Gene Russianoff: Atticus Finch for NYC Transit Riders

When Gene Russianoff graduated from Harvard Law School in 1978, he chose a different path from most of his classmates. “Just about everybody — and I mean everybody — went into some form of corporate law,” Russianoff recalls. “Except, of course, those who planned to take a year ‘off’ to clerk for a judge. I had planned a graduate degree in public health the following fall. Then I saw a poster about jobs working with college students on social changes projects. And…” … and the rest is a bit of New York City history. Housed in the New York Public Library Archives and Manuscripts Division is a collection of 59 boxes of records from the New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG) Straphangers Campaign, including 35-1/2 boxes labelled “Series V. Gene Russianoff Files.” In the description of the collection, the library states, “The New York Public Interest Research Group Straphangers Campaign was founded in 1979 to lobby for the repair and improvement of New York City’s subway and bus services. It has played a vital role in the rehabilitation of public transportation in New York City.”

Russianoff has been the staff attorney for NYPIRG and the Straphangers Campaign for 40 years. In 1997 he was named a New Yorker of the Year by New York 1 News for his coalition work to establish unlimited-ride transit passes, which Russianoff savors as one of his big victories. In 2010, he was among those listed in the New York magazine article “Who’s the Most Important Living New Yorker?” (The magazine had posed that question to some prominent New Yorkers, and then asked the people they named the same question. The writer/film director Nora Ephron named the columnist Gail Collins, who named Russianoff.) In a 2017 profile, the New York Times called Russianoff “a wisecracking, press-savvy, deeply informed public citizen.”

Did someone say “wisecracking?” Russianoff likes to quote from the musical Gypsy: “Kid, you gotta get a gimmick / If you wanna get ahead.” Russianoff and the Straphangers Campaign have come up with some memorable theatrics in their constant efforts to bring media attention to the need for transit improvements. For instance, there’s the yearly “Pokey” award ceremony for slowest and most unreliable city buses. “Our annual award for the slowest bus has always been my favorite Straphangers Campaign gimmick,” Russianoff says, “especially now that its work is tied to a dynamic and successful coalition working for better bus service.” One year the “winner” was the crosstown M42. “It had the slowest bus speed at 3.7 miles per hour as clocked at 12 noon on a weekday,” Russianoff wrote in HuffPost. How slow is that? The M42 would lose a race with a five-year-old riding a motorized tricycle with a speed of 5 mph. That’s right, the M42 would be left in the dust of a kindergartener on a trike!” The Pokey award statue features a gold snail on a pedestal; for the ceremony, Russianoff wears a tuxedo. “It’s the only reason I own a tux,” he once told the New York Times.

Other favorite media gimmicks of his: “Throughout the 1980s, we got a great bang for our buck from our ‘life-sized’ cardboard cutout of the then New York Governor. Not so much when he was replaced by a much taller man. For a while we had a bagpiper to accompany our choir of mourners at funerals for subway stations slated for closure.” But the theatrics don’t always work as intended. “There was a year  — 1984 — when we dressed up one of our students as the Statue of Liberty,” Russianoff remembers. “She walked around Grand Central Terminal railing about ‘No Taxation Without Decent Transportation.’ Let’s just say we were still decades away from the promise of the MeToo! era.”

Russianoff told New York 1 News he never really planned to go into advocacy work for mass transit, “but then I discovered it was a ton of fun.” With his quick wit, Russianoff seems to have an innate knack for making advocacy work entertaining. “I think I have a — modest — talent for zingers,” he admits. “Apparently, not everyone agrees.” In his family, “we have jokes about my bad jokes. ‘Well, that one didn’t land, did it?’ my oldest daughter often says.”

It may be the stuff of zingers and gimmicks, but Russianoff’s work is also serious — the stuff of economic and social justice. As he explained to the New York Times, “This may be a little grandiose, but almost every lawyer wants to be Atticus Finch. The highest calling is to represent people who can’t find representation. And that’s a pretty good definition for subway and bus riders, who don’t have a lawyer.”

“Maybe I was just fantasizing playing the part in some community theater,” Russianoff says now about his Atticus Finch aspirations. “So many great lines — as when the local pastor tells Scout to ‘Stand up. Your father is passing.’ In any event, we always could use a good Atticus-type on the Lexington Avenue line.”

The New York City subways and buses have certainly benefited from having a Gene Russianoff-type. For people who weren’t in the city back in the late 1970s when the Straphangers Campaign got started, it’s hard to picture how miserable the subways were then. “Annual ridership had dropped to its lowest levels since 1917, when the New York City subway system was much smaller,” Russianoff wrote in HuffPost. “The subways not only performed poorly; they were killing the City’s economy. Businesses cited poor transportation as a leading reason for abandoning New York.” The system was plagued with derailments and breakdowns, track fires, broken doors and lights, and graffiti. Today, after what Russianoff calls “literally decades of organizing and lobbying done in coalition to get more than $120 billion in transit rebuilding funds,” subway ridership is at its highest level since the late 1940s.

But in public advocacy work, it’s often a matter of one step forward, one step back. The city’s subways today are bedeviled with delays and overcrowding; meanwhile, mass transit funding is under concerted attack around the country by local groups supported by oil billionaires Charles and David Koch.

“I just saw a special on those Koch campaigns; it was depressing,” Russianoff says. “And I think with the new downturn in service, we are going to have go through another round of slogging to get back to where we were just were.”

Russianoff was diagnosed with Parkinsons several years ago, so his current Straphangers work, with a coalition of organizations advocating on behalf of people with disabilities, has direct personal meaning. (One of his newest zingers is his name for the city’s “Access-a-Ride” program for disabled people: “Stress-a-Ride.”)

How does Russianoff keep his sense of humor and fun in the face of challenges? “This used to be a harder question for me when I was in my twenties,” he says. “Now the answer is, in rank order: my wife Pauline, my children Jennie and Natalie, and my friends — so many of whom were colleagues who came out of my early years at NYPIRG.” Former NYPIRG executive director Donald K. Ross explains, “NYPIRG was and is a student organization. Gene spent hours on the phone with reporters, city council members, state legislators, and others — but he always had time to work with students. The Straphangers movement, like most of NYPIRG’s program work, taught students a range of advocacy skills. No NYPIRG project coordinator was a better teacher than Gene, who always had a special rapport with students and an appreciation of the fresh energy they brought to the Straphanger’s Campaign.”

“The best job I ever had at NYPIRG was also my very first,” Russianoff says. “That was my year and a half, in 1978 and 1979, as a campus organizer. The job required you to work at one of NYPIRG’s college chapters around the state; I was lucky enough to land a position with the chapter at Brooklyn College. There I got my start as a jack-of-all-trades activist, working with students on a range of projects from environmental to urban reform and local governmental organizing. Just last week, I was in the lobby of New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and in the distance, I saw one of my former students from 30 years ago. We chatted about work and brought ourselves up-to-date, as only two PIRGers can.”

“Gene’s career has been a testimony to the power of public service,” says current NYPIRG executive director Blair Horner. “When he graduated from Harvard Law School, he got America’s ‘Gold Card.’ He chose to use it toward a better New York. Gene is hard-working, smart, warm — one of the best.”

Russianoff remains philosophical about work for social change: “To paraphrase Frederick Douglass: ‘Power never concedes without a struggle; never has, never will.’”

Anne Garland

Anne Garland is a freelance writer and editor. Her clients have included Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, Greenpeace, donateNYC, NRDC, and others.

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