Jets Get an Unlikely Pitch Man–And a Familiar Adversary

On the morning of Sept. 29, at a Crain’s Business breakfast in his honor, Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff is expected to introduce the highest-profile addition yet to the swelling ranks of supporters for the proposed Jets stadium: community-newspaper movie reviewer and former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, The Observer has learned.

The former Mayor might seem like an odd choice for a new front man. Isn’t this the guy who tried to sell us on the Republican National Convention? (Ultimately, 53 percent of New Yorkers gave the event a thumbs-down, according to a recent poll.)

But the February 2005 deadline for the International Olympic Committee to visit the city and check on its progress toward the games is looming close. Albany’s two make-or-break power-brokers, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, are still undecided about the project, and Madison Square Garden’s powerful Dolan family continues to pour money into advertising condemning the stadium plan. The Jets will take everything they can get.

Desperate Battle

The former Mayor’s addition to the pro-stadium forces is emblematic of the way that the battle over the $1.4 billion stadium project has come to resemble a mad dash for supporters—of any stripe.

The Jets are now spending $300,000 per week for an indefinite period on five new television and radio ads of their own. They have also intensified their efforts on recruiting a broader base of political supporters. The anti-stadium forces, allied under a Dolan-financed umbrella coalition called New York Association for Better Choices (NYABC), have been somewhat less successful in attracting new members to their cause, and will likely get outspent on advertising.

An Aug. 5 political fund-raiser showcased the Jets’ recent efforts to corral new backers. On that day, at a City Island restaurant in the Bronx, Governor Mario Cuomo, and his son, Andrew, had just delivered a set of speeches, and the night’s M.C., powerful State Assemblyman Jose Rivera, was about to introduce the guest of honor—his daughter, Naomi, who is running for an open Assembly seat in the Bronx. But first, Mr. Rivera called upon 29-year-old Matt Higgins, a newly minted vice president for the New York Jets, to take a bow and say a few words to the predominantly Latino crowd about his efforts to create a stadium for the team on the West Side of Manhattan.

“It was quite out of the ordinary for Assemblyman Rivera to do that,” said Assemblyman Mike Gianaris, a stadium supporter who attended the event, “and I think it says a lot about how close the two parties have become and how effective the Jets have become in building relations to the [minority] communities.”

Not to mention the fact that the Jets’ president, Jay Cross, made a $300 donation to Ms. Rivera’s fledgling campaign.

The Jets believe it is critical for them to collect Assembly supporters because Speaker Silver likely has effective veto power over the stadium project. He wields this power through his control of the Public Authorities Control Board, which the state will likely need approval from if it is to borrow its half-share of the project’s $600 million public subsidy. Although he is officially neutral on the issue on this point, he has questioned the project several times, and also stripped language out of a Javits Center expansion bill that could have paved the way for the stadium—a move that NYABC claimed as a victory.

The team recently hired Larry Scott Blackmon, an aide to City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, to help them reach out to minority assemblymen and other legislators. To sweeten that pitch, the Jets are developing a program that ensures women- and minority-owned business participation in the construction project. And in an attempt to become “good neighbors,” the team has also contributed $40,000 toward the creation of the Harlem Hell Fighters, that neighborhood’s first high-school football team in decades, in addition to raising $250,000 to establish Jets Academy, an academic after-school instruction program for minority communities. Two other programs like it already exist in East New York and the Lower East Side.

Mr. Cross, the Jets president, denied any suggestion that his team was attempting to buy the loyalty of the minority members of the Assembly.

“We’d be doing them no matter what. Any big development project in town requires as much public support as you can get, so we’d be trying to get as many local elected officials and community groups to support us as possible.”

The Jets can now safely claim 16 members of the Assembly in their camp—most of whom are members of the New York City–centric minority caucus; the anti-stadium forces claim that 14 are in their camp, although one of them, Assemblyman Carl Heastie, told The Observer that he is actually neutral, and the Jets dispute the stances of three others: Vivian Cook, Ruben Diaz and Barry Grodenchik—none of whom returned calls.

Mr. Bruno in the State Senate holds the same veto power as Mr. Silver, and although he, too, is officially neutral on the stadium issue, Mr. Bruno has signaled that he expects his upstate and Long Island Republican conference members to receive an equal share of $300 million in public subsidies from the state if they are to go along with Governor Pataki’s plan for the stadium. The Jets have seven public supporters in the Senate, compared to the anti-stadium’s total of three.

