Those of us of the economic-populist persuasion generally prefer our champions to be bellicose of manner, quick oaf temper and, rhetoric-wise, red of meat. The subject fairly demands a certain sort of poetic demagogy that can quicken our pulse and stoke our passions. From William Jennings Bryan and his cross of gold to Patrick Buchanan and his hard-hat protectionism, the cause has produced great flights of stirring oratory and inspired hoarse cheers from society’s various others who don’t need degrees in economics to understand the nature of social injustice.
This fine tradition, however, suffered a setback on March 10, when City Council Speaker Peter Vallone officially announced his plans to run for Governor. Mr. Vallone is not the sort of politician who leaves his audiences foaming at the mouth. He is soft-spoken, mild-mannered, and utterly and completely reasonable. If he had been asked to speak about the free coinage of silver in the late 19th century, he’d have delivered a lecture in economics rather than a sermon about injustice.
His announcement did nothing to advance his reputation as an orator, but the words contained an idea that may yet set the heather blazing.
During the requisite tour of various points hither and yon, upstate and downstate, Mr. Vallone embraced the notion that New York City ought to buy more New York-made goods and services. In fact, he did more than embrace it-he announced that he soon will introduce into the City Council a bill that would require the city to purchase all of its goods and services from New York State-based companies if their bids are equal to, or perhaps even close to, competing bids from out of state. The city already has a law that gives preference to companies based in the five boroughs (if their bids come within 5 percent of the lowest bid, they get the job); the Speaker’s bill would expand the current law’s intent to include the entire state. While the Council staff still is working on the precise language, the gist of Mr. Vallone’s proposal seems clear: Let’s use our money to take care of our own whenever and wherever possible.
“The idea is that upstate areas of New York have severe economic problems, so we in the city want to do something to make it clear that we’re part of the state as well,” said Kevin McCabe, Mr. Vallone’s chief of staff. “Connecticut and New Jersey are doing very well, thanks to Wall Street, but they don’t have to worry about the problems we have here. So we have to step up and say: ‘Why not give New York State companies more business?'” Mr. Vallone’s office estimates that if the city were to give preference to New York State-based companies, it would bring in $1 billion in contracts to the state. Bringing that work back to New York, to the distressed towns in the Hudson Valley or the rusting cities along the Great Lakes, could create 15,000 jobs, according to the Council’s estimate.
The notion has the sound and fury of an old-fashioned, rip-roaring populist. It has a nice, anti-global-marketplace, anti-free-trade pitch to it. Those global cheerleaders who delight in the chipping away of economic borders-interestingly, they’re often the same people who complain about international organizations horning in on our national sovereignty-no doubt will accuse Mr. Vallone of myriad sins against common sense and the rules of the marketplace (as if the two were interchangeable). And when the Speaker formally introduces the bill later this year, you can expect various agents of borderless capitalism to excoriate him as a prisoner of such retro institutions as those horrible labor unions. Although a Democrat, Mr. Vallone has yet to be on the receiving end of the fiery denunciations accorded those who talk about such concerns as equity and justice. That will change soon.
The problem-and here Mr. Vallone seems intent on breaking with a fine tradition-is that the Council Speaker seems so reasonable that even The Wall Street Journal won’t be able to turn him into the second coming of the First International. He unveiled what he called his “New York First” proposal at the tail end of a perfectly sensible speech, and did so in tones that recalled not Bryan at the 1896 Democratic National Convention, but Michael Dukakis at the 1988 D.N.C. How’s this for flowery language: “We’ll require the city government to buy all products and services from New York State companies if their bids are equal to those from out of state,” he said, right before his big wrap-up.
Those words contain a good deal more mischief that Mr. Vallone’s tone suggested, and the Speaker knows it and seems to be reveling in it.
“This gives us the opportunity to be proactive,” said Mr. McCabe. “We know things aren’t booming upstate even though there’s this euphoria downstate. And then you have to wonder what’s going to happen when the boom comes to an end. And it will.”