As a member of the City Council, Eva Moskowitz has a say in how to spend billions of taxpayer dollars. But she admits to being perplexed about what to do with a certain check for $3,000.
The sum did not come from city budget discretionary funds, or from a wealthy campaign donor. The allocation was made by her mother, Anne, who fled Europe during the Holocaust.
When Anne, whose grandparents died in concentration camps, received a $6,000 check as a reparations settlement from the Austrian government, she divided it among her two children, requesting that it, in poetic justice,be used to better their own children’s futures.
But Eva Moskowitz is hesitant to save the money for her 18-month-old son, Culver. "It seems tainted in some way," she says. "We may end up giving it to some human rights organizations and put it to work fighting abuses around the world."
As the 35-year-old granddaughter of refugees, comfortably rooted in American society and trying to reconcile an optimistic American future with a heritage of oppression, Moskowitz is typical of many young Jewish women her age.
Except for her seat on the City Council, which she won in a special election in November to succeed Republican Andrew Eristoff, now the city’s finance commissioner. A Democrat, she represents Manhattan’s Fourth District, which stretches from Midtown to the East 80s.
A former college history professor, director of a children’s literacy organization, and public affairs director of a program for gifted minority children, this latest entry on her resume may seem out of the ordinary. The City Council is currently dominated by career politicians who worked their way up through club connections and party loyalty, while the disarming, petite Moskowitz defies every stereotype of New York politics.
On her desk is a recently completed manuscript, to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press, on America’s fascination with therapy and the psyche: not the usual domain of a municipal legislator.
But as term limits reshape the Council, barring 46 of 51 members from seeking re-election, there will likely be more newcomers like Moskowitz who set aside diverse fields of endeavor for four- or eight-year stints in City Hall.
"I can’t say I wanted to do this all my life and now … finally!" she said recently, sitting in an office that still bears Eristoff’s name on the front door, where numerous hooks holding nothing adorn the walls. "I planned on devoting my life to education. I still want to."
Term limits, however, may transform Moskowitz into one of the most important members of the Council in just a few short years as she shifts from its most junior member to one of its most senior. The term limit law calls for banishment from the Council after two four-year terms. But because of census redistricting, the next Council term will last two years. Counting the remainder of Eristoff’s term, Moskowitz may serve more than 10 years in the Council if she is continually re-elected, giving her and a handful of others the potential for tremendous influence.
"Sadly those who do get elected to [the Council] will be less effective in the future," says Gifford Miller, a Democrat whose Council district adjoins Moskowitz’s. "You want to see legislators that can develop a $36 billion budget and learn everything. It’s tough to put a time limit on that." But, he adds, "if Eva is emblematic of the future of the Council, it’s going to be in great hands."
Although she is one of 12 Jews, all Democrats, currently on the Council, Moskowitz is one of only two who will not be forced out in 2001. The other is Michael Nelson of Brooklyn.
Moskowitz intends to devote much of her tenure to education issues, and she has been appointed to the Council’s education committee. "We do not have the education system that befits a city that is the financial capital of the world," she laments. "We have to take on the vested interests and not be afraid of the new."
That spirit, however, may have cost her an important credential as an education candidate during the election when the United Federation of Teachers backed her Republican opponent, Reba White Williams. The ostensible reason was Moskowitz’s opposition to tenure for principals, an idea that could snowball into eliminating tenure altogether. There is also widespread belief that the union wanted to ensure that future Republicans didn’t write off UFT support, as well as its agenda. Moskowitz can afford to have no regrets, having won with 70 percent of the vote, and she stands by her position.
"I didn’t believe management deserved lifetime security irrespective of performance," she says. "I was not willing to change for the UFT or anybody else."
Moskowitz came within two percentage points of winning the same seat in 1997. She attributes her resounding off-year victory to voter rejection of her opponent’s spending more than $1 million on the campaign. But Joseph Mercurio, a political consultant who worked for Williams, says Moskowitz benefited from heavy union turnout in successful opposition to proposed charter amendments, and low turnout in general.
"In a low turnout election in an overwhelmingly Democratic district a candidate who has run before has an enormous demographic advantage, especially a Jewish candidate," says Mercurio. "It’s very difficult to overcome that tide."
Moskowitz’s approach to fixing the schools does not involve throwing more money into the system, as many Democrats propose. "We spend $10.6 billion on education, which is a little less than one-third of the overall budget. If someone says we don’t spend enough on education, they are wrong. It’s not getting to the classroom. It gets eaten up at the Board of Education. In public schools they spend $6,000 per pupil per year, while in private schools they spend $8,800 per year. I’d like to introduce an equal funding bill."
Although some Democrats are loath to give Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani any credit for transforming the city, Moskowitz says he has made the city "more livable. I grew up in the ’70s, when the city was socially and economically losing people. He deserves some credit, but not as much as he claims. He runs a tight ship, maybe too tight."
Moskowitz grew up on the Upper East Side, attending P.S. 6 and Stuyvesant High School, where she met her future husband, Eric Grannis, now an attorney. She attended the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and has taught at the University of Virginia, Vanderbilt University and the College of Staten Island.
Besides being an author, she has also produced and directed a documentary on the changing roles of women after World War II. She is an active member of the National Council of Jewish Women and attends Temple Emanuel. Her interest in politics was partially spurred by a distant relative, Belle Moskowitz, who was an advisor to Democratic Gov. Al Smith in the 1920s.
"Jews have played an important role in social reform in New York City," says Moskowitz. "It’s a tradition that I’m very proud of, and I’d like to build on that legacy."