Since he successfully wrested the mayoralty from David Dinkins in 1993, Rudolph Giuliani has counted on the support of traditionally liberal Democrats who exchanged ideology for peace of mind and quality of life. Mr. Giuliani has lived up to his end of the bargain, with crime down and the city’s economy booming. But now, as the Mayor attacks the character of an unarmed father killed by police in the Garment District, many of those liberal Democrats are beginning to harbor serious doubts about the pact they have made with the former prosecutor.
The writer Robert Caro, who cautiously supported Mr. Giuliani in his race against Ruth Messinger, a traditional Upper West Side Democrat, in 1997, was among those appalled by Mr. Giuliani’s attempt to smear Patrick Dorismond, a black security guard who was slain by police on March 16 as he tried to hail a cab on Eighth Avenue.
“My visceral reaction was revulsion,” Mr. Caro said. “I’m not even talking about whether the Mayor is right or wrong, or about whether the police were right or wrong. I’m talking about this rush to make these statements. There’s an injustice in the haste. It reveals something about his governance that is deeply disturbing and will have very long term consequences.”
Mr. Caro is not alone. Mr. Giuliani’s performance on Fox News Sunday on March 19, and his subsequent efforts to portray the dead man as a violent criminal, has sent a wave of revulsion through one of Mr. Giuliani’s key power bases: Giuliani Democrats. These moderate, mostly white liberals have been willing to overlook Mr. Giuliani’s flaws-his uneasy relationship with the First Amendment, his personal attacks on outspoken critics, his antagonistic relationship with the city’s minorities-in exchange for his fulfilled promise of civil order.
Now Mr. Giuliani needs them again to defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton in this year’s race for Senate. But the Mayor’s rigid refusal to show even a glimmer of remorse over Dorismond’s death threatens to do permanent damage to that fragile compromise. Rather than build on the uneasy truce that followed the Amadou Diallo verdict, Mr. Giuliani has chosen to enter into political combat with a dead man-a course of action that has alienated some supporters and confirmed their fears about his volatile temperament.
Mr. Caro, for example, has publicly praised some of the Mayor’s accomplishments. But Mr. Giuliani’s recent conduct apparently has changed Mr. Caro’s opinions. Mr. Caro has been thinking a lot lately about race and the Senate as he works on Master of the Senate , the third volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson , which deals with Johnson’s days as a civil rights champion in the Senate during the late 1950’s.
“It seemed absolutely impossible to get a civil rights bill passed,” Mr. Caro said. “No such bill had gotten through the Senate since Reconstruction. It was thrilling for me to watch him wrestle this bill past almost impossible obstacles. The contrast is striking. The Mayor’s actions here seem to reflect no understanding of the need to bring races together. The thought of sending to the Senate someone whose actions in this case are so opposed to [Johnson’s] is deeply disturbing to me.”
Mr. Giuliani, of course, has long been a rigid defender of cops in controversial cases, but his conduct in this case has been different. Far from showing even a hint of discomfort, Mr. Giuliani’s response has been to leak details about the victim’s criminal record to the news media, followed by a full frontal assault on the dead man on national television.
And Mr. Giuliani shows no signs of backing off. On March 21, he renewed his attack on Dorismond in City Hall, bringing to light an incident during which Dorismond punched his girlfriend on the side of the head while she was holding the couple’s 1-year-old child.
“I am giving you facts that you resist printing,” Mr. Giuliani said. “That Mr. Dorismond spent a good deal of his adult life punching people is a fact.”
Mr. Giuliani also defended his release of the dead man’s arrest record. “You cannot libel a dead person,” he told reporters. “Privacy interests and rights expire with you. There are things that survive you, but that right is not one of them.”
Bratton Sounds Off
“He is off the reservation,” former Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said of Mr. Giuliani. “Beating the drum about the guy before he’s in the ground? It shows how callous the Mayor is. Like the rest of New York, I’m appalled by it. People are really beginning to question this guy’s judgment. The Mayor’s more concerned with protecting cops than protecting his own legacy here. He’s made it quite clear that he’s running on the [accomplishments of the] New York City Police Department. But the cops belong to the people of the city of New York-they’re not his private army.”
