Former Mayor Abraham Beame, looking sprightly decades after the fiscal crisis that made him famous, stood feistily in front of the City Hall he had ceded to upstart Ed Koch. The occasion was the Sept. 25 endorsement of Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, but, like the mood rings in vogue during his tenure, the 91-year-old politician emeritus brought forth responses of different colors. “My car is named Abe Beame,” reflected the New York Post ‘s Bob Hardt, of his 1974 Volkswagen square-back. “It was made the same year he became Mayor.”
Mr. Beame may have been the oldest endorsement of the week, but not, literally speaking, the furthest-fetched. That would be Richard Harcrow, president of the Attica Corrections Officers union. Mr. Harcrow lives many miles north of the city, but his upstate dreams are so disturbed by the candidacy of Ms. Messinger, whose home was apparently the site of a 1979 party for the killer of an Attica guard (Ms. Messinger has had no luck yet jogging her memory on that one) that he came all the way down to the city on Friday, Sept. 26, to put in a good word for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. (“Why don’t you endorse for mayor of Buffalo?” asked one reporter.)
Then again, for sheer volume, you can’t beat a Democrats for Giuliani rally, which are getting to be a regular thing in City Hall Park. At the one held on Sept. 24, there was, as always, a welcome (“We have many new friends,” said Giuliani campaign manager Fran Reiter, “and the list keeps growing”) and the cheery speechlets of Democratic defectors of all degrees of consequence: Stanley Hill, executive director of District Council 37, the government employees’ union; Deborah Wright, president of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone; Frank Seddio, president of the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club in Canarsie, Brooklyn. The rally was set against a backdrop of real New Yorkers who hadn’t, in fact, just been pulled out of their morning commutes by Giuliani campaign personnel, but did, between the low-fervor factor of the event and its proximity to the N and the R trains, look that way. But as the mayoral race turned into its post-Sharpton stretch, the hottest endorsements were the latest round from African-American officials, which began on Saturday, Sept. 27, at City Hall.
It was a gorgeous morning, but because of an inclement protest by a half-dozen naysayers on the front steps, the Mayor was inside when he accepted the double-value (Demo-cratic and black) endorsements of Representative Edolphus Towns of Brooklyn and Representative Floyd Flake of Queens, a pastor. The protesters may have been mad, but they can’t have been surprised. Neither the ideologically eclectic Mr. Towns, who had supported Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer and then the Rev. Al Sharpton in the Democratic primary, nor the party-undisciplined Mr. Flake, whose soft spot for Senator Alfonse D’Amato is as well known as his sweet praise for Mr. Giuliani, were prime Messinger material. The only one who seemed a new man was the Mayor. For months, Mr. Giuliani had been pillorying Ms. Messinger for the mere suggestion that she would endorse Mr. Sharpton if he were to defeat her in the Democratic mayoral primary. Yet here, aglow with praise from two fellows who had definitely not gotten around to any such denouncing, Mr. Giuliani seemed to have developed a whole new tolerance. When The Observer asked why this largeness of spirit did not extend to Ms. Messinger, the Mayor was peeved. Snapping something about a reporter’s “excessive desire to mischaracterize,” he left the obvious answer (something like “It is in my political self-interest to stick her with Sharpton, not in my political self-interest to stick them with Sharpton”) unskirted, let alone stated. So much for Q.&A.
It is, as usual, hard to see why the Mayor would have his knickers in a knot. Granted, on Sunday, Sept. 28, while Mr. Giuliani was getting the nod from an African-American City Councilman, Thomas White of Queens, Ms. Messinger got to stand across the street from Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, getting the much loftier seal of approval of State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, who was just the headliner in a lineup that featured, among others, Representative Charles Rangel of Harlem and soon-to-be Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields. And she was going to get warm, mostly minority, greetings at her campaign stops. (“Ruth tells the truth!” giggled a woman at the Atlantic Antic street fair in Brooklyn, pasting a Ruth sticker on her forehead.) But the Mayor still had very little reason to get so touchy. Ms. Messinger can no doubt claim more African-American support, both popular and political, than her opponent. But, to paraphrase a prayer often said in black churches, Mr. Giuliani may not get all the black votes he wants, but he will very likely get all the black votes he needs. Indeed, for all Saturday’s talk (a fair amount of it true) about what’s colorblind and common-sensical in the Giuliani approach to running the city, the Flake-and-Towns show reflected nothing so much as both men’s desire to hook up with the winner they assume the Mayor to be.
And his chances of becoming that winner were strengthened most by the excellent fortune that shone upon Mr. Giuliani in the speedy resolution of a dispute just where Ms. Messinger would like him to have a long, nasty battle, in the public schools. Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew received unattractive press when he denied (most) reporters the cheap paparazzi thrill of seeing Ms. Messinger teach a seventh-grade social-studies class at I.S.145 in Queens. But it wasn’t the little story the schools chancellor created that mattered to the election; it was the big story he nipped in the bud. That is, of course, the story of P.S. 41, in Greenwich Village, where parents raised $46,000 to keep a fourth-grade teacher on staff. Though the district superintendent and former Schools Chancellor Anthony Alvarado had assured the parents that this would work out, Mr. Crew first balked, and then took a worried look at the idea. He did not jump for joy. The Chancellor’s hesitation might have turned into something politically, for it made him seem, fairly or unfairly, like nothing so much as a scion of the capital-S system the Mayor loves to castigate the Democrats for having created. But, having joined himself at the hip to Mr. Crew, Mr. Giuliani could hardly blast him for being such a bureaucrat. Meanwhile, Ms. Messinger could, in the midst of it all, be heard marveling at the “line in the sand” that makes private parental contributions forbidden for class-size reduction, but fine for frills like libraries. Had this dragged on, it might have made for an interesting role-reversal: the cut-the-crap Mayor on the side of procedure over people, and the big-government liberal challenger on the side of whatever works for real people. That issue could have been a contender … if only Andrew Lachman, Mr. Alvarado’s No. 2, weren’t Ms. Messinger’s husband, rendering her unable to touch it with a 10-foot pole.
