Thursday, April 11, 2013

As Markowitz delivers final State of the Borough, how well do Brooklynites really know him? A look behind the persona

Markowitz (l.) at a re-opening of Fairway; photo K. Kirk
"You could raise all the issues you want—the people in Brooklyn know me," Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz famously said in October 2011 in response to a belated New York Times investigation of his use of charities to support popular initiatives and burnish his brand. "You don’t understand that. They know me.”

“I think he’s wonderful,” a Brooklynite says in a profile of Markowitz in the new webmagazine BKLYNR. "He's totally for Brooklyn."

Except they don't really know him. Nor do they know exactly what "for Brooklyn" means. And those are troubling thoughts on the day of Markowitz's final State of the Borough address, held at his beloved Barclays Center.

Markowitz honors Youth Poet Laureate; photo K. Kirk
They know Markowitz is energetic and entertaining, a Brooklyn enthusiast and arena booster, a perpetual presence at block parties and official dinners. They know he bestows honors and proclamations, as chronicled in his taxpayer-supported Brooklyn!! publication.

They know he deserves praise for his Brooklyn vigilance and boosterism, and merits some credit--opinions vary--for the borough's astonishing rise over the last 12 years.

They don't know how he raises and spends charitable money, as Gail Robinson wrote last month in City Limits' Brooklyn Bureau, how "[t]he line between these charities and the government of Brooklyn has been blurred almost to the vanishing point."

They don't know how he uses the copious campaign funds he's amassed despite token opposition--more than $1.5 million since 2004. (Among many expenditures are refreshments for tonight's event, fines for campaign violations, $50,000+ to the county Democratic committee.)

They don't know how Markowitz spends tens of millions in capital money, other than carefully times announcements--such as the one made last night to NY1 and leaked to the Times--about his plan to fund an amphitheater for summer concerts in Coney Island with $48 million, an astonishingly large percentage of his capital funds. (He's also spending $2 million of what the Daily News reported as city funds--though I wonder--to bling up the Coney Island Parachute Jump.)

They don't know how his agenda might have been different, emphasizing (as noted in my Brooklyn Bureau article) reform of Community Boards, as has Manhattan BP Scott Stringer; or using capital money to support affordable housing, as have Bronx BPs, or renovation of libraries, as has Queens Beep Helen Marshall.

They don't know quite how Markowitz's desire for a sports team and arena has translated into unending, even dishonest support for Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project.

Or how he's uttered no criticism, say, of skyrocketing prices for the cheap seats; fewer family-sized apartments than promised; a scoreboard obscured; or the developer's plans to delay building a deck over the blighted railyard.

Markowitz promotes low-cost financing for Forest City Ratner from immigrant investors.

Nor do most in the press truly know Markowitz, whose office practices studied opacity (little public information about its operating and capital budgets) while issuing a flood of press releases, statements, and proclamations.

They don't notice how Markowitz's studied silence on some issues--like playgrounds his office helps refurbish--has allowed a smaller contributor, the Barclays Nets Community Alliance, to claim credit for the revamp.

The Markowitz id

Brooklynites may not even know Markowitz's bursting id, the flip side of his showman's personality, which forged his reputation as an office "screamer," leads him to bellow at rallies, and prompts him to celebrate quasi-lecherous moments, chortling about photo ops with gorgeous celebrities.

Markowitz brings up Beyonce at Barclays Center groundbreaking, making Jay-Z uncomfortable. Also note Jay-Z's reaction at 2:07.

Markowitz at Brooklyn Day rally; behind him are the convicted Carl Kruger and the indicted Sal Zarzana.

