If you were former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, you could be forgiven for thinking that New York, once the Ungovernable City, has become the Ungrateful City.
Mr. Giuliani has been out of office fewer than four years, and his public presence is hardly diminished. Indeed, because of 9/11, he is a national figure who is widely considered a Presidential prospect. And yet in this year’s Mayoral campaign, none of the five major candidates shares his governing philosophy. Even his anointed Republican successor, Michael Bloomberg, will only partially embrace the Giuliani legacy. Two new books are out with a focus on his pre–Sept. 11 Mayoralty, one offering frequent comparisons to Benito Mussolini and the other casting him as New York’s Bill Clinton, but lamenting his failure to leave a movement behind.
Meanwhile, private polls show the former Mayor to be less popular in New York City than perhaps in any other part of the world.
And yet, in the ordinary course of Mr. Giuliani’s tenure-before Sept. 11 elevated him away from standard evaluations of a Mayoralty-he achieved the lasting measure of a politician’s success: He left a city in far better shape than it was when he took over. A few years after his reluctant departure, a consensus is developing that Mr. Giuliani was both lucky and good, beating the national trend of decreasing crime and proving that change was possible in areas like welfare and the public universities. Even some of his old adversaries among New York’s Democrats are beginning to wonder whether it’s worth their while to keep fighting him.
“There is an opening for a Democrat to run to the right of Bloomberg on quality-of-life issues and embrace some of the positive changes that occurred under Giuliani,” said Howard Wolfson, a Democratic strategist who works for Hillary Clinton and the state Democratic Party, citing the return of sex shops to Times Square, a perception of a decline in the subways and a sharp decrease in the number of police officers.
“Democrats have clearly come to grips with the many failings of the Giuliani administration,” he said. “It’s time we came to grips with the good things, too.”
Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign manager, Kevin Sheekey, rejected the notion that Mr. Bloomberg has let Mr. Giuliani’s accomplishments slide.
“The charges are absurd,” he said. “The idea that we’ve cut the number of police officers while continuing to reduce crime is not a criticism of this administration; it’s a great tribute.”
Mr. Giuliani’s 11th-hour endorsement in October 2001 was a crucial piece of Mr. Bloomberg’s surprise victory, and he appears again as one of many talking voices in Mr. Bloomberg’s first English-language campaign advertisement this year.
“He had to deal with a city that was going through one of its worst crises ever, and he established himself immediately as a strong and effective leader,” Mr. Giuliani tells the camera.
But the relationship between the two Republican Mayors isn’t all that straightforward. Mr. Bloomberg’s aides tout his success in defusing Giuliani-era racial tensions, and Mr. Bloomberg has embraced the Reverend Al Sharpton, who in a recent interview described a potential Giuliani Presidency as “worse than a nightmare.”
“Mayor Bloomberg has his own governing philosophy-the two men are very different,” Mr. Sheekey said. “As Mayor Bloomberg says, Rudy Giuliani was the right Mayor for the time he governed New York, just as Mike Bloomberg is the right Mayor to govern New York today.”
Many of Mr. Giuliani’s former aides are less sanguine about Mr. Bloomberg. There was wide revulsion among the former Mayor’s circle when Mr. Bloomberg spoke Spanish in a set of television advertisements, a direct ethnic appeal that one former aide contrasted with one of Mr. Giuliani’s first moves in City Hall: abolishing various ethnic-liaison offices.
The situation on the policy front is more nuanced. Mr. Bloomberg has replaced most of Mr. Giuliani’s former aides, and his personal philosophy is clearly closer to the Ford Foundation than Mr. Giuliani’s favored Manhattan Institute. But on Mr. Giuliani’s core accomplishments-the reduction in crime, the welfare rolls and some taxes, Mr. Bloomberg has generally held the line.
“There seems to have been an implicit deal between Giuliani and Bloomberg in which the new mayor agreed, despite his liberal proclivities, not to tamper with Rudy’s policing and welfare reforms and in return the former mayor would refrain from criticizing his successor,” writes Fred Siegel in his new history of the Giuliani years, The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York, and the Genius of American Life.
Crime has continued to decline under Mr. Bloomberg, as have the welfare rolls. But some of Mr. Giuliani’s supporters still sense slippage. The minority leader of the City Council, James Oddo of Staten Island, recently wrote to the chief of Mr. Bloomberg’s Human Resources Administration, questioning a move to allow some welfare recipients to classify education as “work” for the purposes of receiving benefits.
“I sense a retrenchment of sorts,” Mr. Oddo wrote in the May 12 letter, which recalled the days when one in seven New Yorkers was on welfare. “I think any backtracking of the Giuliani era philosophy, mandates and dicta is a grave mistake and will be received in communities such as mine as the first step back towards a Dinkins-esque mentality and the bad old days.”
Mr. Sheekey responded by noting that Mr. Bloomberg defied predictions that the economy or his policies would bring the number of welfare recipients back up.
“We’ve had some progressive reforms, but we’ve still managed to bring the numbers down,” he said.
Aside from Mr. Giuliani’s core priorities, Mr. Bloomberg has shown his philosophical differences. When he took over the schools, he tilted toward a progressive educational philosophy. His smoking ban, now popular, passed only after Mr. Giuliani insisted on an exemption for cigar bars. And critics like Mr. Siegel argue that where Mr. Giuliani cut taxes in the face of a fiscal crunch in his first term, Mr. Bloomberg raised them.
