On the Campaign Trail With Lonely Herman Badillo

On Aug. 21, Herman Badillo turned 72. He celebrated not by

fishing, golfing or playing a round of canasta, but by toiling like an

infantryman in the trenches of New York politics, hoping to score an upset in

the Republican Mayoral primary on Sept. 11, and then a greater one on Election

Day. I followed him on a late August day, after the heat wave broke, and as the

summer itself was breaking up into drooping leaves and katydids in the parks at

night.

He began his day with a press conference in front of the

John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the West Side.

He wore a black suit and a yellow tie. Time has made him avuncular without

making him cuddly: He is tall, large and take-charge, and he loomed over a

sidewalk lectern while the morning trucks roared up 10th

Avenue.

Mr. Badillo came to John Jay to tout two new ideas for

crime-fighting: a city high school that would specialize in criminal justice

and feed its students to John Jay; and a course in community sensitivity that

John Jay already offers to police officers, and that Mr. Badillo would make

compulsory for all cops. These reforms, which resemble the ideas of Adam

Walinsky and the Police Corps (a national ROTC-like

program for college students who want to be cops, first funded by Bill

Clinton), might be called Phase 2 of the New Policing. Phase 1 focused on

quality-of-life crimes. Phase 2 will focus on the quality of policing. The cops

must become smarter and more diplomatic, so that they can rely less on force,

and on excessive force, in dealing with the civilians on their beat.

A reporter asked how Mr. Badillo’s proposed programs differ

from those of Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire newsmonger who is the G.O.P.

front-runner, and Mr. Badillo had some fun. “I don’t know that he has a

program; he has position papers that he reads.” He gestured at the empty

lectern top in front of him. “I have nothing before me; my ideas are in my

head. You can’t take someone with no experience in city, state or federal

government” and expect him to be Mayor. “Business and politics are two different

worlds.”

He went to the next event, in Queens,

in a style befitting a bare-bones campaign: He took his wife, Gail, and two

reporters in a rented car driven by a young man whose notions of geography were

somewhat uncertain; a campaign photographer had to follow in a cab. An hour

later, he arrived at Young Israel of Forest Hills, on

a street of old brick apartment buildings and pointy Tudor row houses, with

hydrangea and rose of Sharon blooming in the yards.

Mr. Badillo was the youngest person by far at Young Israel.

He spoke to about 20 old people in a current-events discussion club, then to

about 20 more in the main room who had been reading the papers and playing

mah-jongg until he arrived. The old people used the privilege of age to coo

over Mrs. Badillo. “You’ve got a young, pretty one,” they said. “At least he

knows how to get a pretty one.”

He pitched some neighborhood issues at them-traffic moves

too fast on Queens Boulevard;

he had dealt with a similar problem on Grand Concourse when he was Bronx

borough president. But his primary mantra was educational standards. City

University, he said, was once the

“Harvard of the poor,” and when he was chairman of the board of trustees, he

tried to restore its glory. He insisted that the teachers’ program stop producing

graduates who could not pass the teachers’ exam, and that the law school stop

producing graduates who could not pass the bar exam. “I am not afraid to be

criticized, to bring about change, to take a stand,” he said. The whole school

system suffers from similar ills. “Everybody passes, nobody learns. That

doesn’t help anybody.”

Old New Yorkers may be physically frail, but they know their

issues, and they peppered Mr. Badillo with their concerns, such as fuel

pass-throughs for rent-controlled apartments. A few told him that they had

voted for him before, in one of his many runs for office in decades past. He

left promptly, to make sure he didn’t cut into their

lunch time, and worked the passersby on Queens

Boulevard. Some of these spoke to him in Spanish.

One man with a Russian accent asked him if he was Michael Bloomberg. “I’m

running against Bloomberg,” Badillo explained. “I only vote for a Jew,” the man

answered, a little crazily. “A Jew! A

Jew!” Badillo introduced his wife, who is Jewish. The nut liked her, but

said he would vote for Alan Hevesi.

You know Herman Badillo’s story. He tells it often, and well he should, for it is interesting. Born in Puerto Rico. Father died when he was 1, mother died when he was 5. Came

to the mainland when he was 11, not speaking English, and finally settled with

an aunt in West Harlem. In high school, with English

under his belt, he wrote for the school paper, interviewing rising stars (Peggy

Lee) and writing copy for “The Inquiring Photographer.” (Inquiring

Photographers! Now high-school kids are Inquiring Internet

Pornographers.) One day, a kid on the paper said that no one had ever seen

young Mr. Badillo in class. I’m in the class that takes apart airplane engines,

Mr. Badillo explained. “That’s for blacks and Puerto Ricans,” the kid answered

(what depths frown in that little bit of pop sociology). “I am Puerto Rican,”

Mr. Badillo said (his height may have thrown off the young sociologist). You

should take English classes, his interlocutor went on, you

could go to college. Mr. Badillo scoffed at the notion. But then he learned,

for the first time, that New York City

had a free college. This news launched him on his path in life. Law school,

accountancy and politics followed.

