Eight years ago-only one year into the Clinton era-the
Republican Party saw a pre-dawn shimmer of hope in a handful of successful
off-year elections. Winning gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia
were nice, but not unprecedented. The big surprises were victories in big-city
Mayoral races in Los Angeles and, especially, New York. If Republicans could
make it here, they could make it anywhere. And indeed, the year of Rudy
Giuliani was followed by the year of Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich. What
happened in New York seemed to have national implications.
Mayor Giuliani’s election was also a win for the Manhattan
Institute, the conservative urban-affairs think tank. The Giuliani campaign
borrowed heavily from ideas promoted by the Manhattan Institute, particularly
ideas related to policing. The conservative policy wonks had said that the
Rodney King riots, the Crown Heights pogrom and the daily devastation of
big-city life were not our destiny. An ambitious pol took them seriously, and
the voters put him in office.
Last week, the Manhattan Institute marked the melancholy,
long, withdrawing roar of Giuliani time with a conference at the Roosevelt
Hotel called “New York at the Crossroads.” The conference featured many of the
intellectuals and journalists, from Nathan Glazer to Heather MacDonald, who had
defined the Republican decade of urban affairs, but it ended with a panel of
the Mayoral candidates who would be bringing that decade to a close.
The conspicuous no-show was Michael Bloomberg, Mayor
Giuliani’s anointed Republican successor. His absence was a misstep for a
candidacy whose only hopes lie in perfection, supplemented by tons of luck. If
Mr. Bloomberg ducks a forum like that, where exactly does he plan to mix it up?
Four Democrats, to their credit, sat on the ducking stool and let their enemies
pelt them with baseballs; Mr. Bloomberg was unwilling to face the pitches of
The Republican who came was dark-horse candidate Herman
Badillo. How can you be credible, he was asked, when the establishment of your
party has discouraged you? Mr. Badillo responded with a favorite anecdote about
the long-gone Bronx political boss, Charlie Buckley, reacting to his first run
for office. “Buckley said, ‘If I’m going to have a Puerto Rican, I want someone
short and dark who can’t speak English.’ I don’t respect political leaders; I
never have.” The anecdote is meant to show Mr. Badillo’s ornery feistiness, and
it does. His chief enemy is not political bosses, though, but time. In the
course of his remarks, Mr. Badillo mentioned that he had once been
double-crossed by Jimmy Carter. He could have gone further back and said that
he had once been double-crossed by Norman Mailer. If I could wave a wand, I
might make Mr. Badillo Mayor. If he could wave one, he should make the calendar
Most of the forum was
devoted to Democrats, as befits a one-party state. This listener was impressed
by their poise and intelligence. Only Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer
seemed stiff, and that may have been because the M.C. misidentified his
position and mispronounced his name. Comptroller Alan Hevesi presented a
gleaming head like a howitzer shell; it is stuffed with brains and facts.
Unfortunately, its owner knows this-he will have to dial down the obnoxiousness
a bit once the campaign heats up. The keynote of Peter Vallone, Speaker of the
City Council, was geniality. He explained that, thanks to City Charter
revision, he was the first Speaker in the City Council’s history and added,
“That’s why I’m the best Speaker.” Public Advocate Mark Green spoke quietly,
suggesting a new modesty. The years have matured him; he was also suffering
from a sore throat.
All four candidates were operating in a post-Giuliani world.
Their rhetoric was not the fare of past Democratic primaries. Mr. Green
promised to “build on the better record of Giuliani crime suppression.” Mr.
Hevesi agreed that the Giuliani years witnessed an “enormous victory,” from
which there must be “not one step back.” Mr. Vallone recalled the bad old days
of squeegee men and middle-class flight. Even Mr. Ferrer, who cast himself as
the man of the left, when thrown a libertarian spitball on rent control, said
that he had a “textured and complex view of housing.” For years, every pol and
pundit has repeated Fiorello La Guardia’s gaseous line about there being no
Republican or Democratic way to collect the garbage. It was gaseous because, in
New York City, when it came down to garbage or anything else, the possible ways
always seemed to be liberal and Democratic. But Rudy Giuliani has changed the
landscape, at least rhetorically.
At the same time, one could hear the call of the wild. It
sounded most chillingly in the candidates’ talk of taxes and spending. Mr.
Green, drawing on the skills he acquired as a cross-examiner on William F.
Buckley Jr.’s show Firing Line , hit
the fiscal conservatives in the room with Justice Holmes’ aphorism about taxes
being the price we pay for civilization. In the course of a paean to high tech,
Mr. Hevesi explained that dot-commers come to New York to ingest its
brainpower, regardless of our tax structure-which is true, to a point, but
beyond that point they also flock to places not previously known for smarts,
like Virginia and Seattle. Mr. Vallone boasted of the 12.5 percent tax
surcharge that paid for the Safe Streets, Safe City program in the David
Dinkins years. Mr. Ferrer forthrightly mocked the Disneyfication of Times
Square and said that he spoke for “the other New York,” based on his youth
growing up in a Bronx fifth-floor walkup, where the hot and cold water often
failed. I wondered what Herman Badillo, who grew up in a Puerto Rican
no-walkup, without pipes, thought of his lantsman ‘s
The crime-rate success story of the Giuliani years comes
with an associated story of racial ill-feeling, and however much those feelings
are corrupted by exaggeration and opportunism, they are a political and
psychological reality. It was interesting to see the Democrats grasp the
nettle. Mr. Vallone blasted the policy of stop-and-frisk, though he did it in a
very old-ethnic Queens fashion. On his way to the forum, he said, he had found
“all the traffic coming in from Queens bottled up to France” because the cops
at the Midtown Tunnel were checking for unbuckled seat belts. “The Midtown
Tunnel!” Vallone exclaimed. “How busy is it?” Young black males, he implied,
suffered the same frustrations as harried outer-borough commuters. Mr. Green
and Mr. Hevesi spoke with warmth. “When communities of color won’t report
crimes” because they distrust the police, Mr. Green said, “we have a problem.
The way to fix it is to admit it. We do have police misconduct-maybe not
against you, but it exists.” When Mayor Giuliani denies that the police engage
in racial profiling, said Mr. Hevesi, he is “in denial. It may be occasional.
But in a city this size, occasional is large.”
The victory of quality-of-life policing was a victory of
perception. Criminals skulked, and citizens were emboldened, because they
believed the public square had been reclaimed for order. But if blacks believe
that the reclaimers have it in for them, then the victory has been in part
undercut. I take this to be the meaning of former Police Commissioner William
Bratton’s willingness to endorse Mark Green (in addition, of course, to Mr.
Bratton’s ambition and his hatred for his former boss). The concern expressed
by the Democrats at the Roosevelt Hotel could be seen as an earnest effort to
grapple with this problem.
After the next Mayor’s inauguration in 2002, the real
grappling will not be done with supporters of the Manhattan Institute, or even
with other members of the political elite. It will be done in the P.R. trenches
with the likes of Al Sharpton during the next celebrity incident. Even more
important than Mr. Sharpton, a figure of tabloid theater, are the ranks of the bien-pensants , from Norman Siegel to
Dennis Rivera. When they mount their high horses about whatever it is, will
Mayor Democrat talk about taking not one step back?
The Giuliani years leave
a safer and more peaceful city, whose economic and structural problems have
barely been touched. One came away from the Roosevelt wishing that the
candidates had the instincts and the fortitude to match their evident
intelligence and appeal.
Follow Richard Brookhiser via RSS.