November 9, 2007
Mayor Trips Over Pedestal
By RICHARD STEIER
Pat Lynch was trying to breathe fresh life into his arguments for why Patrolmen's Benevolent Association members deserve far more money than other uniformed employees have gotten from the Bloomberg administration, offering a less-insulting variation on the outrage voiced by one of his predecessors that Sanitation Workers could earn more money than cops.
His heart was clearly in his words during the Oct. 30 press conference at the PBA's lower Manhattan headquarters, but too many previous recitations of the same facts had robbed him of spontaneity and passion about the subject.
That became clear when he began talking about a late addition to the union's agenda, courtesy of Mayor Bloomberg's ill-considered remarks a day earlier questioning the heroism of Det. James Zadroga and whether his death at age 34 last year was due to the 450 hours he had spent working at Ground Zero following the World Trade Center's destruction.
'Being There Makes Him a Hero'
Emotion positively radiated from the PBA leader as he decried "probably one of the most insulting statements I have ever heard against a New York City police officer. Just the fact that that police officer went to that site makes him a hero."
Mr. Bloomberg's questioning of that belief, based on Chief Medical Examiner Charles Hirsch's conclusion that Mr. Zadroga's death was caused by injecting prescription medications into his system rather than the toxic chemicals he inhaled at Ground Zero, was "embarrassing for the NYPD, and it's an embarrassment for City Hall," Mr. Lynch thundered. "This Mayor owes an apology to every New York City police officer. Owes an apology to that family."
Referring to the city's defense against a pending civil suit brought by Mr. Zadroga's parents, he continued, "To take a litigation stance, to save money for the city, just goes to show that this is a millionaire - a billionaire - that doesn't care. The Mayor is out of touch."
At virtually the same time, Mr. Bloomberg was in Brooklyn trying to repair some of the damage he had done the previous day with his remarks while accepting an award from the Harvard School of Public Health.During the Harvard appearance, the Mayor, in trying to make the point that scientific findings were not always popular, cited the outcry that followed Dr. Hirsch's ruling in the Zadroga case, which contradicted the conclusion of an Ocean County, N.J. ME in April 2006.
The Mayor said that Dr. Hirsch concluded that rather than taking his pills orally, Detective Zadroga "was injecting them into his veins ... Nobody wanted to hear that. We wanted to have a hero. There are plenty of heroes. It's just in this case, the science says this was not a hero."
Those remarks were characterized as "a disgrace" by Mr. Zadroga's father, Joseph. And while it was not surprising that they incurred the outrage of Mr. Lynch and Detectives' Endowment Association President Mike Palladino, who called them "insensitive, to say the least," some of the Mayor's strongest supporters also questioned his judgment.
'Unnecessary and Impolitic'
One of them, speaking conditioned on anonymity, said that while Mr. Bloomberg may have been trying to defend Dr. Hirsch against what he perceived as an unfair attack, it "was unnecessary and impolitic" to do so by questioning Detective Zadroga's heroism.
The Mayor had clearly figured that out by the time he told reporters in Brooklyn, "This was a great NYPD officer who dedicated himself - put his life in harm's way hundreds of times during his career - and you can use your own definition. It's a question of how you want to define what a hero is, and certainly I did not mean to hurt the family or impugn his reputation."
But that last clause about not wanting to hurt or impugn amounted to weasel words from a man who generally gets high marks for candor and is not known for apologies along the lines of, "I'm sorry if my remarks offended anyone." The effect of Mr. Bloomberg's comments at Harvard had been to suggest that not only had Mr. Zadroga tainted his career but that there was something impure about seeking to have him included as a casualty of 9/11.
Even if Dr. Hirsch's theory about the death was on the money - something that can't be said with any medical certainty - Mr. Bloomberg's comments would be of questionable taste.
As Hank Sheinkopf, an ex-cop who's a political consultant, put it, "It's hard to say that anybody who served at Ground Zero in any way, shape or form is not a hero."
So then why did the Mayor say it?
"Because he believes it," Mr. Sheinkopf replied. "I think what Bloomberg was trying to do was define what heroism at Ground Zero was, and he seemed to be saying that the heroes were the ones who didn't die with drugs in their systems."
