Hillary Clinton Betrays Brooklyn at Grass Roots

Sept. 1 (Bloomberg) — The charge against Senator Hillary Clinton is that she can't keep the same position on an issue. She has faced that accusation on predictable, national subjects such as Iraq and taxes. As a story unfolding in Brooklyn reveals, the senator is also capable of turning on the smallest of items. Even, it seems, on a single patch of grass.

Brooklyn loves green things — recall the novel "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." Yet the borough is chronically short of green. Brooklynites watched for decades as the bits of lawn around Manhattan's Battery Park City spread north, so that now the West Side boasts a lengthy park along the Hudson River. Brooklyn, too, needs another park, all agree, a waterside green space to run from the Manhattan Bridge to Atlantic Avenue. The big difference is over what sort of park.

Some planners back a modern strategy: let private projects on the waterfront subsidize the maintenance of green space. Central Park's operating budget is $23 million a year, so Brooklyn needs at least $15 million. To get that, you need restaurants, hotels or apartments. Proposals for Brooklyn's piers include 1,200 high-end condos. Tax breaks, it is assumed, must be traded to secure construction.

But some Brooklynites want an old-fashioned park, the kind you fund out of state, city or borough coffers. These traditionalists charge that a development with thousands of condos is not truly a park but rather, as the Sierra Club put it, something undertaken "in the interests of real estate developers." One of the last places where the feisty old American Left thrives is Brooklyn. The park activists are the kind of people Clinton herself worked with in the 1960s — her old mentor was the slum agitator Saul Alinsky.

'A Little Disingenuous'

Which may be why the senator rallied to their side this summer. In an expansive interview with the local papers at the Sunset Park Senior Center last month, Clinton explained her views. "Public land should be public land," the Brooklyn Paper, a weekly, reported her as saying. "If parks had to be self-sustaining, would anybody have ever built a park?" Another paper reported Clinton as saying that "by definition, a park should be enjoyed for recreation."

Clinton said it was a "a little disingenuous" to build luxury condos, concluding, "I think we can do better than that."

She is running for re-election, and she had just finished reading the autobiography of a Kenyan Nobel Prize winner, the environmentalist Wangari Muta Maathai. Clinton said of Maathai that "one of her great accomplishments was stopping luxury housing in Uhuru Park in Nairobi."

Making Saul Smile

Alinsky would have been proud. Nearly every word was fodder for those suing to stop the big development project.

In fact, Clinton and the anti-development crowd were taking a legitimate position. True, efficient growth and tax-favored development aren't always identical, no matter what the authorities say. And sometimes socialist-style parks are the best: At least they have a coherence of purpose. And sometimes all handing out waterfront property does is enrich the recipients. The timing of the development seems off. With residential real estate cooling fast in New York, it may be perverse to pile yet more condos beside the East River.

Still, within a few days, Clinton had adjusted. In a mid-August letter to Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corp., she wrote of the importance of a "revenue stream" for such parks, saying, "I do not support legal action to oppose the park." The senator didn't give a reason for her transformation to Development Democrat, but pro-development officials were visibly lobbying her.

Just Seven Days

"At first, she spoke from her heart, unscripted. But all it took was seven days to convince her to recant on every single principle that she grew up with," says Judi Francis, president of the anti-development Brooklyn Bridge Park Defense Fund.

This minuscule parks story is important because it replicates a larger pattern. In the instance of the war in Iraq, those who charge that Clinton vacillates are correct. She has both backed the White House and criticized it opportunistically. If Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut ever needed his Democratic allies, it is now. Yet Clinton has been publicly talking to Ned Lamont, who defeated Lieberman in the Democratic primary on the Iraq issue.

More Than Plan B

Taxes weigh down New Yorkers more than citizens of almost any state in the country, especially the Alternative Minimum Tax, and Clinton has spoken of those burdens. But she also voted against legislation that included AMT relief.

One could defend her by noting one area where she doesn't waver: the right to abortion.

But political life is about more than Plan B. And it is possible to be a modern center-left politician as well as steadfast: Tony Blair has proven that. And wavering matters in someone who wants to be the president of the U.S., as Clinton does. "She has said she would use her position and power to help New Yorkers, and she didn't," says John Spencer, one of her Republican opponents for the Senate seat.

None of this will likely stop Clinton from overpowering other candidates, but maybe it ought to. After all, compromises have consequences, whether they involve wars, taxes or blades of grass.

(Amity Shlaes is a Bloomberg News columnist. The views expressed here are her own.)

© Copyright 2006 Bloomberg

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