Rumor has it Adolfo Carrion Jr. is interested in running for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket in New York’s upcoming gubernatorial election. This raises a number of questions: Is he for real? Is Cuomo even interested? More importantly, doesn’t Carrion already have a job as the Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs? And if he’s going to be having his exit interview soon, how will it go? What accomplishments can Mr. Carrion hang his proverbial hat on?
In talking with Harry Moroz, a research associate at the Drum Major Institute who has been tracking the White House Office of Urban Affairs, you would think that Carrion’s 13 months in the White House amounted to little more than a series of speaking engagements. After seven years spent as the Bronx Borough President, where Carrion built his legacy on funding affordable housing and bringing jobs into the Bronx with the development of the new Yankee Stadium, Carrion seems to have accomplished relatively little in his executive office position.
But then what does the Albany have to offer? Christopher Ketcham’s article in the latest Harper’s examines the corrupt Democratic machine’s stranglehold on the legislature in the state capital, describes Albany as “the least efficient in passing laws, the most profligate in its operations, the least open in rules of participation, the least deliberative, the least democratic” of all state legislatures. Ketcham goes on:
“One can look in almost any direction in Albany and find a problem: there are the lobbyists who infest the legislature, whose relationships with lawmakers are largely undisclosed and whose spending has risen, in constant dollars, almost 500 percent since 1990; or the campaign-finance laws, more loophole than legislation, which allow single contributions to party organizations of up to $94,200 (three times the amount permitted to national parties funding members of the U.S. Congress);…or that the majority leader can unilaterally suspend action on any bill, at any time; or that in 2007, 89 percent of legislation passed with no debate; or that transcripts of the few debates that do occur can be accessed in nearly all cases only via the Freedom of Information Law; or that the Legislative Ethics Commission, empowered to oversee the conduct of its own membership, has in its twenty-three years of operation brought not a single case against a legislator.”
Given his inability to take action in Washington, the lieutenant government position might be well-suited to Carrion — that is if you blame him for the lack of real policy changes from the WHOUA. Moroz pointed out — with the caveat that the thought had just popped into his head — it’s possible the Obama created the WHOUA because it was part of his urban policy platform that he campaigned on, and the new President wasn’t willing to spend any unnecessary political capital in what he knew was going to be a tough legislative year. So, Moroz speculated, Obama created an intentionally weak office with only four employees, and a director who had political ambitions elsewhere. That way, he could appear to be fulfilling a very important campaign promise.
This sounds a bit cynical on the administration’s part, but when reports come out that sources close to Carrion say he is “bored working for the Obama administration” you have to wonder whether Carrion’s problem stems from of a lack of vision, or from being intentionally hamstrung. The latter seems more likely, given how politically damaging it would be to have sources close to you saying you’re bored with your historically significant post, as the Village Voice points out.
If Carrion does vacate his position at the WHOUA, will this mean the end of a brief experiment in reviving the White House’s role in federal urban policy? As the Drum Major Institute’s report “No Economic Recovery Without Cities: The Urgency of a New Federal Urban Policy” explains, there hasn’t been a cogent vision for the White House’s role in urban America since the Carter administration. When Carter faced political opposition to his federal urban policy, he signed an executive order “requiring all executive agencies to develop Urban and Community Impact Statements…Every federal agency was to analyze each of its proposed initiatives for their impact on cities, counties, and communities and inform the OMB and the White House about policies that ran counter to Carter’s urban policy.”
The Obama Administration has issued a somewhat similar, but watered down version of Carter’s executive order; the Office of Management and Budget issued a memo in August 2009 to encourage executive agencies to develop effective “place-based” policies. As Moroz put it, the memo “only requires agencies to ‘think about’ a couple of initiatives that are place-based and how they could be improved, or that could benefit from a focus on place. The fiscal year 2011 agency budgets appear — I’ve only glanced at a couple — to include these details.”
There is hope for a better urban agenda from the White House even without a strong Office of Urban Affairs, even if it appears vague and atomized. The larger vision has been split up and funneled through various bureaucratic channels, and we can only hope it comes out looking good at the other end. In our political climate, where politicians are held accountable not for their policies, but for any logical extreme — historical or fictional — of their apparent political viewpoints, maybe this is the best way to get things of this nature done: away from the lies and half-truths of the public arena. As Ketcham explains in the Albany article, in 1918, at the behest of governor-elect Al Smith, a young civil service reformer helped draft a “blueprint” to make the governor’s office in New York state stronger, with more authority and a more effective bureaucracy. The governor could side-step an ineffective, corrupt legislature to actually get things done. The civil service reformer’s name? Robert Moses.
I draw the comparison only to say that efficacy cannot supplant vision when it comes to urban policy. Legislators and public debate slow things down, but they usually serve a purpose. If Carrion leaves, the Obama Administration has an excellent opportunity to reevaluate their urban agenda in the public forum, and perhaps some good could come of that.