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Who is Virginia Fields?

"My Mother always told me, send a donkey around the world and he comes back a donkey," says municipal barbarian and parking-lot magnate Abraham Hirschfeld about C. Virginia Fields. And as you sit here among the sophisticates in the National Arts Club and watch borough president-elect Fields kiss downtown's monied asses, you suspect he might just be right.

From 'Who is Virginia Fields?'
by Andrey Slivka
NY Press, Dec. 3, 1997

"You will recall that throughout my campaign it was about bringing people together," Fields proclaims to the November meeting of the Manhattan Neighborhood Council, and your eyes glaze over. "Education. Every community wants to see their schools function better,' she announces, and your chin hits your breastbone. "They want to see their children have an opportunity for a good education--that's good," she attests, and spittle froths your lips. "Under my leadership we will do an assessment--an analysis--school board by school board..." she threatens, and you're staggering out into daylight, because there's only so much of this you can take.

Say what you will, the 51 year-old Fields, former City Councilmember from Harlem, is now a respected member of the New York political establishment, a sacred cow for the local Democratic Party and, given Manhattan borough presidents' traditional political ambitions a likely eventual contender for the mayoralty. She's also the brand-new leader of your borough, so it's worth considering the following questions: who is this woman, how did she achieve her position and how necessary will it be in the next four years to care whether or not she's alive at all?

If you're Abraham Hirschfeld, you've just run against Fields in the November general election and had her hand you your ass and walk away with 68 percent of the vote, light as that voting was (the Board of Elections says 338,787). You're fighting off both an indictment on state income tax fraud and suspicions that you arranged the contract murder of a business rival. So your opinion about Fields will be as clear as they come.

"As a politician she's very good, probably," Hirschfeld magnanimously allows, "because all she has to do is doubletalk."

Any specific examples, Lord Churchill?

"The best example Is If you see her district," shrugs Hirschfeld. "It's the worst slum district in Manhattan. it's the worst school district in Manhattan. It's the highest unemployment in Manhattan. And those are her credibilities."

Why, in Hirschfeld's sophisticated opinion, would Fields want her new job? If she didn't get anything done on the Council, why would she assume a higher-profile position in which her alleged lack of activity would be that much more obvious?

Probably "because she can't get another job," says Hirschfeld flatly.

Having lived for many years in Fields' 9th Council District with no real awareness that I lived in a "slum," I'm willing to state that Hirschfeld's being unfair. Besides, it's common knowledge that the 12 or 13 people who pay consistent attention to the City Council's finaglings consider Fields to have been one of that august body's more effective members. Lu Blain of the New York Public Interest Research Group, for example, comments that Fields was "a good Council member... She definitely made a contribution on the Council--I think a bigger one than most Council members."

And it's not hard to dredge up city politicos willing to praise her. Ed Koch joined many of the Democratic Party's older and more sclerotic bosses in endorsing Fields, and says "she had a good record" on the City Council.

"because all she has to do is doubletalk."

Still, Hirschfeld's not the only municipal figure who's willing to imply that she's a mere Democratic machine soldier, a "party hack" with "a bit of a nasty streak," in the words of a former city attorney who worked with Fields In her early Council days.

City Councilman Adam Clayton Powell IV, for example, notes that Fields is "too much a creature of the political machine, too much of a creature of the establishment, the status quo." Powell, who has called the Harlem political establishment's embrace of Fields an example of "backroom politics," doesn't "think she will bring any new or fresh ideas into the borough president's office." Fields, says Powell, Is the sort who contrives to "find an allegiance" to "any Democratic establishment" organization or figure.

"Of course, right now she comes out of the Harlem Democratic establishment, which I call the Harlem mafia. Some people might find that a strength," Powell concedes, "In that she can work well within the system and relates well to others and is a team player and all those good things. I just think she's too much of the extreme when it comes to working within a team. She carries the ball anywhere she's told, but she has no initiatives of her own." says Powell, "She would never challenge the system, never challenge the powers that be. She was just greasing the wheels of government."

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who calls Fields "very congenial," says that she has "no real record of standing up passionately behind certain issues. There's not an issue that you would think would be identifiable to Virginia Fields."

Sharpton alludes to Fields' history of criticizing Giuliani-era city budgets as inhumane and then voting for them anyway When the Mayor sawed $50 million from the Health and Hospitals Corp.'s budget, Fields, who's acquired a reputation for protecting social-services pork, first complained, then capitulated, then proclaimed that she'd been "able to restore $30 million" and that she finds it "important to work collaboratively and cooperatively."

Fields is ennobled by her mystique as one of the youngest black politicians to have participated in the Civil Rights movement. As the former city attorney who worked with her puts it, she's "actually been arrested at a time when getting arrested meant that you risked getting the shit beaten out of you," a reference to the Birmingham native's teenage experiences marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fields subsequently moved to Harlem, where she became involved in local politics and ingratiated herself with the Democratic Party establishment that lined up behind her this year (with an enthusiasm it didn't muster for its most obedient hack, Ruth Messinger).

Harlem powerbroker Rev. Calvin Butts, for example, called Fields the "vanguard~' of something or other at her campaign kickoff event last January. Koch, Messinger, Dinkins and other old dogs on the sagging Democratic porch--not to mention, interestingly enough, the Liberal Party, on whose ticket Giuliani ran--endorsed her. And Democratic State Senator David A. Paterson gushed that Fields represented "an important new voice" for New York. "Fields is now symbolically the liberator of an African-American political community that has been reeling since the defeat of Mayor Dinkins," he proclaimed.

