How Sweet Was It? Marty Markowitz's Boro Hall Legacy

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Fans and critics agree that Markowitz was perfectly suited to use the bully pulpit powers of the borough presidency, a position that lacks broad formal authority. They differ on whether he put his skills to good enough use.

Photo by: Taleen Dersdepanian

Fans and critics agree that Markowitz was perfectly suited to use the bully pulpit powers of the borough presidency, a position that lacks broad formal authority. They differ on whether he put his skills to good enough use.

Marty Markowitz was well into what some call the “Marty shtick.” As the press waited to attack the free hors d'oeuvres prepared by some of borough's leading chefs at the kickoff for the 2013 edition of Dine in Brooklyn, the borough president told the crowd he had “personally tried to sample everything Brooklyn has to offer,” noted that Brooklyn is home to the largest Turkish community in the U.S. and made the de rigueur self-deprecating comment, cautioning photographers not to snap a shot of him eating cake “for the sake of domestic peace.”

The routine was a variant on the kind of Markowitz performance almost every Brooklynite has seen—brandishing a light-saber at a graduation, scarfing down cheesecake, or marching as a proud “Trini from Tunapuna” in the West Indian Day parade.

To many, those corny routines along with the signs he posted at the borough's borders (“Leaving Brooklyn: Fugheddaboudit,” for one) bolster Markowitz's image as a lightweight–”party Marty,” as some critics call him–or even a clown. Yet during his 12 years as borough president, Brooklyn has experienced an incredible boom. Major league sports have returned to the borough after 55 years. The frontiers of hipness and high prices keep moving farther out, to Bushwick, Kensington and beyond, as restaurant critics for Manhattan publications scour Brooklyn neighborhoods looking for the latest foodie trend. All this contributed to a jump in population, making Brooklyn the fastest growing part of the city.

Markowitz has promoted and applauded many of the changes. But what, if anything, did he do to bring them about? Would they have occurred without Markowitz? And could he have done more to solve the problems that still plague Brooklyn?

A man for the moment

Opinions about Markowitz vary widely. In interviews over the past month, many Brooklyn activists and observers dismissed him as a “cheerleader” with little interest in substance. Others see Markowitz as a shrewd operator who has used the limited tools available to him, first as a minority member of the State Senate and then as borough president, to improve his hometown. “He's clever like a fox,” says Bertha Lewis, the former chief executive officer of ACORN, who went on to found the Black Institute.

On the record, people are quick to praise Markowitz. Those with negative views are far more reticent, citing Markowitz's extreme sensitivity. (Markowitz refused to speak for this article, saying through a press aide that he did not want to do any “legacy” stories until the summer.)

Everyone agrees that Markowitz loves Brooklyn and that his love extends to all neighborhoods and all ethnic, religious and racial groups. “Marty wasn't just about the people who washed up on our shores as a result of the wave of wealth that swept over from Manhattan,” says Ken Fisher, who ran against Markowitz for borough president in 2001. “Marty was always about the people in Central Brooklyn. Marty's been about the people in South Brooklyn, and he's wanted them to feel that they had a stake in the new Brooklyn also.”

Markowitz came to the office at a particularly opportune time. For years New York had been climbing back from the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, reducing crime, restoring services and making the city a more attractive place to live. As voters went to the polls in 2001 to elect a new borough president and mayor, some feared the September 11 attacks would threaten the city's revival. But it would not be long before New York in general — and Brooklyn in particular — picked up again. As housing prices in Manhattan skyrocketed, many young people and families, reluctant to move to the suburbs, turned to Brooklyn instead.

Even before he took office, Markowitz seemed to capture the mood. During the 2001 campaign, Fisher recalls, “Marty campaigned on the notion that the job of the borough president was to be a cheerleader and no matter what they gave Brooklyn it wasn't going to be enough. … I came at it from the perspective of having survived the Dinkins and Giuliani years. Marty was looking at a brighter horizon and caught the mood of the voters better than I did.”

In office, Markowitz demanded that anything any other city has, Brooklyn should have too. Once the borough had a pro basketball team, he tried to get the NHL Islanders to move here as well–and they will. Now he wants a major league soccer team to play in Brooklyn. He beseeched Apple to locate a Genius Bar here and hectored other major retailers, with varying degrees of success, to open in downtown Brooklyn. He even thought the UN should come to the borough. As his term draws to a close, he continues to beat the drum for a casino in Coney Island.

