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Congestion Pricing

Cycle of Rage: Hochul’s ‘Diner Diplomacy’ is the Worst Kind of Lie

I'll have the plutocratic populism with a side of fries.

Outside the Townhouse Diner on Saturday.

I'll have the plutocratic populism with a side of fries.

Like many reporters, I listened intently to Gov. Hochul's explanation for why she was canceling congestion pricing. But even reporters trained to parse every word, missed a key detail in what Congestion Kathy said on Friday night when she evoked the diners she frequents near her office on the East Side.

She didn't say that diner customers had told her to cancel congestion pricing — she said that the owner of a single restaurant, conspicuously a very expensive one owned by a wealthy man, told her he was "very happy" with her decision.

So let's review. Here's what the governor said on after a reporter asked her about her decision:

I encourage you to go to the next diner with me ... sit with me and watch the people come over and thank me. That's all I need to know. That is all I need to know. And if they were saying, "We love the idea of paying more money to come into this diner because I live outside another borough, and I'm not taking the subway today..." You know, I haven't heard anyone say that.

I've not heard a single small business owner say, "I'm really looking forward to my New Jersey customers [paying]. The hardware store that was featured in the news just a couple days ago, the owner who says, "It's going to increase the cost of deliveries, I'm going to have to pass it on to my customers. And my New Jersey customers are already saying they're not going to come." That's real stress and real pain, and that is all that matters to me.

When pressed about diners she's been to, she said, "Comfort Diner used to be my favorite. And I now go to the Townhouse Diner. There's also one on 42nd, it's a little fancier, the Pershing Square, I wouldn't consider that a diner, but that owner at Pershing Square Cafe, is very happy. Yeah I was with my husband there, probably Wednesday morning."

So if you take Hochul at her word, you learn a few things:

  1. She has a rich fantasy life: She didn't say she talked to actual diner customers. She said that if we went to a diner with her, we'd see a procession of voters genuflecting before her. (In fact, we saw the opposite in Times Square on Saturday and at the Broadway Junction station on Sunday, but why use facts to contradict a politician with delusions of godhood?)
  2. She is more worried about residents of New Jersey who drive to her favorite diners or hardware stores in New York City than she is about the residents of New York City who have to deal with the ramifications of that driving. (Worth noting, here's what Hochul said at the Global Business Summit on May 24: "Making cities more livable starts with getting more cars off the roads, reducing pollution, and making significant investments in our public transit systems." Those are literally three things that now won't happen because of her decision.)
  3. Her reference to a specific small business owner who was in the media recently complaining of having to pass along costs to customers who live in the most expensive part of the city was reminiscent of a shopowner who allegedly grabbed then-Gov. Cuomo by the lapels and begged him to stop the L-train renovation because it would allegedly hurt his business. But at least in that case, the governor indeed spoke to the man himself. In this case, the governor may or may not have read an account that may or may not have been accurate.
  4. So it boils down to Buzzy O'Keeffe, the owner of Pershing Square Cafe, who didn't want congestion pricing to go forward, even though the toll costs less than his $20 egg sandwich (soft scrambled eggs, cheddar, bacon, avocado, morita chili aioli, toasted ciabatta, house salad).

Let's stop on O'Keeffe for a second: His world view is car culture. The wealthy people who go to his other fancy restaurants, the River Cafe and The Water Club, probably do drive there. After all, the restaurants don’t offer public transportation directions on their websites, even though both are short walks from the train or bus, which is how O'Keeffe's bartenders, busboys, washroom attendants and footmen get to work. Those are the "working" people Hochul evoked, but now mocks.

O'Keeffe knows about mocking workers first-hand: in 2011, then-city Comptroller John Liu investigated him and the River Cafe for wage theft. And in 2018, "at least 100" of his employees filed a class-action suit against him, also for wage theft. That suit was quietly settled last year. (It's Index 523957/2018 on Webcivil Supreme, the court's hard-to-search database.)

