Success Stories: Positive Outcomes
A Governor: Linda Greenhouse on New York State's Hugh L. Carey
He came into office in January 1975 under circumstances that resonate eerily with today’s headlines. It quickly became apparent that the new governor had inherited a huge financial mess. A major state agency, the Urban Development Corporation, financed by a gimmick called “moral obligation bonds” that did not obligate the agency to pay off its debt, was out of cash and facing imminent default. New York City, reliant on issuing increasingly expensive short-term debt to cover a structural deficit amounting to billions of dollars, faced being shut out of the financial markets entirely. With resolve and without grandstanding, declaring that “the days of wine and roses are over,” Governor Carey dug into this multi-dimensional crisis by recruiting the best minds available to help find solutions.
August 10, 2011, 9:30 pm
By LINDA GREENHOUSE, NY TIMES
Linda Greenhouse on the Supreme Court and the law.
I’ve always liked bridges and been a bit phobic about tunnels, particularly those that run under water. So when I read late last year that the Queensboro Bridge was being named after New York’s former mayor, Edward I. Koch, and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel for Hugh L. Carey, I felt that the former governor was being cheated. After all, the Tappan Zee Bridge, still majestic in its sweep across the Hudson even in its current dilapidated state, was named after Malcolm Wilson, the man Carey defeated for governor in 1974. And Robert F. Kennedy got the Triborough Bridge.
But thinking more about the matter of public-works monuments after Governor Carey’s death on Sunday, I’ve decided that the tunnel was the right choice. A tunnel is infrastructure, and Hugh Carey, “the man who saved New York,” as a book published last year called him, was all about infrastructure. Under a river, a tunnel does its job by remaining solidly grounded, keeping the water out, invisible to anyone above. When Hugh Carey departed Albany more than 28 years ago, after two terms as governor, he left public finance on more solid ground than it had been in years. For the most part, he remained out of politics, all but disappearing from public view. An entire generation of New Yorkers has come of age with no memory of the man.
That’s unfortunate, because the career of Governor Carey, a seven-term congressman from Brooklyn before he took on the Democratic Party establishment, beat the favorite in a primary, and captured the governor’s office after 16 years of Republican rule, has much to teach. He did what public officeholders are elected to do. He actually governed.
He came into office in January 1975 under circumstances that resonate eerily with today’s headlines. It quickly became apparent that the new governor had inherited a huge financial mess. A major state agency, the Urban Development Corporation, financed by a gimmick called “moral obligation bonds” that did not obligate the agency to pay off its debt, was out of cash and facing imminent default. New York City, reliant on issuing increasingly expensive short-term debt to cover a structural deficit amounting to billions of dollars, faced being shut out of the financial markets entirely.
With resolve and without grandstanding, declaring that “the days of wine and roses are over,” Governor Carey dug into this multi-dimensional crisis by recruiting the best minds available to help find solutions. He had not even personally known most of those who became his closest advisors. He jawboned the banks and the public employee unions. He made allies out of natural enemies. He worked productively with the leadership of the Republican-controlled State Senate and the Democratic-controlled Assembly. He took calculated, even audacious risks, effectively daring the state Court of Appeals to say no to a moratorium on repayment of New York City’s debt, which was essential to give the city some temporary breathing room. The crisis went on for more than a year. There was no quick fix, and the end result wasn’t pretty. But ultimately, it worked, in part because he made everyone realize that the consequences of it not working were unthinkable.
I witnessed all this as a reporter in this newspaper’s Albany bureau during the first three years of the Carey administration. I had covered his 1974 race, often as the only reporter traveling around the state with him in the two-passenger plane that his underdog campaign could afford in the early months. “Where’s the plane?” “Get in!” The accounts of his big accomplishments and small foibles that appeared this week fell short, in my estimation, of taking his full measure, and certainly didn’t capture the sheer thrill of those crucial months as everyone — the governor, the legislature, the press corps — climbed the same steep learning curve into the unknown.
This failure is understandable, at least to a degree, because government dysfunction in Albany, Washington, and elsewhere has been so much the norm in recent years that an account, however accurate, of a time when politicians pulled together across party lines and government really worked sounds credulous. So does a description of an elected official who acts out of deep conviction, as Governor Carey did when he vetoed the bills the Legislature kept sending him to restore the death penalty in New York.
My piece of Opinionator real estate is supposed to be about law. I could make the argument that this column is about law. Governor Carey was a lawyer, and much of the solution to the fiscal crisis was accomplished through legislation; the ink has faded on the governor’s signature on the framed copy that I still have, complete with signing pen, of the bill that gave birth to the Municipal Assistance Corporation, created by the state Legislature to restore the city’s access to the financial markets. Law, after all, is not an end in itself. It is a tool by which a civilized society organizes itself to pursue common ends.
But really this column is simply an effort to give a good man his due. I last saw Governor Carey in the spring of 2008, when a dinner in his honor was organized as a fund-raiser for the Justice Project, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the criminal justice system. I was still a working reporter, but I bought a ticket and attended as a citizen. The governor, then 89, was physically frail but mentally sharp, quick as ever with the double-entendres and gentle zingers. Unexpectedly, I was asked to speak. Fully aware that the journalism police are quick to pounce on any colleague who dares express an opinion on a public issue or person, I nonetheless said what I thought: that Hugh Carey was the finest public official it had been my privilege to know.
Thinking further on the subject of bridge versus tunnel, it really doesn’t matter. His monument is today’s New York City itself.