Politics of Death Returns to City Hall

The new census figures bode well for the Mayoral election,

as it seems very few current residents of Greater New York were either alive or

here in 1977. They will be less inclined, then, to regard a Mayoral debate over

the death penalty as a pointless and even demagogic exercise that might be described

as bread-and-circuses-save that it is neither nourishing nor entertaining.

A fresh outbreak of death-penalty politics occurred a couple

of weeks ago, when Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer announced his

support for a moratorium on state-sponsored executions. This was considered a

major development in the great struggle to succeed Rudolph Giuliani. Veteran

correspondents duly noted that four years ago, almost to the day, Mr. Ferrer

had announced that he no longer opposed the death penalty; indeed, he had

become a convert to its necessities after a police officer was killed in the

Bronx.

In the wake of this

startling turn of events, Mr. Ferrer was whacked on the editorial page of the New York Post , which deplored his

evident weakness of character. And Mr. Ferrer was obliged to send a letter to The New York Times in defense of his new

position. For a few days, newspeople and perhaps even the candidates themselves

were delighted to shift the conversation to something exciting, like Old

Sparky, instead of dwelling on dreary reading scores. We now know that two

candidates favor the death penalty, Mr. Ferrer and Council Speaker Peter

Vallone, and two oppose it, Public Advocate Mark Green and Comptroller Alan

Hevesi.

Amid all this excitement,

it does seem a bit dour to point out that the Mayor of New York City has many

powers, but not included among them is the ability to dispatch convicted

criminals to the great mysterious beyond. And yet, as each month seems to bring

more bad news about the city’s public schools, as the post-industrial fortress

known as Silicon Alley becomes the Maginot Line of the New Economic Order, it

seems entirely possible that the Mayoral candidates will spend time this summer

debating the merits of capital punishment.

Geezers will recall that in the 1977 Mayoral election, the

death penalty became the campaign’s signature issue from the moment that Ed

Koch-Ed Koch, the maverick, reform-minded Democrat from Greenwich

Village-announced that he was pro-execution. This led Mario Cuomo-Mario Cuomo,

the little-known white ethnic from Queens who plied his lawyer’s trade on Court

Street-to emerge as a passionate conscientious objector. And so the two of

them, Mr. Koch and Mr. Cuomo, were joined in a battle that become one of New

York’s great political rivalries.

Conventional wisdom has it that Mr. Cuomo lost the 1977

campaign in part because of his opposition to the death penalty. This is both

true and unbelievable. Yes, Mr. Koch probably outflanked Mr. Cuomo on the

issue, winning outer-borough ethnic voters who probably were as surprised as

anyone to be voting for a reform-minded Manhattan liberal instead of another outer-borough ethnic.

But remember the year-1977, the first election after the city’s brush with

bankruptcy; the era of huge municipal layoffs, scaled-down services, Son of

Sam, blackouts, ever-increasing crime, middle-class flight and really bad Mets’

teams. (Never mind those guys with the fancy-pants pinstripes.) How was it that

the decisive issue of the 1977 Mayoral campaign became the death penalty, an

issue over which the Mayor had no control?

It was symbolism, of

course-the kind of symbolism that Dick Morris would put to even more cynical

use years later. Ed Koch’s support for capital punishment was a signal to an

exhausted and demoralized city that he shared its frustrations, that he was not

what he might have seemed to be-an out-of-touch Manhattan reformer who blamed

society for the city’s high crime rate.

New York in 2001,

however, is far removed from the dreary days of 1977. Crime is at

Wagner-administration levels; the state, through the grace of George

Pataki and the Legislature, now has a capital-punishment statute; and the city seems to be free of the resentments that

lead some to equate state-sponsored executions with criminal justice.

Nevertheless, no Democrat wishing to succeed Rudolph

Giuliani wishes to be thought of as the heir to lawless New York. Mr. Green

opposes the death penalty, but he has Bill Bratton by his side. Mr. Hevesi

shares Mr. Green’s opposition to executions, but the Comptroller has gone to

Harlem to defend the decency of most police officers-and been heckled for his

efforts. He’ll not be made into a municipal Michael Dukakis.

So Mr. Ferrer and Mr. Vallone will carry the New Democrat

enthusiasm for capital punishment into this year’s election. Their views no

doubt are the product of reflection and inquiry, and perhaps even prayer.

Let’s hope, though, that we don’t have to hear about it come

summer, when more important matters are up for discussion.