“I couldn't believe anyone could do that to another human being,” former city Human Resources Administration commissioner Lilliam Barrios-Paoli said recently of the notoriously brutal policies of her successor as city welfare chief, Jason Turner. Not only couldn't she believe it; she also couldn't say things like that publicly in the usual course of political business.
But on former City Councilmember Ronnie Eldridge's Wednesday-night talk show on CUNY-TV, viewers had a chance to learn that and a lot more. Barrios-Paoli also talked about her resignation from city government (contrary to Turner, she refused to follow Mayor Giuliani's orders to throw welfare recipients off the rolls), her childhood in a prosperous Mexico City family, and how she got her start in the lower ranks of the child welfare bureaucracy.
After 12 years of grilling Barrios-Paoli and other city officials in City Council chambers, Upper West Side councilmember Ronnie Eldridge was term-limited in 2001. Now she has turned her exquisite talent for interrogation to a new line of work. Since early 2002, she has hosted Eldridge and Co., inviting the rest of us to hang out with her while she tries to understand the motives and methods of public and not-so-public social change–makers in New York.
A lot of the guests are friends, people she already knows from the dizzy churn of New York City activist life, like gay rights advocate Ann Northrop and comedian-turned-prisoners' justice guru Randy Credico. She also loves getting the lowdown from behind-the-scenes women who hold levers of power, like the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation's Margaret Ayers and political scientist and mayoral advisor Esther Fuchs.
But enough about them–what about Ronnie?
Alyssa Katz: How did you end up doing this show?
Ronnie Eldridge: What always interests me is, how did people get started? What made them what they are? I'm fascinated by how you get to think about something…why is that your opinion?
But the political experience made me very cynical. It's very hard to believe almost anything that almost any politician has to say. And I don't wanna give them the opportunity. So I don't want it to be a straight talk about 'What are you doing in the government?' because they're just gonna make it up. They make it sound better than it is, or more effective than it is, or like they've really done something instead of just talking. So I ruled that kind of a show out. And then, I didn't want it to be confrontational. I didn't want to start arguing with people, because that makes me nervous these days. I watch Chris Matthews [on CNBC], and I get stressed out. So that's why I started with people that I knew from the city.
K: Watching the show, I picture you back in the City Council, interrogating people. Did that have an influence?
E: I have this great desire to demystify the world for people. That's what I've always admired about my husband's work [Jimmy Breslin, the Newsday columnist], is that he's able to read something, and bring it down to a level that people can relate to and understand. So I'm trying to do that on the show, too.
K: At council hearings, were you ever tempted to ask these kind of personal and philosophical questions?
E: Well, I always wanted to. But it took me a while to get brave, to ask questions. And I still didn't want to argue.
K: What do you think, looking at the council now?
E: The interesting thing is, since I've been out of there, I don't follow it. I was very glad for term limits because it took away any thought of running again. Twelve years was long enough to do one thing. I felt that people who were there for longer took it all too for granted, that you really do get worn down.
K: Well, you said you were cynical.
E: Yeah, very cynical about politics. You could see the press releases, and the statements, and the promises that are made… It's shocking to me, it really is shocking. I'm kind of disgusted with party politics. Well, what did I think about the referendum [on nonpartisan elections]?
K: I was going to ask you about that.
E: I just didn't know. I went back and forth on it. And then everybody said, 'Oh you can't vote for him' and this and that. But I didn't see the difference, really. Rich people are still winning and the machine is still winning.
K: I was also wondering…
E: What did I think of Bloomberg? I think he's trying. He doesn't bother me, but he doesn't thrill me. He doesn't have a message. There isn't a mission…. There's a lot of his own personal agenda and interest. If he came in and governed, I'd love to see somebody who governs but at the same time be able to bring in a lot of…Do you know what I mean?
K: Yeah, a sense of common purpose.
E: Yes, we are missing so much of that.
K: What's interesting too is that he would benefit politically from having that.
E: He benefits from his money. We have a myth around here–if you're rich, you must be smart. A developer comes in and everybody falls down. Donald Trump is certainly an example. He got votes by just calling a member up.
K: These issues don't begin and end in New York City–they're national. As local players, what can we do locally to influence that?
E: I don't know what's responsible. I don't know if it's the caliber of the political people. I think it's the Congress, it's the American public, it's the pollsters who recite what the views are, it's the media that shows them…
I grew up believing that people ran for public office because they believed in something. That you ran and if you didn't get elected, you tried to make your contribution, and if you got elected, you tried to make your contribution, but you didn't stay there forever. It's become a profession. They worry about their reelection or their perception. They're supposed to be leaders and they don't seem to be.
K: Have you ever lived anywhere besides New York?
E: I've never been anyplace.
K: You've literally never left.
E: I lie about it. I always say I've lived as far north as 93rd Street and as far south as 67th Street. But when I was about 4 years old, my parents moved up to Westchester. We moved a lot because it was during the Depression in the '30s and they used to move and get a free apartment or something. Just before the war [my father] got a job in Philadelphia. We lived there for two years, so between first and sixth grades I wasn't in the city. It taught me some political skills in the classroom. I have a technique for getting friendly.
K: Have you ever thought about leaving? Ever?
E: I always dream about leaving. I always wanted to live in a block with great big trees and a front porch. I could be the mayor and Jimmy could be the editor of the local paper.
Eldridge and Co. appears on CUNY-TV Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. Visit www.cuny.tv for more airtimes and audio archives.