Lynne A. Weikart

 

On her book Follow the Money: Who Controls New York City Mayors?

Cover Interview of October 21, 2009

The wide angle

I first became interested in how money affected political decision making when my son was in the first grade at PS 75 on the West side of Manhattan.  It was 1976 and New York City was in the second year of a fiscal crisis that had decimated city services.  The schools were in chaos; teachers, aides and assistant principals were laid off, supplies were nonexistent and the parents were furious.  Our response was to organize – we raised funds to buy supplies and pay for the art and music teacher; we signed and delivered petitions by the thousands to the Board of Education.

It was a busy year.  Yet none of us knew how our schools had gotten in such terrible shape in so short a time.  So I began a search.  How were New York City education funds raised and allocated?  Just as importantly, who was responsible for those decisions?  I became a fiscal analyst and eventually put those tools to work in government and then in academia.  My interests broadened to fiscal decisions in other areas of government, and finally led me to this book.

In political science, those of us interested in decision making usually talk about the pluralists, who emphasize bargaining among a multiplicity of interests that define the urban power structure and de-emphasize economic power, and the structuralists, who emphasize the relationship between the state and the underlying socioeconomic system that shapes the political agenda.  The structuralists are divided among various camps: regime theorists, public choice theorists, and neo Marxist critiques.

Yet somehow these theories seemed inadequate when I examined mayoral decision making in New York City.  In spite of differences, they were both right – interest groups do make enormous differences particularly the rich ones.  And the very structure of the state and the socioeconomic system makes all the difference – the Governor of New York State has extraordinary power over public policy issues facing the city and many New York governors have exercised that power again and again.  So in Follow the Money I examine each New York City mayor since the Great Depression who faced fiscal difficulties.  And I explore the principal people behind a mayor’s fiscal decisions.

When we start with Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, we discover that the New York State Governor Herbert Lehman made a deal with the banks when the city was broke – the banks would finance the city’s debt and the city in return would give the banks what they wanted – lower taxes and service reductions.  That same deal was made after the 1975 fiscal crisis between Governor Hugh Carey and the banks.  History does indeed repeat itself.  But the responses of the two mayors were quite different.  Mayor La Guardia called the banks thieves and the Governor irresponsible.  He was so determined and persistent in his name calling that Governor Lehman finally gave in and agreed to raise taxes to improve the city’s revenue position.  In 1975, Mayor Abe Beame had no success fighting Governor Carey’s agreement with the bankers.  He caved, as did the unions, and watched his city being cut to ribbons.

Follow the Money explores the choices facing mayors La Guardia, Beame, Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani, and Bloomberg, the current mayor.  Each of them faced fiscal difficulty, and all were pressured by financial elites to give up their own priorities and agree to the priorities of the financial elites.