BY ERIN DURKIN / DAILY NEWS CITY HALL BUREAU
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 9, 2014, 12:03 AM
The man who spearheaded the drive to ban horse-drawn carriages is a polarizing figure — lionized by animal rights activists and damned by carriage drivers as Public Enemy Number One.
Steve Nislick, a 70-year-old parking garage magnate who loves horses, is an unlikely activist. But his organization, New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets (NYCLASS), is now a political player and is branching out to advocate on issues ranging from installing sprinklers in pet stores to banning foie gras.
The liver delicacy, already banned in California, is a product of animal cruelty, activists say. “They take funnels and force it down the goose’s throat and force-feed them until their livers are about to explode,” said Allie Feldman, executive director of NYCLASS.
The sprinklers are a top priority, she said. “It's heartbreaking to know these animals are trapped in cages overnight and if there’s a fire there’s nothing they can do but sit and wait to die,” Feldman said.
The new pet causes, which Nislick outlined in a letter to supporters in January, will also include ending the use of animals in circuses and protecting tenants’ right to have pets.
It’s an agenda that would have seemed far-fetched just a few years ago, when animal rights activists were far outside the political mainstream.
Nislick, the wealthy former CEO of Edison Properties — which owns garages, self-storage facilities and other real estate — founded NYCLASS in 2008 in response to the sight of horses pulling carriages outside the Central Park West building where he lives with his wife.
He also showed up in Central Park with a tanker truck of Poland Spring water to fill the carriage horses’ trough — flummoxing drivers who insisted that their horses were already well-hydrated.
Nislick soon dove into city politics — a pivotal decision. “What Steve brought to the party was political savvy,” says Dan Mathews, vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Nislick, who declined to be interviewed for this story, sank $174,000 into the 2013 election — including $81,250 to the political action committee NYC Is Not for Sale, which ran attack ads that helped bring down one-time mayoral front-runner Christine Quinn, and $65,000 to NYCLASS’ own independent spending effort. He also gave the maximum $4,950 contribution to Mayor de Blasio.
Three years ago, Nislick was raising money for Quinn, saying he could persuade her to support a carriage ban. Their relationship soured when a secretly recorded conversation became public in which he said about Quinn: “She sees this money and she sees these votes. That’s all she needs to see.”
Quinn didn’t budge on the carriage ban, and the attack campaign soon followed.
Nislick’s role in taking down Quinn makes him a hero to animal rights supporters. “Nobody ever thought of us as people who could take down a mayoral front-runner,” said Feldman.
But to carriage drivers, Nislick is close to a satanic figure. “He’s an evil genius. He looks the part, he acts the part,” said Eva Hughes, vice president of the Horse and Carriage Association of New York.
The drivers have long speculated that Nislick’s real interest is in grabbing the far West Side land where their stables sit.
They’re also suspicious of his effort to develop an antique-style car to replace the carriages, saying he once proposed an arrangement where drivers would pay him to lease the cars and to store them in his garages.
All false, says Nislick.“I’ve never been interested in these properties and do not want them now,” he wrote his supporters recently.
Allies say Nislick, who has four horses of his own, including a rescued carriage horse, has become such a lightning rod only because he’s effective.
“There are cat people, there are dog people, and there are horse people, and he’s a horse person,” says Mathews.
"He’s not in this to make friends. He's in this to help animals," added ASPCA President Matt Bershadker.