Tricky Donald Trump Beats Jerry Nadler in Game of Politics


Representative Jerrold Nadler may or may not have snarled his archenemy’s surname as he snapped his cell phone shut on May 22, but he certainly had good cause to toss a few choice epithets in the developer’s direction. Minutes later, the House of Representatives would vote on a $200-billion Federal transportation bill, and the Democratic Congressman for the Upper West Side had been preparing to cast a “Yea” when a frantic aide called with a disconcerting piece of news.

The aide was skimming through the voluminous bill’s fine print when he made a startling discovery. In the latest twist to a bitter and intensely personal feud between Mr. Nadler and Donald Trump, the developer and his allies had somehow smuggled into the bill $6 million in Federal funds for a key element of the Trump Place project, or the Mega-Development Formerly Known as Riverside South.

At issue was funding for a study to move the Miller Highway on the West Side to make room for a sparkling waterfront park that would adorn Mr. Trump’s rapidly rising buildings. The promise of a 21.5-acre public park enabled Mr. Trump to win support for the project from the city’s leading civic groups in the early 1990’s. For years, however, Mr. Nadler had managed to block the funds for the highway project as part of his relentless and obsessive quest to stop the vast $3 billion development.

Not this time. The bill passed overwhelmingly; even Mr. Nadler himself voted for it, as the Congressman is a vigorous advocate of public transportation spending, and the bill lavished billions on all sorts of mass transit projects.

Mr. Trump and his allies-members of the Municipal Art Society and the Parks Council, among others-had performed a neat end run around the Congressman. For months, they had quietly but intensely lobbied a number of other members of Congress in the New York delegation, appealing for support with letters, phone calls and occasional schmoozing at parties or dinners.

And, thanks to the apparent behind-the-scenes stealth maneuvering of two Republicans who live far from the Upper West Side-Senator Alfonse D’Amato and Representative Sue Kelly of Westchester-the gambit paid off.

“I’ve been talking to Senator D’Amato and his staff for seven or eight months,” said Philip Howard, the chairman of the Municipal Art Society. “The reality is, he delivered on something we believe is extremely important to the City of New York.”

Mr. Howard said that he and others had persuaded Mr. Trump to take up the cause of opening up the waterfront. Mr. Trump has long been ambivalent about moving the highway because of cost and scheduling concerns. But according to sources, Mr. Trump placed personal calls to Mr. D’Amato and others in Congress to plead the case for rerouting the huge structure.

In other words, Mr. Trump and his supporters had won a substantial chunk of Federal change toward the mega-development-all without the knowledge of Mr. Nadler, whose district will be radically transformed by the mammoth project.

“Trump got $6 million in the dead of night when no one knew anything about it,” an enraged Mr. Nadler told The Observer . “The final agreement was reached at 3 in the morning.”

(Mr. Trump may have scored more than $6 million: According to supporters, the bill allots an additional $15 million toward future design costs; Mr. Nadler was uncertain of the total.)

Characteristically, Mr. Trump downplayed his victory. “There were so many people on our side, beyond Donald Trump, that it wasn’t really very hard,” Mr. Trump said. “The chips all seemed to fall right.”

‘It Is Unheard Of!’

Not for Mr. Nadler. When he got off the phone with his agitated aide, he immediately tracked down Representative Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania, a Republican who led the last-minute negotiations over the bill. According to Mr. Nadler, Mr. Shuster told him the money was added at the last minute, at the request of Mr. D’Amato, the chief Senate negotiator on the bill, and Ms. Kelly.

“It is unheard of,” Mr. Nadler said of the maneuvering apparently performed by his two colleagues. “You don’t go into someone else’s district without talking to them first.”

Indeed, Ms. Kelly’s Westchester district is a good 45 minutes’ drive from the proposed site of Trump Place. But unbeknownst to Mr. Nadler, Mr. Trump has made efforts to bridge the distance between himself and Ms. Kelly, throwing a fund-raiser for her in Manhattan last fall. (Neither Ms. Kelly nor Mr. Shuster responded to Observer questions by press time.)

Minutes after Mr. Nadler got the news of this 11th-hour treachery, he spied Ms. Kelly on the House floor. Hoping to confront her, he lumbered up a crowded aisle in her direction. The sight of Mr. Nadler’s formidable frame is daunting even when he’s not quivering with rage, so Ms. Kelly’s next move was understandable.

