In 1992, during a presidential debate with then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and third-party candidate Ross Perot, President George H.W. Bush was forced to admit he didn’t know what the price of a gallon of milk was. Mundane though that may seem nearly 30 years later, the question still haunts the 41st president.
Bush would have been better off admitting to an extramarital affair, in retrospect. After all, I’d wager most of the viewing audience that night was fully aware the president’s most viable opponent viewed the bonds of matrimony loosely, if he viewed them as bonds at all. However, the fact Bush couldn’t tell America how much four quarts of cow juice cost proved he was out of touch with the American populace, the working men and women who all know exactly what a gallon of the good stuff costs.
The question has resurfaced with intermittent frequency, something of great bafflement to this author. I’m hardly of Mayflower material or a trust-funder but I’d be hard-pressed to give you a definitive answer, even when you consider how often writers with a home office are saddled with the chore. (Spoiler alert: About 100 percent of the time.)
It’s not a sign a politician is just another prole like us, or someone we’d like to have a beer (or milk) with. It doesn’t say anything about his or her ability to govern or implement effective public policy. I cannot fathom how turning a debate into a game of “The Price is Right” leads to a more informed populace. (“OK, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, you said the JIF peanut butter cost $5.99, actual retail price … “)
If you’re running for mayor and you don’t know home prices in your own city, that’s a cow of a different color — especially when one of those answers is off by almost an order of magnitude.
Shaun Donovan and Ray McGuire are two of the candidates looking to replace New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio when he goes gently into that good term-limited forced retirement. While former Democratic Party presidential candidate Andrew Yang has star power, Donovan has political connections and McGuire has outsider energy.
Neither, alas, has a particularly good grasp on the housing market in New York City. And when I say they don’t have a good grasp on the housing market in NYC, what I really mean is they don’t have a grasp on what the housing market is anywhere.
Both men sat down with The New York Times’ editorial board for an interview — as candidates for major city, state and federal office are wont to do, given New York’s newspaper of record is (sadly) the nation’s, as well. But I digress.
During the interview, which was published Monday, Donovan articulated his support for ranked-choice voting, touted his “far-reaching progressive strategy on [policing] that’s actually achievable” and his record in politics. He spewed platitudes like “we need to reinvest in our communities” and “we cannot let a crisis go to waste.”
For those willing to read to the end, however, it was worth it. As they closed, The Times’ Mara Gay asked what the median sales price for a home in Brooklyn was.
“In Brooklyn, huh? I don’t for sure. I would guess it is around $100,000,” he responded.
There was an addendum to that answer, with The Times noting that “Mr. Donovan later emailed to say that his $100,000 answer referred to the assessed value of homes in Brooklyn. ‘I really don’t think you can buy a house in Brooklyn today for that little,’ he wrote.”
You may have noticed I didn’t specify what Donovan did during his time with the Bloomberg administration in New York City and the Obama administration in Washington.
Under Bloomberg, he was the housing director. Under Obama, the housing secretary and budget director. So, yes, this is a man intimately connected with housing. And yes, that was the answer he gave — but, he assures you it’s because he heard “assessed value of homes in Brooklyn” as opposed to “median sales price for a home … in Brooklyn,” which is very clearly what Gay said.
Shaun Donovan ran HUD! https://t.co/8U9SZxjQ03
— Sam Stein (@samstein) May 11, 2021
Next, Ray McGuire, former Citigroup executive and investment banker. McGuire’s positions are more amorphous, but his pitch boils down to the fact he’s a private sector man with a heart who can Get Things Done.
Not to roll my eyes at anyone who comes to the political arena with only private sector experience, but see if you haven’t heard this boilerplate language before from other uninspiring candidates for whom a run at high office symbolizes the ultimate quest for self-actualization atop Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:
“I have helped to lead one of the largest employers in this city. I’ve helped to lead out of crisis. I built and managed teams. They want a competent manager — I’ve managed large, complex organizations with thousands of people and very large budgets — and they want accountability. And I was the longest-standing head of my business in the history of Wall Street. I didn’t say ‘black’ [McGuire is black] — I said ‘longest’ and ‘the history of Wall Street.’ So that means I had to manage my data, set goals, empower my team and hold myself and them accountable.”
His estimate on the median home price in Brooklyn was “somewhere in the $80,000 to $90,000 range, if not higher.” Good work.
How can you fix the city’s housing crisis if you’re this oblivious? pic.twitter.com/fW9fWeCXbU
— Monica Klein (@MonicaCKlein) May 11, 2021
Are we supposed to take this seriously? Like all city hall elections without a clearly defined frontrunner (as anyone who’s seen Steve James’ look at Chicago’s 2019 mayoral race, the miniseries “City So Real,” will tell you), these things are clown-car events which draw plenty of clowns. That’s all well and good until you realize how desperate the situation in New York City is. Homelessness and housing crises are just a few of the concerns the next mayor will have to deal with on day one. On the off-chance one of these two individuals ends up standing at the end of the day, New York is in serious trouble.
Crime is up and people are leaving; according to CNBC, almost half of New Yorkers earning $100,000 or more are considering leaving the city. Gotham has a $9 billion budget shortfall and a whole lot of de Blasio-era messes to clean up. Remote work means cramped apartment space and exorbitant rentals don’t make sense. If New York City is going to be saved from the morass of the de Blasio years, it needs a mayor who understands the economic challenges the city faces, not one of two individuals who were off on the price of a home in Brooklyn by almost 1,000 percent.
So, yes, I’d say this matters a bit more than the price of a gallon of milk. In that vein, however, I can remember another high-profile New York City mayoral candidate who didn’t know what a gallon of milk cost during a presidential run, either. Present issues aside, I’d say Rudy Giuliani acquitted himself well in that role despite his cluelessness on an udderly (I’m so sorry) ridiculous topic. Rest assured that when it counted, Rudy knew what a home in Brooklyn cost.
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