From Watergate to Occupy Wall Street

The men who brought down one of the most toxic administrations in American history were lamenting the toxic state of today’s political environment. That’s pretty terrible.

This column appears in the March 22nd, 2012 edition of the Long Island Press

“It’s a mess.” This was the sentiment offered by Bob Woodward at a Hofstra University luncheon on Tuesday when asked to describe the current political environment. After his flight was delayed by fog in New York for the better part of the morning, Woodward was late in joining the other half of the famous Woodward and Bernstein duo at the podium in the University Club. The hour prior to his arrival was the Carl Bernstein show as he regaled the packed room of attendees with stories of their travails in journalism during a road show marking the 40th anniversary of the Watergate affair.

The luncheon was part of a series of high-profile political events Hofstra is hosting for the student body, as well as the greater Long Island community, culminating in the second presidential debate to be held there this fall. For his part, Bernstein was also chagrined at the state of politics today and his anecdotes were didactic in this regard. He broke through the haze of mythology that over time has shrouded the Watergate story and boiled it down to the simple premise that no one is above the law and the entire system of democracy must function properly in order for this notion to be upheld. It was the latter sentiment that hung in the air like the fog that had held Woodward at bay on the tarmac for hours.

Time has benefitted both men by allowing them to evaluate Watergate through the backward lens of history. Stepping away from their youthful selves (they were in their late twenties when they broke the story that catapulted them to the top of their newspaper careers), they even reevaluated some of their own beliefs such as the pardoning of Richard Nixon by his VP/successor Gerald Ford, a move that arguably cost him the election to Jimmy Carter. Bernstein recalled telephoning Woodward early that morning in 1974, saying “the son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch.” What he once viewed as ignominious Bernstein now considers magnanimous as Ford believed this was the best way to heal the nation from its “long nightmare,” no matter the consequences to his presidency.

Subtle reflections and anecdotes aside, the afternoon offered a glimpse into the thoughts of two devout Washington insiders who have witnessed a sea change in American politics. To be clear, these are not two old curmudgeons touting the “things ain’t what they used to be” line. They deftly fielded questions about new media and the surge of information as well as our ability to process the constant onslaught of news and commentary today. And while they were genuinely hopeful that their efforts four decades ago could be replicated by today’s reporters, they were less sanguine about whether the political climate existed to allow journalism to flourish and find its natural audience.

The men who brought down one of the most toxic administrations in American history were lamenting the toxic state of today’s political environment. That’s pretty terrible.

Bernstein spoke eloquently about the support their reporting received from The Washington Post but was careful to point out that the entire democratic machine had to function properly at every stage of the investigation in order to yield the historic results that it did. From the judicial system that forced President Nixon to hand over his personal tapes to the legislative branch that carried the articles of impeachment against the president, to the protection afforded the journalists in shielding their sources, democracy in all of its glory won the day. But Bernstein argued that it was the people who ultimately played the most critical role in judging the Nixon presidency as even staunch supporters of Nixon and the Republican Party were open enough to review the facts before them and draw their own conclusions.

Ultimately, partisanship among the elected and the electorate was cast aside for the greater good.

Bernstein went on to argue that money has corrupted the political system beyond recognition. He excoriated the Citizen’s United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which allows unlimited contributions from corporations and wealthy individuals in campaigns. Furthermore, he believes the glut and immediacy of information has had the unintended consequence of allowing people to reinforce existing beliefs rather than exposing them to new ideas or multiple sides of a story.
The rancor that exists in Washington is a reflection of this phenomenon, and it has created a vicious cycle of partisanship with politicians pandering to the most extreme elements of our society. It’s mob rule. As to how the system could be fixed, no solutions were offered by either man. Perhaps this is because there are none.

The system is broken and I believe it to be irreparable. And that’s okay. Sometimes it’s easier to build anew than to salvage a diseased and crumbling infrastructure. I’m not being pessimistic here, either. To the contrary, I’m fairly optimistic about our chances because I believe the foundation and principles that have guided us to this point are strong enough to endure the collapse and rebirth of a functioning and more equitable system no matter how painful the process may be. This hope derives from the fact that the older generations are the ones who are fixed in their ways and reinforce their existing belief systems no matter how dangerous or antiquated they are. And quite frankly, the answer to this is rather simple math: They have far less time left on the planet than we do.

