“I seen my opportunities and I took ’em,” the plain-speaking Tammany Hall politician George Washington Plunkitt said in 1905. The corrupt Tammany political machine dominated New York City politics for a century, its chicanery extending into every corner of civic life. Bribes, kickbacks, fraud, extortion and graft were the order of the day. Today, New York is witnessing the birth of a new Tammany Hall. Plunkitt’s heirs are seeing their opportunities and taking them on a colossal scale.
The center of the new Tammany is Mayor de Blasio’s City Hall. But de Blasio is no Boss Tweed, old Tammany’s criminal genius. De Blasio has emerged as more pawn than prince of the city: insecure, in over his head, buffeted by moneyed players he cannot seem to resist and presiding over accelerating pay-to-play scandals that have cast a pall of political death over his administration.
Atlantic Yards offers a case study of how the new Tammany system has evolved. It’s local: extending from dealmakers to a cadre de Blasio calls his “agents of the city” and to Albany’s notorious “three men in a room.” It’s international: the deals stretch from New York and Washington to Russia and China. And it’s sophisticated, powered by the global economy, the influential New York real estate industry, and non-profit entities manipulated for personal and political gain.
But the central scam of the new Tammany system would not be unfamiliar to old Tammany’s Plunkitt: public money for private profit. Plunkitt called it “honest graft”—gaming the system to the benefit of the powerful and well-connected, with crumbs for the common folk.