Mr. Bloomberg’s allies have answers to each of the conservatives’ complaints, and argue that he restored faith in public education in the same way that Mr. Giuliani reminded New Yorkers of the possibility of safe streets. But the changed debate leaves a Giuliani-sized hole on the right side of the city’s political spectrum. A former Republican leader in the City Council, Tom Ognibene, has tried to fill it in a long-shot challenge to Mr. Bloomberg in the Republican primary. But so far, Mr. Bloomberg seems likely to occupy the center and right of the city’s political spectrum, edging the Democrats into a narrow ideological corner.
A Large Shadow
And so for the Democrats running against Mr. Bloomberg, Mr. Giuliani still looms large. Asked at one public forum whether any of them thought that Mr. Giuliani’s 1997 rival, Democrat Ruth Messinger, should have been elected rather than the Republican incumbent, three were silent while Brooklyn Congressman Anthony Weiner told the audience that Democrats are categorically superior to Republicans.
Their stance is informed, in part, by the opinion of the small number of Democrats who vote in the party’s primary: According to two private polls of Democratic primary voters, shown to The Observer on the condition that exact numbers not be printed, more than half of Democrats likely to vote view the former Mayor unfavorably. Even among voters in the general election, Mr. Giuliani is viewed unfavorably by more than 40 percent, according to one poll.
Only one Democrat, Mr. Weiner, has cast himself in any way as an heir to Mr. Giuliani.
“In some ways, Bloomberg has adopted some of the worst traits of Rudy without continuing some of the best things about him,” he said. “I am going to try to pivot off of the things that were best about Rudy-meaning advocating fiercely for middle-class New Yorkers and for the city of New York-while losing the worst of Giuliani.”
Mr. Weiner said, however, that Mr. Giuliani’s transformation into a national and intensely partisan Republican figure had complicated his local image.
“It’s far from a clear question how Rudy Giuliani cuts in this election,” Mr. Weiner said.
Said another candidate, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, “We have to stop fighting the battles of the past. We have to turn the page.”
To Mr. Giuliani’s old aides, however, the Democrats’ ambivalence about the 1990′s is a running joke.
“This is a rerun of a failed pilot that never made it into the season,” said Sunny Mindel, Mr. Giuliani’s spokeswoman, speaking of the Democrats’ attempts to argue that the city is moving in the wrong direction. “It rang hollow in 1997. You cannot deny what is eminently apparent in the city’s parks, on city streets. Mike gets credit for sustaining it and carrying it through,” she added.
There came a time when Republicans embraced Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, and Democrats have started to attempt to co-opt the legacy of Ronald Reagan. The wounds Mr. Giuliani inflicted on black leaders and residents won’t heal anytime soon. Democrats who held elected office in the 1990′s-including the two leading candidates for Mayor, Virginia Fields and Fernando Ferrer-had their careers defined in large part by conflict with Mr. Giuliani. Mr. Ferrer nearly became the Democratic nominee in 2001 on the strength of his refusal to consider extending Mr. Giuliani’s term by three months.
The strange thing about Mr. Giuliani’s absence from the race for his old job is that it comes at a time when the serious evaluations of his Mayoralty are starting to emerge. He has been out of office for three and a half years, and has spent most of that time being viewed not as a former Mayor, but as a kind of virtual war hero and candidate for President. This summer, however, will see two books that focus on his eight years in office: Mr. Siegel’s Prince of the City, and a collection of essays from the independent Soft Skull Press, America’s Mayor: The Hidden History of Rudy Giuliani’s New York.
Mr. Siegel, a fellow at the Clintonite Progressive Policy Institute, writes to reclaim Giuliani the Mayor from Giuliani the symbol of America on Sept. 11.
“Giuliani first saved the city from its own, apparently intractable, political pathologies well before he saved the city and country from the panic that could have followed the 9/11 attacks,” he writes.
The Hidden History, by contrast, is pitched as an antidote to Mr. Giuliani’s post–Sept. 11 sainthood. This kind of Rudy anti-history is a genre whose bible is Wayne Barrett’s Rudy, an unflattering personal history, and which includes Jack Newfield’s The Full Rudy, with its memorable catalog of Mr. Giuliani’s First Amendment defeats. And the collection of essays by reporters from Newsday, The New York Times and others, edited by Newsday’s Robert Polner, starts with similar themes.
“In City Hall, his inner man appeared, the ogre it always was,” Jimmy Breslin writes in his preface. Mr. Polner, in his introduction, approvingly quotes Mr. Ferrer comparing Mr. Giuliani’s campaign against the Brooklyn Museum to “something out of Berlin in the 1930s.”
Many of the essays are sharp reminders of Mr. Giuliani’s failings: his inability to create change, or even stability, in the city’s schools; his persecutions of critics; and his penchant for expensive giveaways to major corporations in the name of retention.
But some of the authors also, in an offhand sort of way, acknowledge that this catalog may be less than the sum of its parts.
“There’s no doubt that life improved greatly in New York’s lower-income neighborhoods under Giuliani’s reign,” writes Newsday’s Glenn Thrush, amid a narrative of Mr. Giuliani’s use of housing policy to punish political enemies. “The explanation, like almost everything else that happened from 1994 to 2001 in New York, can be attributed to Giuliani’s obsession with cleaning up crime …. Crime fighting turned out to be a development strategy.”
In his essay, The American Prospect’s Michael Tomasky is blunter. “Virtually everyone recognized that he had, on some level, saved the city,” he writes.
But some people are hard to please, and New York’s Democrats will, it’s safe to say, struggle with Mr. Giuliani’s shadow for years to come. Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, a likely future candidate for Mayor, seemed to capture the sentiment of many in a recent interview.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “I think history is going to treat him very kindly.”
Follow Ben Smith via RSS.