Bill de Blasio

Dan Garodnick is a no-nonsense negotiator. Does he have what it takes to run for mayor?

Photos by Celeste Sloman except where noted

On a hot summer day in July 2014, a group of community leaders and elected officials sat cramped in New York City Councilman Dan Garodnick’s living room at Peter Cooper Village on Manhattan’s East Side, where he lives with his wife, Zoe, and their two sons, munching on cannolis and Italian cookies, to discuss the uncertain future of Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village.

Garodnick grew up in the apartment complex, a massive cluster of red brick apartment buildings stretching from First Avenue to Avenue C between 14th and 23rd Streets, and one of the last bastions of an ever-dwindling Manhattan middle class. And according to those close to him, since his election to the City Council in 2005, he had spent nearly every day brainstorming solutions to preserve its affordability long-term. These efforts included an ill-fated $4.5 billion bid Garodnick put together along with the Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village tenants associations in 2006 to buy the property from MetLife, preserve a significant amount of affordable housing and give tenants the opportunity to purchase their apartment units. But they were outbid by real estate titan Tishman Speyer – who bested the competition with a $5.4 billion bid with some help from then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who, hewing to his capitalist ethos, refused to let the city help the tenants buy the property.

After years of mismanagement, a class-action tenant harassment lawsuit and defaulting on its loans, Tishman Speyer turned the property over to its creditors, and it was back on the market, leaving Garodnick and the tenants associations with renewed hope. With Bill de Blasio now in the mayor’s office and committed to affordable housing development, Garodnick knew he had a rare opportunity to convince the mayor to put some city muscle behind a bid that would benefit tenants. De Blasio was sitting in his living room, his gangly 6-foot-5 frame awkwardly squeezed on the sofa, listening to the councilman’s pitch for the city to help his neighbors stay in their homes.

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The tight fit in Garodnick’s living room wasn’t the only awkward part of this encounter. Just months earlier, de Blasio had effectively big-footed Garodnick’s attempt to become City Council speaker, circumventing the Democratic leaders in the Bronx and Queens – both of whom backed Garodnick – and cutting a deal with the Brooklyn delegation to crown his preferred candidate, Melissa Mark-Viverito. In fact, sources say tensions were still so high from the behind-the-scenes race that de Blasio’s team insisted on keeping the meeting at Garodnick’s apartment private. Yet here he was, listening earnestly as Garodnick explained how vital the apartment complex was to the mayor’s stated goal of creating and preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing over the following decade.

Garodnick wanted to make sure the various stakeholders were willing to jump in at the moment of truth and focus their attention on a viable solution for the longtime middle-class tenants at Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. He sketched the outlines of a plan of action for the city to involve itself in the bidding process for the apartment complex and give preference to buyers willing to preserve affordable rents in exchange for some sort of tax abatement.

The cannoli summit was a success. The mayor’s team was sold, and roughly 15 months later, Garodnick stood alongside de Blasio at a press conference in Stuyvesant Town announcing a $5.3 billion sale to Blackstone Group and Ivanhoé Cambridge that would preserve 5,000 of the 11,232 units as “affordable” for 20 years, with a five-year phase-in of rent increases, and extend rent regulations on an additional 1,400 units until 2025. It was the largest number of affordable apartments ever preserved in a single city-led transaction. It was not the perfect deal that Garodnick had hoped for as a wide-eyed freshman councilman in 2006, and some tenants grumbled that it was a sweetheart deal for a private equity firm run by billionaire Stephen Schwarzman, who enjoys close ties to Trump. But Garodnick was determined to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

“In reality we had very little authority or leverage, but we made it ourselves,” he recalled recently.

Those in attendance at the meeting that day believe that Garodnick’s offer to host the meeting in his living room was purposeful – a means of disarming a mayor who may have been wary of lending a hand to someone perceived to be a political rival. For Garodnick, personal politics had no place in this conversation. Nobody in the room wanted a repeat of the Tishman Speyer debacle.

“It didn’t take but half an hour, but it very much was the key to opening the door to a different discussion,” said Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president and a friend of Garodnick’s, who was also at the meeting. “It wasn’t fancy, wasn’t in your 250 Broadway conference room. It was right in your apartment. That’s strategic, I think.”

Bill de Blasio and Dan Garodnick

Garodnick wlecomes Mayor Bill de Blasio into his Stuy Town apartment to discuss affordable housing. (William Alatriste for the New York City Council)

Over the course of 11 years in the New York City Council, Garodnick has cultivated a reputation as a shrewd dealmaker – deftly finding pressure points on both sides of a negotiation in order to strike a reasonable compromise. That quality has led to significant buzz around Garodnick as a possible candidate for citywide office, possibly as soon as this year, with his third and final term set to end in December.

If the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village transaction was a window into his negotiating style, it also showed where his personal values lie – helping to lend a voice and empower disenfranchised communities.

