MUNICIPAL FINANCE AUGUST 7, 2013
Despite the unseasonably kind weather, the palms were turning brown and the hanging petunias were crying out in thirst last night on the terrace at Chelsea's Maritime Hotel. The fashionable crowd, filled with Celine bags and Vogue staffers, and more than one pretty young jewelry designer draped in her own wares, didn’t seem to notice. They had gathered at the event grandly dubbed “Young New York” to fete Scott Stringer, who is the current Manhattan borough president. The gray-haired Stringer is short, balding, and wears rimless glasses. He is a middle of the line Democrat, well-liked by the Upper West Siders who are his neighbors and looks the part of the hilariously bureaucratic office he is running for, New York City comptroller. Despite his years of well-thought-of (if low-profile) public service, Stringer’s candidacy is mostly notable because he’s the only man among the Democratic primary field who has not very publicly frequented prostitutes (or taken on investment banks, which perhaps help fund the trusts of many of last night’s attendees). And now, too, the Stringer campaign is known for its glittering support: It has suddenly become the cause celebre among a certain strata of downtown types, who have embraced moderate chic with a wholeheartedness not seen in Manhattan since the first Obama campaign.
The reason for the high-fashion attention being paid to this municipal election is Audrey Gelman, Stringer’s former press secretary turned SKDKnickbocker consultant dedicated to the campaign. She dates the fashion photographer Terry Richardson and appeared on Season One of HBO’s "Girls," which was created by her close friend Lena Dunham, otherwise known as the voice of her generation. Dunham has returned the favor by taking on an unexpected and recurring role on Stringer's campaign. She has tweeted about him and agreed to give a speech at the Young New York event. Gelman, balanced in dangerously towering black high heels, is heir to the Huma Abedin image of ultracompetent couture aide. She exudes an air of utter control, set off nicely last evening by her fitted cream Dior dress, featuring a short, full skirt layered over with an iridescent purple gossamer petticoat. Her hair was perfectly parted and smooth until the shoulders, where it cascaded into loose barrel curls. She is a dropout of Oberlin, having left to work on a Hillary Clinton campaign.
Gelman wasn’t doing interviews: It was her boss’s night, even if it was a party filled with her friends. The moral crusaders of The Young New York host committee (some of whom, including Scarlett Johannson, did not show up) included Rachel Hruska MacPherson, the founder of Guest of a Guest, a site for chronicling party shots; Rachel Sklar, recently profiled in the Times Style section for her social-networking startup that aims to help women; Thessaly LaForce, the culture editor of Vogue.com; Pamela Love, a jewelry designer; Laura Brown, a Harper’s Bazaar editor. Like Gelman, many of them are careful stewards of their own personal brands, which tend to be hip without any whiff of the avant garde—the young end of the media and fashion establishment, many of whom attended the Downtown for Democracy parties Gelman organized for the Obama campaign. Gelman’s grandparents, Monroe and Arlene Spiegel, told me how they used to say Gelman was bossy but now they say she’s got leadership abilities—a joke they cribbed from Gelman, who got it from Sheryl Sandberg. A Vanity Fair writer ran by with drinks for Gelman and her mother. Gelman warmly hugged an intern in a seersucker jacket, who moments later leapt up on the stage and took a panoramic photo of the scene. A 22-year-old Columbia grad in heavy eyeshadow told me she was there to meet likeminded political New Yorkers. I only saw her talking to the peplum-wearing friend she’d come with. Stringer worked the crowd, shaking hands easily. When he posed for pictures, the back of his suitpants bunched up, his close-together legs the only sign of any discomfort he might have been feeling. In a corner of the room, clustered by some benches, was a much older group that included his brother, David, who resembles Stringer. If you squinted, you could imagine it as what a Stringer party must have looked like before glamour descended upon his campaign.
I ran into an acquaintance who writes for a fashion website. “You can walk into Le Bain on any given night and it’s the same people who are here,” she told me. She helpfully pointed out everyone who was a someone. There in the corner, wearing a pristine white jumpsuit was the blogger known as “The Man Repeller.” There, with a camel coat draped around her shoulders, was Claire Distenfeld, who’d started an edgy upper east side boutique with the help of her wealthy father. She was talking to Chloe Malle, Vogue Social editor and Candice Bergen’s daughter, and Annabelle Dexter Jones, a pretty blonde dressed in green whom my guide described as simply a socialite, and the daughter of a socialite. There was a girl dressed in a black sack she couldn’t ID. “I don’t know who she is but she’s dressed well so she’s someone,” my friend said. A pair of jewelry designers fluttered by and exclaimed that they hadn’t seen her since Fashion Week, then fluttered away. My fashion friend and I marveled at having the same assignment for the evening. Even our questions were the same: “What made you get involved?” “Do you know what a comptroller does?” We asked them of Prabal Gurung, a friendly fashion designer. He had gotten involved because Emily Weiss, propieter of the influential beauty site Into the Gloss and a close friend of Gelman’s, had asked him to. He was coy to the point of blankness about whom he was supporting for mayor. He talked to my fashion friend about “the New Feminism.” I couldn’t quite tell whether it was regarding his new line, or his vote for comptroller.
As for what a comptroller does, Dunham admitted to not having known in her speech and gave a definition, for those who didn’t, like her, bother to look it up on Google. She’d been preceded on the podium by Stringer’s pretty, pixie-haired wife, and by Congressman Jerry Nadler, for whom Stringer had once worked, and who repeated several times that this was a serious race for a serious office. I thought at first he was admonishing the wedge-wearing crowd, but it turned out to be a dig at Eliot Spitzer, whom he accused of coveting the office as a stepping stone. Dunham, clad in a short white dress and a one-sided braid, was greeted by a bright raised salute of iPhone photography. She spoke of wanting to support a candidate (for the office that does the accounting on the city’s finances) “with a record of respecting women and the issues that matter to them.”
Dunham, whose show chronicles a group of liberal-arts-educated young women living in the formerly working-class Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint, also spoke passionately against the rising cost of living in New York. She bemoaned the Europeans who did not know that a one–bedroom apartment shouldn’t cost $6,000 per month, a figure that did not seem to shock the crowd. She did not mention Stringer’s role, just last week (maybe motivated by worry about losing the support of the monied real estate community), in agreeing to the Mayor Bloomberg-backed plan to rezone Midtown East for skyscrapers that will help New York better compete with places like Shanghai, and which will significantly push the city farther down its increasingly expensive Bloombergian way.
Anyway, no matter! Involvement in local politics requires provincialism; Dunham made it haute. She joked she doesn’t even know how to order food when she leaves the City. She was mad that the Soho loft where her artist parents had lived now is by gaudy mass-marketers Victoria’s Secret and Sephora. “We can’t have our generation’s next Patti Smith moving to Tampa!" said Dunham. “That’s going to seriously fuck our shit up.” It was the second dig she’d made against Tampa (the first was as the punch line to a long list of places like Austin young creatives might move to instead of a Sephora-filled New York). I realized what moderate chic seeks to achieve. Or, rather, to preserve: the liberal façade cloaks a conservative impulse, which is the wish to keep the values of one’s own people preeminent.
Stringer, when he spoke, highlighted his work supporting the Garment District, as well as the middle class. He referred to New York as an “aspirational town.” “No one ever thought municipal finance could be sexy,” said Stringer. The crowd cheered for him.
Noreen Malone is a staff writer for The New Republic.