NEW YORK CITY 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.
NEW YORK CITY 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. Four candidates are expected to run in the Democratic primary for mayor in September. In a city that loves big personalities, they seem more suited to be mayor of Lilliput. Not one has made a great impression on the voters, even when stumbling. Of the four, city comptroller Alan Hevesi should be the most plausible. A career pol who, when in the State Assembly, sought to legalize marijuana, he has been elected and reelected citywide as comptroller, the office Abraham Beame held when he captured City Hall in 1973. But to say that Hevesi hasn't made much of a splash would be an understatement. When he has tried to use his fiscal watchdog office to political effect, he has wound up biting himself: He made headlines attacking Jason Turner, the city's commissioner of human resources, for alleged nepotism in the awarding of welfare reform contracts -- only to have Turner's office point out that Hevesi was using as a megaphone the New York Times, where Hevesi's brother is a reporter. Hevesi did succeed in nullifying some contracts Turner had signed with companies to manage welfare reform, but anyone could see that he was using his office not to police public expenditures but rather to obstruct welfare reform and get free publicity. City Council speaker Peter Vallone is the second underachiever in the race. Vallone was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1998. It is a measure of his media effectiveness not only that he lost that race by a million votes to incumbent George Pataki but that few city voters seem aware that he ran at all. Vallone in many ways epitomizes the problem with the Democratic establishment in New York City: He's a man who knows right from wrong but went along with the system anyway. By all accounts an honest public servant and a family man, Vallone pays close attention to his Astoria, Queens, councilmanic district and attends mass daily. But his rise in Democratic politics demanded that he turn a blind eye to all that was going on around him. He was installed in his job by two felons: then Bronx Democratic leader Stanley Friedman and then Queens Democratic leader Donald Manes. If Vallone has ever had any serious reservations about the way the Democratic establishment looted the city, he has kept these sentiments well concealed. Vallone has been luckless in this year's race: His recent endorsement by former mayor Edward Koch was drowned out when, embarrassingly, Vallone's home-county Democratic chairman, Tom Manton (another product of Sixth Family politics), lined up behind Hevesi. Bronx Borough president Fernando Ferrer aspires to be New York's first mayor drawn from what is now the city's largest minority: Hispanics. But with each passing week he looks less ready for prime time. Ferrer had to return a variety of campaign contributions when local media discovered they came from, among others, a partner of John Gotti's son-in-law, some executives of a wrecking firm that had been caught bribing federal officials, and the family of an alleged member of the Genovese crime family. Ferrer's political strategy has been to rebuild the black-Hispanic coalition that elected David Dinkins mayor in 1989. But when surprised in a televised debate earlier this month with the question of which recent mayor (Giuliani, Dinkins, and Koch) he would vote for in a hypothetical three-way race, Ferrer hemmed and hawed, then gave no answer at all. Dinkins promptly endorsed rival mayoral candidate Mark Green. The wily Al Sharpton then heaped complete humiliation on Ferrer by luring Ferrer into thinking Sharpton's endorsement was imminent. Local Democratic candidates regard a Sharpton endorsement the way teenage boys might regard a wet kiss from Jennifer Lopez. The prematurely delighted Ferrer leaked this "news" on deep background to local media. As Ferrer went back to throw this touchdown pass, Sharpton turned and sacked him by linking an endorsement to the politically impossible demand that Ferrer endorse two black Democrats in Bronx primary races specifically because they are black. Among Ferrer's broader problems, he wants to reassemble the Dinkins coalition but seems oblivious to the painstaking years of effort Dinkins spent reassuring liberal white Manhattanites, the Democrat constituency most likely to be skittish about a minority mayor, that he was friendly to them and to Israel. Ferrer has not laid similar groundwork. All of which leaves in the front-runner position the rather implausible figure of Mark Green. Green spent years on the outside of the New York Democrats' plunder party, not because he didn't want to be an insider but because the Dems couldn't stand him. They gave him only lukewarm backing in races for the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. Green, who in law school edited something called, no kidding, the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, is a crusader and goo-goo so earnest he seems as if he'd be happier back running for student council president so he could make all the voters sit down at a school assembly and listen to him speak. But he is also a world-class publicity hound, and that means the voters at least know who he is and what he looks like. It is by fluke of history that