Menin Fights: The Downtown Doyenne Who Took on Two Administrations—and Why Manhattan May Be Next
Matt Chaban April 14, 2011, 11:51 a.m.
On Monday, April 4, Attorney General Eric Holder admitted defeat. He announced that he would try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other alleged 9/11 conspirators at Guantanamo Bay and not the Foley Courthouse in Lower Manhattan. Mr. Holder blamed Congress for tying his hands. He did not blame Julie Menin for forcing them.
“How could a community board chair take on the Obama administration?” said Ms. Menin, who took the gavel of downtown’s CB1 in 2005. “And not just the Obama administration, but also the mayor, because at the time the mayor was very clear that he was O.K. with holding the trial in Manhattan and even the $200 million price tag was not a deterrent. In fact, he just said, ‘Stick the federal government with the tab.’
“So what are you going to do about it?,” Ms. Menin continued during an unexpected call to The Observer a few hours after Mr. Holder’s announcement. “You have to battle the Obama administration and you have to battle City Hall, two elephants.”
Community board chairs are generally seen as the pipsqueaks of the political process, agitating for new schools and old folks, but Ms. Menin, 43, has done her best to make an elephant out of her own tenure.
On Friday, Ms. Menin met The Observer for lunch at Jerry’s Cafe on Chambers Street, a block from the board’s office. She arrived with an inch-thick stack of clips, highlighted for easy reference. “And that’s just a small selection,” Ms. Menin said. “I didn’t want to overwhelm you.” The stack served as something of a resume of her tenure, demonstrating a deep commitment to lower Manhattan, as well as a keen understanding of how to build the kind of highly public political profile that could someday lead to even bigger battles.
“No one knows what her ambitions are, but she would certainly make a good candidate,” long-time Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf said.
Ms. Menin has tackled all the requisite local issues: ULURP applications, liquor licenses, school overcrowding–“three in three years, no other neighborhood can say that,” she boasted, including one on a site she wrested from a Libby Pataki-led women’s museum. But rare among board chairs, she has tackled national issues as well, such as demanding a review of Indian Point or standing up for Park51, the so-called ground zero mosque.
Ms. Menin said she briefly considered a City Council race in 2009, but ultimately declined against challenging the incumbent Alan Gerson for a third term.
“It kind of like the old Supreme Court saying, when you see someone who’s a good leader, you know it,” said Mr. Gerson, who lost his re-election bid to another upstart, Margaret Chin. “She’s a very good politician, she understands the political process.”
“IT’S NOT as if I came from a family that had four or five kids, where everyone is trying to be heard at the dinner table,” Ms. Menin recalled. An only child from the D.C. suburbs, her mother was an artist–pieces from her collection hang in Ms. Menin’s six-bedroom loft on Franklin Street in Tribeca–and her father was a doctor. Father and daughter used to watch The MacNeil/Lehrer Report each night and debate the issues afterward.
This, and a desire to be closer to her Romanian-born, Holocaust-surviving grandparents led Ms. Menin to Columbia, where she studied political science. Then it was off to Northwestern for law school before returning to Washington to work as a regulatory attorney for Wiley, Rein & Fielding.
It was in New York, where she had come to work in-house for Colgate Palmolive, that Ms. Menin met her husband, Bruce Menin. A fellow Northwestern Law grad five years her senior, he had been converting rentals into condos in his native Miami Beach since 1989 with his cousin. Within five years, The Miami New Times had dubbed their Crescent Heights Investments “South Florida’s most prolific condo company.” It now controls more than 60 properties stretching from there to Chicago, L.A., Honolulu and New York.
They moved into one of these, a converted office building at 25 Broad Street, where Ms. Menin would open the restaurant Vine in 1999, which she sees as one of her first big contributions to the neighborhood. “There was a real need in the community for something besides wood-panelled steak houses,” Ms Menin said. There was $26 grilled wild salmon and $37 filet mignon, as well as a Whole Foods-style takeout bar.
Following 9/11, amidst fights with insurance companies–“I took them on, too,” Ms. Menin said–and the struggle to attract customers to Vine and other downtown businesses, Ms. Menin decided to found the nonprofit Wall Street Rising. (Vine evenutally closed and was replaced by a Bobby Van’s Steakhouse, and Mr. Menin sold the building in 2005 to Kent Swig for $246 million.)
Growing to 30,000 members, Wall Street Rising organized through Do It Downtown! discount cards, concerts, walking tours and sloganeering, and it became the springboard for Ms. Menin’s civic rise. A year later she was named to the design jury for the 9/11 memorial, and in addition to that there was her service on the board and the mayor’s redistricting committee.
