The Politics of Everywhere
On the circuit with Gale Brewer, the busiest politician in New York
The Borough President is famished.
Gale Brewer has been working since 7:30 a.m., and by 5:15 p.m., as she's leaving her office, she realizes that all she's had to eat so far is a banana. She's not headed to dinner, though, or home. Tonight, Wednesday, March 26, Brewer will be attending seven events throughout Manhattan, a typical night for the woman who may be New York's most omnipresent politician.
"I try to go to as many events as humanly possible," Brewer says in the elevator. Her staff sifts through hundreds of requests each week to put together her packed schedules. She has two schedulers and a committee that helps decide which events she'll attend. The only reason for turning down an invitation is that it conflicts with another scheduled event. Nothing is too minor, no one too marginal.
She leaves the Municipal Building at 1 Centre Street about 15 minutes behind schedule, but still confident she can get to everything for the evening.
Stop number one is at a bar around the corner from City Hall, Manhattan Proper, where a surprise going-away party for Chuck Meara, former staffer to both Speakers Christine Quinn and Gifford Miller, is underway by the time Brewer arrives at 5:18 p.m. Council members and veteran staffers clutch glasses of wine and whiskey, reminiscing with Meara, while the younger staffers cluster together around iPhones. Brewer pushes through the narrow room, stopping every two feet to shake hands and say hello to former council colleagues. She finds Meara and chats with him. There is no time to grab a drink, and no food to be found. She winds her way back out the door by 5:28 p.m. and climbs into the big black SUV with city plates that will shepherd her around the island this evening.
As her driver Michael navigates the potholes of 10th Avenue, Brewer concedes that tonight, with its seven stops, is slightly above average in terms of number of events; normally she's got four or five on weeknights. That restriction, though, is simply one of logistics, not of her willingness to show up.
"Between 6 and 8 p.m. you can't do more than four events," she says. That's when most groups schedule their meetings. When she was in the city council, representing the Upper West Side, she also appeared everywhere, and wasn't just confined to her district, as many West Side-based organizations would hold their events in midtown or the Lower East Side (where there's a concentration of catering halls). "I don't know what the other council members do," Brewer says. "They used to laugh at me - how can you go to so many events?"
The politically engaged Upper West Side, home to 2,500 non-profits and one of the highest voter-turnout rates in the country, trained her well for the current gig. In Manhattan, people expect a lot from their elected officials. "You can't be lackluster, you better be sharp," she says. "You gotta be on your toes."
The car pulls up to Lincoln Center for event #2, a cocktail reception in Avery Fisher Hall for the Spring Gala fundraiser, at 5:59 p.m. Brewer has enough time to take her coat off and is immediately snagged into animated conversation with attendees. Jed Bernstein, the president of Lincoln Center, wants to talk to her about an upcoming arts funding meeting. Brewer asks a Lincoln Center administrator about some job openings they have; maybe she knows someone who would fit the bill. A woman she doesn't know (probably a board member) stops her to ask about arts education, and Brewer hands the woman her business card and tells her to call her office.
By 6:10 p.m., the gala is moving upstairs for dinner and Brewer is back in the SUV for the short drive over to John Jay College. The peripheral search for food at the last event was futile. (Having been warned of the non-stop schedule, I packed snacks. I offered Brewer a granola bar, but she politely declined.) She was hoping for something a bit more substantial, but there's no time to stop.
The third event of the night (arriving at 6:15 p.m.) has Brewer onstage behind a placard with her name, ready to speak to a packed theater about the mayor's Vision Zero initiative to eliminate pedestrian traffic deaths in the city. After an introduction by Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, Brewer uses her allotted two minutes to lay out her ideas for improving safety - focusing on more audio assistance at intersections for the visually impaired; using federal money for traffic studies, like one that was conducted on the Upper West Side; helping educate cyclists to obey the rules of the road. After several rounds of thanking one another and the mayor, the council members introduce a Department of Transportation representative, who talks through some of Vision Zero's plans. Brewer has to leave before it's finished (one of her deputies will stay and report back), but is impressed by the woman's presentation; she'll mention it later in the evening.
By 7:06 p.m., Brewer is back in the car and headed downtown again, to 817 Broadway in the Flatiron. She's speaking at a PAC meeting of Local 371, the Social Service Employees Union. Upon arrival at 7:27 p.m., she's greeted with exclamations and clapping and ushered into a fluorescent room where about a dozen people are eating salmon cakes, roasted chicken and cooked greens from plastic plates, facing the front of the room. This group has endorsed her in the past, and she tells them that they're the "fourth stop and my best stop" of the night. She talks about affordable housing, development in Manhattan, the fight for pre-K funding. One woman asks Brewer, with a tone indicating she expects her to know the full answers, what exactly is going on with the Second Avenue Subway, what's happening to the people who lived in the East Harlem building that collapsed last week, and what's going on with those tiny apartments Bloomberg was pushing?