He has made four other great discoveries in his career, all

of them less happy. In 1969, when he first ran for Mayor, he learned that

trendy liberals are scum. This was the race in which Norman Mailer ran as a

lark, taking enough liberal votes from Mr. Badillo-initially a contender-to

drop him to third place in the Democratic primary. In 1973, his second race for

Mayor, he learned that party regulars are also scum. That was the race in which

the campaign of Abe Beame, his rival in the Democratic runoff, sent truckloads

of scruffy youth of color through Jewish neighborhoods, blaring bongo music and

loud chants of “Vote for Badillo.” Ah, the gorgeous mosaic. Beame denied any

link to the trucks, but Mr. Badillo lost once again.

In 1985, when he almost

ran for Mayor a fourth time, he learned that the black political class could

not be trusted. Blacks and Hispanics had a deal to field one candidate against

Mayor Ed Koch in the primary. At the last minute, the blacks exercised a veto

and gave the coalition’s nod to Assemblyman Denny Farrell rather than Mr. Badillo.

But his last, and bitterest, lesson came in Giuliani Time. Mr. Badillo backed

Mr. Giuliani in his first winning race in 1993. Though he was a Democrat, he

accepted Rudy’s appointment to the City University slot. There he learned that, when he went on the warpath against low

standards, none of his fellow Democrats were willing to join him. The high

standards of City College had been his ladder up from airplane engines. The rungs had rotted,

but nobody cared. That was the moment, he says, when he joined the G.O.P.

Now the Republican Party is rewarding him for the compliment

he paid them by lining up behind Michael Bloomberg. Republican weakness has

produced many a bizarre candidate over the years, and Mr. Bloomberg is not the

worst; every political reporter has a few Pierre Rinfret stories tucked away

like vintage port for whenever he wants a sip of pure awfulness. Mr. Bloomberg,

by contrast, seems like a pleasant fellow. He has spent millions of dollars to

publicize his name and to learn a little bit about New

York. The first activity is harmless, and the second

is praiseworthy-all of us should know something about this great city. But the

notion that he is qualified to be Mayor-especially the Mayor that follows Rudy

Giuliani-is surprising. Two weeks ago, I asked the question whether any of the

four Democrats were weighty enough to handle the most important political

transition of our lifetime. If they are questionable, what is Mr. Bloomberg? A dimensionless subatomic particle-a quark, a boson. The

only reason he is being encouraged is that he has deep pockets, and the

Republican Party wishes to pick them.

Herman Badillo is a liberal. Dead fetuses do not concern

him; neither do open borders. But he is a liberal who,

in a long and active life, has learned a few things. The temptation for

principled Republicans in New York

is to run paradigmatic candidates. The economic and ethnic bases of New York

Republicanism are small and dwindling. The Silk Stocking District, the WASP

enclave on the Upper East Side, is gone; how long can

the North Bronx, Bay Ridge and even Staten

Island last? Since no Republican is likely to win, we might as

well cross over to the Conservative Party line and vote for William F. Buckley

Jr., or his heirs.

But the Giuliani years

showed us that there was another possibility. A liberal

who was very right on one or two vital issues, running as a Republican, could

win a citywide race. Rudy did it with crime. Before we go back to our cells and

our purity, maybe we should try the gambit again.

Herman Badillo agrees with George W. Bush in claiming that

Hispanic voters are willing to give the G.O.P. a chance. Nominating Mr. Badillo

would certainly be a better way of luring them than kicking the Navy out of

Vieques. But there are better reasons for Republicans to back him. He knows a

truth-that if you offer to help people by educating them, you must really

educate them-and he knows enough about government to implement what he knows.

Does his knowledge, at age 72, come too late? That is the

great fear. But Ronald Reagan took on the evil empire in his early 70′s. John

Quincy Adams was a stripling of 63 when he was first elected to Congress, but

he was re-elected eight times, and won his great victory over the gag rule when

he was 77. Mr. Badillo’s age is related to one invaluable trait-not giving a

damn. He knows his mind, and he got his start in politics when everyone else in

the field was snot-nosed.

Come Sept. 11 and the first cool air, Republican primary

voters will decide which man to offer as Mr. Giuliani’s heir. Between now and

then, Herman Badillo will traverse many discussion clubs and empty lecterns.