Four Tiny Guys Try to Fill Big Shoes of Giant Giuliani

In the final year of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, the Democrats who lined up for a chance to succeed him were derided as the “Seven Dwarfs” political unknowns who were seeking to replace a giant. A similar scenario is now unfolding in New York, where a field of Democrats is vying to replace another formidable figure: Rudolph Giuliani.

The Four Dwarfs are off and running.

Public Advocate Mark Green, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer have been preparing for the 2001 mayoral race raising money, building institutional support and holding press conferences to praise good things and denounce bad things.

But just as the gigantic presence of Mr. Reagan overshadowed the 1988 Presidential candidates, the four main Democratic Mayoral hopefuls are coming to terms with the shadow of Mr. Giuliani and the changed political landscape of post-Giuliani New York. It is, they are discovering, alien and possibly hostile territory. It’s a place where longtime liberal Democrats have to talk like law-and-order Republicans even as they delicately reach out to traditional Democratic constituencies frozen out by Mr. Giuliani.

“It’s the same challenge that faced Michael Dukakis and the Democrats in 1988,” said Evan Stavisky, a Democratic political consultant. “How do these four Democrats define themselves in an era entirely dominated by Giuliani?”

Good question, and one the candidates are preparing to answer.

“Giuliani has changed the landscape in ways good and bad,” Mr. Green told The Observer. “A successor will keep what works and toss out what doesn’t …. If we’re talking about giants and dwarfs, I believe he’s been a giant on crime reduction but a dwarf on class size, test scores, police misconduct, open government, citywide economic development and racial harmony.”

With four major candidates running for the Democratic nomination, next year promises to be the biggest mayoral free-for-all since 1977, when seven Democrats ran in a wild primary that ended with Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo competing in a runoff for the nomination, which Mr. Koch won. This year, the Democratic primary which is likely to decide who will be the next Mayor, since there is not yet a credible Republican on the horizon is shaping up to be every bit as chaotic and unpredictable.

And then some: Mr. Giuliani’s brand of welfare-slashing, law-and-order governance has shattered traditional Upper West Side liberalism; it has weakened the influence of interest groups like social service agencies and unions, and it has dramatically raised the expectations for the next occupant of Gracie Mansion.

As a result, each candidate is, to varying degrees, simultaneously running with and against Mr. Giuliani. “These people are all going to be running by saying, ‘I’m as good as Giuliani was in management, but I’m much better as a human being,’” said Mr. Koch.

“This is taking place in a context where there have been some big successes and big failures over the last eight years,” added Hank Morris, the chief strategist for Mr. Hevesi. “That’s the context in which this campaign is going to play out. It’s fair to say that some people thought New York City was ungovernable. Now there’s going to be a debate about whether the city can be governed in an inclusive way.”

A Delicate Dance

Each candidate is doing his own version of a very delicate political dance. Mr. Vallone, a moderate from Astoria, Queens, is playing the role of battle-hardened government insider who, as council speaker, partnered with Mr. Giuliani to build the successes of the past eight years. He’s not shy about trying to capture some reflected glory, and he’s in a good position to do so.

On a recent afternoon in City Hall, the Mayor and the speaker, clad in identical dark suits, did their best imitation of those cartoon gophers who are forever saying, “After you …. No, no, after you.” Mr. Vallone talked about what the “Mayor and I” were doing to address the city’s blood shortage. Mr. Giuliani, not to be outdone, went on about efforts by “both sides of City Hall,” meaning his own office and the City Council chamber. When Mr. Vallone cut off Mr. Giuliani in mid-sentence to share a personal anecdote, Mr. Giuliani graciously yielded the floor with a bow. Mr. Vallone rattled off his story, shook hands with the Mayor and trundled back to his suite in City Hall’s East Wing.

But Mr. Vallone will be sharing his Giuliani-loving base of conservative Democrats in Queens and Brooklyn with Mr. Hevesi, another Queens politician, and will need to pull in some Manhattan liberals and minorities. So he is reminding voters that he has fought some of the most vigorous battles with Mr. Giuliani in recent memory over the future of Yankee Stadium and over City Hall’s assault on the Brooklyn Museum, to name two.

“Where appropriate, Peter Vallone has been more than willing to stand up to the Mayor,” noted Dennis Mehiel, who is expected to chair the Vallone campaign.

Mr. Hevesi is operating from a similar political calculus. A Queens moderate, he is an insider’s insider, having quietly built a formidable network of support on Wall Street and among Democratic elected officials, unions and political clubs. He seems to have the tacit support of some of Mr. Giuliani’s allies, such as Ray Harding, a top adviser to the Mayor and head of the Liberal Party. And according to a high-level source in the real estate community, the Mayor’s chief political operative, Bruce Teitelbaum, intends to raise money for the Comptroller.