It’s true that they have hoarded the world’s money and resources and polluted the Earth. It’s also true that they have left those in my generation and younger to foot the bill for their greed and consumption. They have “engineered” our food and contaminated our water and established a culture of pharmaceutical addiction. They’ve started wars around the globe in the pursuit of oil by blaming bogeymen while selling themselves as false prophets.

Now they have a credibility problem because we no longer believe. And as sure as these are the truths they bequeath to us, so too is the truth that they will all soon be dead. Even the good ones like Woodward and Bernstein cannot escape the inevitable. We can take solace, however, that although we must someday lose them, so too will we rid ourselves of people like the Koch Brothers. Death is funny that way; forever indiscriminate.

The youth of today, such as those in the Occupy movement, are wide awake and watching. Six months ago I didn’t believe this to be the case, but it’s real. So to you, Mr. Bernstein, I offer my thanks and some comfort as you and your venerable collaborator enter the winter of your lives. Your wisdom and work have better prepared us for the long, difficult task ahead.

Not So Fast, 2012

While the national debate rages on through 2012 here at home there are local issues playing out that will have a significant impact on shaping Long Island. Including the lighthouse project, an island based casino, legacy village in Yaphank and Wolkoff’s mini-city in Brentwood to name a few.

Gearing up for 2012, Long Island let’s not forget about 2011.
Gop Candidate FieldThe heroic mission of the U.S Navy Seals to rid the world of the face of terrorism has created a new paradigm for the 2012 elections. Before this global event consumed the national political headlines the term “birther” was rekindled by Donald Trump’s potential bid for the Country’s CEO job which monopolized weeks of national broadcasts, only to have POTUS Obama hold a live news conference to finally provide his birth certificate after two years of countless debate, articles and even books on the topic. The seriousness of the global threats facing our nation weighed against such previous headlines certainly re-shifts the current debate played out in the news cycle.

Over the last several weeks we’ve had former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty announce their exploratory committees and GOP power broker Haley Barbour surprisingly bow out of running. Shortly we’ll see if former Utah Governor John Huntsman, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Congresswoman Michelle Bachman officially declare their intentions to run for President.

On the Hill there was a fierce budget debate with clocks ticking down on cable news of a looming government shut down. Next up on the docket the debt ceiling vote. Get ready.

Now Democrat operatives are staging protests at Republican House Members town hall meetings across the Country using Congressman Paul Ryan’s forward looking budget as a wedge issue for 2012. A recent Rasmussen Poll shows those aware of the plan 51% of Republicans favor Ryan’s budget plan and 52% of Democrats oppose it. But a plurality of voters not affiliated with either party have no opinion. Again a classic example of party line support with the battleground being the independent voter’s support.

Without a doubt there are substantial issues that must be addressed in order for our Country to prosper. Sustaining isn’t good enough, growth should be our objective. Social Security, Medicare, cutting the deficit, sound job creation and pension reform are of all hallmark concerns.

While the national debate rages on through 2012 here at home there are local issues playing out that will have a significant impact on shaping Long Island. Including the lighthouse project, an island based casino, legacy village in Yaphank and Wolkoff’s mini-city in Brentwood to name a few. Oh, and while it is not significant to the “shaping of Long Island” I do predict very localized, heated debate on the zoning of Sonic fast food joints springing up on the Island. We’ll have to see if resident’s craving for burgers and roller skates will outweigh the traffic jams that may snarl local roads.

When you look at voter participation of national elections to local elections here on the Island the numbers are quite far apart. Let’s turn to Suffolk County as an illustration. The 2008 Presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain had 75.18% of registered voters come to the polls. That’s substantially higher than the 61% national average from that year. The last off year election in Suffolk County was in 2009 where a mere 20.81% turned out county wide. Go back to 2003 with the race for Suffolk County Executive between Ed Romaine and Steve Levy to see a somewhat respectable 32.38% turnout.

Political strategists have spent campaign dollars trying to drive out presidential year voters in off years with limited success.

There are many root causes of voter apathy at the local level. One reason is that there is substantially less television coverage of local races with Long Island’s news market dominated by New York City based and national cable news. Secondly there is not enough public awareness demonstrating the importance of local elected offices. An extreme few can actually describe the job function of a County Comptroller, but yet they’re asked to vote for that office in an election. Don’t dare to ask your average registered voter to name both their Assemblyman AND County Legislator. Yikes. (No offense to all my friends in those offices).