Asked about Mayor de Blasio, she defends his management style, explaining that it's rooted in community organizing, not top-down management, so his initiatives will take time. (She also jokes that he "owes me for life" after she supported his failed bid for council speaker and was stuck on the technology committee as retribution, a post she turned from a dreaded appointment to a crucial role in the council with bills like the Open Data law and ones increasing broadband internet access in the city.)
The president of the union, Anthony Wells, showers her with praise and presents her with a backpack and hat emblazoned with the union logo. "Gale does not just talk the talk; she shows us what she's about," Wells said. "She's as humble and real now as when I first knew her."
Brewer poses for a quick picture, with everyone in the room grinning behind her, but there's no time to grab a plate of food before she's off at 7:56 p.m.
She arrives at a private residence on East 75th Street a little past her scheduled time to speak at 8 p.m., but the two dozen or so members of Upper East Side for Change, a Democratic group, are thrilled she's there. She takes to the center of the well-appointed living room and launches into a talk about what she's been working on - arts education, getting mental health services into middle schools ("I've had 35 foster kids so I know that teenagers need help.") as well as finding space for affordable housing in Manhattan without building too many massive skyscrapers. She notes that she, like all good de Blasio acolytes, is pushing for universal pre-K ("I'm so sick of [talking about] pre-K but I know it's the focus.") but also hopes that the mayor won't forget about other pressing issues like homeless services. She concedes that she's happy to be away from the committee meetings of being on the council, and from some of the members: "The city council - Ben [Kallos, whose staffer is at the meeting] is wonderful, but some I can't stand. I won't give you any names. Well maybe later I will." (She doesn't.)
Her remarks are unscripted, tailored to each event she attends. When someone asks about charter schools, she is quick to note that there are some great charter schools in the city - just not those run by Eva Moskowitz, the head of Success Academy and the face of the battle against de Blasio. "I know I get in trouble [saying this] - I cannot stand Eva Moskowitz," Brewer says. "In the city council, she was very smart and very obnoxious. She was a good chair [of the education committee] because she asked lots of questions, but she didn't involve anybody else." Brewer has levied this criticism before; she sued Moskowitz and Success Academy when they moved into an Upper West Side high school, and she doesn't think that charter schools belong in the districts with good public school options.
A few other perennial Upper East Side issues come up - how to stop the East 91st Street Marine Transfer Station (Brewer voted against it); when will de Blasio make good on his promise to rid Central Park of the carriage horses (she doesn't think that one will be as easy as it sounds). She also, finally, has a moment to eat a small plate of bread, cheese and grapes proffered by the hostess, in between taking questions.
"I call her the queen of constituent requests," says the event's organizer, Monica Atiya, of Brewer as she prepares to leave. "She puts her whole heart and mind into it."
At 9:01 p.m., she's back in the tiny old elevator and then headed up to W. 116th Street. At 9:15 p.m., she arrives at MIST Harlem for a fundraiser for victims of the recent building collapse, run by the son of a friend.
"My father knows Gale," said Landon Dais, the organizer. "He has only good things to say about her, and he doesn't say that about every politician."
Dais is eager to introduce Gale to his fiance, who it turns out she knows, and she chats with a few people before heading out again at 9:25 p.m., hoping to make it on time to the seventh and final stop of the night, an event that ends at 10 p.m.
She's been running only a few minutes behind schedule the whole evening - impressive considering the variables of traffic in Manhattan - and feels confident that she'll be okay arriving late at this last event.
"If you're going to a senior center - be on time! Everybody else, you got a little leeway," she says.
She's right. At 9:52 p.m., the Manhattan Young Democrats 5th Annual Engendering Progress Event is still going strong in the basement bar of Hudson Bond on W. 40th Street. It is, as the name suggests, mostly people in their 20s and 30s, and they are tickled when Brewer arrives and grabs the microphone. She musters up energy to match the crowd, telling them how impressed she is by what young people can accomplish, giving the example of the young DOT rep from earlier in the evening at the Vision Zero town hall. She is happy with the development so far on Vision Zero, she says. "I give Bill de Blasio a lot of credit; I don't always - I'm his conscience!"
After a round of whoops and cheers, she hands the microphone over and stays to mingle with the enthusiastic group. She spies a member of her staff, who was last seen at 1 Centre Street stirring up a frozen dinner as Brewer left the office. The music is loud and the bar is dim, and if the feelings of a reporter many years her junior are any indication, Brewer must be exhausted.
It doesn't show. She stays until 10:20 p.m. She'll probably eat something when she gets home, she says.
Finally, I ask if she ever takes a vacation. "I haven't had one," Brewer says, "but I know they do exist."
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