converting vacant office space to housing. This should be pursued but is easier said than done, given how office buildings have been designed. A bill passed in the state legislature last year will allow underused hotels to be converted into housing. No projects have begun yet, but this could be a great opportunity to transform a sector that, with Covid, has struggled mightily. I’m writing a feature about homelessness in NYC and the thing you learn is that much of it can be traced to the destruction of single-room occupancy hotels, which housed the working-class and poor for much of the twentieth century. Landlords and developers, with city and state incentives, converted them to market-rate housing or tourist hotels. In retrospect, this was a huge mistake. I’d like to see SRO’s return to Midtown and Downtown. These areas need to be reimagined because the old world is not coming back.
To what extent does NYC collaborate with New Jersey, Connecticut, and Long Island governments on transportation and housing? What are some current initiatives that excite you? What are some that don’t exist but should (e.g. upzoning the land around LIRR)
They don’t collaborate nearly enough! Regional planning on housing and transit would be a great way to alleviate our housing shortage. I would love to see areas around LIRR stations upzoned for apartments so Long Island could be a real destination for city dwellers. This would give a boost to the suburban economy—young people continue to leave because housing is expensive—and help lower rents in New York City over the long haul.
On transit, you’re seeing funding for a new Gateway Tunnel between New Jersey and New York City, which is much-needed. In the future, it would be fun to see the 7 line extended from the Far West side of Manhattan to New Jersey, though that seems unlikely.
When do you think DSA will be in a position to run a serious candidate for mayor of NYC?
In the next decade. DSA has done a great job building a bench in a short amount of time. Consider that, until 2019, there were no serious (or any?) DSA members in elected office in New York. Now there is no shortage of young talent. State Senator Jabari Brisport and Assemblyman Zohran Mamdani, my old friend, are real up-and-comers, and are both primed to run for a higher office when the opportunity comes. Julia Salazar has become a formidable state senator. Emily Gallagher, Phara Souffrant Forrest, and Marcela Mitaynes have bright futures. In the City Council, both Alexa Avilés and Tiffany Cabán are well-positioned to make future runs for public advocate or another higher post that will give them a shot at mayor.
One thing the old-school Working Families Party was great at was thinking long-term. In 2001, they ran a bunch of left-of-center candidates in the hopes that one or two of them could be mayor someday. In 2009, they brokered an agreement so two of their stars, John Liu and Bill de Blasio, wouldn’t run against each other for public advocate. WFP got their mayor: de Blasio governed for eight years and was plenty controversial but got a lot done, including universal pre-K and rent freezes on rent-stabilized apartments.
I see DSA following a similar trajectory. A few of their young stars should think about gunning for public advocate, city comptroller, or one of the borough presidencies when they open up. I increasingly think the BP posts are useless and should be abolished. But they do exist, and one former BP is now mayor of New York City. Truthfully, if I were in DSA, I’d be scheming over trying to make Jabari Brisport Brooklyn borough president in 2030.
There is at least a tension between DA Bragg’s Jan. 3 policy memo and the Mayor’s promise to be the anti-crime mayor (whatever that turns out to mean). The Mayor has raised expectations in certain constituencies who will expect see action and hear a certain rhetoric from the Mayor and they don’t seem to care much for the new DA (looking at you NY Post). So far the Mayor has not criticized Bragg. Others have not been so reticent. How do you see these 2 working together in the near term and further out?
Eric Adams, like all politicians, needs to be careful about targeting district attorneys. Alvin Bragg controls the most powerful DA office in New York City and one of the most well-resourced in America. Typically, DA’s have left it to the feds to indict sitting elected officials, but Bragg could start probing around the Adams City Hall and make his life difficult. Adams must tread lightly.
Bragg and Adams also share overlapping political bases. Bragg is Manhattan’s first Black DA and won with the same support—the Black Democratic establishment in Harlem—that helped Adams to victory. Bragg also performed strongly with white progressives. I don’t know, overall, where the Adams-Bragg relationship with lead, but both right now have little incentive to cross each other. Bragg has great leverage and Adams is the new mayor of New York City. Indeed, Bragg’s reformist mission runs into conflict with Adams’ tough-on-crime rhetoric. At some point, there is likely to be open tension between the two men. We’ll see when it comes.
I have precisely one hate-follow on Twitter, and that’s Richard Azzopardi. Why one earth is he still so ride-or-die for Cuomo, and is he the worst of the ex-governor’s inner circle, or merely the loudest?
To survive in Cuomo’s orbit, you needed to be “ride-or-die” and sublimate your ego in service of a person who had more ego than almost anyone who has ever entered politics. Absolute loyalty was a must. Competency was not as important as loyalty. If you proved yourself in attacking those who Cuomo despised—political rivals, certain members of the media—you were made.
Why has Rich stuck it out so long? He’s still being paid by Cuomo’s campaign, as far as I know. Rich is certainly one of the loudest Cuomo defenders but he’s not the only one. There’s still a circle who believes the former governor was genuinely railroaded and will have a second act in politics. I’m not convinced but I’m also ready to bet entirely against Cuomo. He’s sitting on $18 million in campaign cash and that’s a lot of money.