So that one got away from Ms. Messinger though she kept going all weekend. As just a fraction of her Sunday schedule, she attended a bike-athon, marched in a Muslim parade and got to sit, briefly, at Zion Shiloh Baptist Church in Brooklyn. “It’s an uphill journey to glory,” sang the gospel choir; Ms. Messinger’s tired feet no doubt tapped right along.
On Monday, Sept. 29, it was back to the endorsement biz, the gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual division. On the Messinger front, at City Hall Park, a varied group waving pink and purple “Out for Ruth” signs seconded the motion of such public figures as City Councilman Tom Duane, who extolled Ms. Messinger as “flawless” on gay issues. Those assembled tittered, though, when Mr. Duane introduced the relatively conservative Stonewall Democratic Club as being among them. “Tom, they’re in City Hall,” said Liz Abzug, daughter of Bella. And sure enough, half an hour later, they were, handing the Mayor an endorsement of their own.
Erazo’s Notorious Pal
Attending a public meeting of the city’s Campaign Finance Board is typically about as exciting as watching grass grow. But the board’s Sept. 24 meeting turned out to be a hot ticket. On that day, board staff members were joined by a clutch of reporters as they all crowded into a small conference room on the seventh floor of the board’s Rector Street headquarters.
The assembled journalists had showed up to witness the first meeting to officially include Joseph Erazo, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s recent appointee to the board. A bit of controversy was generated a few weeks back by City Hall’s decision to rush Mr. Erazo to a board meeting, just minutes before the board voted on a substantial fine against the Giuliani campaign for its repeated acceptance of illegal contributions. That maneuver has also generated calls for Mr. Erazo’s resignation (from good-government groups and from the editorial page of The New York Times ).
To no avail, and Sept. 24 marked Mr. Erazo’s baptism of fire. Just two weeks earlier, Mr. Erazo, a nominal Democrat, had attended a rally endorsing Mr. Giuliani’s re-election and suddenly found himself in a position to rule on the conduct of his campaign.
Reporters awaited Mr. Erazo’s first official pronouncements as board staff members went over the tedious details of various campaigns. Their patience was rewarded with an intriguing spectacle.
Carmelo Saez Jr., manager of the campaign for a Bronx City Council candidate, had showed up at the meeting to complain about the bureaucratic burdens placed on his candidate by the board’s requirements. The arrival of Mr. Saez immediately elicited a rush of amused whispers from the assembled journalists. Until very recently, he was among the most notorious community school board members in the city, having been removed from his position as a member of School Board 9 in the Bronx in 1996 amid allegations that education funds were misused for private gain. Indeed, Mr. Saez’s dubious behavior had actually led to his previous removal from the same school board in 1972.
It was when Mr. Saez sat down that Mr. Erazo spoke up, interrupting the proceedings to make an announcement. “I know Carmelo Saez for a long time,” he explained. “I was one government official helpful in getting some of the things off the ground that you did when you were a young man.” Mr. Erazo offered to recuse himself from any votes that the board might have on any matters involving his old friend.
What had been amusement turned to astonishment. Carmelo Saez is the type of guy one would want to deny knowing, not someone with whom one would wish to disclose a relationship before a room of reporters. An apparently disgusted board staff member got up and abruptly left the room.
A few minutes later, the otherwise uneventful proceedings drew to a close. The reporters rose from their chairs and approached Mr. Erazo. Mr. Erazo got up quickly and exited through a door that led to the board’s offices. The reporters looked pleadingly at board chairman Father Joseph O’Hare, who gestured toward the front door. The reporters swarmed toward a bank of elevators, the only way to leave the seventh floor. After a few moments, Mr. Erazo emerged from the board’s offices. Waving tape recorders, they surrounded him.
Mr. Erazo, will you resign?
Why did you endorse the Mayor after he had appointed you to the board?
Everyone crowded into an elevator.
Are you going to remain on the board?
“The facts speak for themselves.”
Still in the elevator, Mr. Erazo turned to Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Research Group, who has called for his resignation. “I can’t believe it, I love you,” said Mr. Erazo. “You can do anything you want, and I still love ya.”
At the first floor, the reporters followed Mr. Erazo out of the elevator, into the lobby and onto the street, all while he muttered “no comment” again and again.
When the crowd reached the corner of Greenwich and Rector streets, Mr. Erazo announced he was heading down into the subway. Mr. Russianoff, a longtime public transit advocate, accompanied him down the stairs. The reporters dispersed.
As they rode the subway uptown together, Mr. Russianoff gave Mr. Erazo a copy of a letter calling for his resignation. After a few stops, Mr. Erazo was startled to realize that in his haste to flee the inquiring reporters, he had left his briefcase, including his wallet, back at the board’s offices.