In another bit of serendipity, Markowitz assumed his office the same week that Michael Bloomberg became mayor. As different as the two men may seem, they share the same birthday (Valentine's Day), an enthusiasm for big projects and big development, impatience with procedures that might stand in the way and a zeal for self-promotion. When it came to some policy issues—things that Bloomberg cares about far more than Markowitz does, like bike lanes—the two could disagree. But Bloomberg had the power to make some of Markowitz's most grandiose wishes a reality—and he did. As Bloomberg pushed for development, says Chris Owens, the executive director of the public interest law firm Advocates for Justice who has long been active in Brooklyn politics, “Marty fit in perfectly with that because Marty has been always an advocate for Brooklyn.”

Markowitz, by most measures a progressive Democrat, broke with his party in 2005 and 2009 to endorse Bloomberg's re-election—even though the Democratic candidate in 2009, Bill Thompson, traced his roots to Bedford-Stuyvesant.

The battle for Barclays

Earlier this year, Bloomberg came to the Barclays Center to deliver his final State of the City speech, with Markowitz jokingly welcoming the mayor with a supersize Styrofoam soda cup: “the only thing that can possibly outlast Mayor Bloomberg's legacy.”

Bloomberg then paid homage to the borough. “The Barclays Center is the latest sign of just how hot Brooklyn has become,” Bloomberg said. “For the first time since La Guardia was mayor and FDR created the WPA, we're not only conceiving big plans that fundamentally change the landscape of our city, we're achieving them.”

For better or worse, nothing exemplifies the Markowitz years—and his relationship with Bloomberg—more than Atlantic Yards. The arena is also a litmus test for how many Brooklynites feel about their “beep.” One might like the Barclays Center and not like Markowitz, but it's difficult to see how an adamant opponent of the arena could be a Markowitz fan.

Observers disagree about where the idea for the Ratner project originated, and the truth is hard to tease out. It seems likely, though, that while developers would have eventually proposed something at Atlantic Yards, the impetus for a major league sports team originated with Markowitz. Fisher recalls Markowitz mentioning the idea during their campaign; others say his plan to bring big-league sports to Brooklyn goes back even further. He seemed to have no commitment to an NBA franchise—apparently he is not a big basketball fan—and might have preferred a baseball team, but the Nets were available.

Markowitz saw the push for the Nets arena as personal crusade. The Nets would be payback for the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn, ancient history to many here but still a fresh wound for Markowitz. “Had I been borough president at that time, they never would have left Brooklyn. I'm convinced of it,” Markowitz said in an interview for the film, , The Battle for Brooklyn. “I'd have half of Brooklyn throw their bodies in front of Ebbets Field.”

Recently Markowitz has described Atlantic Yard as “among the most contentious developments in America's history.” But he did not let anything to stand in its way. He did not resist—and indeed apparently supported—the decision to exempt the project from the normal land-use review that would have required City Council approval and given the borough president an official (if purely advisory) voice in the process.

Nor did he look kindly on dissent over the project, at one point boasting that Brooklyn was “1000 percent” behind the project, which of course was far from true. Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn says Markowitz stopped consulting with those who would be most affected by the project after a 2004 meeting, when he visited Goldstein's building and said, in typical Markowitz style,” These are really nice apartments. I wish I could afford to live in one.” Later, according to Goldstein, Markowitz tried to bar him and another community opponent of Atlantic Yards from a public meeting on the project.

Longtime—and respected—members of Community Board 6 lost their posts after Markowitz purged the naysayers on Atlantic Yards.

By some accounts, the Atlantic Yards controversy brought out Markowitz's less admirable traits: a tendency to scream, to see any criticism as a personal attack, to be vindictive. “He went from being a happy cheerleader to being a nasty guy, says Tom Angotti, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College and a critic of the project. He treated people against the project “as enemies, not citizens,” Goldstein says.