Garodnick is truly a creature of his district, which stretches from 14th Street on the East Side to 96th Street and Fifth Avenue. The son of a lawyer and a public school teacher and a product of the idyllic urban middle-class community, he counted firefighters, construction workers and small business owners as his neighbors – a blue-collar demographic insulated from the luxuries of Manhattan.

Garodnick grew up idolizing political figures like Geraldine Ferraro, a family friend who went on to become the first female vice presidential candidate and inspired him to pursue his passion for public service. Before attending law school at the University of Pennsylvania, Garodnick ran a civil rights program in New York City public schools called Unlearning Stereotypes, which was designed to strike a dialogue between children across racial and ethnic lines to try to address prejudices and promote the use of social action to create change, as opposed to violence. He also volunteered with Manhattan’s Central Synagogue rebuilding African-American churches destroyed by arson in Virginia and Georgia.

But clerking for federal Judge Colleen McMahon in the Southern District of New York, a highly respected jurist, is where Garodnick got his formative education on the nuts and bolts of litigating tough negotiations.

“(McMahon) taught me a lot on how to think through various issues in the same context separately and to boil them down to their basic parts and come to a reasonable conclusion,” Garodnick said. After a stint in the private sector working at the white-shoe law firm Paul, Weiss, he jumped at the opportunity to run for City Council in 2005 when Eva Moskowitz left office to run for Manhattan borough president. Garodnick knocked on every single door at Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village – a total of 11,232 units – a number he recites with great pride. He would go on to win both the primary and general election easily.

Garodnick quickly set out putting the skills he honed under McMahon and in the private sector to work. A meeker negotiator might have retreated after falling short on the failed tenant-led bid to purchase Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village in 2006. Undaunted, the councilman threw himself into other tense negotiations with Manhattan’s business and real estate community. In 2007, he helped broker a settlement agreement between renowned chef Daniel Boulud and the staff at his eponymous restaurant, Daniel, who sought redress and compensation after Asian and Latino employees had allegedly been discriminated against and passed over for promotions.

“Once you understand what is truly motivating people in a truly complicated situation, you can find a positive outcome.”

Garodnick also won major concessions for his constituents at the nine-acre Solow site, at the time the largest parcel of undeveloped land on Manhattan’s East Side. He pushed the developer to lower the proposed residential building heights and to provide five acres of public gardens and walkways, a public school and middle-income housing. In return, the notoriously difficult developer, Sheldon Solow, was able to keep an office tower that the community had resisted. In all these negotiations, both sides, in essence, got what they wanted. While some of his City Council colleagues would have been content to throw rhetorical bombs, or take the path of least resistance, Garodnick took McMahon’s advice to heart – if you operate under the assumption that the arguments on each side have merit, finding a middle ground is easier.

“I look at what the real interests are that are at play, as opposed to what posturing is going on. Once you understand what is truly motivating people in a truly complicated situation, you can find a positive outcome,” Garodnick said. “It was true in that rezoning with Solow, it was true with the restaurant workers, and it’s true with all of them. You really needed to understand first where people were coming from in order to deliver a positive result. That’s what negotiation is and how everybody can come out frequently with a win.”

The looming Midtown East rezoning presents a capstone challenge for Garodnick. The proposal would raise building heights in the area around Grand Central Terminal in order to expand the neighborhood’s tax base and keep it competitive with more modern business districts. Garodnick and former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn tabled negotiations with the Bloomberg administration in 2013, due to what Garodnick deemed “significant flaws” in the proposal, and the abbreviated timeline for getting it approved – a result of Bloomberg’s desire for a final victory before his final term expired. But the rezoning proposal was also a politically thorny issue for Garodnick, who was weighing a run for city comptroller at the time. Some real estate executives suggested, in not-so-subtle terms, that killing the rezoning would damage his candidacy.

With a new administration in office, Garodnick and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer went back to the drawing board on the rezoning. They first dealt with a five-block rezoning of Vanderbilt Avenue, which included approving SL Green’s application for a 63-story office tower at One Vanderbilt in exchange for $220 million in transit infrastructure improvements at Grand Central. Brewer gave all the credit to Garodnick for proposing that agreement, and without the property tax abatements that have become typical for similar developments in the city.

“Hudson Yards has abatements, the World Trade Center area has abatements, East Midtown is kind of the only one left,” Brewer said. “God knows we need those property taxes. (Garodnick) was good at coming up with those ideas.”

The idea with One Vanderbilt was to set a precedent for the larger Midtown East rezoning: Find ways to put deliverable public benefits into the zoning resolution, allow for new development and protect local landmarks by giving them a chance to sell their unused air rights. But while the revised rezoning proposal cleared a big hurdle in the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure in March when the Manhattan borough board unanimously approved the proposal, both of the community boards in the area voted against it, citing a lack of sufficient public space. Still, Garodnick sounded confident that the final proposal would pass muster.

