The Sit-Down: Consulting with George Arzt

When it comes to New York’s corridors of power, few are as familiar with the habits and customs as George Arzt. Before establishing one of the city’s premier communications consulting firms, George made a name for himself breaking news as the City Hall Bureau Chief for the New York Post. He then switched sides, serving as Press Secretary for Mayor Ed Koch, and finally made the move to nights and weekends, heading up Fox 5’s news division. In all of those years—now numbering more than 40—he’s learned a thing or two about what it takes to acquire, maintain and wield political power in the five boroughs. This past October, he was nice enough to sit down with Reclaim to share some of that hard-won wisdom and offer up insights on New York City’s emerging political landscape, what it’ll take to keep the livable streets revolution rolling like a ten-speed, and the changing relationship between City Hall and One Police Plaza.

There’s a narrative in certain circles of New York City politics that says Mayor Bloomberg has been able to do a great deal of what he wants because of his immense wealth. What’s your read of that story, and what does it mean for 2013 and beyond?
George Arzt: That’s one of the benefits of having a billionaire mayor. Because of his resources, he is insulated from a lot of the normal pressures put on City Hall. In some respects, that has been a very good thing. He deserves credit for being an un-Moses. If Bob Moses represented the car, the motor vehicle, the highway, the destroyer of neighborhoods, then Bloomberg has made the city more pedestrian. He’s made more alternatives to the car, and he’s trying to make the city more livable. It will never be a European city where bikers are there, side by side living harmoniously with cars. This is New York. Everyone is in a rush. Everyone is getting enraged. But the paths down streets are getting wide use. I see more and more people, using the bike paths. They’re popular and the Mayor and [DOT Commissioner] Janette [Sadik-Khan] deserve credit for that.

When you worked for Mayor Koch, you witnessed another major effort to install bike lanes, but that one was short-lived. Is there a difference between now and then?
When I was Press Secretary and Mayor Koch came back from China, he decided to put a handful of protected bike lanes in Manhattan. They cost something like $300,000, and no one used them. We quickly announced: “Use it or lose it,” and we waited, and still, no one used them, so we took them out. That’s just not the case now. People use the bike lanes. It seems like more and more people use them. People like an alternative life now, and they like to use their bike especially in this era of obesity. People want exercise. They want to live outside. They want a better place for their children, a better time for themselves, and that’s helping make the bike lanes and plazas permanent. But there will be pressures. People will come to the next Mayor offering big donations and saying, “You have to do something about this plaza in front of my store,” or “These bikes that go by my loading dock…,” and there will be temptations to make changes, to tweak things.

Bike lanes and plazas are so popular in polls. Do you think regular New Yorkers can push back against those big money interests?
I think that for many—for most of the mayoral candidates—they look at bikes and the changes that have been made as progressive and popular. They’ll want to focus their attention elsewhere, because there’s a lot to work on right now, but it’s always the loudest voices. If T.A. and its supporters can have a loud voice and get out there and talk to businesses and community boards and the grassroots, they can make a strong case.

Can you give us an example of a bike lane fight that might have gone differently if another person had the keys to Gracie Mansion? What about Prospect Park West?
There were a lot of loud voices there. In an administration that’s more susceptible to outside pressure, a group of prominent New Yorkers, including a former deputy mayor and a senator’s wife, would be hard to ignore. What would have happened? People in power might have listened to them. They might have decided that the easier way is not to do it at all. They would have delayed and deferred until it was dead. That’s why you need to give Bloomberg and Janette points for political courage.

  It seems people like that kind of courage right now, whether its Governor Christie or Governor Cuomo or the Mayor, people like politicians who do what they believe is right, or at least make it look that way. Do you think a weaker figure, one who listens to donors and special interests, will be less popular?
In politics, people who stand up for change–change that their constituency understands–will always be more popular than people who decide to do nothing or simply follow the easiest path. People are looking for strong leadership. They’re looking for an FDR. On the local level people want a very strong mayor.

What about the Mayor’s alleged Manhattan-centric vision. Is that going to change in 2013?
Just looking at the candidates and the names on the shortlist for Council Speaker and the new leadership coming up, I think it’s safe to say that the boroughs will be stronger. We used to call it 718-power, but now there are so many area codes, I’m not sure what it’d be. Whatever it’s called, it’s back.

What about the next mayor and mass transit?
Anyone who works in New York City knows that it’s easier to get to your next meeting by train than car. And more people should be using the subway, and we should be looking at improvements for subways and buses. Maybe BRTs. That said, there’s no broad realization that if you want better transportation in five or ten years, there are major challenges coming down the line. Today, most people take transportation for granted, and for things to change, that has to change.

One problem with the MTA is that they don’t do a great job with their own advertising. They don’t have a budget to really talk up their improvements. Maybe there should be a committee for the MTA formed to talk about how transportation is needed? A Committee for Better Transit to make the public case for transportation. We hear a lot about how hard it is for the folks living along Second Avenue, but there needs to be more voices heard about what the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access and all these major advances are going to do. At one point, with the Third Avenue el and the Ninth Avenue el, there was better transit in Manhattan. That was a long time ago. The 1950s. In those days, they took them down because of blight and promised great things. And they were right. Great things bloomed, but they never replaced the lines. Now they need to talk about the great things that’ll happen once there’s transit there again.

Another issue T.A. has spent a lot of energy on is NYPD reform, particularly the way the department investigates traffic crashes. Do you think the next Mayor will have a different relationship with the NYPD?
The Police Department right now is almost autonomous. It’s not an agency run by City Hall. Sure, Cas Holloway is in charge on paper, but no one tells Ray Kelly what to do. In the next administration, people will still want a tough commissioner, but the mayor will have more say. It’s a tough spot. Crime, safety, terrorism, these are big issues for New Yorkers. A police chief is a huge part of a mayor’s identity. Maybe a candidate’s commissioner should be part of the ticket?

This interview has been edited and condensed.