The past profiles: 2005

The definitive early profile of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz was Rebecca Mead's 4/25/05 piece in the New Yorker (Mr. Brooklyn), which portrayed, in devastating detail, Markowitz's willingness to play nice with developer Bruce Ratner:
In the car, Markowitz’s cell phone rang, and the voice of a female assistant announced that “Bruce” was on the line.
“Yes, sir, how are you doing, Bruce?” Markowitz said, picking up the handset and falling silent as he listened. Bruce Ratner, it appeared from Markowitz’s responses, had some urgent questions about the way discussions concerning waterfront development in Williamsburg and Greenpoint might affect his own project. Markowitz, whenever he could get a word in, tried to be both conciliatory and upbeat. “I understand,” he said; and then, “I wish I knew, but I don’t know”; and “It’s hard for me”; and “That’s absolutely right.” Finally, he told Ratner to call someone in his office—better yet, he would have that someone call Ratner.
Across the street, a small huddle of Boerum Hill residents handed Markowitz a sheaf of plans showing an arrangement of planters and greenery they would like to see in front of the restored subway kiosk. Perhaps, a resident suggested, Forest City Ratner might be persuaded to contribute the funds.
“Does Ratner want to prove he cares?” someone asked.
“I haven’t asked him,” Markowitz replied testily. Then he went to look at the other side of the kiosk, which, another member of the group was telling him, would be a perfect place for a Christmas tree next year.
A campaign violation

That article made passing mention of some malfeasance attached to Markowitz's first run for Borough President, in 1985:
That bid for office resulted in Markowitz’s being charged with failing to disclose a campaign contribution from a local businessman: he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, paid a nearly eight-thousand-dollar fine, and performed seventy-five hours of community service.
For some more detail, check the  Times's 8/18/88 article headlined Brooklyn Legislator Pleads Guilty To Hiding Source of Contributions:

''I made an error, that's for sure,'' the 43-year-old Democrat told reporters outside the courtroom in Brooklyn. But he described the violations as ''campaign technicalities'' and, as he had earlier in court, insisted that he did not personally profit from them.
The Brooklyn District Attorney, Elizabeth Holtzman, said later, however, that the criminal acts were not ''a technical violation.''
''The defendant personally engaged in a money laundering scheme to hide the source of his campaign contributions,'' she said. ''This was a crime that undermined the integrity of the electoral process and deceived the voters.''
...Mr. Markowitz would not tell reporters why he had concealed the source of the money.
Now, like Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Markowitz has figured out ways to work the system legally.

Past profile: 2009

A January 2009 profile in City Hall News, headlined Marty! The Brooklyn BP on being overlooked, and what he plans to do about it, sketched the BP's moods, obsessions, and style, and contrasted Markowitz's approach with that of fellow BPs.

Edward-Isaac Dovere wrote:
And he is angry. For all the positive coverage he receives, he has also been battered in the press, mostly over Atlantic Yards, but also over the private fundraising he has done on behalf of the nonprofit run out of Borough Hall used to promote his Brooklyn agenda and for the famous summer concert series he has hosted since he was a state senator.
The attacks have gotten to him. A story circulated about his wife taking too many Takashi Murakami placemats from a party at the Brooklyn Museum of Art last April is “a crock of shit.” Claims that he misappropriated funds for his nonprofits are “bullshit.”
As for the "crock of shit," Markowitz had acknowledged to the Daily News that "It's a little true."

Regarding his nonprofits, the issue wasn't whether he misappropriated funds, it's whether it's appropriate--even if legal--to shape contracts for sums just under the threshold to trigger city oversight and to accept money from companies needing the BP's support. And he was later sanctioned for that.

Dovere pointed out that, "aside from championing redevelopment and rezonings, [Markowitz] has not distinguished himself as an out-front leader on anything divisive in politics and policy" and notes Markowitz didn't have a specific agenda for the third term he inevitably would win.

