In a city that has come to expect victories in the war on
crime, Mark Green finds himself battling an image that could scuttle his
efforts to succeed crime-busting Rudolph Giuliani as the city’s next Mayor. As
a liberal Democrat and onetime commissioner in David Dinkins’ City Hall, Mr. Green
is often portrayed as a soft-headed civil libertarian who can’t wait to lead a
parade of panhandlers on a liberation march up Broadway. Mr. Giuliani, no fan
of Mr. Green, is more than happy to amplify the charge, labeling the Public
Advocate as “the anti-police, anti-law-enforcement candidate.”
Mr. Green is well aware that if this image sticks, he will
be hard-pressed to broaden his appeal beyond his natural base of blacks and
Manhattan liberals. So he has launched a new political offensive designed to reassure
New Yorkers that he, too, can be tough on crime-tougher, even, than Mr.
Giuliani. That was part of the message he delivered during a wide-ranging
speech at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on Feb. 5, and it’s a
message that political insiders expect to hear repeatedly in the coming months.
“Green is acutely aware that his opponents and
detractors-Giuliani among them-are going to portray him as a knee-jerk liberal
on crime,” said one prominent Democratic strategist, who recently discussed the
problem with Mr. Green at length. “He said to me, ‘Listen, these caricaturists
who try to paint me as soft on crime had better know that the first squeegee
men who show up at an exit to the West Side Highway and intimidate
motorists-I’ll chop their heads off!’” (A Green aide declined comment.)
Mr. Green, a former Nader’s Raider, is working overtime to
prove he’ll be every bit as tough a commander in chief as Mr. Giuliani ever
was. He recently met with Patrick Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. And he had a
private bull session with 20 Brooklyn beat cops. A press release described the
meeting in hard-boiled prose: “No cameras. No press. No brass.” Mr. Green has
even taken to calling criminals “thugs.” In public.
Mr. Green’s tough talk was on full display during the speech
at John Jay College. For Mr. Green, who successfully sued City Hall twice over
police misconduct, it was a surprising gesture-one squarely in the tradition of
politicians venturing into potentially hostile territory to refashion their
political personas. It was a bit like John F. Kennedy journeying to Houston to
reassure Baptist ministers in 1960; Hillary Clinton venturing out to Borough
Park, Brooklyn, to meet with Hasidic leaders; or, more recently, City Comptroller
Alan Hevesi going to Harlem on Martin Luther King Day to atone for past
insensitivity to police brutality.
Standing at a podium in a small auditorium in the school’s
basement, Mr. Green spoke, at times forcefully, to a crowd of several hundred.
Seated in the first row was Patrick V. Murphy, who was Police Commissioner in
the early 1970′s. Mr. Murphy’s presence offered a further irony: As it happens,
he invented the Street Crime Unit, which under Mr. Giuliani was greatly
enlarged and became the primary enforcer of City Hall’s aggressive policing
policies. The unit also has been the target of police critics, who note that
the four officers who fired 41 shots at Amadou Diallo were members of the
Although Mr. Green promised to place his own policy stamp on
the department-”tough enough to enforce the law and … smart enough to invest to
prevent crime”-the Giuliani-esque accents in Mr. Green’s speech were
unmistakable. “Ten years ago, so many New Yorkers were afraid,” Mr. Green
began. “Afraid to go buy groceries, afraid to go on the subway. Today, New York
is inarguably a safer place than it has been in decades …. A decade ago, if you
had told New Yorkers that we would cut crime by half, they would never have
believed it.” Those lines could have been lifted from one of Mr. Giuliani’s
State of the City speeches. Close observers will note the use of the
first-person plural in assigning credit for crime reduction.
A Personal Touch
At another point, Mr. Green shared a personal brush with
“I remember the call I got some 30 years ago, when I heard
that my mother, who’d been in her 60′s, and my grandmother, who was then in her
80′s, had been tied up by burglars who had pushed into our home. And I remember
the fear and the anger at the thugs”-he paused-”who had done that to the women
who gave me life.”