Mr. Bratton might be expected to harbor ill will toward the Mayor, who forced him out of 1 Police Plaza. Still, Mr. Bratton is a reliable guide to the sentiments of moderate Democrats who embrace the successes of the war on crime but are growing ever more alarmed by the Mayor’s excesses.
“In many ways, he’s been a good Mayor,” observed author David Halberstam, who has voted for Mr. Giuliani in the past. “So I’m particularly saddened by this coming on the heels of other comparable cases, and the instinct that he’s shown to politicize it. In fact, he’s doing exactly what he asked the rest of us not to do, which was to judge [the incident]. He went after the victim immediately.”
Conventional wisdom has it that a Republican needs to win at least a third of New York City voters to win a statewide race. A strong showing downstate is particularly important to Mr. Giuliani, whose uneasy relationship with the state Republican establishment may cause him some trouble with traditional Republican voters in upstate New York. Unlike the 1998 Senate race, in which Giuliani Democrats overwhelmingly supported Democrat Charles Schumer over Alfonse D’Amato, this constituency is up for grabs in the Giuliani-Clinton contest.
“Without question, Giuliani has to do better in New York City than your standard Republican,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac College Polling Institute.
On the surface, Mr. Giuliani seems to be following a well-tested strategy: By defending cops relentlessly, he tries to solidify his hold over moderate whites by baiting opponents into criticizing cops, thus turning them into clones of the Rev. Al Sharpton. The Mayor has already started to use that tactic, saying on March 21 that “Mrs. Clinton and the Rev. Al Sharpton are reading from the same script.”
“He’s trying to use Al Sharpton as a wedge,” said Sal Albanese, a longtime opponent of the Mayor. “He’s making this the law-and-order mayor against Al Sharpton. He knows how to play this game. Polarization works.”
A Risky Business
Yet there’s no question that this game risks frightening moderate voters. Mr. Giuliani has long taken a kind of grim pleasure in testing his relationship with these Democrats, resisting police reform, touting school vouchers and trying to yank funds for offensive art exhibits. He seemed to calculate-correctly-that many moderates were so traumatized by the disorder of the David Dinkins era that they would remain behind him.
This time, though, Mr. Giuliani has shown a streak that may drive away many of those wavering supporters. Mr. Giuliani apparently has no one in his inner circle willing to rein him in when he goes on the attack, no matter what the consequences. Mr. Giuliani’s aides say he is largely running his own campaign, making strategic decisions himself and sticking to his longstanding tendency to navigate tactical skirmishes by instinct.
“It’s him,” one adviser remarked, when asked to describe Mr. Giuliani’s brain trust. “He’s his own counsel.”
“He’s running a bad campaign,” said Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “His supporters say to me that they have begged the Mayor to step back and say, ‘We’ve done a good job policing the city. We’ve made some mistakes, and there are things that have to be changed.’ It would be a way of showing compassion and normalcy. But he can’t do that. It’s politically crazy. The very thing that brought him to the table could undo him.”
Indeed, Mr. Giuliani’s conduct almost seems designed to frighten away marginal supporters. “There’s a growing discomfort around the city with the Mayor’s unwillingness to acknowledge that sometimes the police are wrong,” said City Council member Ken Fisher of Brooklyn, a moderate Democrat who has endorsed Mr. Giuliani in the past and represents a district that has supported Mr. Giuliani.
“The Mayor overplayed his hand,” Mr. Fisher continued. “Painting a portrait of Dorismond as some type of violent drug dealer clearly crossed the line. He’s not going to alibi this one away by saying that it’s only the work of Sharpton and his political enemies. Rudy is starting to remind me of Winston Churchill. He was a great wartime prime minister for New York City but that kind of bulldog behavior comes across in peacetime New York as threatening.”
Mr. Giuliani’s conduct has even begun to alienate some of his Republican supporters. “There is absolutely no excuse for the Mayor to misrepresent this guy,” said Ed Hayes, a lawyer and self-described Giuliani supporter who is an anchorman on Court TV.
“I got into God knows how many street fights growing up,” Mr. Hayes said. “That doesn’t make you a bad person. Your friend cheats you out of money, like with Dorismond, what are you going to do? Are you going to say, ‘Please steal from me again?’ You hit the guy in the head! Dorismond was a good father. He was minding his business. The guy wanted to be a cop himself! It’s an absolute waste, and to attack him after he’s dead is shameful.”