'Mayors Slip Sometimes'
That seems to be a peculiarly rigid standard on a couple of counts. There is no disputing the fact that Detective Zadroga logged long hours at Ground Zero and developed severe respiratory ailments as a result. And can anyone imagine Mr. Bloomberg - who during the 2001 mayoral campaign spoke with gusto about experimenting with pot in his youth - venting his spleen against a cancer patient smoking marijuana to ease her pain because it is, after all, against the law?
"A Mayor comments on a million things, and once in a while they slip up," said George Arzt, a political consultant who was Mayor Ed Koch's Press Secretary when he appointed Dr. Hirsch to be the Chief ME 19 years ago.
"They're tough comments concerning the family," he said of Mr. Bloomberg's statements. "Obviously his remarks were too strong. But Hirsch is a superb ME, and any Mayor would be wise to support him."
Mr. Palladino argued that if the intent was to stand by one of those who works for him, Mr. Bloomberg did it in the clumsiest way possible, and with no thought for a larger contingent of his employees.
'Insulted All of Us'
"The Mayor successfully, with one comment, alienated his entire police force," he asserted. "He insulted the families of first-responders who made the ultimate sacrifice, as well as the first-responders."
Mr. Arzt took issue with claims by the police union leaders that Dr. Hirsch tailored his diagnosis to political pressure applied by City Hall as it girds for a raft of wrongful death lawsuits predicated on the Giuliani administration not being honest about the toxins at Ground Zero or supplying adequate protection to those who were involved in the recovery efforts there.
Mr. Palladino contended, however, that Detective Zadroga had been a stone in Mr. Bloomberg's shoe since his death in January 2006 became the driving force behind the bills signed into law that August by then-Governor Pataki granting a presumptive disability pension and death benefits to those first-responders who toiled at Ground Zero and subsequently became seriously ill.
Referring to the Mayor's comments at Harvard, the DEA leader said, "I think this is a mean-spirited attempt by the city to get another bite at the apple in terms of the legislation that was passed."
'No Free Lunch'
Mr. Bloomberg's response when those bills were signed was another of his less-temperate public moments in office: he declared, "There's no free lunch, and Albany doesn't seem to understand that." What he meant was that state officials were acting nobly while sticking the city with the tab for those additional benefits, but it sounded as if he was begrudging employees whose health had been ruined in the search for the remains of those who were buried beneath the rubble on 9/11.
Mr. Palladino said one irony of the Mayor's apparently lingering anger at the role Detective Zadroga's death played in those measures being signed was that he had gotten those benefits before the bills became law.
"The NYPD Medical Board would never have given this guy his disability pension if they thought he was abusing drugs," the DEA leader said.
He contended that the Mayor's harsh words couldn't even be viewed as a way of strengthening the city's legal hand at trial in defending against the wrongful death suit brought by Mr. Zadroga's family. "You don't have to be a Harvard Law School graduate to know there's gonna be a settlement in this case," Mr. Palladino said.
A Bond Among Workers
Mr. Sheinkopf did not think Mr. Bloomberg spoke with an eye on the court case, explaining, "There's absolutely more to do with the court of public opinion and the judging of him and his administration."
Mr. Arzt, who was speaking a day before a Daily News editorial cartoon depicted the Mayor spitting on Detective Zadroga's grave, said he doubted the controversy would dramatically affect public opinion about Mr. Bloomberg's tenure, with one notable exception.
"This is a very popular Mayor, and I don't think it'll hurt him at all, except for with the unions," he said.
That is not an insignificant segment of the population, however. It figures to cover every employee who toiled at Ground Zero, as well as their families and friends and neighbors. Their sense of outrage at its unfairness will cut across union lines, creating a bond that does not exist, for example, in the PBA's fight to better compensate its members, which has actually divided the uniformed unions because the 2005 PBA arbitration award worked to the disadvantage of other union leaders and their memberships.
Reminiscent of Giuliani
That might explain why Mr. Lynch mustered more indignation on that issue than he did the contract battle that directly affects his members. There was no ambiguity or reasons for ambivalence in responding to the Mayor's comments, as there could be in contemplating his bargaining strategy and the precipice on which it has placed the PBA leader.
On Nov. 5, Mr. Bloomberg apologized to Detective Zadroga's father during a private meeting. By then he realized that his "not a hero" remark invited unwanted comparisons to Rudy Giuliani in his less-admirable moments as Mayor. Had he let the comment stand, it was far likelier to make people reassess him than to revise their opinions of the Detective or blame him for his tragic death at 34.