Early in Mayoral Battle, Carriage Horses Are Drawn Into Race

As a political issue, it has legs. Four legs.

A surprising flash point — animal rights — has erupted in the early weeks of the race for New York City mayor, complete with boldface endorsers, voluble protests, and a generously financed attack ad.

12 April 2013

As a political issue, it has legs. Four legs.

A surprising flash point — animal rights — has erupted in the early weeks of the race for New York City mayor, complete with boldface endorsers, voluble protests, and a generously financed attack ad.

New York’s animals, from Central Park horses to rescue shelter dogs, have one of the city’s most clamorous lobbying groups, with thousands of motivated supporters and celebrity champions like Alec Baldwin, Lea Michele and Gloria Steinem.

And in a robust show of political muscle, a group of horse lovers is helping to back the first major advertising buy of the 2013 race: a $1 million attack on Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, who, despite being a dog lover, has been a longtime target of animal rights advocates because of her support for horse-drawn carriages in Central Park.

Ms. Quinn’s rivals in the Democratic primary have taken notice. Bill de Blasio, the public advocate, has promised that on his first day in City Hall, if elected, he would ban the famous carriages. He described the conditions of the horses, which have trotted through Central Park for decades, as “inhumane.”

On Wednesday, Mr. de Blasio stood before dozens of self-proclaimed animal lovers at an Upper West Side fund-raiser hosted by the famed Pop artist Peter Max. Mr. de Blasio pledged to pursue a bill requiring sprinkler systems in pet stores.

“He just gets animal cruelty,” said Mary Max, the wife of the artist and a director of theHumane Society of the United States. “This isn’t somebody who we have to convince.” By night’s end, Mr. de Blasio, who has not owned a pet since childhood, had raised thousands of dollars for his campaign.

Animals also cropped up last week at a candidate forum in Brooklyn, where one of the fiercest exchanges of the evening had to do not with policing tactics or affordable housing, but instead the fate of abandoned animals in the city’s shelter system.

Ms. Quinn — who walks Justin and Sadie, the Labrador mixes she owns with her spouse, Kim Catullo, on the sidewalks of Chelsea nearly every morning — earned loud applause by pledging to seek a “no-kill” policy for the city’s shelters and by noting that she had helped pass laws that increased financing for animal care.

“As the owner of two shelter dogs, that’s something I feel very deeply about moving toward,” she said.

But not every candidate was sure what to make of the issue. Sal F. Albanese, a former city councilman, appeared mystified as to why everybody was talking about animals in the first place.

“Bill says on the first day he’s going to ban horse carriages,” Mr. Albanese said. “I’m worried about creating jobs on my first day.”

For a cute, if disenfranchised, constituency, animals have long played an outsize role in the city’s political process — sometimes as a heartstring-tugging front for moneyed municipal interests like real estate, labor, and big business.

The attack ads against Ms. Quinn, for instance, were paid for in part by Steve Nislick, a wealthy parking garage magnate who founded an anti-horse-carriage group that has clashed with the Council speaker. The group recently began donating thousands of dollars to Mr. de Blasio’s campaign.

Mr. Nislick, whose wife has also contributed to Mr. de Blasio, joined forces with a labor group and Wendy Neu, a wealthy Manhattan businesswoman who is active in animal rights causes, to found the anti-Quinn coalition that bought the ad. The coalition has declined to disclose its full list of donors.

Some critics have suggested that Mr. Nislick wants to ban the carriages so he can buy the horse stables, which are on valuable land along Manhattan’s West Side. A spokesman for Mr. Nislick said he had “no interest in the stables whatsoever.”

Ms. Quinn, like her ally Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, has defended the Central Park carriages, saying they employ 300 people and are a valuable source of jobs at a time when unemployment remains stubbornly high. As speaker, she has sought to improve conditions for the horses by supporting the passage of a bill that requires bigger stalls and heavy blankets for the horses.

But the carriages have already proved politically problematic for Ms. Quinn. Last year, she rebuked the industry after the tennis star Martina Navratilova complained that a carriage driver had used antigay and racist slurs, an incident captured on video. And Ms. Steinem, who this week endorsed Ms. Quinn for mayor, noted that the speaker’s support for the carriage horse industry was a lingering area of disagreement between them.

Sensing a vulnerability for Ms. Quinn, Mr. de Blasio has seized on the issue, arguing that the picturesque rides — memorialized on “Sex and the City” and “Seinfeld” — are a form of animal cruelty and should be shut down. The carriages operate in Midtown traffic, and there are periodic collisions between carriages and motor vehicles, with some resulting in injury.

The de Blasio campaign has tried to drum up interest from animal rights supporters by creating a hashtag on Twitter, #AnimalLoversforBdB, and posting a photograph of Roland, a staff member’s terrier, posing with a “de Blasio for Mayor” placard.

“I grew up with the romantic notion that this was part of New York City culture,” Mr. de Blasio said. “I had not really thought honestly about the ramifications of it.”

Could his recent embrace of the issue be considered opportunistic? “This has been an organic process about understanding what needs to change,” Mr. de Blasio replied.

One New York political official said he viewed Mr. de Blasio’s actions in a different light. “He’s at the buffet table, and he’s looking to see what stuff Chris is not eating,” said the official, who is unaffiliated with any campaign but insisted on anonymity so as not to offend Mr. De Blasio.

Motivations aside, it may be hard for Ms. Quinn to ignore the ire of her opponents: Animal rights activists affiliated with Mr. Nislick’s group staged a protest outside her Midtown Manhattan office on Thursday, chanting “Anybody but Quinn.”

Several of the protesters described themselves as single-issue voters, and many said they welcomed Mr. de Blasio’s interest in their cause. Carlos Rodriguez, a film editor who attended the rally with Cliff, his miniature pinscher, said he was now promoting Mr. de Blasio to his 900 Facebook friends, almost all of whom he said lived in New York.

Still, Mr. Rodriguez conceded he was well aware of the gamesmanship in politics.

“You know how they are — politicians say one thing and then they change it completely,” he said. “We have to take the lesser of two evils.”

As for the carriage industry itself, the political fuss can be frustrating. Steve Malone, a spokesman for the Horse and Carriage Association of New York, an owners’ trade group, said he could not quite understand how horses were suddenly a campaign issue.

“How they tie it in is still beyond me,” Mr. Malone said of the mayoral candidates. “They’re the ones who drag us into the middle of it.”

“Believe me,” Mr. Malone added, “the carriage industry wants to be as far away from the New York City mayor’s race as possible.”



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