Democratic Mayoral Hopefuls Enter Conservative Lion’s Den

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

his friends.

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

say 1981.

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

sob story.

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.