U.S.A.

Hard times in the family trade

Rita Christopher November 5 1979
U.S.A.

Hard times in the family trade

Rita Christopher November 5 1979

Hard times in the family trade

New York

Robert F. Wagner Jr., New York City’s most recently appointed deputy mayor (for policy), was settling last week into a freshly painted office close enough to Mayor Edward Koch’s to assure any young politician that his star is rising. But the 35-yearold deputy mayor has been familiar with his new digs since he was a schoolboy: his father served three terms as mayor from 1954 to 1965. The latest of the Wagners to prowl the corridors of power (his grandfather had 23 years in the Senate), he represents more than the survival of a famous New York political dynasty. His appointment underscores the commitment of Koch’s administration to the strapped city’s most under-publicized minority—the urban middle class. “The middle class is the key to the city’s sur-

vival,” explains Wagner. “It represents its revenue base. Every time a middleclass family moves to the suburbs, the city has that much less tax revenue to provide the kind of services that everybody, rich and poor alike, needs.” Critics, including his predecessor Herman Badillo, a longtime spokesman for the Puerto Rican community, fault Wagner’s reasoning. “He lives by the trickle-down theory, putting efforts into midtown Manhattan and hoping it will trickle down into Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx,” says Badillo. But New York’s problem is that there is scant money to trickle anywhere. And to make matters even more difficult for Wagner, he has been charged with overseeing three of the city’s costliest and most controversial services: health care, education and transit.

Health care has had labor-union officials and minority leaders in uproar for months. New York maintains 17 municipal hospitals, 16 more than any other city in the nation. With budget-trimming a top priority, the mayor has vowed to close four, a plan Wagner will have to help execute amid charges that hospital workers will become welfare clients, while residents of poor areas lack the most basic medical services.

On the education front, schools administrator Frank Macchiarola has just released a report indicating that fully half of New York City’s high-school students drop out before graduation. But these concerns pale before the disaster that could befall both Koch and Wagner if they are not able to defend one of the Big Apple’s holiest of holies—the 50cent subway fare. At present, that magic amount is maintained by massive subsidies from New York state. Governor Hugh Carey has promised support through 1981. But only the state legislature can actually approve the funds. If Carey doesn’t round up enough legislative votes to back his promises, Koch and Wagner could end up paying a political price just as painful as the fare hike.

Wagner, nonetheless, remains optimistic and his family’s progress since his grandfather emigrated from Germany at the age of 8 certainly gives no grounds for pessimism. “My grandfather’s father was a janitor,” he says. “The family lived in the basement and when my grandfather graduated his father didn’t even come because he couldn’t afford to buy a suit.” Wagner himself graduated from Harvard, won a noteworthy Marshall fellowship for two years’ study in England and followed that with an advanced degree from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs.

A small man with a wide smile and a quiet wit, Wagner admits there are still some high-pressure days when he dreams about being a university professor, but he claims that “politics offered me the best chance to influence events rather than record them.” He lost one chance to influence events two years ago when Andrew Stein defeated him in a bruising race for Manhattan borough president, and some day he could lose another to the same opponent. Wagner says that he really wants to follow his grandfather into the Senate. But by unhappy chance Stein, too, has his eyes on Capitol Hill. Still, Wagner professes to be unperturbed. “One thing you learn in politics is how to wait your time,” he says, as one schooled in the discipline. “After all, it’s really the family business.”

Rita Christopher