A Great Horse Race: Activists Aren’t Forgetting Mayor’s Pledge to Ban Horse Carriages

Mayor Bill de Blasio is caught between fulfilling a campaign promise to ban horse carriages and labor allies who are battling that pledge.

A NYCLASS protest in April. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A NYCLASS protest in April. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The latest salvo in one of the city’s stranger political wars was a fake dead horse.

Left on the sidewalk of Knickerbocker Avenue in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, the life-sized stuffed animal was a lurid warning from the most powerful animal rights group in the city: stand in the way of a potential bill to ban horse-drawn carriages and you’ll have (horse) blood on your hands. The recipient of the message, a Brooklyn city councilman, was unmoved.

“In general, I think I support anyone practicing First Amendment rights,” Councilman Rafael Espinal told the Observer on Monday, hours after the horse was left lying outside his district office. “The phones have been going off the hook. Constituents can’t get calls through.”

The war over horse-drawn carriages has garnered more media coverage in the past year than is probably warranted for an issue that will impact relatively few people and animals. But as autumn approaches, Mayor Bill de Blasio is wrestling with the kind of New York dilemma that has all the trappings of a particularly fevered Tom Wolfe vignette: the mayor promised to ban the elegant horse-drawn carriages—reviled by animal rights groups because they claim the practice of driving a horse through city streets is inhumane—on “day one” of his administration.

The promise apparently bought unwavering support from animal rights group likes NYCLASS, the most moneyed and savvy, and allowed Mr. de Blasio to avoid the campy, ghoulish yet incisive television ads that attacked Christine Quinn, the arch rival he felled in last year’s mayoral race.  The NYCLASS-backed ads ran last April and boxed in Ms. Quinn, once the city council speaker and an opponent of a ban, as a backroom dealmaker voters could not trust.

NYCLASS left a fake dead horse outside the offices of Councilman Rafael Espinal. (Photo: NYCLASS/Twitter)
NYCLASS left a fake dead horse outside the offices of Councilman Rafael Espinal. (Photo: NYCLASS/Twitter)

January 1 arrived and the horses went nowhere. The Teamsters union, which represents the roughly 300 drivers who would be potentially out of a job if a ban is enacted, mobilized. Mr. de Blasio’s cherished ally, the Working Families Party, added their voice to the dissent. The Daily News launched a shrill campaign to fight the ban, gathering signatures from readers and swamping cover after cover with horse-related stories. Liam Neeson, the Schindler’s List-turned-action star, visited the stables on the West Side and made keeping the horses around his cause célèbre. Polls consistently showed most New Yorkers want to protect the Central Park icons.

A bill to ban the carriages has yet to be introduced in the City Council, which replaced Ms. Quinn with a pro-ban speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito.

“The issue has been hung out to dry for too long,” said a Democratic source close to NYCLASS, which is short for New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets. “If it had been taken care of back in January, it would be a distant memory. The longer the mayor waits, the more heartburn.”

As much as Mr. de Blasio wants to pivot to big picture aspirations—implementing his universal prekindergarten expansion and erecting enough cheap housing to offset surging rents—the horse-carriage issue threatens to consume precious media oxygen the liberal mayor needs to reserve for other issues. Many council members, wary of irking the Teamsters, will only back a ban if they know all the jobs—incomes for drivers vary, but some can take home around $50,000 a year, according to a Teamsters spokesman—will be replaced. (NYCLASS proposed antique, electric-powered cars, a solution some argue is not practical.)

“It’s crazy to think they can do anything else,” said George Miranda, the president of the Teamsters Joint Council 16. “The guys who do this type of work, the shoe smiths, the guys working in the stables—a lot of it is ancillary; that’s all they do. It’s their whole life. They’re not young people. A lot of them are immigrants. This is how they feed their families.”

The speaker and Mr. de Blasio have not put a firm timeline on when a bill will be introduced, but Mr. de Blasio claimed last week the “legislative process” would begin shortly. Privately, members of NYCLASS—led by parking garage magnate Steve Nislick—have grumbled about the mayor’s deliberative pace: with the ability to unload six figures on television ads, as they did a year ago, and to deploy dozens of unusually ardent protesters at the gates of Gracie Mansion and elsewhere, the group has at least some leverage over the mayor. Unlike the Teamsters and many other labor unions, they boosted Mr. de Blasio—at least indirectly—at a time when he was a fledgling contender in a crowded primary, long before his rise seemed inevitable.

For now, NYCLASS is playing nice. Insiders insist they don’t want to be a problem for the mayor. Their patience, however, is finite.

“We’re just absolutely ecstatic we finally, after so many years, have a mayor and a speaker who care about the needs of the animal community,” said Allie Feldman, a spokeswoman for NYCLASS, noting that “of course” the group would have liked to see legislation “a while ago.”

How Mr. de Blasio and his allies craft legislation that doesn’t completely alienate either influential interest group remains one of the big political questions of the fall.

“He’s a political realist and the political winds are not drifting in his favor,” a Democratic consultant explained. “He’s lost leverage and never really had that much support in the council, never had votes begin with. He’ll have to orchestrate a deal where he can declare some kind of victory.”

A Great Horse Race: Activists Aren’t Forgetting Mayor’s Pledge to Ban Horse Carriages