And although the Jets’ supporters in the City Council also greatly outnumber those of the anti-stadium forces, the City Council is viewed largely as a irrelevant to this issue. The stadium—proposed for a stretch of state-owned rail yards between 30th and 33rd streets, from 11th to 12th avenues—most likely won’t come up for a vote by the City Council.

The Home Team

However, the Jets may need more than dominance in numbers to convince Mr. Silver or Mr. Bruno to sign off on their plans. There exists in both houses a tradition of not crossing senior members when it comes to major issues in their districts. Thus it might be very difficult for Mr. Silver, especially, to vote against his longtime ally and colleague, Dick Gottfried, who heads up the anti-stadium forces in the Assembly.

“In the legislature, all politics is local, and the member whose district the project is proposed to be located in, that particular member has the most weight in the decision-making process—both with the rank and file and with leadership,” said a source close to the anti-stadium forces. “It’s politics 101.”

The anti-stadium coalition, in fact, includes nearly every elected local official whose district will be impacted by the stadium—that includes members of the Assembly, Senate, community boards and even Congress—in addition to just about every urban planning and good-government group in the region, and several labor unions.

The extent to which the city’s labor unions are in fact split over the stadium issue was evidenced by a schism at a recent A.F.L.-C.I.O. meeting in August. During a session of the umbrella union’s executive committee, The Observer has learned that Ed Malloy, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, introduced a pro-stadium resolution for consideration by the board. However, anti-stadium forces, led by representatives of Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, introduced a dueling anti-stadium resolution. Neither one made it out of executive committee. According to a spokesman for the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the official explanation is that the Central Labor Council, a local union, had already passed a pro-stadium resolution, and the A.F.L.-C.I.O. decided to let that ruling stand. Ms. Weingarten, however, had a different interpretation.

“The stadium creates the same tensions inside labor as it does outside,” she said. “So instead of having a floor fight, what ended up happening is that nothing got passed.”

Separately, the city—and, by extension, the Jets—scored a small legal and public-relations victory last week when a Supreme Court judge ruled against an attempt, led by Cablevision and West Side residents, to halt the city’s rezoning proposal for the West Side Hudson Yards District—which includes the stadium.

Cablevision, which owns Madison Square Garden, has taken up the cause and largely bankrolled the opposition’s advertising efforts because it fears the competition of a new stadium. The lawyers trying the case, who include former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s deputy and enforcer, Randy Mastro, along with top environmental lawyer Michael Gerrard, vowed that the legal fight had only just begun.

“This is just the beginning of the process and we will consider all legal options to ensure that the public has its rightful and meaningful role in the environmental review process,” the lawyers’ spokesman said in a statement.

And indeed, if they manage to tie up the rezoning proposal long enough in the courts, the I.O.C. might decide, when it visits in February, that New York is too risky a choice for the Olympics—a decision that could rob the stadium project of valuable popular support.

There may be a potential extra-legal wrinkle in the court proceeding, however. The Observer has learned that about 18 months ago, Mr. Gerrard actually did a small amount of pro bono work for NYC2012, the city’s Olympic-bid committee, on environmental issues surrounding the proposed stadium. This could, conceivably, represent a conflict of interest, given that his client, Cablevision, is actively opposing the stadium.

Mr. Gerrard, who Chambers & Partners ranked as the state’s top environmental lawyer for the last two years running, is chair of the American Bar Association’s 10,000-member Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources, among other things. The well-regarded lawyer told The Observer that his work only consisted of one board meeting at a NYC2012 meeting in early 2003. About a year into his work for Cablevision, NYC2012 did raise an objection to his presence on Cablevision’s legal team. That action prompted Mr. Gerrard to hire an independent ethics counsel, who made a written and in-person report to NYC2012 earlier this summer.

“After we went through it all with an expert, he concluded there was no conflict,” said Mr. Gerrard, who declined to identify the outside counsel.

NYC2012’s executive director, Jay Kriegel, seemed less than satisfied with the situation.

“The facts are crystal clear,” he said through a spokesperson. “Mike Gerrard was our lawyer, he attended high-level strategy sessions, and then he turned around and sued us. That’s a clear ethical breach, and we feel betrayed by it.”

The spokesperson would not discuss whether NYC2012 planned any legal action in the matter.