Now, with Barclays Center open, Markowitz clearly basks in its apparent success. His Christmas card last year was a paean to the arena—complete with reworked lyrics to “Winter Wonderland” such as “Barclays here, Streisand's belting, Fans will cheer, hearts are melting”—and he is said to be planning a giant farewell party for himself there.

Pumped other projects

Markowitz has embraced a myriad of other projects of varying merit, including the Bloomberg administration's rezoning of downtown Brooklyn to allow for taller buildings, the Rose Plaza River Development in Williamsburg, Vito Lopez's controversial plan for the Broadway Triangle in East Williamsburg and the renovation of the Loew's Kings Theater in Flatbush. In some cases, he has advocated for more affordable housing at the projects and other amenities. At the end of the day, though, Angotti says Markowitz “has never met a project he didn't like,” believing that “all growth is good growth. All projects are good projects. They bring in jobs.”

Markowitz likes to trumpet his part in these projects but his exact role—even on Atlantic Yards—is a matter of debate. Rock Hackshaw, a political consultant and writer, believes Markowitz was basically a good “cheerleader” for many projects, citing waterfront development as an example: “What were the initiatives coming from the borough president's office, not the mayor, the borough president's office?” But others, like Fisher, give Markowitz credit for giving other politicians cover to support megaprojects like Atlantic Yards, and Lewis contends Markowitz left his mark on the Ratner project, helping to bring more affordable housing and apartments for seniors to the development. (Unlike the arena, that housing, has, of course, not yet been built and some of it may not materialize for 25 years.)

Markowitz has taken a particular interest in Coney Island—another area where he had Bloomberg's enthusiastic cooperation. For more than 30 years, Markowitz has sponsored a series of concerts in Coney Island's Asser Levy Park. (He sponsors another concert series in Crown Heights.)

No longer content with the park's band shell, Markowitz proposed building a $64 million amphitheater in the park. To his apparent surprise, not everyone liked the idea. Two synagogues, some parks advocates and some residents fought back, saying the concerts would disrupt religious services, eat up parkland and snarl traffic.

The criticism, Gothamist quoted Markowitz as saying, was “hurtful because I don't deserve it. I've entertained the people in that neighborhood since 1991. I've put a smile on their face for 31 years. Why would I want them to frown?”

“This was not a public works project,” says Brighton Beach activist Ida Sanoff, who fought against the amphitheater. “This was his vanity project … and he didn't want to hear another point of view.”

In his final months in office, Markowitz maintains his interest in Coney Island. By most accounts, he now wants the new amphitheater to go at the other end of Coney Island, at the site of what decades ago was a Child's restaurant.

He also hopes a casino will come to Coney Island. For that to happen, the legislature and then the voters must approve casino gambling in New York state and then the state would have to choose Coney Island as a casino site. Bloomberg doesn't want a casino there, and some community groups also have qualms. Dick Zigun of Coney Island USA, though, thinks Markowitz can—and will—help make this happen. “Marty has really been out there pushing for it,” Zigun says. “I think he's doing a lot of lobbying. We'll see if it works.”

Overall, Zigun has high praise for Markowitz's role at Coney Island. “Without Marty I think it would have been a nice but smaller development. It would have been a patrician tribute to what Coney Island used to be instead of on its way to being a powerhouse,” Zigun says.

Suited to the office

A perhaps apocryphal story has it that fairly early in his time as borough president, Markowitz sought to honor the director of a local non-profit. He asked her whether she wanted a proclamation or a Junior's cheesecake. Anything else, he told her apologetically, was beyond the power of his office.

Yet rarely has a person seemed as ideally suited to a job as Marty Markowitz has in serving as Brooklyn borough president. His public personality–brash, wisecracking, loud, energetic—meshes well with the borough and with a position that provides more of a bully pulpit than a lever on policy.

The position has given Markowitz a platform for his shtick and an opportunity to try to right the grievances of a once neglected borough and help beleaguered constituents. It has let him remain focused on the borough where he was born and where he has been involved in politics since his student government days at Brooklyn College.

The limits of the office also have complemented Markowitz's limits. Borough presidents do not have to take stands on many divisive issues, a plus for a man who—Atlantic Yards aside—seeks to avoid controversy. And the job does not require long nights pouring over legislation or fine policy points, by most accounts hardly Markowitz' favorite activity.

