The new census figures bode well for the Mayoral election,
as it seems very few current residents of Greater New York were either alive or
here in 1977. They will be less inclined, then, to regard a Mayoral debate over
the death penalty as a pointless and even demagogic exercise that might be described
as bread-and-circuses-save that it is neither nourishing nor entertaining.
A fresh outbreak of death-penalty politics occurred a couple
of weeks ago, when Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer announced his
support for a moratorium on state-sponsored executions. This was considered a
major development in the great struggle to succeed Rudolph Giuliani. Veteran
correspondents duly noted that four years ago, almost to the day, Mr. Ferrer
had announced that he no longer opposed the death penalty; indeed, he had
become a convert to its necessities after a police officer was killed in the
In the wake of this
startling turn of events, Mr. Ferrer was whacked on the editorial page of the New York Post , which deplored his
evident weakness of character. And Mr. Ferrer was obliged to send a letter to The New York Times in defense of his new
position. For a few days, newspeople and perhaps even the candidates themselves
were delighted to shift the conversation to something exciting, like Old
Sparky, instead of dwelling on dreary reading scores. We now know that two
candidates favor the death penalty, Mr. Ferrer and Council Speaker Peter
Vallone, and two oppose it, Public Advocate Mark Green and Comptroller Alan
Amid all this excitement,
it does seem a bit dour to point out that the Mayor of New York City has many
powers, but not included among them is the ability to dispatch convicted
criminals to the great mysterious beyond. And yet, as each month seems to bring
more bad news about the city’s public schools, as the post-industrial fortress
known as Silicon Alley becomes the Maginot Line of the New Economic Order, it
seems entirely possible that the Mayoral candidates will spend time this summer
debating the merits of capital punishment.
Geezers will recall that in the 1977 Mayoral election, the
death penalty became the campaign’s signature issue from the moment that Ed
Koch-Ed Koch, the maverick, reform-minded Democrat from Greenwich
Village-announced that he was pro-execution. This led Mario Cuomo-Mario Cuomo,
the little-known white ethnic from Queens who plied his lawyer’s trade on Court
Street-to emerge as a passionate conscientious objector. And so the two of
them, Mr. Koch and Mr. Cuomo, were joined in a battle that become one of New
York’s great political rivalries.
Conventional wisdom has it that Mr. Cuomo lost the 1977
campaign in part because of his opposition to the death penalty. This is both
true and unbelievable. Yes, Mr. Koch probably outflanked Mr. Cuomo on the
issue, winning outer-borough ethnic voters who probably were as surprised as
anyone to be voting for a reform-minded Manhattan liberal instead of another outer-borough ethnic.
But remember the year-1977, the first election after the city’s brush with
bankruptcy; the era of huge municipal layoffs, scaled-down services, Son of
Sam, blackouts, ever-increasing crime, middle-class flight and really bad Mets’
teams. (Never mind those guys with the fancy-pants pinstripes.) How was it that
the decisive issue of the 1977 Mayoral campaign became the death penalty, an
issue over which the Mayor had no control?
It was symbolism, of
course-the kind of symbolism that Dick Morris would put to even more cynical
use years later. Ed Koch’s support for capital punishment was a signal to an
exhausted and demoralized city that he shared its frustrations, that he was not
what he might have seemed to be-an out-of-touch Manhattan reformer who blamed
society for the city’s high crime rate.
New York in 2001,
however, is far removed from the dreary days of 1977. Crime is at
Wagner-administration levels; the state, through the grace of George
Pataki and the Legislature, now has a capital-punishment statute; and the city seems to be free of the resentments that
lead some to equate state-sponsored executions with criminal justice.
Nevertheless, no Democrat wishing to succeed Rudolph
Giuliani wishes to be thought of as the heir to lawless New York. Mr. Green
opposes the death penalty, but he has Bill Bratton by his side. Mr. Hevesi
shares Mr. Green’s opposition to executions, but the Comptroller has gone to
Harlem to defend the decency of most police officers-and been heckled for his
efforts. He’ll not be made into a municipal Michael Dukakis.
So Mr. Ferrer and Mr. Vallone will carry the New Democrat
enthusiasm for capital punishment into this year’s election. Their views no
doubt are the product of reflection and inquiry, and perhaps even prayer.
Let’s hope, though, that we don’t have to hear about it come
summer, when more important matters are up for discussion.