A Meddlesome Priest Stirs Giuliani’s Ire

Rudolph Giuliani is living out the fantasies of his fellow Manhattan College alumni. He is tormenting the president of Fordham University.

The two Bronx-based colleges (don’t even ask what Manhattan College is doing in the Bronx) have long been rivals, and the extent to which that rivalry can be described as friendly depends on the personalities of those engaged in it. Fordham graduates will tell you that their peers from Manhattan College suffer from a well-deserved inferiority complex. (Look, that’s what they would say. As a humble graduate of the City University of New York, I am but an honest broker in this dispute, although I would add that the Mayor has done nothing for my own self-esteem, insisting as he does that post-open-admissions CUNY grads like me are lazy, unmotivated, work-shirking illiterates. All right, all right, he got the shirking business right.)

[ Editor’s note: Damn right. ]

On the other hand, Manhattan alumni tend to consider Fordham grads to be tweedy snobs, their heads filled with all sorts of Jesuit mumbo jumbo. The Christian Brothers who founded Manhattan College were well known for combating mumbo jumbo with right hooks–rhetorical and otherwise.

So when the Mayor recently launched one of his tirades in the direction of Father Joseph O’Hare, the genial Fordham president who happens to be the chairman of the city’s Campaign Finance Board, why, Manhattan College alumni the world over were cheering him on. Mr. Giuliani accused the board over which Father O’Hare presides to be “arrogant”–file that one under “Chip, on shoulder”–and “intellectually dishonest”–that can go under “Revenge, served cold.”

The source of this dispute, that is, the immediate source, concerns a bit of goo-goo good government that Mr. Giuliani used to champion back in the days when he was a pure (which means unelected) reformer. The Campaign Finance Board is one of the city’s finer institutions, for it governs and maintains New York’s admirable system of publicly funded campaign finance. The public, here and out yonder, understandably does not necessarily associate New York with pristine government. But the Campaign Finance Board is a national model for those who believe that big money, regardless of the source, is the root of political evil.

Under Father O’Hare’s direction, the board was preparing to distribute public funds to candidates running in February’s special elections to fill three vacancies on the City Council. In accordance with new rules the Council passed last year, the board was prepared to give candidates $4 for every $1 they raised–if they agreed to several stipulations, including a self-imposed ban on contributions from corporations and political action committees. Previously, the board matched dollar for dollar.

The Mayor, however, insists that a scheme which his hastily concocted charter revision commission cooked up last year supersedes the new rules. Under the Mayor’s regulations, candidates who choose to participate in public financing are banned from accepting corporate contributions. The Mayor’s plan offers no incentive or bonus, such as the 4-to-1 match.

The Council plan, with the higher match, has the support of all the good-government groups. As Conn Nugent, executive director of Citizens Union, points out, the 4-to-1 match means that a City Council candidate can raise as little as $10,000 in private funds and still run a competitive race, thanks to the 4-to-1 provision. Fifty thousand dollars goes a long way in a Council race, particularly in special elections called to fill vacancies. Those elections are nonpartisan, which evens the playing field and negates the built-in registration edge that the Democrats still enjoy in many neighborhoods. Public campaign funding and the elimination of party labels, if only in special election, certainly could lead to the election of a more representative city legislature (fewer lawyers, more citizen activists).

Mr. Giuliani, naturally, believes his way is not only best, but is the only intellectually honest, fiscally prudent and morally ethical way to go. So the Mayor directed his Office of Management and Budget to cut off funds to the Campaign Finance Board in an effort to block the 4-to-1 payout.

All of this has left Father O’Hare confessing to a certain degree of puzzlement. Mr. Giuliani has, in the past, been something of a supporter of campaign finance reform. But he has never taken a liking to Father O’Hare–he tried to rid himself of this meddlesome priest several years ago, but backed down in the face of editorial outrage.

Now, however, Mr. Giuliani is trying to bait Father O’Hare into a protracted power struggle, one that very likely will end up in the courts. Give the Mayor marks for persistence, but this time he has chosen a target who is more than capable of fighting back.

“I want to be on Father’s O’Hare’s side in a fight,” said the Citizens Union’s Mr. Nugent. As it happens, he is, and so are most of his colleagues in the good government and civic watchdog world.

So Mr. Giuliani is creating a new fan base for the Fordham Rams. The Manhattan Jaspers will not be pleased.

A Meddlesome Priest Stirs Giuliani’s Ire