NEW YORK (AP) — Horse-drawn carriage rides through the streets of New York — an experience nearly as old as the city itself — could be clip-clopping to a halt.
Animal activists who have long argued that horses have no place mixing in the traffic of the nation's biggest city now have the backing of both leading candidates for mayor. And the front-runner heading into the Nov. 5 election, Democrat Bill de Blasio, supports a plan to replace the horses with old-timey electric cars to take tourists on slow-speed jaunts around Central Park.
To the top-hatted horse drivers who dispense lap blankets and tour guide wisdom along with the rides, that plan has about as much charm as a plastic pony.
"People come for the clip-clop of a horse's hooves," said driver Christina Hansen. "Nobody wants to pet a fender."
Ending the city's 155-year-old horse-drawn carriage industry has emerged as an unlikely issue in the recent mayoral debates, and one of the few points of agreement in an otherwise bitter race between de Blasio and Republican Joe Lhota.
That's a marked shift from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is leaving office after 12 years. He has consistently supported the horse-drawn carriage industry, saying it's a city-regulated tourist draw.
For de Blasio, the city's public advocate who is leading by 40 points in the polls, the issue is animal cruelty. "We are in the biggest, densest urban area in North America. It is not a place for horses. They are not meant to be in traffic jams."
Lhota has said that he would eliminate the carriage horses, mostly because of the "unfortunate" smell in and around Central Park. He has also expressed interest in some kind of motorized replacement.
But like most matters of New York City politics, it's complicated.
De Blasio is taking a strong stance against the horses, even though he has the backing of the powerful Teamsters Union, which has said it will fight to keep horse-rides to save the jobs of the drivers. Putting an end to the industry would require a vote of the City Council
"Yes, I received support from a union that feels the other way," de Blasio acknowledged when confronted with the contradiction in this week's debate, "but that doesn't change my opinion one bit."
New York's Horse & Carriage Association says a ban on carriage horses means uncertainty for more than 200 operators, 68 carriages and 210 horses that generate estimated annual revenues of about $15 million a year.