Call it the New York Paradox: Politically, it's always 1968. Racial tensions, though far lower than they were thirty, or even ten, years ago, still define city elections. In Gotham, explains Jim Andrews, the campaign manager for Ruth Messinger's failed 1997 mayoral bid, "race isn't just part of politics, it is politics." Mike Bloomberg is New York's mayor-elect because he did a brilliant job of using the race card against Mark Green, who himself had won the Democratic nomination precisely because of his skill at playing racial politics.
Other cities have moved on. In the urban revival of the 1990s, race receded as a political factor elsewhere. Seattle, Houston, Dallas, Denver, San Francisco, and Minneapolis, all of which are less than a third black, elected African-American mayors. In the words of former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke, "race continues to be an issue in our elections, but not the issue." This year, city elections pitted black candidates against white in Cincinnati (which recently experienced racial rioting), Minneapolis, Cleveland, and Houston (where there was also a Latino candidate). And all of these elections were remarkable for their absence of racial rancor.
New York was different. The "fun" began this year when Bronx borough president and Democratic mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer created a black-Latino alliance with Al Sharpton, the city's leading racial demagogue. Ferrer's campaign theme of "the other New York" was designed to mobilize the Latino and black voters who were supposed to have been left out of the Giuliani boom of the 1990s. The numbers show they weren't. But Ferrer understood the first rule of New York's racialized politics: The best way to mobilize voters is to stoke the resentments that have long been cultivated by the press and the city's ethnic leaders.
Ferrer's Democratic rival Mark Green capitalized on the fact that white voters heard Ferrer's "other New York" rhetoric as "We're owed and you're going to pay for it." In their closely contested runoff election for the Democratic nod, Green jumped on Ferrer's non-response to September 11. Ferrer voters were little interested in the issue; rebuilding lower Manhattan was, according to the exit polls, dead last on their list of priorities. What they wanted was more public-sector spending on education and social services. Seeing an opening, Green ran a TV ad quoting the New York Times saying that Ferrer's reaction to September 11 was "borderline irresponsible." Ferrer and his allies, including Bronx political boss Roberto Ramirez and Sharpton, reacted with howls of outrage. There were cries of "racism," and the ad was compared to a "lynching."
When Ferrer went on to lose narrowly, media magnate Mike Bloomberg used his deep pockets to play off Latino and black anger at the supposedly racist Green. He ran a blitzkreig of ads in the Spanish-language media denouncing Green, who had devoted most of his adult life to left-liberal causes like attacking Giuliani's police department. According to the rules of New York politics, any criticism of a non-white candidate is ipso facto racist. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic national chairman, agrees. He's invited Sharpton's critics to leave the Democratic party.
Spreading his wealth, Bloomberg won the backing of the city's race hustlers, not to mention anti-Semites Lenora Fulani and Wilbert Tatum. By Election Day, November 6, Bloomberg was in a de facto alliance with Sharpton and Ferrer to suppress the black and Latino vote for Green. They succeeded and Bloomberg won with the 59,000 votes provided by Marxist Fulani's Independence party line.
STRANGELY ENOUGH, Green, the victim of his own newfound scruples, wasn't willing to cut deals with the race hustlers; Bloomberg was. Green, who never openly criticized the race game, feared being indebted to the likes of Al Sharpton, lest it undermine his ability to govern effectively. Bloomberg looked at it differently and got elected, like former governor Nelson Rockefeller and former mayor John Lindsay, with an incongruous collection of conservative voters--in this case Giuliani backers and Giuliani haters. On the morning after he won, Bloomberg met with Ferrer, and the next day he made a point of shaking hands publicly with Sharpton, the man Giuliani had refused even to meet, let alone bargain with, for eight years.
New York's racialized political culture has been shaped by two distinctive features. First there is the sheer size of the political prize. The vast public sector, paid for with a $40 billion budget, employs directly or indirectly about a third of the work force. In the Bronx that portion rises to nearly half. Second, in other cities--like Cleveland, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Seattle, where elections are nonpartisan--candidates have to appeal to a broad swath of the electorate. In New York, which is five-to-one Democratic, you can usually win the prize simply by winning the Democratic primary. That means that an operator like Sharpton who can deliver about 25,000 votes becomes a force to be feared.
Rudy called the race hustlers' bluff and delivered eight years of success. Bloomberg, who like Rockefeller is politically promiscuous, has begun his reign by embracing the people Giuliani shunned. But can he govern with the coalition that helped him win? The Giuliani voters who backed Bloomberg are only now waking up to the fact that Rudy's heir is already reversing Rudy's policies. The two halves of the Bloomberg coalition are a bit like drunk swingers who barely remember the night before and wake up asking, "What have I gotten myself into?" Bloomberg is betting that, like Rockefeller, he can use his personal fortune to smooth over the differences. He may be right, but then again he may find that it's a lot easier to cut a deal than to get his new partners to keep it.
Fred Siegel is a professor at the Cooper Union for Science and Art in New York and the author of "The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A. and the Fate of America's Big Cities" (Encounter Press).
November 19, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 10