Borough presidents retain at least some of the trappings of power, including a budget of about $5 million and some 60 employees. Eight, including Markowitz, have annual salaries of more than $100,000 (the borough president makes $160,000). His payroll lists two chauffeur/attendants, one with a salary of $76,000; the other $68,000. Overtime payments to the two for the last nine months totaled about $34,000.

As borough president, Markowitz controls a capital budget and a small expense budget that he divides among organizations and projects he deems worthy.

Like the other borough presidents, who lost their powerful votes on the Board of Estimate in 1989, Markowitz's other authority is limited to an advisory role in the land-use process and appointing members of community boards and a few citywide commissions.

But many observers say Markowitz had what it took to make maximum use of those limited powers. “A borough president is only as effective as the political skills that they bring to the job. In the case of Marty, those were pretty considerable,” says political consultant Bob Liff, who has known Markowitz since the two of them were leaders in student government at Brooklyn College in the late 1960s. “What Marty is best known for is the shtick but underneath that shtick is a guy who is willing to push whatever levers he has to on behalf of Brooklyn,” Liff says.

Lewis goes further. “People see him as this wonderful cherry-cheeked cheerleader, but the man is shrewd and a really brilliant political thinker,” she says.

Blurred lines between public, personal

As borough president, Markowitz has excelled at drawing attention to himself. And he has often ignored any line between him, his office and the borough both serve.

This tendency to personify his office has contributed to a number of ethical questions. In 2011, the city Conflict of Interest Board (COIB) fined Markowitz $2,000 for having his chief of staff handle some of the legal work involved in the purchase of Markowitz's Windsor Terrace home. Later that same year, the COIB fined Markowitz $20,000 for taking free overseas trips for his wife. Markowitz countered that it was perfectly appropriate for Jamie to accompany him because she is “the First Lady of Brooklyn,” a title not widely recognized.

At least as troubling—if not more—in the eyes of some watchdogs has been Markowitz's establishment of four non-profits that he controls: Best of Brooklyn, the Camp Brooklyn Fund, Martin Luther King Jr. Concert Series and the Seaside Summer Concert Series.

The line between these charities and the government of Brooklyn has been blurred almost to the vanishing point. For example, some people wanting to use Borough Hall for an event have had to pay a fee that went to Best of Brooklyn, which does things like run the Brooklyn Book Festival. In 2011, the most recent year for which records are available, Best of Brooklyn had a budget in excess of $600,000, Camp Brooklyn nearly $300,000; the King concert series and seaside concerts each spent more than a million.

Contributions to these organizations are not subject to the same level of scrutiny campaign contributions would be; New York state law does not require nonprofits to disclose who their contributors are. Records are so scant that, in its 2011 investigation of Markowitz's nonprofit entities, the Times found their total revenues between 2003 and 2011 could have been anywhere from $20 million to $45 million.

According to the Times, the nonprofits get money from developers and other firms that do business with or in Brooklyn. Forest City Ratner, developer of Atlantic Yards, is said to have given at least $1.7 million to the charities. The Times found a number of instances where companies seeking something from the Brooklyn borough president's office—money, contracts, support—donated to one of Markowitz's charities. Markowitz, for example, supported Acadia Realty's bid for city financing for the City Point project in downtown Brooklyn. Over the years, Acadia has given at least $300,000 to Markowitz' charities.

Markowitz had long opposed allowing Wal-Mart to come to Brooklyn. But, the Times reported, shortly after Wal-Mart gave $150,000 to the King concert charity, Markowitz changed his position, saying, “It doesn't make sense to me how we keep Wal-Mart out of Brooklyn.”

Public money also has gone to Markowitz's charities. The Daily News found that between 2004 and mid 2008, Markowitz allocated about $680,000 in city contracts to Best of Brooklyn without competitive bidding or scrutiny from other city agencies. The charities also received at least $2.7 million from the mayor's official discretionary budget between 2003 and 2008, according to the Post. And Best of Brooklyn has received some funding from city agencies other than the borough president's office. Between its founding and April 2009, various city agencies had contracts with Best of Brooklyn with a total value of more than $1 million. The King concerts got more than $115,000 from the city Department of Youth and Community Development last year.

