Embrace the Inner Rudy: Alan Hevesi’s Strategy for Freezing Out Green

City Comptroller Alan Hevesi and Public Advocate Mark Green shared a table at the Inner Circle’s annual dinner on March 6 as the man they wish to succeed, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, starred in a skit that might have been written from Mr. Hevesi’s private fantasies.

Cast as a newly elected U.S. Senator in a spoof of The Lion King , Mr. Giuliani’s character returned to liberate the city from “Mayor Greenscar,” who had inherited the mayoralty. (Hey, that’s clever: If the real Mr. Giuliani wins a real Senate seat, why, his real successor by law will be-the real Mark Green! Get it?) On Greenscar’s watch, the murder rate was 3,000 a year, 2 million people were on welfare and the Yankees had moved to Hawaii. In the final scene, Lion King Giuliani held a sharp stick to Greenscar’s throat. “If I had this opportunity, I’d kill this guy!” he snarled.

“It’s only a skit, Rudy!” whimpered Greenscar.

For now, anyway.

The Comptroller’s aides have been searching high and low to figure out a way to thwart Mr. Green, a fellow Democrat, and they apparently are trying to enlist Mr. Giuliani’s Republican colleagues in their efforts. A Giuliani administration official told The Observer that Mr. Hevesi’s top political operatives have asked if mayoral allies would support changing the City Charter to require a special election if the Mayor’s office were to become vacant. “They called and asked us if the Mayor would get behind” the change, the official said.

Mr. Hevesi denied that scenario-sort of. “None of my people, to my knowledge, have approached City Hall with a request to do anything on succession reform,” he said. “Has there been a buzz? Conversations? Who knows?”

But the Hevesi camp’s apparent overtures hint at a larger dynamic: Mr. Hevesi, a Queens organization Democrat, seems to view Mr. Giuliani, elected as a Republican reformer, as a key to his own mayoral ambitions. Forget their partisan affiliations-they share a hearty contempt for Mr. Green and are equally horrified by the prospect of a Green mayoralty. And so, as Mr. Hevesi begins to elevate his low-key and occasionally wonkish persona, he seems eager to position himself as Mr. Giuliani’s standard-bearer-a lonely moderate amid a mob of Greenscars who would gleefully undo Mr. Giuliani’s accomplishments.

In recent weeks, two top Giuliani supporters-First Friend Peter Powers and Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari-have declared that the city’s next mayor inevitably will be a Democrat. With that in mind, Mr. Molinari startled his fellow Republicans (not to mention other Democrats) by flat-out endorsing Mr. Hevesi, who he described as a “conservative” Democrat.

In a sense, Mr. Molinari may have let the proverbial cat out of the bag. While other Democrats tend to define themselves as opponents of the Mayor’s excesses, Mr. Hevesi seems to be casting himself as Rudy Giuliani’s natural successor, never mind the difference in party labels. “The person who is going to win the mayoral race in 2001 is the person who will convince the voters that he or she is best able to institutionalize the successes of the Giuliani administration,” Mr. Hevesi said.

Some observers, however, think Mr. Hevesi’s eagerness to capitalize on Mr. Giuliani’s achievements has led him to tone down any criticisms of City Hall, and even to sidestep issues sensitive to the Mayor. And there is plenty of grumbling that Mr. Hevesi has occasionally failed to use his office’s auditing power to shed light into the darker corners of city government, where some of the Mayor’s claims of bureaucratic miracles reside unchallenged.

The result has been an era of uncharacteristic calm between two political institutions that are supposed to serve as a check and balance against each other. The Comptroller’s office is supposed to be an objective, above-the-battle watchdog over mayoral budgets and agency spending, while the Mayor’s office deals with real-life political and social problems that defy pure number-crunching. Former Comptroller Harrison J. Goldin’s feuds with former Mayor Ed Koch were legendary. And Mr. Goldin’s successor, Elizabeth Holtzman, routinely ambushed David Dinkins with scathing audits.

These days, the institutional and personal hostilities have all but vanished. “There’s no question that a long time ago Hevesi stopped criticizing Giuliani,” said Mr. Koch, who stressed that his comments weren’t meant as criticism. “You notice that there are no sparks in the comments one makes about the other. [Mr. Hevesi] has made the decision that the best way to advance his own political fortunes is to play along and go along with Giuliani.”

Mr. Hevesi quickly struck back. “Ed Koch had a tremendously unproductive relationship with the comptrollers who served with him,” he said. “He fought with them all the time. His view of government is bashing people who disagree with him.”

Resident Intellectual

Mr. Hevesi has cultivated an image that is anything but Koch-like. A tall, genial, thoughtful politician with a Ph.D. in public law and government from Columbia University, Mr. Hevesi is the resident intellectual of Queens clubhouse politics. He delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Donald Manes, the Queens Democratic boss who committed suicide in 1986. As a liberal Democrat and the Assemblyman of Forest Hills for 22 years, he rarely hesitated to mix it up with Republicans. He became known for a rhetorical elegance rarely heard in the heavy-lidded world of Queens politics. In a tongue-in-cheek reference to his low-key image, his own political ads once asked, “Alan who?”