“As long as you can feel comfortable with the fact that you made best efforts to satisfy the various interests out there and that you went as far as you possibly could to do that,” Garodnick said, “you have to accept the fact that some people will never be satisfied, and take your lumps.”

Dan Garodnick

Garodnick’s track record of thoughtful compromise and advocating for the public’s interest has enhanced his political standing. Perhaps more importantly, it garnered the respect of many of his colleagues in the City Council, even after a contentious 2014 speaker race in which the Council voted unanimously for Melissa Mark-Viverito after Garodnick withdrew his candidacy. 

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“I know there were some people who wanted to vote ‘no.’ Even if Dan wasn’t going to win, they didn’t want to vote for Melissa,” said City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez. “At the end of the day, it was a united council voting for Melissa, Dan withdrew his name, and not enough credit was given to him for thinking about the bigger issue and what it would mean for this legislative body to go into a legislative session divided.”

Mendez, a longtime friend of Garodnick’s dating back to their pre-council days, noted that even as he was making the hard sell to his colleagues as to why he would make a good speaker, he never adopted a “you’re with me or you're against me” posture.

“The most important thing was that he told me we were friends and the most important thing to him is my friendship, whether he had my support or not,” Mendez said. “That meant something.” Reflecting on the speaker’s race, Garodnick describes it as an “educational” process.

“As somebody who came in the City Council without having worked for an elected official, I volunteered on some campaigns but I never really worked in politics,” he said. “I come to all of this without a foundation in how to do politics.”

Sources close to Garodnick said it was eye opening for him to see how the speaker gets crowned, with the Democratic county leaders from the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn playing outsized roles in swaying City Council members, and the mayor acting as an equalizer. De Blasio moved forcefully in support of Mark-Viverito, and suddenly Garodnick found himself rubbing elbows with backroom savants like former Bronx County Democratic leader Carl Heastie and Queens County Democratic leader Joe Crowley, who, despite their clear political (and patronage) interests, were loyal to Garodnick right to the very end.

“Of course, nobody likes to lose,” Garodnick said. “But you dust yourself off and you get back to work, which is what I did.”

From a practical standpoint, holding a political grudge against the 50 City Council members made little sense. For Garodnick to be effective as chairman of the council’s Committee on Economic Development – one of the few influential committees in developing policy – he must work collaboratively with his colleagues.

When City Councilmen Donovan Richards and I. Daneek Miller voiced their concerns to Garodnick about the ongoing foreclosure crisis in southeast Queens, the three pushed the city to buy some of the distressed debt controlled by the federal government and restructure the mortgages. Similarly, when City Councilman Carlos Menchaca reached a tense impasse with the de Blasio administration over the $115 million redevelopment of the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, Menchaca solicited Garodnick’s advice and worked with him to mend fences with City Hall.

“Dan has always held the institution itself higher than anything political, as it related to say, a speaker race,” Menchaca said. “Dan played a major role in doing a couple things: Playing a supportive role to me leading the negotiations (with the city), making sure we had a good space to have a conversation, and also making sure that there was a mentorship style of leadership here. He’s also deeply committed to ensuring that the new members get what they need and the support that they need from the members that are on their way out.”

"I’d like to continue finding ways to serve New York City. … I’m thinking about the best way to do it, whether I should be considering running for another office this year or down the line."

While Garodnick wants to leave behind a legacy of collegiality and respect for the City Council as an institution, he also is taking a more confrontational stance to the de Blasio administration, perhaps a function of his final term winding down and keeping an eye on a possible citywide run for office.

Chief among Garodnick’s complaints with de Blasio is the mayor’s disregard for the marked increase in city spending. The city’s budget has increased every year since de Blasio took office, from $72.7 billion in Bloomberg’s final year to a proposed $84.7 billion for the coming fiscal year. Beginning with last year’s budget negotiations, Garodnick and 25 other City Council members urged the administration to force agency heads to find 5 percent in potential savings and reinstitute a Program to Eliminate the Gap – a cost-savings program that de Blasio’s predecessors relied on to rein in spending. They were ultimately rebuffed, though Garodnick has kept at it, requesting that the administration identify $500 million in savings this fiscal year to guard against likely federal cuts from the Trump administration.

“The problems relate to the fact that while there are savings, they’re not enough and the mayor has not asked his agency heads to commit to finding real savings in their own budgets,” Garodnick said. “We have budget deficits looming on the horizon, and we’re already seeing what the federal government is doing to us and they’re responsible for 10 percent of our overall budget, so we are on thin ice here.”