We’re in the midst of a sort of reckoning with the effect of shitty media from a pop culture perspective esp. from the 80s-90s (e.g., documentaries about paparazzi and pop stars, gross magazine coverage from those years...). Do you think there will ever be a reckoning with the sh*tty media and coverage of politics, policy, wars etc from major directors/ documenatrians? I know of a movie or two that attempted to address the bad media post 9/11 but there hasn't been much. The documentary about Jamal Kashoggi's murder barely got any coverage or marketing and the coverage I have seen has been from the Washington Post saying that he was great and brave but nothing about our policies with Saudi Arabia.
I hope! There must be a reckoning, of course, on Iraq. Many of the major media players today—pundits, editors, reporters—were cheerleaders of one of the worst foreign policy decisions of the last half century. There has yet to be accountability there. Cancel culture does exist, but it doesn’t really work on the powerful. The Iraq War architects and boosters have mostly found second acts in American life. That’s disconcerting.
I hope, in time, the media changes in its approach to covering war. When Joe Biden pulled out of Afghanistan, you saw bipartisan outrage and rather inflammatory coverage on cable TV and in prestige media outlets. Of course, the retreat from Afghanistan was violent and chaotic, but the context was not emphasized nearly enough. There was no other way to leave Afghanistan. Twenty years of American occupation could not guarantee prosperity or safety there, which was no surprise to those who studied the history of the region. The Soviets failed there too. A few more weeks, months, or years would not have made a difference. The Taliban was prepared to take over the minute the Americans left. It’s their country now. We can’t govern the world.
Love the newsletter. I’m curious what you think about Hakeem Jeffries as the rumored heir apparent to Pelosi. Whether he’s speaker of the house or minority leader, do you have any prediction of what he’d be like as Dems leader? How effective will he be? Any notable policy divergence from Pelosi? Is he as hostile to the left as he seems?
Hakeem Jeffries is skilled in the way Nancy Pelosi is skilled. From a policy standpoint, Pelosi has plenty of flaws, but she has been remarkably adept at holding the Democratic caucus together. She is still able to manage competing factions fairly well. Though Jeffries, a charter schools booster and generally a member of the “corporate” wing of the party, has been hostile to left priorities in the past, he’s smart enough to realize you can’t entirely write off the progressive faction. Given that he’s younger than Pelosi and from New York City, home of AOC, my guess is he will be somewhat more accommodating. Effectiveness is a good question though—can he manage the caucus like Pelosi did and, more importantly, can he be a better messenger for Democrats? National Democrats have lost the plot in the Biden era. What policies would Jeffries pursue? It’s possible Democrats lose the House and are locked out of the majority for a while. That will make it difficult for him to have any kind of impact.
Is there a long-term (say, the next 20 to 30 years) challenge to NYC’s strength & viability that you believe local media are covering inadequately, or not at all? Would be interested to hear your thoughts on the subject.
Long-term trends are always difficult to forecast and cover in general. The media has written plenty on climate change but another Sandy-style superstorm could inundate Lower Manhattan again and flood subway tunnels. I do think the city’s infrastructure is greatly vulnerable to sea level rise. So far, the coasts of the city remain valuable real estate and people want to live there. Does that change?
On the Covid front, what happens to the commercial real estate industry in Midtown and Downtown? I do think a reckoning is coming as these long-term leases expire. If I ran a company, I would think twice about paying large amounts of money to rent multiple floors of office space when I can probably save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, keeping far more of my workforce at home.
Bicyclists, especially the motorized ones, will come up silently behind you and speed by 6" from your side, and if you stumble or suddenly step slightly out of your current path, you may never walk again. We need more bicycle paths next to the sidewalk, so that the cyclists are protected rather than the parked cars. And we need enforcement of traffic rules, so that the pedestrians as well as the cyclists are protected.
I do think when it comes to street planning, pedestrians have to be prioritized. I do worry about what the expansion of e-bikes and motorized vehicles, generally, has meant for pedestrian safety. Of course, automobiles are the greater menace. I would love to see far more streets fully pedestrianized and automobile access limited. Make the city as walkable as possible and more accessible for those with physical disabilities. Protected bike lanes are great. Ideally, sidewalks would be widened as well, and we could think about instituting the Barnes Dance at certain busy intersections. It’s good the city will soon have congestion pricing. To build on that, there should be resident parking permits to limit vehicles from clogging streets.
My question is about housing in NYC. I think this is the most unifying topic in the city, and I'm frankly baffled that none of the mayoral candidates made this their primary issue. Given that we have a new landlord-friendly mayor, what avenue do you think New Yorkers have to drive down rent prices? There is a relatively progressive city council, but I don't see any likelihood of anything like a vacancy tax, or anything that focuses on the biggest cost for almost all New Yorkers.
Driving down rents is a long-term struggle. Building more housing is one answer, along with strengthened tenant protections—Good Cause eviction comes to mind—and the possibility, in the future, of somehow bringing units that left rent-stabilization back into the system. As I wrote last year, a good opportunity for Eric Adams—if he wants to pursue it—is to start buying out large, overleveraged landlords who have taken on too much debt and are no longer seeing a rapid escalation of their property values due to the pandemic.
Tenant and nonprofit community groups, with the city and state’s help, could buy the properties and convert them into low-income social housing. The City Council and State Legislature can pass laws that give tenants and community-based organizations a first opportunity at buying buildings when they’re put up for sale. When banks are ready to put an apartment building into foreclosure, they could first offer the debt in question to nonprofits at a discount.