If anything, Frieden says, extensive annual tests show that the quality of New York’s swimming water has improved over the past generation—thanks to billions of dollars’ worth of new waste-water-treatment facilities. The EPA’s new regulations, mayoral aides say, may simply cause unnecessary beach closings.
All this comes just as the mayor ramps up for the 2005 election, and the political fallout could be big. Picture a sweltering August Saturday. The 500,000 would-be swimmers who trek out to Coney Island, or the 35,000 who go to Orchard Beach, get turned away: Sorry, enterococci alert. It’s not hard to imagine what comes next. Manny from Bensonhurst whales on Bloomberg on the six o’clock news, and the tabs helpfully remind prospective voters that their billionaire mayor enjoys the option of slipping away on weekends to the white-sand beaches of a certain island paradise.
It doesn’t help that patrons of public beaches tend to be minorities and working-class outer-borough whites—constituencies the mayor needs for reelection, and whose support hasn’t exactly been overwhelming. (While the most recent Marist Institute poll put Bloomberg’s overall approval rating at 40 percent, up from the low thirties a year ago, his numbers among blacks and Latinos lagged in the twenties, and his support was significantly lower in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens than in Manhattan.)
Enforcement could be another nightmare, with city lifeguards and Parks Department officials perhaps spending their days coaxing people out of the water. And forget blaming the EPA for any of this. “People who use public beaches are the un-air-conditioned portion of the electorate,” says political consultant Norman Adler. “They don’t know from the EPA. They only know their mayor.”
Beach closings could leave the mayor vulnerable to broader attacks as well. Bloomberg has made public health a signature issue—he banned smoking in bars, launched an initiative against childhood obesity, and floated an idea to boot McDonald’s franchises from city hospitals—but the downside is that political opponents have caricatured him as a killjoy-in-chief. Beach closings, notes Adler, “could play very much to that weakness.”
City Hall is trying to persuade the EPA to drop its new standards and come up with a revised set that takes more recent science into account. Mayoral aides may also try to take advantage of the wiggle room in the law. The new regulations may act not as an automatic trigger, they say, but rather as one factor among many in deciding whether closings are necessary. Still, says one official, “we may end up having more closings this year.”
A mayoralty, of course, can be defined by how City Hall handles issues like beach closings. Voters have a funny way of holding mayors accountable for the things that directly affect them. John Lindsay famously failed to plow away the snow in the outer boroughs after a blizzard in 1969, a blunder that almost cost him his job. On the other hand, if a mayor can position himself as an advocate for New Yorkers against something that’s making their lives miserable, he can reap the political rewards. Witness Ed Koch’s turning the 1980 transit strike to his advantage by assailing striking workers as he led dislocated commuters on a raucous march across the Brooklyn Bridge.
If there are beach closings, “Bloomberg will have to decide whether he’s Koch on the Brooklyn Bridge or Lindsay in the snow,” says Adler. “As Charlie Brown once said, he’ll either be a hero or a goat.”