She's a voice, that's for sure. The question is, of what sort and to what purpose? The Liberal Party's endorsement of Fields is a good index of what we can expect; New York Co. co-chairman Richard Sedlisky explains that his organization supported Fields because she was the 'best of the then candidates who could be able to work with whatever administration won the November election... We felt that she could work with Giuliani or whoever the other person might have been." Straight down the mediocre divide.

What do the Democrats hope to accomplish by installing in the beep post this yes-woman, this apparent beard for a corrupt, ideologically-torpid liberal establishment? This berserker-- this mayoral bully-boy--bestrides the city like a colossus, pushes the political discourse toward new extremes of paranoia and surveillance, and Messrs. Dinkins, Koch, Cuomo, et al,, give us this?

Predictably, Ed Koch scoffs at the notion that Fields is too much a straddler.

"I'm glad she is mainstream," he says. "I'm mainstream. She represents what I think the city wants, which is responsible politics, As I sum it up, liberalism with sanity"

She's not too much a conciliator, a team player?

"I don't understand how you can be too much of a conciliator in a city of this diversity," Koch sniffs. "I think she does a terrific job."

And if Ed Koch says it, it's got to be true.

"The process has been thoroughly corrupted," recent Manhattan borough president candidate George Spitz is saying, "and the borough presidency is part of the picture." Spitz is in his mid-70s and is lawyer and retired state auditor who generated publicity over the summer for his unique candidacy: if elected, Spitz would eliminate the office.

Spitz is no crank. The Daily News endorsed him, which is testimony to a feeling among many political observers that the borough presidency is now a useless and financially wasteful position, a symbolic ombudsman post that involves little more than an exorbitant $114,000 salary and the right to dole out patronage jobs. The borough president used to sit on the powerful Board of Estimate and exercise control over questions of land use and development. But the Board of Estimate was eliminated in 1990, and today's presidency merely possesses the power of budget and land-use review; controls a small percentage of the city budget and appoints members to the Board of Education and City Planning Commission. Spitz claims that eliminating the office would save taxpayers $27 million.

Like many people you ask about Fields, Spitz concedes that she's a "bright, decent" person. "I ran against the job," he says, adding that he "can't say anything nice about the Job of borough president, which I think is useless." The borough presidency, Spitz says, "doesn't have any real function. And I thought the job should be done by the Borough Board just as easily"

Why would anyone want the job?

"There's 88 patronage jobs there! Two limousines, two chauffeurs!" Not to mention "the right to distribute money to groups to buy.." Spitz's voice trails off wearily. "The system is so corrupted, it's terrible. And they don't want any change."

Spitz makes it clear that he doesn't think Fields is mercenary. "I don't know whether that was Virginia's motive. Maybe she has some ideas that she wants to put in play. But she would have more power as a City Councilperson than as a borough president, because a City Councilperson at least has a vote."

Too bad, then, that term limits prevent Fields from remaining on the Council,

Spitz says that the presidency is "one of a number of patronage mills-the community boards, the school board, the borough president, the public advocate." If Fields Is "using this for higher office, she may very well be good in higher office, but I don't think she can do much in this job."

What about the opinion, expressed by Rachel Leon of the advocacy organization Common Cause, that the borough presidency provides a correction to mayoral power, which might be useful given Gracie Mansion's current megalomaniacal occupant?

"The Borough Board," Spitz explains, "which consists of all the City Council people and the chairmen of the community boards, could provide a better balance... It would have more clout, since councilpeople actually have votes. A borough president doesn't have any vote."

Attorney Charles Juntikka also believes that the borough presidencies are useless. He's considering organizing a referendum to eliminate all five positions, since "they no longer make sense under the Charter." According to Juntikka, the borough presidency is just "a launching pad to be elected to something else" and a "terrible waste of money." Borough presidents, he jokes, "are the baronesses, the dukes" in a "medieval system" of patronage.

As for the idea that the borough presidency provides a governmental counterweight, Juntikka says, "If we could make the mayoralty and the City Council legitimate and uncorrupt systems, we wouldn't need these crazy things they come up with as counterweights. I'm not accusing Virginia Fields of being corrupt, no more or less than most other politicians in this city... it's just one other organization that big contributors can hand money into. Of course it increases the level of corruption."

Koch sees it differently. For him, the position seems to be a sop for placating restive constituencies.

"I believe the borough presidency serves a very appropriate role," he says. "When you have a city as diverse as New York City is demographically, you have to have city representatives [who] have sufficient representation of different groups so that people will feel comfortable. And if you eliminated the five borough presidents--who I believe also have roles to play in their own boroughs as cheerleaders and in seeking attention for the needs of their constituents--you would be deprived of an opportunity to have blacks and Hispanics and whites represented on the city-wide tickets."

Slick. And indicative of the cynicism and brain-dead ideological pandering that's operating here: without the borough presidencies, Koch is saying, the Democratic Party would lack pork--would lack useless positions in which to install "women of color" and thus buy off minority-interest-group constituencies, who might otherwise wonder what the Democratic Party's done for them in the last million years. And notice the disingenuous way Koch adds "whites" to the equation as an afterthought, just to reassure you he's not condescending to minorities.

My repeated attempts to interview Fields about these matters were unsuccessful. Maybe she's very busy. Draw your own conclusions, but it comes down to this: either Fields is a hack who's been installed in a figurehead position to buy off, you know, the uptown vote, or she's a hack for whom the Democrats have planned a great political future. Either way, one suspects that the Democrats have once again botched it.

"I don't think she'll ever do anything there as the borough president," says Abe Hirschfeld. "If she couldn't do it in the City Council, in the borough presidency she has no power whatsoever."