Some thought needs to go into New York’s stiffer voting rules compared to other states. Many states in the Union have more convenient absentee voting rules and gives the electorate the ability before election day to cast their ballots through early voting. Giving people more flexibility to vote with today’s more demanding work and home environments should be studied further outlining its pro’s and con’s for such a reform.

What out of the box ideas can “electrify” the electorate to fill in a circle on their paper ballots for County Executive, Town Supervisor and local Legislator this year?

All the snazzy mail put out by these candidates won’t do the trick. Long Island’s media; Newsday, News12, TV55, the Long Island Press, the Patch and weeklies do an admirable job touting local elections, but we need a wider net to cast in more voter interest.

One idea in the true spirit of bi-partisanship is to have all the Presidential, U.S Senate and House candidates who are running in 2012 join together, along with the main stream media to promote a “vote local” initiative this fall urging everyone to vote in their local elections. At least then we’d have a new, high profile delivery method to bring more voters to the polls this year. Well call that idea very unlikely.

We then need to consider a wide-spread “calling of the guard” for Long Island based stake holders and media to join together to create our own non partisan “vote local in 2011” initiative. We have many groups with substantial monetary and human capital where through the use of PSA type outreach can connect with every Long Islander multiple times with an important, yet simple, education campaign on why it is important to vote in your local elections. If groups like the Long Island Association, HIA, Execuleaders, Melville Chamber, Hispanic Chamber, ABLI, Long Island Angels, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, our higher educational institutions such as Hofstra and Dowling along with our many trade unions pooled resources for a “vote Long Island” campaign, the message would certainly drive voter participation higher in local election years, including 2011.

Unfortunately the Sonic debates, the chants to keep the Islanders here and the potential for winning the slots at a local casino won’t be enough to drive out presidential year voters en masse this November. But hopefully Long Island pulling together can far eclipse recent off year voter turnout by educating the public on why 2011 is just as important as 2012.

Coliseum Casino: Let It Ride

It amuses me to no end that we can build a refuse-burning facility with a Garden City address down the road, but a casino with a hotel, sports arena and convention center threaded by a coordinated transit hub that connects local retail and commerce is a non-starter.

Foxwoods Casino. Oh no, this just wouldn't do. Too pretty for Long Island. Next!

There is a renewed hullaballoo surrounding the proposed Shinnecock casino at the current site of the Nassau Coliseum. A deserved hullaballoo, I might add. The very thought of a casino in the middle of our bustling, albeit struggling, suburban landscape inspires clamorous debate among the many stakeholders that exist in relatively tight quarters. Even lame duck Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy is quacking about building a casino at his beloved Yaphank facility claiming that it’s better suited further away from Nassau County residents.

Unfortunately, it will be a cold day in hell before Long Islanders in either county have a say in the matter. People you have never heard of in positions you didn’t know existed will never allow a casino to be built this close to New York City because it would potentially devastate the interests of the people they represent from upstate New York, Connecticut, Atlantic City and Las Vegas. I offer this, not to quell your enthusiasm but to issue a gauntlet of solidarity and self-determination: either we all get behind this, or we drop it from the start.

So let’s have a debate among ourselves. Long Islander to Long Islander. But allow me to establish some ground rules. First, take the emotion out of the ensuing discourse by recognizing that while there is no magic elixir to cure our financial illness on Long Island, Nassau County in particular, we must not allow ourselves to be constrained by classic NIMBYism. There’s nothing wrong with thinking big. Conversely, big thinking doesn’t always ensure positive outcomes. But the only journey that guarantees failure is one that never begins. Taxpayers can no longer afford pusillanimous behavior from elected officials who acquiesce to a vocal minority. (Yeah, I’m talking to you, Huntington! Oops. Getting emotional. My bad.)

Further, in order to have a proper discussion we must move past the question of legitimacy; that is, whether the tribe has the right to construct a casino on this parcel. For the purposes of examining the potential impact of this type of development, let us assume that it is within their right to strike an agreement with the government to build on this property. Lastly, the only other stipulation I entreat you to heed is to refrain from casting racially motivated aspersions toward members of the Shinnecock Nation. It detracts from the merit of the debate.

Here are my assertions. Let the debate begin.

