Strolling along the East River, James "Doc" Savage pauses to reflect on what figures to be a hotly contested three-way race for the presidency of the police union. The veteran union administrator is, according to a highly placed source on the union's executive board, about to be crowned the de facto incumbent, the handpicked successor of embattled Patrolmen's Benevolent Association chief Lou Matarazzo, who is said to be stepping down as early as this week. Savage knows full well the value of the inside track, especially because the three candidates don't have radically different goals. "We all have the same platform," he says. "More money and more benefits. I'll fight to get Scores girls in the back of every patrol car," he adds, chuckling. "How's that for a platform?"
By bowing out now, Matarazzo is hoping that he'll give Savage, currently first vice-president, a boost in next June's PBA election and thereby preserve a labor dynasty that stretches back almost three decades. Over the years, police-union presidents and their rubber-stamp boards have held unregulated power over union purse strings, wielding enormous political clout and enjoying unflinching loyalty from city cops. The top job has been handed down from one entrenched boss to the next -- Sam DeMilia begat Phil Caruso, who begat Lou Matarazzo.
But now, after kickback scandals that have crippled the union at the bargaining table over the past three years, one of the last bastions of political bossism may be nearing extinction. The two-year pay freeze that Matarazzo agreed to -- at a time when NYPD cops are hailed as heroes for crushing the crime rate -- outraged the rank and file. As a result, for the first time in memory, the leadership is up for grabs. Doc Savage, a soft-spoken negotiator, has been anointed heir apparent to the current regime; Jimmy Higgins, a street-tough board member who split with the union leadership after the scandal, is the compromise choice; and Pat Lynch, a young Brooklyn community-affairs officer, is heading an outsider reform movement.
The campaign has all the fixings of a Dashiell Hammett potboiler, complete with high-powered press agents working the phones and well-connected lawyers maneuvering behind the scenes in support of each of the candidates, staking a claim for lucrative PBA contracts down the road (the union takes in more than $12 million a year in dues and $20 million a year in health and welfare payments from the city). The membership itself is equally energized -- the PBA is more than a union. Formed in 1894 to assist the families of police officers killed in the line of duty, it has become a fixture in the everyday life of NYPD officers, handling everything from their wills, divorces, and landlord disputes to life insurance, pensions, and legal representation, both civil and criminal.
As Savage suggests, the candidates' positions aren't really the issue -- everyone agrees that the cops deserve better from the city. The question, then, is who has the personality, the reputation, and the will to get the goods from City Hall.
- THE INSIDER. Doc Savage, the son of a fire-union boss, is a cordial administrator with a master's degree in labor relations, but he'll need to exhibit some other talents right from the start. The biggest problem is handling fallout from the scandal -- though neither Matarazzo nor any of his top officers were implicated, their lawyers were convicted in federal court of orchestrating a series of kickback schemes through the transit-police union (which merged with the PBA in 1995). And the tabloid drama of the trial exposed an unseemly cozy relationship between the PBA bosses and the lawyers they made rich with extravagant union contracts and perks. It wasn't just an image problem -- it destroyed the union's credibility at the bargaining table, and it made cops view their leaders with distrust for the first time.
Winning back this trust is Savage's biggest headache. Considered more reasonable than Matarazzo, he's nevertheless too closely linked to the old guard to market himself as an agent of change. So he'll have to rely on PBA insiders like Howard Rubenstein, the flack for George Steinbrenner and Rupert Murdoch, among others, who was brought onboard in the wake of the scandal.
Savage will also be looking to call in favors owed to Matarazzo. The biggest payoff may come from Albany. The union made a big deal of endorsing Pataki in the last election; Savage himself spoke at the endorsement press conference, an unusually visible role for a first vice-president. Now that the governor has been overwhelmingly re-elected, he may be willing to reconsider the P.E.R.B. bill, which would transfer the responsibility for resolving PBA contract disputes from the city to the state (if that happened, NYPD officers might achieve their longstanding dream of pay parity with other cops in the state and hike their salaries by as much as $20,000 a man). Cops lobbied hard for the measure, but Pataki caved to heavy pressure from Giuliani and vetoed it earlier this year. The legislation is being rewritten, and if Savage can get the governor's signature on it before June, his victory is virtually assured.
- THE CONTENDER. In an unusually bold move for an officer of a loyalty-bound organization, PBA recording secretary Jimmy Higgins is mounting his own campaign against Savage. A beat cop at heart (he once shot and killed a perpetrator outside Yankee Stadium), Higgins is notorious for firing up the troops at delegate meetings. After breaking with Matarazzo following the pay-freeze deal, he was swiftly assailed by his ex-colleagues. "He betrayed us," says Savage. "It's much easier to throw stones than to catch them. We re catching the stones."
Higgins is defiant. "They lied to the membership," he counters. A boxing nut, Higgins considers contract negotiations an old-school street fight, and he's embarrassed not only that the union lost its last brawl but that the leadership won't even cop to it. "They didn't have the courage to come back and say, 'We lost,' " he says disgustedly. "Giuliani beat us. I recognize that. I don't want to fight him. I want to move on."
In Higgins's corner is P.R. agent Lonnie Soury, a well-connected former Rubenstein operative who represents General Motors. Higgins's biggest asset, though, may be his ties to City Hall. One administration official points out that virtually all the members of Giuliani's police detail are Higgins's guys. If cops want a conciliator to patch up relations with City Hall after the bitter contract negotiations, he may be the man.
- THE INSURGENT. The genuine outsiders vying for power are a group of mostly young delegates, headed by Pat Lynch, a photogenic 35-year-old community-affairs officer from the notoriously tough Brooklyn North command. Lynch and his gang -- none of whom have any executive-board experience -- are hoping to topple the PBA power structure in one fell swoop.