The projects that Richard Lipsky has killed over the years stare down from his office walls like the stuffed moose heads with which Teddy Roosevelt once decorated the State Dining Room. There’s a framed newspaper clipping about the Pathmark in Queens; another about the Costco on the West Side; there are a few pieces about former Mayor Giuliani’s attempt to rezone industrial areas for big-box stores—all slain, or at least brought into the crosshairs, by this mustached lobbyist. If you squint really hard, and imagine him with glasses and 40 pounds heavier, he does sort of look like T.R.
The moose that Mr. Lipsky is currently hunting is a million-square-foot shopping mall in the South Bronx that will occupy a rump cut of land along the Harlem River where the Bronx Terminal Market now stands. Instead of the stalls that once sold goat meat, African produce and Hispanic dry goods, there will soon rise a Circuit City. Or a Bed Bath & Beyond. Or a Target.
Or a Wal-Mart.
Mr. Lipsky likes the word “Wal-Mart.” He likes the word “BJ’s” too. Both stir a sort of visceral reaction within labor circles that Mr. Lipsky hopes to use as it heads for approval to the City Council this fall.
Mr. Lipsky is not above quiet, expensive lunches with voting members of the Council, or making deals with public officials to get what his clients want. But his main weapon is both more ephemeral and, at the ballot box, more terrifyingly real to politicians: New York voters’ general disdain for chain stores.
“The unusual kind of lobbying that I do involves a lot of taking issues and publicizing them and making them compelling, larger issues as opposed to trying to get behind-the-scenes support in the normal lobbying fashion,” Mr. Lipsky said. “It’s not that we don’t do that, but generally the interests that we have represented over the years haven’t had the same abilities to marshal the resources for campaign contributions. They don’t have the same ability as labor does.”
The Bronx mall’s developer, the Related Companies, has denied that Wal-Mart will be in its development. It has been cagier about BJ’s, the warehouse club that is similarly maligned for its unionization record. Individual store names are not supposed to matter in whether a development gets City Council approval or not. But they do, and Mr. Lipsky knows it.
“Big-box store A, B and C does not create the kind of stir that Wal-Mart or BJ’s do, so it is to their advantage to keep everything as generic as possible,” he told The Observer. “What would make it possible to stop the project would be a Wal-Mart or a BJ’s. That’s the nature of politics.”
Mr. Lipsky, who got a Ph.D. in political science before determining that academia was no way to raise a family, occupies an unusual niche in the world of government relations. He represents an association of local supermarkets called the Neighborhood Retail Alliance as well as the union to which many of their employees belong. While these two groups may not seem like natural bedfellows, they both want to keep out larger non-union outfits that can undercut existing chain prices because of cheaper labor. Mr. Lipsky’s firm (which also includes his 23-year-old son Matt, who is between college and law school, and his wife, Dorothy, who does the books) earned $251,000 last year, according to the New York City’s Clerk’s Office, plus a few other public-relations jobs. That’s not bad for a lobbyist—and downright pleasant for a college professor.
Mr. Lipsky’s reputation reaches far beyond what a mom-and-pop lobbying shop could ever hope to actually accomplish, however. In the late 1990’s, his unusual niche and penchant for ferreting out conflicts of interest earned him three New York Times profiles three years in a row. This past spring, Mr. Lipsky was quoted in just about every article about Wal-Mart withdrawing from a proposed shopping center in Queens, even though he was so tangential to the fracas that Councilmember Helen Sears, who represents the district, told The Observer that she never spoke to him about the subject.
So was he hogging credit from the many other actors in that contest, or do his arguments simply play better in the press?
“He is very good at making the conservative argument against Wal-Mart—that their employees end up on welfare, that it destroys communities—and that, with the political opposition, really did them in,” said Pat Purcell, director of organizing for UFCW, the grocery-workers union that employs Mr. Lipsky as a lobbyist. “What Richard does is analyze all the technical data we need to make our case. We can scream about how it’s anti-union and anti-labor, but that’s not necessarily a reason to stop the land-use process.”
In an interview with The Observer, Mr. Lipsky did not claim to play any direct role in the Wal-Mart fight. What he did, he said, was defeat another BJ’s that was proposed elsewhere in the Bronx—a project distinct from the one at the Bronx Terminal Market. After a City Council committee rejected that application, it sent shock waves that convinced Wal-Mart, and the developer courting Wal-Mart in Queens, to break off negotiations, Mr. Lipsky said.
“The press is also interested in figuring out what the story is, and I like to tell the story. I think that we can develop a compelling argument that the little guy provides a more interesting story than the Goliath, and I think that that works to our favor.”
Besides, Mr. Lipsky, who typically dresses as if he might have to run out for a funeral any second, has the sort of down-market charm that has led David Boies to win case after case in the courtroom. When asked tough questions, Mr. Lipsky doesn’t get defensive, or tell the reporter such and such is not important. He just answers in the sort of dry monotone one might use when ordering lunch at a drive-in, and lets the ideas, and inconsistencies, speak for themselves.
He supports Forest City Ratner’s proposed live-work-play complex in central Brooklyn, for instance, and in fact is getting paid to organize an amateur sports league there as well as to lobby for other Ratner projects around town. And yet the complex will almost certainly require the state to use eminent domain to acquire private property—a practice that his Neighborhood Retail Alliance blog has consistently labeled harmful to small business.