If you build it they will come. A casino nestled within such a populous community has the potential of being the largest-grossing casino in the nation. Factor in the public transportation access to this area from New York City residents and this is an irrefutable fact. The impact upon the local economy would be seismic. According to a 2008 study published by the Taylor Policy Group of Sarasota, Fla., the estimated impact of the gaming and related industries of the Seneca Nation in western New York is $820 million annually. The study places this figure in context by stating that “the impact of the Nation exceeds that of the [Buffalo] Bills and the [Buffalo] Sabres combined and approaches that of the SUNY Buffalo campus.” This project would create thousands of sustained jobs and provide badly needed work for the local trades, generate healthy revenues to the Long Island Power Authority and local municipalities, and have an incredible halo effect on the travel, tourism and hospitality industry.

A casino would not create a seedy culture. This particular assertion is hotly debated. Casinos conjure up images of mafia hoods and prostitutes. Never mind that you can already gamble in dozens of OTBs, buy lottery tickets on every corner, find a hooker making the rounds in industrial parks, or get a happy ending at any number of corner massage parlors. The moment a high-priced call girl takes up residence on a casino barstool looking for an out-of-town businessman in a leisure suit with a name badge, our puritan alarm sounds and the torches and pitchforks come out. I’m not condoning the use of escort services, but merely pointing out our collective hypocrisy with respect to our view on what’s acceptable and where. Prohibiting this illegal indulgence is far more manageable than scouring Craigslist and cracking down on neighborhood massage parlors.

This actually is the best location for a casino. The modern casino is part of an extensive array of business and cultural services. They tend to be aesthetically pleasing (think Wynn, not Trump) and boost the viability of a convention center, sports complex and entertainment arena. If a gaming operation was paired with a family destination nearby (think Great Wolf Lodge), imagine the combined economic possibilities of family and business travel. I might also remind everyone that Roosevelt Raceway was a gigantic gambling facility. It amuses me to no end that we can build a refuse-burning facility with a Garden City address down the road, but a casino with a hotel, sports arena and convention center threaded by a coordinated transit hub that connects local retail and commerce is a non-starter.

This development would ease traffic. Yup. I said it. The amount of money generated by a full-fledged hotel, casino and convention operation with a family amusement center would fund the long-desired transportation hub between the railroad, Museum Row, and the local shopping destinations. It’s all right there; you just can’t get there from here at the moment.

The Islanders are worth fighting for. This team stood by Long Island for decades. Hell, they even looked pretty good at the end of this season and their prospects for next year are even better. This is our only professional sports franchise. Like I said, the Islanders are worth fighting for.

Hofstra would benefit greatly from this development. Hofstra University is emerging as the largest and most vocal detractor of this project. This is completely understandable given the fears gambling inspires. The two most salient points the University is making are that college kids shouldn’t have this type of access to a gambling establishment and that its proximity will have a deleterious effect on the school’s image from the perspective of parents considering sending their children to the school.

First of all, kids are gambling online and addicted to video games. This will be the addiction cross to bear for this generation. As for the perceptual aesthetic and moral issues of a peripheral gaming establishment, it’s hard to imagine the current “approach” to the University being any worse. I love the Hofstra campus but the immediate surroundings, including the dilapidated coliseum, leave much to be desired. Hofstra is a serious stakeholder that would and should be able to ask for the sun, moon and stars when the infrastructure is fully developed here. President Stuart Rabinowitz has done more to enhance the reputation of this institution, from which I proudly hold a degree, by hosting the Presidential debate, building a medical school and improving the overall academic standing of the school. Hofstra is already bigger than its environs and will continue to be so for decades to come, casino or no casino. Besides, you tell me which option sounds worse to a parent in Nebraska with a child considering a top-notch school in New York:

(A) Columbia University in Harlem,
(B) Fordham University in the Bronx, or
(C) Hofstra University on Long Island.

By now, I’m confident several of you vehemently disagree with these assertions. I welcome your commentsbelow and look forward to continuing the conversation.

With that, let the games (of chance) begin.

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Avalon Bay Huntington: Brick and Martyr

On Tuesday of this week I participated in a panel discussion at Hofstra University on the subject of social media and its impact on real estate development. The premise sounded fairly innocuous and the invitation was extended to me by Gary Lewi of Rubenstein Associates, a man whom I admire greatly, and phrases things in such a way that you can actually feel yourself getting smarter as he speaks. Gary served as moderator for the discussion, and the room was a veritable “who’s who” in the real estate world on Long Island replete with names such as Blumenfeld, Breslin and Rechler.

