In late November of 2003, Gretchen Dykstra, Commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs, held a press conference to announce a proposal to do away with one of New York City's most antiquated, archaic and racist laws -- the cabaret act. The act outlaws dancing in most restaurants, bars and clubs unless the establishment in question acquires a hard-to-get license first. But don't start dancing just yet. Seeing a political firestorm growing on the horizon, Mayor Bloomberg recently stepped in to table the proposed bill for at least another year. The story of how one of the city's most universally reviled laws managed this remarkable feat of resuscitation could serve as a case study for how government does (or does not) work.
People have been squawking about the cabaret laws since 1926. The laws were enacted back then as a way to crack down on multiracial Harlem jazz clubs. Generally ignored for years, they were given new life by Rudolph Giuliani, whose sourpuss assault on Fun City when he was mayor is well-documented. Then along came Mayor Mike Bloomberg with his misguided anti-smoking law. It not only unnerved strung-out smokers, it also further beleaguered the city's nightlife industry, which has been struggling to rebuild since 9/11. Angered by Mayor Mike's micro-muddling, club and bar owners began to throw their weight around in Albany by screaming as loud as they could. Eventually their protests reached the pampered ears of the city's mayor, who arrived at what seemed like a brilliant win-win idea: By doing away with the heinous cabaret act, he could score some p.r. points and mollify the nightlife folk.
But the well-laid plans of mice and mayors often go astray. One unintended consequence of Bloomberg's anti-smoking crusade was an increase in street noise because smokers were driven outdoors to enjoy their cigs. Neighbors, angered over the increased cacophony, were up in arms at community board meetings. Their protests echoed through the corridors of City Hall.
When the Department of Consumer Affairs held hearings on the cabaret laws, many called for reform -- if not outright revocation. Though outwardly sympathetic, Commissioner Dykstra hinted that it would be difficult to rescind the cabaret laws because the fire department and other agencies would not cooperate. Bloomberg's loose management style meant that it would be difficult to get the other commissioners in line. Instead, Dykstra began crafting a bill designed to regulate the 'noise level' coming from business establishments with liquor licenses. Rather than helping out the nightlife folks, the new bill created an additional layer of bureaucracy, more costly regulation and a proposed 1 a.m. closing time for establishments that did not pursue expensive soundproofing. Clubs could be shut down unfairly -- or so club-owners claim -- for infractions that are beyond their control.
On a recent National Public Radio appearance, Mayor Mike declared that the city's future lay with the tourism industry. Unfortunately, to him that means building a football stadium on the West Side of Manhattan and then bidding on getting the Olympics to come to New York. When it comes to the city's thousands of small businesses, our Republican billionaire mayor only comes up with more taxes and regulations to make life more difficult.
During his campaign for office, Bloomberg often referenced his great personal wealth as the means by which he could remain free from the grip of special interests. In fact, the opposite is the case. His brand name is his identity. He cannot be separated from the money, because he is the money.
Mayor Mike must be respected; the man has skills to go along with the bills. Sensing a confrontation brewing between strident community groups and the vociferous nightlife community, he made a quick retreat by quietly killing the bill before it went to Gifford Miller, the City Council Speaker, who is expected to run for mayor himself. Bloomberg doesn't want anyone grandstanding on his watch, so Gretchen Dykstra's power grab will have to wait for another time. Now we're back to the inequity of the cabaret laws -- only we're glad that it hasn't gotten worse. Bloomberg's deft hand kept the story buried in the dailies with little comment. Too bad he couldn't do the same with the news about about him dining with his cigar-smoking cronies. I bet when no one's looking, the mayor even gets up and clicks his heels once in a while.