“She ran away from me,” Mr. Nadler recalled. “I was walking toward her, and the faster I walked, the faster she walked. I was absolutely livid.”

Mr. Nadler had good reason to be angry. The psychodrama that is the feud between the Congressman and Mr. Trump has been raging for years, fueled by two profoundly different visions for the moribund rail yards along the Hudson River. Mr. Trump sees a vast and luxurious development on the site, a wall of towers that would stretch from West 72nd to West 59th streets and offer sweeping river views. (Two of the proposed 16 towers are already going up fast.) Mr. Nadler, meanwhile, clings to grittier dreams: He wants the city to study the possibility of easing truck congestion by building a rail-freight terminal on this stretch of immensely valuable waterfront real estate, which he says is the only viable site in the city for such a project.

This clash of political visions masks bitter personal animus. Mr. Nadler flatly calls Mr. Trump a “liar” while the developer clearly relishes every opportunity to paint Mr. Nadler as a floundering incompetent who will someday be forced to swallow his bile as he gazes up at a wall of skyscrapers bearing the name of his longtime antagonist.

Indeed, Mr. Trump suggested that Mr. Nadler would find himself increasingly isolated as his towers rose like dominoes in reverse. As the buildings fill up, he said, pressure would mount to move the highway and open up the waterfront. “Every time I build a building, there [will be] more people who want [the highway moved],” he predicted confidently.

Trump’s Tunnel Vision

Mr. Trump added, however, that there was a downside to moving the highway. “Being the person that I am, I like people seeing the buildings that I’m building,” he said. “When the highway goes under the park, [drivers won’t] see the buildings anymore.”

It’s a sacrifice that supporters of the highway project are prepared to make. The prospect of a waterfront park enabled Mr. Trump to give his project a huge political boost in the form of support from a range of heavy-hitting civic groups, including the Riverside Park Fund and the Regional Plan Association. In their view, the park would be a spectacular civic amenity, a dramatic extension of Riverside Park onto a stony stretch of turf now littered with rubble and construction equipment. If the highway isn’t moved, they warn, cars will thunder overhead at all hours atop a hulking structure that will cast a grim shadow over a potentially idyllic landscape.

“It’s just a remarkable opportunity,” Mr. Howard said. “Cities like Seattle and Boston have spent billions to get rid of the elevated highways on their waterfronts. Once you build the park, it lasts forever.”

But the elation of the city’s leading civic lights has dimmed of late. Mr. Nadler has endeavored to cast one rhetorical and political roadblock after another in the way of the proposal-frustrating supporters who hope for a park where Mr. Nadler sees only the ego-driven schemes of his longtime nemesis.

“Sometimes you can’t tell when a political struggle becomes an ego struggle,” said Brendan Sexton, the president of the Municipal Art Society. “Jerry’s a smart man and a competent man, and I think he’s used to winning. The fact that he just might be wrong on this one is maybe getting lost in the strife between him and what he sees as Trump, and what I see as a park.”

Mr. Nadler has a markedly different view. As he sees it, Mr. Trump has one motive for moving the highway: money. Mr. Nadler suggested that the “park” so beloved by the civic groups would turn out to be nothing more than a frolicking ground for tenants of Mr. Trump’s luxury condominiums.

“The real reason that he wants to move the highway is not out of the wonderfulness of his heart, but so the sightlines for some of the apartments will be clear,” Mr. Nadler said. “He will then be able to sell them for more money, and that will help with his financing.” (For his part, Mr. Trump said his financing already is secure.)

Mr. Nadler added that spending money to move the highway would be a tremendous waste of taxpayer funds. He pointed out that $80 million in Federal and state money had been spent to rehab the ailing roadway-money that would be buried along with a rerouted Miller Highway. And he said the moving of the highway still faced a brutal political battle-one he predicted, with Trump-like swagger, that he would win.

“This $6 million, if they actually spend it [on a study], is going to be wasted on a project that will not happen,” Mr. Nadler said. “It means that the $6 million will be given to some politically connected consultant. Tricky Donald Trump Beats Jerry Nadler in Game of Politics