How Mr. Hevesi will handle the shadow of Rudy remains a mystery. Once one of the most liberal members of the State Assembly, he has refashioned himself as a steady and almost non-ideological public servant. He has long been reluctant to criticize the Mayor and is clearly positioning himself as the man with the sobriety and experience to guide the city’s finances after Mr. Giuliani. But his cautious centrism his seemingly muddled response to the police shooting of Amadou Diallo, for instance could cost him votes with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party electorate.

Mr. Green’s equation is different. His base is largely Manhattan liberals, minorities and some moderate Jews. That has led Mr. Giuliani and his allies who don’t try to hide their contempt for the Public Advocate to caricature him as a tool of Democratic left-wingers eager to throw open the gates of Rikers Island and stock the upper echelons of city government with liberated workfare laborers.

Needless to say, this picture of Mr. Green is a distortion: His political roots are in consumer advocacy, and he is a different shade of liberal than, say, Ruth Messinger. He is more interested in cleaning up government, cracking down on corrupt garbage haulers and keeping the corner dry cleaner in line than in lavishing welfare on poor people. Mr. Giuliani, a good-government Republican, has more in common with Mr. Green than the Mayor would like to admit. In a way, Mr. Green is a liberal version of Mr. Giuliani an outsider who would be free to ignore the dictates of the very Democratic machine the Mayor so despises.

Still, Mr. Green has to know that the “soft-on-crime liberal” label could easily stick especially if Mr. Giuliani persists in his habit of calling him the “anti-police, anti–law enforcement candidate.” As a result, Mr. Green has taken some steps to broaden his appeal. He has appeared with Mr. Giuliani at a press conference calling for the scrapping of the Board of Education. He has also called for productivity givebacks from the city’s teachers; advocated police cameras in parks; supported an end to parole, and vowed to keep the pressure on cops for high arrest numbers.

“Mark is going to bend over backwards to show that he’s going to be very tough on crime,” said one high-ranking Democrat who has discussed the issue with Mr. Green. “It will be an enormous component of his message.”

Mr. Green rejected the idea that his campaign would be defined by the current Mayor. “I don’t much worry about how Giuliani’s alleged legacy affects me or the race,” he said. “Giuliani is like a turn-around artist hired by a corporation in distress to end the red ink. In some ways he’s done that, but now the company wants to hire a successor that can take it to the next level.”

Giuliani? Who’s He?

Of the gang of four, Mr. Ferrer is perhaps the least bothered by the presence of Mr. Giuliani. His support comes largely from the Bronx Democratic machine and organized labor; his base is black and Latino voters. He hasn’t shared many stages with the Mayor; in fact, he and the Mayor have a stormy relationship. During Mr. Vallone’s cozy blood-shortage press conference with Mr. Giuliani, for instance, Mr. Ferrer was standing outside City Hall at a sparsely attended press conference about AIDS in the Latino community, while frosty winds buffeted him and his colleagues.

His supporters unabashedly say that Mr. Ferrer will be going for the same coalition that carried David Dinkins to power minorities, union members and Bella Abzug liberals. “I’m not trying to be Rudy Lite,” Mr. Ferrer said. “I think that if the next Mayor wants to be a continuation of Rudy, that shows me a little laziness in thought.”

Asked if his position as the purest anti-Rudy candidate would lead voters to see him as potentially weak on crime, Mr. Ferrer offered the following reassurance: He was raised in the South Bronx. “I grew up on a street in the South Bronx in Hunts Point that was called Little Korea; it was because returning Korean War veterans could hear shots being fired during the day …. If anyone is going to call me soft on issues of crime and punishment, that’s just show business. I’ve been on the front lines here.”

In the end, all the dancing around Mr. Giuliani comes down to this: The Mayoral race is actually shaping up to be two races. The first race is between Mr. Green and Mr. Ferrer, who are fighting for the liberal wing of the Democratic Primary blacks, Latinos and liberals. (That would be immeasurably complicated if Al Sharpton enters the race.) The second race is between Mr. Hevesi and Mr. Vallone, who are fighting for conservative Giuliani Democrats outer-borough Catholics and Jews.

Since no candidate is likely to get more than 40 percent of the vote the required plurality for a first-round victory there will probably be a runoff between the two leading candidates, the winners of the Green-Ferrer and Vallone-Hevesi mini-contests.

If that two-race scenario plays itself out next summer, the Giuliani dynamic will be crucial. Even as Mr. Green and Mr. Ferrer shore up their liberal base, they need to edge towards Mr. Giuliani’s positions to prepare for the inevitable runoff. Similarly, even as Mr. Vallone and Mr. Hevesi build their centrist coalitions, they need to edge away from Mr. Giuliani, in case they face a left-of-center candidate in the runoff.

“The dilemma for all of these guys is complex,” observed City Council member Ken Fisher of Brooklyn. “How do you excite enough of your base to get into a runoff without alienating the rest of the city to the point that you can’t win that runoff anymore?”