The charities certainly do worthy things—providing free entertainment to Brooklyn residents, sending poor children to camp, promoting tourism in the borough—but they also promote Markowitz and give businesses a chance to curry favor with the borough president. Markowitz has denied there is anything unethical about his relationship with those who donate to his nonprofits. “I am not pitching them to give me money, and me in turn give anything,” he told the Times.

In general when confronted with ethical lapses as borough president, Markowitz denies wrongdoing and says whatever he did, he did for Brooklyn. Asked by the Brooklyn Paper about the no-bid contracts, Markowitz defended the work done by Best of Brooklyn and said he was “proud to support these efforts and openly and vigorously advocate for funding from public and private sources to make its programs possible.”

Many developers have given to Markowitz's political campaigns as well. Markowitz had been raising money for a possible mayoral run in 2009, but abandoned the bid in October 2008 when Bloomberg won an extension of term limits. Seeking re-election to borough hall instead, Markowitz faced essentially no opposition. Despite that, donors poured an additional $431,343 into Markowitz' coffers, giving him a total of more than $1.3 million for that election cycle. Top donors included people prominent in real estate, such as Donald Trump; Joe Sitt, a major developer in Manhattan and Brooklyn; and members of the Boymelgreen family, which is developing properties in Park Slope.

On Election Day 2009, Markowitz, running on the Democratic and Working Families Party lines, trounced his Republican/Conservative challenger, Marc D'Ottavio, by a margin of almost 7 to 1. With expenditures of $926,769 Markowitz outspent D'Ottavio by a margin of 116 to 1.

But Markowitz kept on fundraising. He raked in more than $122,000 in “transition” funds, much of it from developers and business owners, and used it to pay for a glitzy 2010 State of the Borough address. Most returning borough presidents do not raise much money for a “transition”—since there really isn't one. In 2009, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro reported no transition fundraising, and Queen Borough President Helen Marshall raised $6,940. Only Ruben Diaz Jr., in the Bronx raised anything close to what Markowitz did—$64,595—and, unlike Markowitz, he was taking the office for the first time.

A similar pattern existed in 2005, when Markowitz prepared to begin his second term. He spent $102,000 for his transition that year with only Stringer, who was taking office for the first time, even coming close.

Compassion, but no critique

Fans say Markowitz extends assistance to less affluent Brooklynites as well as well-heeled developers. Going back to his days as a state senator, people recall going to him for help and getting it. A drop-in center. Playground equipment for a school. Funding for security cameras at housing projects in Brownsville.

Leslie Bernat, who with her husband Jean-Jacques Bernat owns Provence en Boite on Smith Street, recalls when they had a problem—she would not say what it was—that could have cost them their restaurant. Desperate for help, she called Markowitz' office, not really expecting that he could do much about it. He then took steps—she would not detail them— that saved the business. “I was flabbergasted at the help he gave us,” she says.

Roseanne Haggerty, president of Community Solutions, which works extensively in Brownsville, says Markowitz “absolutely cares about the neighborhood” and provided funding for initiatives at housing projects there.

Markowitz also helped found the Brooklyn Recovery Fund, which as of late February had awarded more than $1.3 million for rebuilding and repairs to homes and other buildings after Hurricane Sandy.

Unlike some other borough presidents, Markowitz does not issue a list of how he spends his capital budget or his expense items, making it difficult to get a full sense of his priorities.

But what is clear is that Markowitz's generosity toward Brooklyn's less fortunate as a funder has not been matched by any zeal as an advocate. When it comes to social tensions, Markowitz has kept a low-profile—on mega issues like Brooklyn's 21.5 percent poverty rate, or on individual episodes like the fatal police shooting in East Flatbush earlier this month that sent protesters into the streets. Markowitz, it seems, was nowhere to be found. He did not even issue a statement. He was silent—hardly an adjective usually associated with him.

Markowitz's quiet on that episode reinforces broader concerns of people who say he could have done more with the office to address social tensions and economic exclusion.

Owens believes policy is a secondary concern for Markowitz. “There's a policy piece there. He just has not chosen to make that be how he's going to be remembered. His legacy from his standpoint is going to be the big splashy things, particularly Atlantic Yards,” Owens says. “That's what he always dreamed about. He got his professional sports team. He got his arena. He got what he really, really wanted more than anything else in the world.”