He was also sued in 2013 and in 2019 for the same shenanigans.

(I called all three locations to locate O'Keeffe on Saturday, but he did not return my calls.)

With O'Keeffe dodging me, I headed to Hochul's favorite Townhouse Diner on Saturday and immediately learned that the governor is right about one thing — it's a great diner.

It is an excellent veggie burger.

Packed to the gills with people enjoying burgers, omelettes, pancakes and shakes, it was the prototypical New York City place. The one thing I didn't find was people who had driven there from New Jersey (which, the governor might not realize, has great diners of its own) or an owner who told Hochul that she did the right thing.

Ioannis, the owner who declined to give his last name, said he has definitely served the governor, but that he never talks politics with her. "She has her meetings here and that's all," he said, rushing off to serve his customers.

I fanned out. I mentioned to customer Heidi Schambra that Gov. Hochul had specifically cited the Townhouse as the kind of diner that will lose customers because of all the people who drive in from New Jersey.

"This diner?!" she laughed. "We walked from across the street!"

But then Schambra revealed what so many people admit when you ask them about congestion pricing: they often side with drivers, even though they aren't among them. That's called internalizing one's oppression, a social justice term that explains how oppressed people — and all of us, as Hochul herself once said, are victims of car pollution, congestion, noise, and basic geometry — accept as truth the beliefs provided by the oppressor.

For Schambra, that meant saying, "Well, on the East Side we have a lot of roads that are important thoroughfares, so congestion pricing is a different story for people making deliveries here. It's complicated."

Nearby, another diner customer said if New Jersey residents want to drive 40 minutes to get pancakes on the East Side, that was fine with him.

"Maybe they're picky eaters and they can only eat the chocolate chip pancakes at this one diner," said Scott Sayles, who is from The Bronx, took public transit to get to the diner, and swore he was not joking.

Hundreds of real New Yorkers rallied in support of congestion pricing on Saturday in Midtown.Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

To me, it was another reminder of how we as advocates for congestion pricing have failed to convey to its beneficiaries how terrible their lives have become because of the congestion that constricts their lives, pollutes their lungs, endangers themselves and their neighbors, and robs their kids of independence (how ironic, by the way, that Hochul supports efforts to get kids off their phones, yet just canceled a policy that would at least reduce traffic so that kids might be able to go out and play.)

All too many New Yorkers — even those without cars — agree with Schambra's both-siderism and Sayles's "everyone should be free to get pancakes wherever he wants." The saddest thing, to me, is that these two people and millions like them can't even see that they're victims. Car culture is that powerful.

Meanwhile, fat cats like Buzzy O'Keeffe can stroll over to the governor's table and get her ear, while the busboy silently clears the plates.

And other working people do their jobs without complaining to the governor. Take Ernesto, the caretaker of Paley Park who told me he was hoping for congestion pricing because his bus ride from Bayside would be shorter.

Of course, there were plenty of customers at the Townhouse who will give Hochul whatfor the next time she shows up. A regular customer named Susan screamed at me when I told her about the governor's comments.

"We Democrats have to stand up for what we know is right!" she said. "We had a plan! If New Jersey people want to come here, they can take the train like everyone else. I don't have to give a fuck about people from New Jersey. I want to lower pollution and reduce congestion. We need leaders."

At one point, Hochul agreed. Here's what she said in December: "From time to time, leaders are called upon to envision a better future, be bold in the implementation and execution, and be undaunted by the opposition. That's how you secure progress."

Somehow, Buzzy O'Keeffe convinced Hochul otherwise. Here's what she said in her "congestion pricing is dead" speech on Wednesday: "Leaders have to be willing to do what's right, regardless of the political headwinds, and stand up for the voices that are not being heard. So, yes, I put congestion pricing on pause. Because, when it comes down to it, I'll always stand on the side of hardworking New Yorkers."

And diner customers from New Jersey.

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