Green is a serious candidate for mayor today. He was David Dinkins's consumer affairs commissioner, a natural post for the Ralph Nader prot g . But the stars were in alignment for Green when a series of court decisions stripped the City Council presidency of its main powers. The reformulated, downsized job was titled "public advocate" -- effectively a glorified consumer affairs commissioner. Green saw this opportunity for a citywide office that others no longer wanted, and he took it. In office Green has proved a surprisingly deft political operator. It is he who has best positioned himself to reassemble the coalition of blacks, Hispanics, and Manhattan ultra-liberals that was a winner for Dinkins in 1989. Green's having so long labored outside the parochial city political apparatus may give him the perspective to propel him to victory. He is the only one of the Democratic candidates who seems to grasp just how unappetizing the traditional political gruel is to the average New York City voter in 2001. Green has won the endorsement not just of David Dinkins but of William Bratton, the police commissioner during whose tenure from 1994 to 1996 crime in the city began to plummet. Green has strongly hinted that he would return Bratton to the helm of the NYPD. Since discontent with the police is the core unifying issue for Giuliani haters, this is a remarkable development. Bratton is still adored by the police as the man who not only led the successful fight on crime but in doing so took the public image of the NYPD from that of a hopelessly outgunned rear guard to that of a world-famous success story so glamorous that tourists now buy ballcaps and coffee mugs with the "NYPD" logo, as if the department were a college or a sports team. With that history, Bratton, if returned to office, would be unlikely to repudiate the "broken windows" crime-fighting approach, which works, in favor of goofy liberal ideas that don't. So what will the Republicans do, ask non-New Yorkers? What about Michael Bloomberg? These questions by themselves are a measure of how great Giuliani's impact has been on national perceptions of New York City. The answer is, of course: It doesn't matter. New York City is still far to the left of the American political mainstream. New Yorkers did not elect and reelect the Republican candidate for mayor, they elected Rudy Giuliani. He was already a nationally known crusading prosecutor when he first ran in 1989 -- and in the face of recession, uncontrolled crime, looting by the Democratic establishment, and a Democratic opponent of questionable administrative ability, he lost. It took four more years of these same problems festering, plus a slide toward anarchy under David Dinkins, to allow Giuliani to squeak into City Hall by 44,000 votes out of 1.8 million cast in 1993. Four years later, having accomplished an almost unbelievable turnaround in the city's condition, Giuliani ran for reelection against Ruth Messinger. Messinger is the sort of Upper West Side hard-left aging hippy who could be the invention of this magazine's cartoonist. Yet Rudy was able to win only 57 percent of the vote. Even these showings required Rudy to run not just as a Republican but also as the candidate of the dying Liberal party and of an independent line created to attract voters who could not bear to vote Republican. The hard facts are these: Sixty-seven percent of New York City voters are registered Democrats; just 13 percent are registered Republicans. Giuliani has failed to budge those numbers. Al Gore carried the city four to one over George W. Bush; Hillary Clinton carried the city three to one over Rick Lazio. The identity of the Republican candidate just doesn't matter in the absence of a Republican of Giuliani's stature, a profoundly divisive Democratic nominee, or an unusual circumstance that splits the Democratic vote. And there is no sign of any of those things this year. The businessman Michael Bloomberg is a great innovator and entrepreneur. But should he seek the Republican nomination for mayor, his main impact will be to share a chunk of his wealth with political consultants. Indeed, Bloomberg has been so shameless and offensive in switching his allegiance from Democrat to Republican in the hope of being nominated for mayor that he could well lose a Republican primary to City University chairman Herman Badillo should Badillo run. The hidden force in this year's election and, in all likelihood, in the next four years in City Hall is a provision of the New York City term limits law that has garnered little attention outside New York but is fully understood within the city. Unlike the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the New York City term limits law is a bar to a third consecutive term, not a lifetime bar to more than two terms. So whoever does win the Democratic primary and runoff will in effect be running against a candidate who isn't there, and governing in the shadow of a mayor who isn't there -- this time. Giuliani has pointedly not ruled out a run for City Hall in 2005. By not ruling it out, he may do as much to keep down crime in city government during the next four years as he has done to keep down crime in the streets during the last eight. James Higgins is a partner in a private equity firm in New York.
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