“If it was bringing in big-box stores or displacing other retailers, we might have different feelings,” he said. “You know, no one has done more than we have to fight big-box stores coming into the city, displacing small businesses, ruining communities than I have. So when you’ve done some of that, come to me and complain. A lot of these people are ideological purists, but they have done nothing to stop anybody.”
Gretchen Dykstra, the former consumer-affairs commissioner who has tangled with Mr. Lipsky several times, calls him “shrewd, wily and a worthy adversary.”
So Mr. Lipsky will pull the strings in the press and unions will secure “access” to elected officials. That combination explains a lot about why “BJ’s” and “Wal-Mart” have become loaded words that Mr. Lipsky uses liberally when speaking about the Bronx Terminal Market. They are the two big-box chains that the grocery-workers union has chosen to fight. Target isn’t unionized. Nor is Bed Bath & Beyond. And while organizers will say those stores are not bad as employers, it is also true that they are not major threats to largely unionized grocery franchises like Pioneer and Met Food the way that BJ’s and Wal-Mart—both its warehouse club Sam’s Club and the superstores which include food markets—are.
The legal fight unfolding at the Bronx Terminal Market has shades of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the notorious case that is the center of the Dickens novel Bleak House: It is long and complicated and, despite the fact that it gives a lot of people, including Mr. Lipsky, a lot of work, no one much wants to read the case files.
It started in 2002, when, according to The Village Voice, Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff asked his friend, Stephen Ross, the C.E.O. of Related, for free advice on what to do with the market, which was on city land but leased by a delinquent taxpayer. Mr. Ross walked away knowing that the city wanted to move on the property, and so, in April 2004, he bought the lease and persuaded the city to pay for the demolition of the 85-year-old market, guarantee a loan, and exempt the developer from about $12 million in transaction taxes. The city even said it would help to arrange up to $80 million in Sept. 11–related Liberty Bonds.
The city also put up $8 million to help the 23 vendors in the market move, but only six of them have agreed to do so. The rest want to stay together, and it is proving awfully hard to find ready-made space in the Bronx for 17 ethnic-food purveyors, which together employ 200 to 700 people, depending on whose estimate you believe. The city, meanwhile, says that it has no further obligation to the vendors, and that overall, the 2,100 permanent jobs the mall is supposed to bring will be good for the economy.
Related says it has no further obligation toward the vendors, either, and tried to evict them earlier this year—a move which has ended up in court. Even Andrew Tulloch, the vendors’ lawyer, admitted that the vendors’ leases are either month-to-month, or subject to cancellation with six months’ notice. The issue, he told The Observer, is a public policy one: whether it makes sense for a city known for its diversity to replace an ethnic food market with the same type of mall one could find in Wilmington, Del.
Mr. Tulloch’s legal team sued to block the eviction, and Related countersued, and the whole legal exchange is so confused that the developer’s lead lawyer, Jesse Masyr, wasn’t quite sure when first asked whether he was the defendant or plaintiff in the case at hand. (He decided he must be the plaintiff.) When it comes to Mr. Lipsky’s focus on whether it will be BJ’s or Costco, Mr. Masyr calls it the last act of desperation of an advocate unable to win a case on its merits.
“What Richard has brought to the table is hyperbole and bombast,” Mr. Masyr said. “And that’s his specialty, to build on that and reflect on it as if it were a fact in order to make everybody believe it is a fact. That is what you do when you don’t have much of an argument.”
He gives as an example a press release claiming that Related was illegally starting construction when, Mr. Masyr said, it was doing test borings at the site for which it had permits. Mr. Lipsky contends that the borings were “illegal” in the sense that they violate the lease.
“They don’t have a lease to do test borings in order to plan a demise of the market,” Mr. Lipsky said.
The shopping mall is supposed to hold five big-box stores, one of which will be, according to a consultant’s report, a warehouse club. If that club is not a BJ’s, nor a Sam’s Club, the only other major warehouse chain is Costco. While no friend to unions, Costco pays well enough that it is hard to protest on labor grounds.
To Related and its public-relations team at the Marino Organization, talking about name brands is off-message. Its representatives say that big-box stores A, B and C are exactly what consumers want, and they are currently taking their money outside the borough in order to shop there. The Observer was given a telephone survey of 400 Bronx voters that Related commissioned showing that 61 percent support the shopping mall. But the poll also undermines Related’s case: Only 7 percent said they leave the Bronx to do shopping at “discount/warehouse” stores. A total of 51 percent go to “discount department stores,” although it was unclear whether the respondents meant Filene’s Basement or Wal-Mart. Anyway, Wal-Mart is supposed to be out of the picture, right?
Name brands are going to be important for another reason: The major player in the fight against the Queens Wal-Mart was the New York City Central Labor Council, a coalition of unions in which construction locals wield great influence. The labor council was willing to put down its jackhammers in the name of solidarity when the enemy was Wal-Mart, but it remains unclear whether it will do so in the face of BJ’s. Those locals will not want to sink Related’s entire project, which is promising 2,400 construction jobs.
Mr. Lipsky has another card up his sleeve: the race for City Council Speaker over the next several weeks.
“Remember, the last Speaker fight was between Angel Rodriguez and Giff Miller, and the thing that tipped it in the balance to Gifford Miller was the perception that Angel was not sufficiently pro-labor,” Mr. Lipsky explains. “So I can see the same dynamic playing out here, and I think it is possible that the whole project will become hostage to the various Speaker candidates. And we hope to help them do that too.”
So helpful, that Mr. Lipsky. The candidates are sure to appreciate it.