“We’d just had the twins in February, and the race was in June, so the timing was a little tricky, but I had a very strong idea of where I could take the board and where I wanted it to go,” Ms. Menin said of her run in 2005.
The previous chair, Madelyn Wils, had been as outspoken if far more impolitic than Ms. Menin, and she was controversially not reappointed by then-Borough President C. Virginia Fields. In the view of some on the board, Ms. Menin used the controversy surrounding Ms. Wils to cast herself as a reformer and push aside the former chair’s deputy, Richard Kennedy. She picked up 70 percent of the vote. She won reelection a year later unanimously.
“I don’t question her word, but I do think she can be swayed by the politics of the situation,” board member Paul Hovitz said. “I don’t cite that as a deficiency, you know, because we work in a political world.”
FOR NOW, Ms. Menin said she is content to run the community board, and has lots to do before she gives up the gavel in 2012, like closing for good the state’s Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, a favorite punching bag on whose board she sits.
Ms. Menin likes to remind people that she wrote a resolution questioning the qualifications of John Galt for the job of deconstructing the Deutsche Bank Building on the edge of ground zero. The contractor is now on trial for the death of two firefighters following an August 2007 blaze. There is the fight against Con Ed, which threatened to raise rates if it was not given $200 million of the agency’s rebuilding funds, a fund Ms. Menin uncovered and has since gotten allocated to cultural projects.
“Right now, I remain focused downtown,” Ms. Menin said. “In terms of the future, we’ll see. I believe in public service–it’s a great, noble calling, if you believe in certain things and are willing to fight to make them happen.”
Yet she may be giving up her chairmanship at the perfect time. “Especially post-Bloomberg, when people are looking for independence, they will want someone who is not a politician,” Mr. Sheinkopf said. Ms. Menin is most chattered about as a potential Manhattan borough president or public advocate candidate, though there is some risks to a citywide run given her support for Park51, a lightning rod in certain corners of the outerboroughs.
George Arzt, another operative, likes her connections to incumbents like current Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Congressman Jerry Nadler (among the many pols she has donated to) and the Upper West Side’s Community Free Democrats, as well as her ties to the media. “She knows the editorial boards already,” Mr. Arzt said, “and the rule of thumb is The Times in Manhattan is worth 10 percent of the vote.”
Indeed, writing op-eds is Ms. Menin’s political weapon of choice. “Too many to count,” she said. It is where she launched her campaign against the Khalid Sheik Mohammed trials, in the Sunday Times, under the headline “Trial by Ferry.” It called for moving the proceedings to a secure facility on Governors Island. (Ms. Menin did write an earlier op-ed for another favored outlet, The Huffington Post, “Lower Manhattan is the Proper Place to Try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,” but she argues that was before she knew the extent of the security apparatus the trials would require.)
“This went from when Bloomberg said this was the dumbest idea he’d ever heard, that’s the quote you can Google, ‘That’s the dumbest idea ever,’ and it will pop up,” Ms. Menin said. (Indeed, he did.) “I just find it ironic, he thought it was the dumbest idea ever, and now we’ve gotten the trial moved, and he is all for it. It’s an interesting political story how this thing came to be.”
Ms. Menin also takes a very active interest in her own press coverage. “She’s always been a role model to me, somebody who has figured out how to balance it all,” said Campbell Brown, a friend, former CNN anchor and an occasional guest on Give & Take, the public affairs show Ms. Menin hosts each weekend on WNBC’s New York Now channel. She was also one of a handful of people Ms. Menin actively encouraged The Observer to contact.
“I don’t have a sense of her as a very powerful person in New York City,” one editorial board member said. “I do have a sense of her as a very active local official, a very active community official, and somebody, who, by the nature of the community she represents, has gotten involved in a number of substantial issues.”
IT WAS NOT only the terror trial move that had Ms. Menin in the news last week. She asked the question of Cathie Black that prompted the doomed schools chancellor’s birth control gaffe, which got her interlocutor name-checked everywhere from The Times to the Post and The Villager.
“A lot of people say, ‘you can’t battle Con Ed, a lot of people said you can’t take on Washington about the trial, oh you can’t take on the mayor, you can’t take on Libby Pataki,'” Ms. Menin said. “Why not? That’s exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. And I should add Cathie Black to that list, too. If the chancellor is not doing the right thing, you have to do something about it.”