Mayor Bill de Blasio's promise to ban New York City's iconic horse-drawn carriages could backfire, exposing what the newly-elected mayor's critics suggest is a corruption scandal masquerading as an animal-rights crusade. Defenders of the carriage industry point to a real-estate executive who is one of de Blasio's major campaign donors as the driving force behind the effort to abolish the carriages.
"It's got everything a scandal could ever want," says Eva Hughes, vice-president of the Horse and Carriage Association of New York City. Hughes spent 16 years driving carriages, her husband still drives a carriage, and she says they are fighting a "David and Goliath" battle against the mayor and his big-money backers.
The bad guy in this drama, according to the carriage drivers, is Steve Nislick, former chief executive officer of a New Jersey-based real-estate development company, Edison Properties.* The company "employs legions of lobbyists to influence city decisions on real estate and zoning in its favor," journalist Michael Gross reported in 2009, pointing out that two of Edison's businesses "have multiple locations in the same Far West Midtown neighborhood as the stables where the Central Park horses are housed." An anti-carriage pamphlet Nislick circulated in 2008 made this interesting observation: “Currently, the stables consist of 64,000 square feet of valuable real estate on lots that could accomodate up to 150,000 square feet of development. These lots could be sold for new development.”
Gross asked the obvious question: "What are the odds that good neighbor Nislick, the out-of-state real estate developer, simply covets those valuable, underdeveloped New York lots -- and has teamed up with ambitious pols to use the emotions of animal rights activists as fuel for their own agendas?" Nislick founded a 501(c)4 group called New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets (NYCLASS) that spent big money to elect de Blasio mayor, as Chris Bragg of Crain's New York Business reported in October:
Two major supporters of Democratic mayoral nominee Bill de Blasio, including his biggest campaign fundraiser, gave heavily to an outside group that targeted his primary rival City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, newly released records show.
The group, New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets (NYCLASS), spent nearly $124,000 on anti-Quinn phone banking and leafleting for the September primary election, which Mr. de Blasio won with more than 40% of the vote. NYCLASS also gave an above-the-legal-limit, six-figure donation to the anti-Quinn group "New York Is Not For Sale," which spent more than $1 million to defeat Ms. Quinn, and played a role in knocking the speaker from her frontrunner status early in the race. ...
In March, Mr. de Blasio, who also has taken direct donations from NYCLASS founder Steve Nislick and close associates, promised to the ban horse carriage industry in Central Park on his first day as mayor, a top priority for NYCLASS. ...
The newly filed records at the Campaign Finance Board also list the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as making a $50,000 contribution to NYCLASS in March. Nonprofits registered as 501(c)3 entities such as the ASPCA are barred from giving political donations because charitable contributions to a 501(c)3 are tax-deductible.
This apparent alliance between radical animal-rights activists and powerful real-estate interests may not be illegal, but the horse-and-carriage folks certainly view it as shady. Nislick is "like a villain straight out of Central Casting ... an evil genius," says Hughes. "He's got the animal-rights people doing his bidding."
Mayor de Blasio's willingness to do the bidding of his anti-carriage backers has puzzled many observers, who can't fathom why he would make the issue such a focus. "What makes him think this subject is important enough to occupy his first days in office?” asked New York Times editorial page editor Andy Rosenthal. Evidently, reporters at Rosenthal's newspaper can't be bothered to do the kind of "follow the money" investigative journalism that might provide an answer to that question, although supporters of the Carriage Association have created a Web site -- SaveNYCHorseCarriages.com -- to expose what they're calling the "CarriageGate" scandal.
"We were screaming it from the rooftops, but we couldn't get anybody to pay attention," Hughes said of her organization's fight to save the horse-drawn carriages that are popular with tourists who visit Manhattan. A handful of journalists have reported on some of the "backroom deals and intrigue" behind the anti-carriage campaign, Hughes said, "but nobody's connected all the dots yet."
Hughes was encouraged that Rush Limbaugh took notice of the carriage industry's plight on his nationally syndicated radio show last week. Limbaugh mocked the liberal mayor: "Why do you think the new mayor of New York is going to get rid of the horse-drawn carriage? ... Keep in mind, these people think that automobiles and fossil-fueled vehicles are destroying the climate and would love to take us back to the horse and buggy days, except the new mayor of New York thinks it is cruel and inhumane for horses to pull carriages with people in them."
The inhumane irony is that the left-wing mayor -- "Comrade De Blasio," as Matthew Vadum calls him -- claims to have the interests of New York's working class at heart, but has decided to abolish several small businesses that employ the city's working class.
"This is a a blue-collar job," said Hughes, a native of Queens who points out that she has only a high-school education. "I got into this because I love horses."
De Blasio's plan (promoted by Nislick's NYCLASS, of course) is to replace the horse-drawn carriages with electric replicas of antique cars. After learning of this plan via a pro-carriage Twitter campaign, I remarked last night: "Electric cars. That’s going to be a real romantic treat for honeymooners, isn’t it? 'Oh, we went to New York and rode the electric cars!'”
*This post has been amended to reflect the fact that Steve Nislick is no longer the CEO of Edison Properties, having stepped down in August 2012, according to a spokesman.