Garodnick is also baffled at the mayor’s tendency to set arbitrary benchmarks without details on how to reach them. In this year’s State of the City address, de Blasio declared his intent to create 100,000 private sector jobs over the next 10 years that pay at least $50,000 a year – which left many scratching their heads as to how he might achieve such a lofty goal. The lack of detail behind that plan was laid bare during a March Economic Development Committee hearing chaired by Garodnick, in which he pointedly asked James Patchett, president of the New York City Economic Development Corp., where those jobs were coming from. Patchett’s answer focused on specific sectors where the administration was trying to create jobs – a broad response that left the detail-oriented Garodnick unsatisfied.

“What is lacking here is any clarity on how they intend to hit that number, which tools would be employed, what methodology they’re using, what the cost is to the benefit of creating these jobs,” Garodnick said in an interview a week after that hearing. “It’s okay to put out a big number, but when you put out the number you have to be able to support it, otherwise it raises the question as to why isn’t it 200,000 or 500,000 or more.”

But staying true to his cautious nature, there is a limit to how forcefully the councilman will challenge the mayor. While Garodnick noted that the mayor himself has said that being the “pothole mayor” was not his priority, he stopped short when asked to list de Blasio’s managerial failings.

“It’s not something I would pick apart at this moment in time,” Garodnick said. “(De Blasio) has a direction that he wants to head and that’s fine. You can do that while also focusing on the nuts and bolts of daily management.”

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That’s not exactly the statement of someone gearing up to challenge an incumbent mayor, but that hasn’t stopped the speculation among the New York City political chattering class that Garodnick is considering a City Hall run in 2017. The notion is buttressed by his sizable campaign war chest of $1.1 million. The New York Post reported in March that Garodnick had been soliciting advice from political consultants on a possible mayoral run, and had even sought advice from former Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch, a renowned city technocrat who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 1989.

Garodnick’s closest allies are decidedly split on whether he should challenge de Blasio. Those who advocate for a 2017 run note that de Blasio does not yet have a serious challenger, that he is particularly vulnerable for an incumbent, and that he’s dogged by corruption allegations and perceived managerial incompetence – albatrosses that the comparatively squeaky-clean Garodnick could expose. Garodnick also has a strong legislative record to run on, with the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village deal a notable highlight.

And while Garodnick is allergic to grandstanding, some believe that quality could endear him to voters fatigued by de Blasio’s proclivity for lofty rhetoric and promises. “We’ve moved into a time where New York is as prosperous as it’s ever been and filled with people that have very high expectations about the future of the city, and those conditions lend themselves to an environment where voters are looking for people that can sustain and grow the city economically and progressively, and not necessarily the kind of verbal or political brawlers that have dominated in the past,” said Evan Thies, a New York City political consultant and friend of Garodnick’s.

But detractors note that Garodnick is not the type of no-holds-barred bomb thrower that one has to be when challenging an incumbent, and that while a campaign of competency might play well in certain parts of the city, he’s never managed anything beyond his City Council district.

Ravitch presents a test case in this regard, a similar political archetype to Garodnick, though with actual managerial experience. Like Garodnick, Ravitch was credited as a tough, sensible negotiator. While working in the governor’s office, he helped save New York City from the brink of financial ruin, and later helped rescue troubled institutions like the state Urban Development Corp. and the Bowery Savings Bank and steered the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to a course of better service and capital planning. He came with a reputation as a “fixer” who was fluent in policy, yet retail politics did not come naturally to Ravitch, and his candidacy suffered for it – placing third in the 1989 Democratic mayoral primary.

For his part, Ravitch believes that Garodnick can be a valuable asset to the city, whether in citywide office or even within a mayoral administration – even suggesting de Blasio should hire him as a deputy mayor if de Blasio wins re-election.

“He’s a very bright, able guy, great as a lawyer,” Ravitch said. “His values are similar to mine in terms of what this society should do for the people who live here and how government should be run. I think he’s eminently qualified to move upward in politics, but that requires money, patience and fortitude. I don’t see an opportunity for him this year, but there will be plenty of opportunities when there isn’t that much competition.”

Ballot petitioning for the 2017 mayoral race begins in June, so plenty can happen in that time frame to sway Garodnick one way or another. True to form, Garodnick played coy on his future ambitions, reacting in mock surprise when it’s noted that his term is expiring, and leaving his intentions close to the vest.

“I’d like to continue finding ways to serve New York City and I’ve raised a considerable sum of money in support of doing that,” he said. “I’m thinking about what the best way to do it, whether I should be considering running for another office this year or down the line. I like to think about the various considerations at play before I make a decision and that’s the process I’m in right now.”

Like any good negotiator, Garodnick will undoubtedly give equal merit to both sides of the argument.

Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that 50 City Council members voted against Dan Garodnick in the 2014 speaker race. Garodnick withdrew his candidacy for the position before the unanimous vote to make Melissa Mark-Viverito speaker. 

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