Their positions on congestion pricing were of course formed by dispassionate, unselfish policy analysis and deeply held convictions about the merits of Mayor Bloomberg’s plan. Yet four major declared or assumed 2009 mayoral candidates also had one eye focused on their own political futures as the mayor pushed the scheme through the City Council and on to Albany.
The calculations revealed a larger insight, too: After fourteen years of being led by political anomalies—a Republican prosecutor, a billionaire media mogul—we’re returning to traditional candidates. Each of the contenders viewed congestion pricing largely through the conventional Manhattan-versus-outer-borough prism. But the front-runner will be the candidate who best grasps that the city has changed drastically in the past two decades, and that the old rules don’t apply so neatly anymore.
Avella represents northeast Queens and believes his middle-class constituents would get hit hard by the mayor’s plan. He’s also an obscure pol, and attacking CP allowed him to grab attention while promoting his anti-tax agenda. But he may have gone around the bend, ranting about routine horse-trading for council members’ votes. “If you use taxpayer dollars to get a council member to vote one way, that’s a bribe,” Avella charges. “It may not go into his or her pocket, but it’s still a bribe.”
The city comptroller has been mildly supportive of congestion pricing, though he’s always been careful to attach caveats. But he was noticeably quiet during the City Council debate, only issuing a letter of endorsement after CP went to Albany. That caution is in keeping both with Thompson’s political temperament and his divided Brooklyn-Manhattan political ties. Yet it was also part of a tactical judgment: Why take a bold stance on something that might never happen?
The council speaker didn’t have the luxury of dodging. So she used last week’s vote to demonstrate leadership on a contentious issue. Quinn did a fine job arm-twisting (even without a slush fund!), adding substance to her political résumé. Plus, wrapping her arms so tightly around CP also earned Quinn a big chit with Bloomberg—as well as the respect of a very powerful, less obvious player in every city Democratic primary: the Times editorial page.
The Queens-Brooklyn congressman, who nearly won an upset in the 2005 Democratic mayoral primary running as a hybrid policy wonk and outer-borough populist, painted CP as a regressive tax and tried to make the esoteric argument that the promise of federal funding is a scam to get the city to pay more of its mass-transit tab. But in the campaign, he’ll cast congestion pricing as Manhattan-centric and elitist, like Quinn. Weiner was thrilled to see her so far out front.