By 1977, Jackie Onassis and others had led a successful campaign to preserve Grand Central Station, and the Commodore Hotel, next to Grand Central, was over fifty years old and losing money. New York City was in the depths of its fiscal crisis; Democrat Abe Beame was mayor and Democrat Hugh Carey had just been elected governor. I was in my first professional job working for the N.Y.S. Human Rights Division. My job was aid to the Assistant Commissioner who oversaw affirmative action in the construction industry.
Donald Trump was a young developer from Queens looking for his first project in Manhattan.
My boss might send me to represent the department at meetings. Affirmative action goals were set in regulation and weren’t that complicated in principle; if the population of New York City was 30% people of color, then employees hired for the project should be 30% people of color. The quid pro quo, as written in contract, was that if a company dined at the public trough (there was a significant government subsidy or government dollars involved), that company should provide a public benefit.
For the meeting on the Commodore Hotel, however, the Commissioner himself was handling negotiations with Donald Trump. My boss was in the room, and I was there, too, as a fly on the wall. I remember it well these forty years later because I was shocked at the arguments and bald threats.
The Commodore Hotel had been built in 1919 and was at one time a showplace; the plan was the Trumps would put down earnest money of $250,000 to buy the Hotel from Penn Central Railroad, and undertake a complete renovation, renaming it the Grand Hyatt New York. Fred Trump was well connected in New York City Democratic circles, and for some reason the form committing to Donald’s $250,000 investment was attached but never signed; i.e., he never paid it. Nevertheless, the deal was awarded to the Trumps, and Abe Beame’s government agreed to a $400 million, 40-year tax abatement.
To the best of my recollection, in that meeting about affirmative action, I learned Donald Trump contributed $50,000 to the governor’s campaign, although he could not now afford the $250,000 earnest money. Trump had also hired Louise Sunshine, who had been the governor’s campaign fundraiser, to represent the Trump organization. She continued to work for Trump for many years.
Louise Sunshine was on the phone in that meeting with Donald Trump, and angrily relayed his objections to the affirmative action numbers (this was before speaker phone). I do remember the equivalent of her stamping her foot and saying, to the Commissioner, “Do I need to get the governor on the phone?” I do remember the Commissioner, red-faced and angry, and struggling for control. He was an arts connoisseur, participant in the cultural elite, and veteran of New York politics.
I don’t remember the outcomes, exactly. They were probably finalized in private telephone calls. I do remember that a young Donald Trump, who had just gotten a showplace project in New York City for essentially nothing with great public subsidy, took his time and resources to fight hiring people of color.
The Grand Hyatt New York opened in 1980, and I had cocktails at its bar on a few occasions. By the way, it is scheduled to close in a couple years, now that the 40-year tax subsidy has ended.