Mr. Green went out of his way to demonstrate that he would
not be a soft touch. At one point, he said he wanted New York to be “the safest
city in America, if not the world.” During a question-and-answer session,
somebody complained of “paramilitary” riot police who deploy helicopters and
tanks at demonstrations. His answer, in part: “In a serious riot situation,
helicopters and tanks arguably could be appropriate.”
Mr. Green detailed several proposals that went beyond strict
enforcement. He called for more funding for neighborhood policing, raises for
cops to boost morale and an increase in the number of officers working to
intercept illegal guns. And he reiterated his calls for independent civilian
oversight of the police.
Mr. Green’s advisers argue that his tough-on-crime rhetoric
is consistent with his past record. “Mark Green has always had a strong record
on public safety,” said Richard Schrader, Mr. Green’s campaign manager. “He
battled and helped dismantle the mobbed-up carting industry. He exposed child
abuse. He blew the whistle on dozens of corrupt contractors. He’s been tough on
police misconduct, but that doesn’t mean he’s not tough on public safety.”
It’s true that the cliché of Mr. Green as an unrepentant
cop-basher is an election-year distortion. As a consumer advocate, he comes
from a different tradition of liberalism than, say, Ruth Messinger, a former
social worker who is the archetypal pre-Giuliani Manhattan liberal. Mr. Green
has carefully broadened his appeal over the years, favoring both an end to
parole and the placement of police cameras in public parks. In some ways, Mr.
Green-a persistent and relentless public official-is a liberal version of Mr.
Giuliani, a good-government Republican.
Nor is it clear whether there’s a basis for Mr. Giuliani’s
charge that Mr. Green is anti-cop. More likely the charge is rooted not in
policy or past actions, but in the Mayor’s dislike for Mr. Green. For example,
when the Public Advocate suggested in 1994 that repairs to police cars be
contracted out to private shops, Mr. Giuliani reacted as though Mr. Green had
asked for the prisons to be emptied. Several years later, Mr. Green demanded
the resignation of then–Police Commissioner Howard Safir in the aftermath of
the police shooting of Amadou Diallo, leading Staten Island Borough President
Guy Molinari, a Giuliani ally, to slam Mr. Green as an “avowed cop basher.” But
Mr. Green had said nothing about the rank and file.
Of course, Mr. Green is not the only candidate who will have
to contend with Mr. Giuliani’s record on crime. “Since Giuliani demonstrated
that there can be unheard-of reductions in crime,” said Tom Reppetto, the
president of the Citizens’ Crime Commission of New York City, “the question
will hang over the race: ‘Will the next Mayor keep me safe?’”
Still, it is the Public Advocate who may have to worry most
about the “anti-cop” charge. For one thing, Mr. Green is already viewed with
suspicion by much of the city’s establishment-the real estate community, the
editorial boards and Wall Street-many of whose members associate Mr. Green with
the Dinkins administration.
For another thing, Mr. Giuliani will single out Mr. Green as
a threat to public safety time and time again over the next few months. Mr. Green’s
aides say that such attacks will only play into his hands, because Democratic
primary voters have grown weary of the Mayor, and because Mr. Green’s
supporters will be energized by Mayoral attacks on their man.
In a crowded primary field, however, the winning candidate
will be the one who manages to reach beyond his core support. That task could
get complicated for Mr. Green. Picture this scenario: A slight uptick in crime,
or a spate of sensational murders over the summer, sends the tabloids into a frenzy
of “Dinkins redux” predictions. The establishment starts to get nervous; Mr.
Giuliani launches a new broadside at Mr. Green; and Mr. Green’s opponents
simply sit back and enjoy. Mr. Green will argue that his longtime criticism of
the Mayor in no way means he’ll be soft on crime. The voters, though, may not
want to hear complex and rational arguments; they will want simple assurances
“Green’s rhetoric has to be simple and direct. It has to be,
‘Punish the bad guys’-period,” said Edward Wallace, a partner at Greenberg,
Traurig, a law firm whose members have raised a great deal of money for Mr.
Green. “He can’t get into debates; he can’t talk about programs. He just has to
be tough on crime-period.”
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