The 2013 update

Gail Robinson's Brooklyn Bureau profile offers a complex take on Markowitz, with reports of praise:
Fans say Markowitz extends assistance to less affluent Brooklynites as well as well-heeled developers. Going back to his days as a state senator, people recall going to him for help and getting it. A drop-in center. Playground equipment for a school. Funding for security cameras at housing projects in Brownsville.
Leslie Bernat, who with her husband Jean-Jacques Bernat owns Provence en Boite on Smith Street, recalls when they had a problem—she would not say what it was—that could have cost them their restaurant. Desperate for help, she called Markowitz's office, not really expecting that he could do much about it. He then took steps—she would not detail them— that saved the business. "I was flabbergasted at the help he gave us," she says.
Still, there's murk, and policy choices not made:
Unlike some other borough presidents, Markowitz does not issue a list of how he spends his capital budget or his expense items, making it difficult to get a full sense of his priorities.
But what is clear is that Markowitz's generosity toward Brooklyn's less fortunate as a funder has not been matched by any zeal as an advocate.
The first valedictory

For the preliminary valedictory, consider the BKLYNR profile, His Last Exit From Brooklyn: After 40 years, Marty Markowitz calls it quits. (Forget the strained headline; Markowitz isn't going anywhere, and will be buried in Green-Wood Cemetery. And so much for the claim  Markowitz did not want to do any "legacy" stories until the summer.)

BKLYNR writer Alexandria Symonds gets some face time with Markowitz and captures some of his contradictions:
Even while sitting for the portraits for this article, Markowitz seemed uncomfortable — clearly, the constant posing is an aspect of public life he won’t miss. He frequently makes self-deprecating reference to his height in public speeches, but one gets the sense it’s a move made in self-defense: if he makes the joke, you can’t.
The article mentions Markowitz's small annual budget and little legislative power, but fails to mention the far more significant capital budget. And the conclusions are weak, the verdict tentative. 

The View from Nowhere

Symonds's citation of opponents who "take issue with the influence Markowitz’s network of nonprofit agencies exercises... or with the travel expenses he was fined by the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board for accepting" represents a View from Nowhere straining for impartiality.

Not merely "opponents" have reason to question Markowitz on those issues. As the Times reported, the local franchisee for the Applebee’s restaurant chain, Zane Tankel, who said he admired Markowitz, recounted, "He took my arm and twisted it off — yeah, he more than asked me, he kept coming at me, until finally I said yes."

The new article states:
He even made a video designed to attract Chinese investors to the project, uncovered by [Norman] Oder, in which he assured potential backers that Brooklyn is “1000 percent” behind Atlantic Yards — a statement those opposed to the project could reasonably interpret as a dismissal or insult.
The issue is not merely what opponents might consider "a dismissal or insult." As I've pointed out, it's an exaggeration and lie obvious to all, aimed to benefit a favored developer and to mislead investors.

"Markowitz is quick, and pleased, to take credit for Atlantic Yards," the article states. Actually, while Markowitz surely wanted to bring a team to Brooklyn, his goal was not the site Forest City chose. He wanted to attract a team to Coney Island.

As I reported in April 2007, Forest City Ratner reserved the URL the inchoate Atlantic Yards or even an arena in Coney Island--on 3/27/02. That was just five days after Markowitz issued a press release urging that the planned SportsPlex in Coney Island be outfitted to attract a National Basketball Association team.

The article also states that, "according to critics, neither [good jobs for locals or affordable apartments] has materialized." There's no need to rely on "critics"; that's either confirmable or not.

The article suggests "a fundamental difference of opinion" between the BP and critics:
Markowitz holds the belief, generally unpopular with more progressive types, that gentrification is an unequivocal good. “It is a positive force,” he said. “It brings folks in here who can create jobs and create an atmosphere for greater investment, so I think it’s a positive thing.”
Even most supporters of gentrification know it can have untoward effects. It may create an atmosphere for greater investment, but those moving into a gentrifying neighborhood does not represent a job-creation strategy.

Markowitz could have mitigated some impacts of gentrification by putting his put capital money into affordable housing or universal services like libraries, or trying to ensure that prosperity is shared. For the next Borough President, as several experts have suggested, equity should be a goal.

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