Mr. Hevesi is the temperamental opposite of Mr. Giuliani. While the Mayor strides purposefully through City Hall, his lips pursed, his head tilted forward, Mr. Hevesi works the lobby, chatting amiably with mayoral aides when he crosses paths with them. Where the Mayor is at his happiest feasting on an enemy, Mr. Hevesi tends to leave the unpleasant side of politics to his Rottweiler political adviser, Hank Morris.

That’s not to say that the Comptroller will always shy away from a political scrap. During Mr. Giuliani’s first term, for instance, he blocked Mr. Giuliani’s proposed sale of the city’s water system-a bold use of the Comptroller’s oversight powers. Other aggressive moves on his part led Mr. Giuliani to deride him as an “old-fashioned machine politician.” In 1997, powerful Democrats urged Mr. Hevesi to challenge Mr. Giuliani’s re-election bid, arguing he was better positioned than Ruth Messinger to cut into the Mayor’s support among moderates and outer-borough white ethnics. Mr. Hevesi declined.

Since then, relations have been smooth. True, Mr. Hevesi released a scathing report in August on the dismal state of the city’s infrastructure-a problem that predates Mr. Giuliani’s five years in City Hall. And he recently called for the civilianization of 1,257 police jobs.

But some longtime colleagues were puzzled by Mr. Hevesi’s response to the most traumatic event of Mr. Giuliani’s mayoralty: the police killing of Amadou Diallo. Black politicos have long hailed him as “good on race,” not least for his impassioned opposition to the death penalty. But passion seemed lacking in a remark about the Diallo killing Mr. Hevesi made to New York magazine:

“If white politicians aren’t involved in the debate, it’s because they represent constituencies that are substantially white, and it’s not an issue their constituents put at the top of their agenda.”

Some have detected shrewd political positioning in this display cautious centrism. “He’s trying to appeal to the largest number of white voters, by trying to go for Giuliani Democrats,” noted political consultant Jerry Skurnik.

Mr. Hevesi rejected the “Giuliani Democrat” label, saying that the press had unfairly portrayed his response. And he spun out a list of interviews he had given on the issue, listing his ideas for reforming the Police Department-with stress training and a residency requirement, to name two.

Mr. Hevesi has been less visible on some issues sensitive to City Hall. He released a report supporting Mr. Giuliani’s claim that workfare aided the performance of students at the City University of New York. And he has yet to do a full examination of Mr. Giuliani’s workfare program-a dramatic and controversial initiative that has altered thousands of lives and provided the Mayor with a bragging point on political road trips.

It’s Easy to Brawl

Mr. Hevesi acknowledged his office should take a broad look at City Hall’s workfare program-“at some point.” But he defended his nonconfrontational approach, rattling off a list of behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Mayor that he said ended in compromise and action, rather than in flurries of press releases.

“It’s easy to have a fight,” Mr. Hevesi said. “It’s easy to grandstand. It’s harder to succeed, to get things done.… I’d rather fix it than fight.”

Yet Mr. Hevesi may have something else to gain from not taking on the Mayor. For one thing, he would surely like to get the endorsement of Liberal Party boss Ray Harding, an important ally of the Mayor and a longtime supporter of Mr. Hevesi. “The fact is that with one exception the Liberal Party has supported him in all his races, and we think highly of him,” Mr. Harding said. “Nonetheless, it’s too early to discuss the mayoral situation with respect to the next election.”

What’s more, Mr. Hevesi has quietly begun to make overtures to some of Mr. Giuliani’s top financial supporters, according to a friend of the Mayor who is active in real estate circles.

In the end, Mr. Hevesi’s cautious centrism reflects the chaotic state of city politics in the era of Rudy Giuliani. The next Democratic primary for Mayor promises to be a crowded, multicultural field-populated with staunch Democrats like the Rev. Al Sharpton and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, as well as moderates like City Council Speaker Peter Vallone and Council member Ken Fisher of the Bronx. It’s a bit like the 1977 primary, when Ed Koch prevailed over a mob of opponents by clinging to moderate turf and squeezing past Mario Cuomo.

Mr. Hevesi apparently hopes to do the same. And with Mr. Giuliani popular among moderate Democrats, maintaining good relations with City Hall can’t hurt. Mr. Giuliani has dribbled out hints that he might tacitly aid Mr. Hevesi. He certainly has done little to groom a Republican successor.

“Rudy doesn’t have to endorse him,” observed one politico. “All Rudy has to do is say, ‘I think Alan Hevesi was a great comptroller and he’d make a great mayor.'”