The Magazine

The Big Rotten Apple

New York City after Giuliani

Jun 4, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 36 • By JAMES HIGGINS
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LIBERALISM, OR PALEOLIBERALISM to some, is what New Yorkers are told will return to City Hall when term limits force mayor Rudolph Giuliani to depart in 2002. Four Democrats are vying to succeed him.

But the potential return of unreconstructed liberalism is not the most menacing aspect of this fall's election. The greater threat is the potential return of unreconstructed crime. Not the kind in the streets, but the kind in the suites -- the suites of city government and the Democratic party.

Everyone old enough to have watched TV in the 1980s and early 1990s knows that New York City before Giuliani was where foreign tourists came to pay the world's highest hotel taxes while waiting to be robbed and shot. But the depth and breadth of corruption in the city's Democratic establishment during the pre-Giuliani years may be difficult for non-New Yorkers to grasp. The problem was not just a few rotten apples at the top. Under a series of Democratic mayors -- Abraham Beame, Edward Koch, and David Dinkins -- the whole tree was rotten. It was corruption that the New York City Democrats stood for even more than liberalism, and it was corruption at least as much as liberalism that brought Giuliani to office. It was as if, having jailed much of the leadership of New York's "Five Families" of crime while he was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Giuliani had to become mayor to flush out this Sixth Family.

To appreciate the significance of the upcoming election, it's essential to know this background. The chief reason the rot was not always visible to outsiders is the canniness of Dems in the Big Apple. Unlike their counterpart New Jersey crew, the New York City Democratic leadership has refrained from putting into the highest offices sticky-fingered characters like U.S. senators Harrison Williams and Robert Torricelli. The New York Democrats could have been working from the template of the mobsters who once controlled Las Vegas: They've always chosen clean front men. There was never a hint of personal corruption on the part of Beame, Koch, or Dinkins. Their administrations were another story. Consider:

o Under Ed Koch, the entire city department charged with inspecting restaurants had to be closed because there was almost no one left to do the job after investigators arrested the inspectors who were taking bribes. Not long afterwards, the department that inspected taxicabs had to be closed for exactly the same reason.

o Over an extended period in the '80s and early '90s, the felony rate among Democratic borough leaders in New York City approached 50 percent. Criminal defense lawyers tell me that if senior managers of a private business used their jobs to commit crimes at this rate, the entire enterprise would be inviting a RICO indictment.

o The Beame, Koch, and Dinkins administrations approved a contract with school custodians that was close to being criminal on its face: The custodians were required only to maintain schools to "minimum standards," and the contract precluded any effective enforcement mechanism. The lucky custodians then personally got to keep whatever money in their budgets they didn't spend doing their jobs. This type of contract came to an end only after a 1992 60 Minutes segment showed the custodians spending less time at the filthy schools they were ostensibly maintaining than attending to the yachts they acquired -- and did maintain -- at taxpayer expense.

o As pre-Giuliani taxi and limousine commissioner Herb Ryan described the system after he was caught taking bribes, "Everybody else has their own thing. I just wanted to get my own thing." The literal translation of "Our Thing" is, of course, La Cosa Nostra.

This is just a small sample of what the Sixth Family Democrats and their appointees did -- indeed, just a small sample of what they were caught doing. That predicate criminal activity is a major part of what in 1989 lured political rising star and crime-fighter Rudy Giuliani to run for mayor, a job that for more than a century had been a political dead end.

While New York Democratic leaders have tried to ignore the stench of their party's record in government, they have never repudiated it. Without question, large segments of the New York City Democratic party continue to believe in their divine right to rule. When an effort to cancel a referendum on term limits failed and the referendum went to the voters and won, Democrats on the City Council promptly decided that the voters had been too stupid to know what they were voting on and scheduled another referendum on the same subject. When they lost that, too, City Council Democrats fell but one vote in committee shy of canceling the results of both referendums by their own fiat in order to stay in power. All of which forces one to wonder what the next Democratic administration might do.