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12th May
2005

First Published in The New York Sun, May 12, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

The flap over the remarks made in March by Fernando Ferrer has now become a discussion of consistency and principles, the measure of which is the negative use of the term “flip-flop.”

The flip-flop is a term that may have killed the Kerry presidential campaign in 2004.Voters may not understand all the nuances of every issue, but they do understand consistency and candor. In fact, they demand it.
Mr. Ferrer has been accused of flipflopping not just on the Amadou Diallo issue, but on abortion and the death penalty — topics of personal conviction on which voters usually expect a principled stance.

Senator Kerry’s flip-flop on his support of the war in Iraq and the allocations to run the war made him look silly.New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Jim Courter’s inconsistency on the abortion question back in 1989 made him look indecisive.

But Mr. Ferrer is being criticized for something even worse: pandering — that is, tailoring one’s position to fit specific audiences. I recently stumbled on a much earlier flip-flop on the part of Mr. Ferrer, one that dates back to the time that he became borough president.

In 1987, on his way to the federal penitentiary, Mr. Ferrer’s immediate predecessor, Stanley Simon, resigned his post as borough president. Under the terms of the City Charter, the vacancy was filled by a majority vote of all of the City Council members whose districts included any part of the Bronx. Mr. Ferrer was then a councilman and the Democratic Party district leader.

Aside from the tremendous dislocation in the body politic due to a variety of corruption scandals, including the Wedtech scandal that snagged Mr. Simon, this was also the time that it became clear that the City Charter had to be revised. Other than the mayor, the most powerful entity in city government was the old Board of Estimate, comprising the five borough presidents, who each had one vote, and the three citywide officials, the mayor, comptroller, and City Council president, who each had two.

But because each of the borough presidents had the same single vote regardless of the population of their boroughs, it was determined that the Board of Estimate violated the oneman, one-vote districting decision made by the Supreme Court. The old board had wide powers over the city’s capital projects and acted as the Board of Franchises, granting franchises for bus routes, cable television, etc. The board also had its own protocols, which gave each borough president what amounted to veto power over projects in his or her own borough.This was very significant power.

By contrast, today’s borough presidents are little more than cheerleaders and ribbon cutters with watered-down powers regarding land use.

In March 1987, it was a foregone conclusion that Mr. Ferrer, a product of the Bronx Democratic machine, would get the nod, but the Council members went ahead with the charade of holding public hearings to question the hopefuls.

Questioned by then-Council Member Carolyn Maloney (whose district included a tiny corner of the Bronx, so she was eligible to vote) on whether he supported the proposed shift of the borough presidents’ budgetary authority to the Council, Mr. Ferrer replied that he did support such a change, music to the ears of the Council members.

But when Mr. Ferrer took office as borough president, he became the leading opponent of the charter revision, which did indeed strip the borough presidents of much of their budgetary clout, to the benefit of the Council. When it was expedient to support the agenda of the Council, a month before they were to vote on his appointment, Mr. Ferrer was their advocate. But once he was comfortably ensconced in Borough Hall and exercising those powers, Mr. Ferrer conveniently forgot his promise to his former colleagues.

An interesting postscript: After much of the powers of his office were taken away, Mr. Ferrer’s staff inexplicably increased from 127 persons to 140 in 1991,leading Henry Stern,then president of the Citizens’ Union, to call Mr. Ferrer’s office “Fernando’s Hideaway,” a place to put the extra staff that would, one day, form the nucleus of the Ferrer mayoral campaign.

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City Comptroller William Thompson seemed almost embarrassed Tuesday evening, appearing on NY 1’s “Road to City Hall” television program. His appearance had been preceded by the show “Wise Guys,” featuring former Mayor Koch, former Senator D’Amato and former Public Advocate Mark Green. All were gushing over Mr. Thompson, virtually swearing him in as the next mayor, the projected winner of the 2009 elections.

Mr.Thompson would indeed be a formidable candidate then, so his decision to hold firm in his current job seems brilliant. Part of his strength is the manner in which he conducts himself, putting his job performance ahead of his race. He has positioned himself as the city’s top fiscal officer who also happens to be black. But it may be a bit too soon to hang the bunting on City Hall and ask him to raise his right hand and take the oath.

In 1997, Mr.Thompson’s predecessor as comptroller,Alan Hevesi,looked like a sure bet to be a top, if not the top, contender to replace the term-limited Mayor Giuliani. Yet, when the dust cleared, he was the last-place finisher among the Democratic hopefuls in 2001.There is plenty of time to rise and fall, sink or swim, in the next four years.

Moreover, there is still an open question about reform of term limits. While the lame-duck City Council may attempt to increase their own 8-year limit to 12, it is not clear whether they would be as generous with the borough presidents and the three citywide officials — the mayor, comptroller, and public advocate. If Mayor Bloomberg is re-elected and the opportunity presented itself, would he run for a third term in 2009?
And would Mr. Thompson be willing to defer his dream to 2013, when he would be entering his 60s, or would he take on Mr. Bloomberg in 2009?

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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