Lewis, however, sees Markowitz as more engaged in policy than many believe. Without studies he can “reel off statistics and data” and then decide who he can “put in a room to solve this problem.”

“When he calls in developers or corporations or businesspeople or different leaders,” she continues, “they're caught off guard. …. Many a time I've seen folks sit there and their jaws drop.”

Lewis thinks Markowitz is slighted for his work on serious issues, going back to his days as a state senator when he worked with ACORN on housing issues. “I don't think he gets enough credit,” she says.

Some point to education as one area where Markowitz has taken action without a lot of fanfare. Advocates generally give high praise to his education policy liaison Margaret Kelly. “If any parent calls Margaret Kelly—and believe me I've had enough parents call her—she gets on the phone with the [Department of Education], she gets on the phone with the charters and she raises all kinds of hell. She gets it,” says Mona Davids, president of the New York City Parents Union.

Markowitz, perhaps under Kelly's advice, Davids says, has made Borough Hall “the parents' house,” allowing parent groups to meet there. She thinks that Markowitz may very well have worked behind the scenes to save some schools that the administration would otherwise have shut.

Others question whether Markowitz, however he approached his job, could have had any impact on the serious issues facing Brooklyn given the limitations of his office. “The job is such a bullshit job,” Liff says. “You have to play the cards you're dealt and with the limited hand he was dealt, I think he played them about as well as he could have.”

But some contrast him with his counterpart in Manhattan, Stringer, who has issued reports on such issues as the cost of domestic violence, reforming Community Education Councils and the city's failure to enforce its building code.

Hackshaw says Markowitz could have improved civic participation. “I don't think there's a whole lot of political involvement at the level there should be in Brooklyn from its residents in terms of community organizing and people participating in the politics of the borough to make it a better borough,” he says. He also believes the BP could have increased Brooklyn's clout in Albany.

Fisher has a similar view. He says a borough president might be able to fill “the void created by the diminishment of the role of county leader,” taking on tasks such as rallying the council delegation together behind a candidate for speaker or calling together the congressional representative to come up with a common Brooklyn agenda.

Instead, he says, “Marty spent a lot of his time out and about, being very visible,” which “doesn't leave a lot of time for anything else.”

Owens thinks Markowitz could have improved community boards, appointing better people and giving them more resources and access to professional help. “He had an opportunity to really allow the Brooklyn in Brooklyn to percolate and stir around and come up, for people to really have a stronger voice, and he didn't do that,” Owens says.

While giving Markowitz high marks, Haggerty says that the boom he presided over has left some areas, such as Brownsville, behind. “One thing that Marty has participated in and encouraged is this amazing renaissance in Brooklyn and it just becomes all the more striking that there are a couple of communities that haven't participated, and I would hope the new borough president starts there,” she says.

Overall, Markowitz seems to prefer issues that allow him to present himself as a Brooklyn everyman beleaguered by out-of-touch people in City Hall. Despite his support for the mayor, Markowitz vocally opposed some bike lanes and the ban on large, sugary drinks. Both positions lent themselves to the Markowitz shtick a lot more than taking a stand on, say, stop-and-frisk or the borough's income gap.

A last laugh

As his time in borough hall dwindles, what role Markowitz will play in the borough in 2014 and beyond remains unclear, as does the fate of his charities. After 23 years in the State Senate and 12 as borough president, he apparently is ready to depart public life. A campaign war-chest of about half a million dollars remains behind.

Despite the scars from Atlantic Yards and a growing disdain from some who tired of Markowitz's routine, he will leave borough hall more popular than many politicians who have represented such varied audiences and diverse neighborhoods as Brooklyn boasts. “There are so many rooms I can think of walking into where he will get such a greater response than really any elected official,” says Stefan Ringel, president of Brooklyn Young Democrats.

Markowitz overcame the division and arguments that usually divide Brooklyn “by showing up and by poking fun at himself,” Fisher says. “By making people laugh, he wanted to make people feel better about themselves.”

The final test of Bloomberg and Markowitz's policies—of Brooklyn's development and gentrification—is yet to come. It's unclear how Brooklyn will feel about itself when the laughing is long over.