THE MAN WHO SAVED N.Y.
By VINCENT J. CANNATO
It is more than ironic that the weekend that saw Standard & Poor’s downgrade the nation’s debt also saw the passing of Hugh Carey, the former governor widely hailed for helping New York City out of its own debt crisis in the 1970s.
Setting the tone for his administration in his first State of the State message in January 1975, Carey announced: “Now the times of plenty, the days of wine and roses, are over.”
The new governor was a jovial Irish Catholic from Park Slope, a WWII veteran who’d represented Brooklyn in Congress for seven terms. Today’s stereotype of Park Slope is the upscale mother pushing a baby stroller; the Carey family, with 14 children, represented a different Park Slope in a different era.
In Congress, Carey was a reliable Democrat and a supporter of LBJ’s Great Society, but also more of a pragmatist than an ideologue — a trait that would be invaluable during the fiscal crisis.
Carey’s actions during the 1975 fiscal crisis went against the grain of modern liberalism. The city had spent and borrowed well beyond its means (as had some state agencies). Revenues stagnated as the national economy sputtered. The city’s economy had never recovered after the mild 1969 recession and was still shedding jobs.
To rescue the city, the state created the Municipal Assistance Corp. to sell bonds on behalf of the city to raise revenues. It also created the Emergency Financial Control Board, which effectively took control of the city’s books. Both agencies whittled away at the powers of then-Mayor Abe Beame and seriously threatened the city’s self-government.
Carey’s other great strength was his the ability to bring together a variety of people. He worked with labor leaders like Victor Gotbaum of DC 37 and Al Shanker of the UFT and business leaders like Citibank’s Walter Wriston. He brought in public/private finance experts like Richard Ravitch and Felix Rohatyn. And he cajoled politicians in Washington to help pry loose federal aid for the city.
The fiscal austerity that Carey helped impose on the city was often painful, yet it — along with the economic boom of the ’80s — allowed the city to dig itself out of the mess.
In retrospect, the fixes of 1975 improved the city’s problems in the near term, but did less to solve the larger structural problems of the fiscal crisis. Still, it is hard to imagine the city’s renaissance of the ’90s without Hugh Carey’s leadership in the ’70s fiscal crisis.
Why had Carey become a largely forgotten figure? He had a contentious relationship with the Legislature, especially with his fellow Democrats.
Plus, the Democratic Party was changing and the Irish Catholic pol from Brooklyn was never fully accepted by his younger, more liberal party mates. Many Democrats showed little enthusiasm for the notion of fiscal austerity and prudence.
Carey also got bogged down in personal issues in his second term, from his ever-changing hair color to his controversial second marriage to Evangeline Gouletas, a thrice-married Chicago heiress.
Plus, his tenure as governor was sandwiched between two towering national political figures: Nelson Rockefeller (leaving aside the brief administration of Malcolm Wilson) and Mario Cuomo. Rockefeller was the master builder of New York, while Cuomo positioned himself as the voice of the liberal opposition to Reaganism.
Yet, as the years pass, the legacies Rockefeller and Cuomo have both somewhat diminished, while Carey’s has grown.
Last year, Seymour Lachman and Robert Polner published a biography of Carey entitled “The Man Who Saved New York.” In December, the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel was renamed for Carey, a late in life — and much delayed — tribute.
Today, we face skyrocketing debt at all levels of government, with demands for austerity rising across America. As the nation’s days of wine and roses seem to be coming to an end, it is fitting to ask: Who will be the next Hugh Carey?
Vincent J. Cannato is the author of “The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and his Struggle to Save New York.” He is writing a book about the 1975 NYC fiscal crisis.
THE MAN WHO SAVED N.Y.