Growing up in the 70s, Scott Stringer’s icons included Bella Abzug, Robert F. Kennedy: and Joe Namath.
Playing touch football on a sandlot team in Washington Heights, he once dreamed about being the first Jewish Super Bowl MVP.
But the family business took him in another direction. His mother, Arlene, was a City Council member, his father Ronald, a politically active lawyer who served as counsel to Mayor Abraham Beame. Abzug, who served in Congress and ran for mayor, was a distant cousin.
At 12, he found himself working on an Abzug re-election campaign, his indoctrination to field politics.
“I put up a lot of posters and I leafleted on the street,” recalls the boy who grew up to be Manhattan borough president, in an interview at his Center Street offices. “I wasn’t exactly a key adviser, but I was in the mix.”
Less time on the scrimmage line and more at the local political club, and Jets quarterbacks suddenly didn’t inspire as much. “It was a passionate political time in the city’s history,” says Stringer, now 45. “There was a war in Vietnam, there was a corrupt president, Richard Nixon and it just seemed in those days everyone was concerned about government and politics, the Great Society and the New Frontier … I just grew up in a household where that’s what you talked about and that’s what you thought.”
At 17, he was appointed a student representative to Community Board 12. After earning his bachelorís in government from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, he ran unsuccessfully for City Council, then became chief of staff to then-assemblyman Jerrold Nadler, taking over his legislative seat in 1993 when Nadler became a congressman. “Jerry was a great mentor,” says the raspy-voiced Stringer, now a veteran of six Assembly terms, one failed bid for public advocate and the crowded battle for the open Manhattan presidency he won last year.
Stringer, who made government reform a priority in the legislature, wants to do the same in his current job, beginning with the way community board members are appointed. “I want to see an independent screening panel for applicants,” he said. He also wants to raise the visibility of the office, holding more town hall meetings and regularly visiting synagogues and churches.
Another priority is the effort to make Manhattan more affordable.
“People who have lived in Manhattan for generations, in neighborhoods where no one wanted to live and built up communities, libraries, education centers, religious institutions: we don’t want those people to feel jeopardized,” he says.
On the Upper West Side, where his former Assembly district lies, he often hears that the growth of the Orthodox community is threatened by the high cost of housing. “What they’re concerned about is the second-child syndrome,” he said. “People want to be in Manhattan, they want to be near the Lincoln Square Synagogue or another synagogue, but after the second kid you’re already looking for a house because you can’t spend two, three million.” Other communities, too, fear that they have stuck it out during bad times only to be priced out by soaring development. “We have to be mindful of creating housing for people who have built up our neighborhoods,” he says.
A bachelor who lives with a parrot named Otis, Stringer says he has no hobbies and little free time. “I’m a mellow person, on the job seven days a week.” Insisting, as most politicians do, he’s not thinking long-term, Stringer concedes that heíd love to stay in this job longer than the maximum eight years. Stringer was the only new borough president to take office this year, taking his place among four second-term vets. His Brooklyn counterpart, Marty Markowitz (a fellow Jew, fellow parrot owner and fellow former state legislator) reports that Stringer has fit well into the job.
“He comes from a political family; he has a clue,” says Markowitz. His advice: “Be collaborative … There is significant unofficial power to do a do a hell of a lot of good.
“Of course it’s a little harder in Manhattan, because that’s the seat of power [for the whole city].”
Stringer needs no better reminder of that than the view from his office window, where he pauses to offer a hint of where his ultimate ambition may lie. “We’re literally keeping an eye on the mayor,” he says, looking at the view of City Hall.
It’s close enough to toss a football at.