Staten Island, Without Apologies

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine, a politically active New Yorker for 35 years, complained that Mayor Bloomberg favored “white Staten Island Republicans” by restoring free ferry service between the island and Manhattan every 15 minutes-a budget cut threatened to extend the waiting period to 20 minutes. “I just read a story about this in The Village Voice ,” he intoned. “It said that poor kids in Harlem can’t get asthma tests because you Staten Islanders won’t wait an extra five minutes for your ferry. Aren’t you embarrassed to have a free ferry when poor people have to pay two bucks to get to work?”

Before I could respond, claim my Fifth Amendment rights or call my lawyer, a superseding indictment was proffered: “And what about Pataki and Rudy closing the landfill on Staten Island? The Governor is ignoring poorer neighborhoods to pay off his political supporters.”

I called my lefty lawyer. “Move,” he said. “It is the only way to expatiate your guilt for having been born white in that right-wing Republican malaria swamp. There is no defense to the indictment, but you can always plead for a pardon.”

No pardon, I said. It’s the Manhattan pundit class that should apologize for being so ignorant of the borough that gave the last two Mayors their margin of victory. My friend has a blind spot that he shares with many other political savants: He knows next to nothing about a major part of his city.

Staten Islanders have endured countless insults for years. (Remember the sergeant in The Naked City who threatened to punish a cop by transferring him to Staten Island?) A university dean in Manhattan once asked me if there were bookstores “over there.”

That kind of ignorance affects public policy. Three days before the last Mayoral election, The New York Times ran a story about its vaunted polling operation, which contacted exactly 390 voters “considered likely to vote.” The paper reported that Mark Green’s five-point lead (42 to 37 percent) over Michael Bloomberg was not “statistically significant,” which is what happens when you publish the results for only four boroughs-leaving out Staten Island. Mr. Bloomberg’s 84,891 “insignificant” Staten Island votes (compared to the 22,356 Mr. Green won in the borough) gave him City Hall.

This is reminiscent of a friend whose client once said: “Staten Island? I didn’t know anyone lived there.” Actually, about 450,000 people do, and we are not all white Republicans. I was baptized 56 years ago as a solidarity-forever New Deal Democrat and have remained loyal to my secular faith. Despite my Irish Catholicism, and the image that evokes among too many liberals, neither of my parents were members of the Bund, or cheerleaders for Father Coughlin, Joe McCarthy or Cardinal Spellman. Two years ago, a black woman in the city’s whitest borough came within 180 votes of being elected to the City Council. Staten Island elected a Jesse Jackson Presidential delegate in 1988, and both George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy (no relation, let’s remember, to Joe) won delegates from Staten Island. And those “white” ferry riders? In reality, they look like members of the U.N. General Assembly.

Oh, and the ferry that runs every 15 minutes? It’s not there! It runs every 15 minutes only during rush hour; otherwise, its every half-hour or every hour, depending on the time of day. Visitors from other boroughs, as well as two million tourists yearly, are permitted to use it.

If the borough’s infamous and now-closed landfill had been in a neighborhood “of color,” my progressive friends would be screaming environmental racism. But they righteously charge that closing it was just a payoff for political supporters. Really? What are rent-stabilization laws if not a political payoff?

Democrats like Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo didn’t care that Staten Islanders paid two and a half fares to get to work before the Republicans instituted the “one city, one fare” MetroCard. When then-Mayor David Dinkins doubled the ferry fare from 25 cents to 50 cents a decade ago, a commissioner told me that it was “payback” for the borough, which supported Rudy Giuliani in 1989.

I remember saying to Mr. Dinkins, right after I served as the co-manager of his 1989 Staten Island campaign, that the only people he was hurting were the poor. The man who governed by petulance turned and walked away.

So I don’t feel any guilt over the fact that we outbackers are catching an occasional break, like when Mr. Giuliani eliminated the ferry fare entirely. But I am appalled at having to explain my hometown to those who claim to know oh-so-much about New York politics. And they remain unable to answer the landfill conundrum: In whose neighborhood-other than theirs, of course-would they like their garbage disposed?

Terry Golway will return next week.