As a graduate of Hofstra, a friend of Gary and an acquaintance of several people in attendance, this was sure to be a home game. I have also never met a microphone I didn’t get along famously with.

The subject matter, however, was anything but innocuous. My co-conspirators on the panel were serious professionals, and the audience of nearly 200 people was fully engaged. Everyone in that room had a stake in the future of Long Island development, and the stakes in this economy are high and rising. Though I had certainly prepared for the discussion, it occurred to me that I was probably the only one on the panel without a Facebook page, LinkedIn profile or Twitter account. To make matters worse, my real estate experience isn’t much to brag about unless you count the home my wife and I purchased at the height of the market. Somehow, I don’t think my peak residential investment in Glen Cove was going to impress the likes of Wilbur Breslin.

Seated next to me was Adam Isserlis, the director of digital media for Rubenstein and a colleague of Gary’s. Adam is exceedingly bright and well-spoken, leading me to frequently make the “I wholeheartedly concur” face, accompanied by the patented “that’s what I was going to say” nod.  Each of the panelists had unique insights into the issue of NIMBYism on Long Island and how social media amplifies the cries of “no” and “never,” giving additional heft to anti-development activists.

From the outset it was clear that the failed Avalon Bay project in Huntington Station had become the official “smart growth” martyr, and we panelists were presenting to a well-heeled lynch mob looking for someone to hang. More than the Lighthouse project, Pilgrim State, or (insert idea here) in Calverton, the fall of Avalon has stung this community in a way I wasn’t fully prepared for.

Predictably, the prevailing sentiment in this room was that the elected officials in Huntington buckled under pressure from local NIMBY activists who were highly organized online and brandished social media and anonymous posts on local media sites as weapons of micro-destruction. Familiar calls for fewer layers of government and greater political courage were sprinkled throughout the discussion, but the prevailing sentiment was that social media was the dangerous new tipping point in the fight against development.

This was a rich discussion that only scratched the surface of the myriad issues that plague the Island. You’ve heard them all before: Creating transit-oriented development requires changes to zoning that affect residents in an area targeted for re-development. Building affordable housing units with any significant density might require expensive upgrades to the sewage treatment infrastructure. More housing could mean more families, which increases the number of children in a school district and school taxes as a result. Vertical development is an aesthetic affront to those who migrated from urban communities for the promise of trees, lawns, and privacy. Open space is limited and cherished. These are only some of the focal points of the debate over development on Long Island.

The upshot of the forum was that social media is indeed a significant part of the mix, but it is not a panacea for either side of the development divide. Because the discussion was lively and lasted more than two hours, it is impossible to encapsulate in this column. Besides, the real meaty discussions typically happen after the fact as people are more comfortable talking about white elephants when the microphone is off and guests are filing out. It was during this time that more than one person commented to me that the real problem with Long Island was the prohibitive zoning and that developers in other parts of the country often built first then applied for permits later.

Is our zoning infrastructure burdensome and confusing? Sure. More often than not, applying for a permit makes you feel like you’re being punished for doing the right thing. It’s a maddening process. Are there too many fees, hidden taxes and hurdles impeding our ability to create meaningful “smart growth” communities? Of course. Is it bizarre/troubling/ridiculous (I could go on) that Nassau County Fire Marshalls carry firearms? Don’t get me started. Was the death of Avalon Bay’s Huntington project a shame? Personally, I think it was. Did the political leadership in Huntington Town demonstrate a higher than normal level of cowardice by acquiescing to a small, vocal minority? Again, I believe so.

But none of that excuses a culture of asking forgiveness instead of permission.  We’re three million people sandwiched on a thin strip of land buttressed by water. For the landlocked, it’s called an island. It might be okay to take certain liberties in parts of the world with wide open spaces (Alaska, Texas, Siberia), but when you’re living in close quarters there are going to be more parameters than usual. And something like erecting a building will entail a few more regulations than plunking down a big box store in the middle of the desert. You don’t have to be the mayor of anywhere on FourSquare to know that. Even Facebook requires permission to see someone’s profile. Or so I’m told.

For more on the demise of Avalon Bay, check out the Press cover story penned by colleague Spencer Rumsey:

http://www.longislandpress.com/2010/10/07/the-new-battle-over-affordable-housing-on-long-island/