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New York Mayor Bill de Blasio assured animal-rights activists during his run for City Hall that he would rid Central Park of horse-drawn carriages, which he called inhumane.
“We are going to get rid of the horse carriages, period,” de Blasio said a few days before taking office Jan. 1. “It’s over.”
Now, 10 months into his term, tourists still pay $50 for a 20-minute trot through the park, while at City Hall, a draft for legislation has yet to be written and no one is saying why. Not de Blasio, not council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and not her fellow members Ydanis Rodriguez and Daniel Dromm, each of whom have called for a ban.
At stake, aside from holding a politician to a promise, are the jobs of 300 drivers, blacksmiths and stable hands, some of the most visible players in New York’s $39 billion tourist industry. It’s also a test of de Blasio’s ability to balance a campaign vow with his ties to a key constituency, organized labor, whose leaders oppose a ban.
The silence of elected officials contrasts with the noise made by about 50 animal-rights activists who demonstrate regularly at City Hall, where they urge the mayor to keep his promise and call the horse-drawn surreys cruel and unsafe.
“The carriage drivers are incredibly lawless; there were many instances of hit-and-runs,” said Allie Feldman, spokeswoman for New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets, or Nyclass, a nonprofit group that’s advocated a ban.
Labor’s opposition became clear last month when Vincent Alvarez, president of the Central Labor Council, a coalition of 300 local unions, showed up at City Hall with members of Teamster Local 553, which represents the carriage drivers.
The unions were there to support city council member Rafael Espinal, the 30-year-old chairman of the consumer affairs committee, which historically has made the rules regulating the horse-carriage industry. The Brooklyn lawmaker called a news briefing to announce that he couldn’t support a ban.
“In my district, I see how unemployment affects families, and I couldn’t support a law that would cause the loss of so many jobs,” Espinal said later in an interview. “These carriages play a role in our tourism industry; they attract people to our city. The horses get veterinarian care, they don’t work extreme hours. They’re treated humanely.”
After Espinal declared his position, animal-rights activists dropped a fake dead horse on the doorstep of his Brooklyn office, chanted slogans saying he supports animal cruelty and flooded his staff with phone calls.
The tactics reminded Espinal of what the group did to former council Speaker Christine Quinn last year when polls showed her leading de Blasio in a race for the Democratic mayoral nomination. Quinn had opposed a horse-carriage ban that de Blasio advocated.
Members of Nyclass joined a coalition called “Anybody But Quinn,” picketing her public appearances and handing out anti- Quinn leaflets on the streets of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side.
Although Nyclass and other coalition members say they didn’t support any candidate, their anti-Quinn effort received tens of thousands of dollars from donors who also backed de Blasio, the New York Daily News reported.
“It began Quinn’s downward spiral,” said Democratic political consultant George Arzt, who wasn’t involved in the race. “It deepened her negative image when she didn’t take them seriously enough to answer them.”
De Blasio, 53, benefited from the group’s fervor and got elected over Republican opponent Joseph Lhota in November with a 49-point margin, the largest for a non-incumbent in city history.
A self-described progressive seeking more equity for the poor and fewer policies tilted toward the rich, de Blasio courted special-interest groups as part of his strategy.
In doing so, he won the loyalty of highly motivated voters, including groups opposed to police stop-and-frisk tactics, preservationists organized against a $300 million renovation of Manhattan’s landmark 42nd Street library and advocates seeking money for community parks and playgrounds.
He has delivered on his promises to those groups and stressed his solidarity with the animal-rights groups, as has Mark-Viverito and council member Helen Rosenthal, whose Manhattan district includes all of Central Park. Yet no action has been taken and none appears imminent.
“There is no timeline currently on legislation,” said Eric Koch, Mark-Viverito’s spokesman. The council speaker was unavailable to discuss the issue, he said.
During a Sept. 18 news conference, de Blasio said New Yorkers could expect “‘legislation put forward very, very soon.’’
Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for the mayor, said in an Oct. 29 e-mail that the administration is considering ‘‘a range of options that move the horses off our streets, safeguard the animals and protect the livelihoods of the men and women who provide carriage rides.’’
Espinal said most of his colleagues are undecided.
‘‘Members say they want more facts,’’ he said. ‘‘No bill has been drafted, and it’s very unlikely we will see a vote on the issue this year.’’
A de Blasio proposal to save driver jobs by replacing the horse-drawn carriages with electric replicas of old-fashioned cars has been received skeptically by several council members who say Central Park needs fewer vehicles, not more.
New York has strict regulations on the horse-carriage industry, said Christina Hansen, a spokeswoman for the Central Park drivers. The animals are licensed every year, while drivers and carriages are approved every two years. Safety officials inspect the stables’ sprinkler systems monthly, the health department assesses conditions four times a year and the city council requires a five-week vacation period for the horses based on a 2010 law, said Hansen.
‘‘It takes time to pass legislation, and I think they are looking at all the different ways to get the horses off the street and into loving adoption homes,’’ said Feldman, the Nyclass spokeswoman.
Of 274 horses retired from carriage-pulling in the past four years, her group can’t account for 185, creating suspicion that they’ve died of neglect or been sold for slaughter, she said.
Hansen challenged those claims.
‘‘When horses leave the business, the overwhelming majority retire completely healthy,” she said in an interview. “A lot of owners sell their horse to a family or private home.”
During the City Hall demonstration this week, Feldman said her group documented 40 police reports of incidents in the past five years involving collisions with motorists and bicyclists, including 12 alleged hit-and-runs by the carriage drivers.
On Oct. 20, a horse named Barney bolted from its handlers and galloped two blocks through midtown Manhattan until two police cars chased him into an empty parking lot at 40th Street and 11th Avenue, where his handler calmed and harnessed him, said Annette Markowski, a police spokeswoman.
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