To get a sense of the City Hall that will vanish after
Rudolph Giuliani leaves office, consider the strange case of City Council
member Philip Reed and the missing commissioner.
Mr. Reed, like many other inhabitants of City Hall, expects
that things will dramatically change in two ways on Jan. 1, 2002, when Mr.
Giuliani is replaced by a new Mayor, very likely a Democrat. One change is that
the tension between Mr. Giuliani and everyone else will disappear-no more
battles between the Mayor and the press, no more barricades, no more police
sharpshooters on the roof. And no more outbursts like Mr. Giuliani’s on June 5,
when the Mayor threatened to sue the New
York Post for libel. (The Post
reported that day that the Mayor and his friend, Judith Nathan, had spent
several nights in the St. Regis hotel.)
The other anticipated change is far more profound, and is
causing new anxiety at City Hall and among the city’s top power brokers. A host
of factors-term limits, the changing politics of the city, and the pending
departure of City Council Speaker Peter Vallone-is going to produce the most
dramatic and far-reaching transformation of power in City Hall’s East Wing
since the Board of Estimate was ruled unconstitutional in 1986.
The narrative at City Hall, which has been all about Mr.
Giuliani’s rigid, autocratic style, is abruptly going to shift on Jan. 1 to a
tale of chaos on the City Council. Yet many government insiders are so
exhausted by Mr. Giuliani’s intensity that all they can think about is what
will be left behind. Just ask Mr. Reed, whose bizarre run-in with a
commissioner was all too typical of the Giuliani era.
For a number of weeks, Mr. Reed had tried to contact a
housing commissioner about a project in his Harlem district. After numerous
unreturned calls, Mr. Reed threw up his hands. But then, late one evening, Mr.
Reed’s telephone rang.
“If you happen to be in the cafeteria at Mount Sinai
Hospital at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning, you might just bump into the
commissioner,” said a furtive voice on the other end of the line.
“I showed up at 8 o’clock and, sure enough, I got my
meeting,” Mr. Reed told The Observer .
“These commissioners fear for their lives. Sometimes they won’t even let you
know what’s going on in your own district. I don’t expect this to be the
climate at City Hall in the future.”
There has been much talk
about the things that will disappear with Mr. Giuliani. Many government
insiders are predicting that City Hall will promptly revert to the freewheeling
days of yore, when there were no gates barring the public from the plaza, city
commissioners mingled freely with reporters, and characters from all corners of
the city used City Hall’s steps as their personal soapbox. The denizens of the
press room, Room 9, may find their lives a good deal less contentious as an
administration proud of its stonewalling fades into history. “I think that
we-the press-were set back in access to information in the Giuliani era,” said
Gabe Pressman, the veteran political reporter at WNBC.
But City Hall is
entering a new and uncertain era, and the scrapping of barricades, zealous
security personnel and other hallmarks of the Giuliani era is just the
Term limits are forcing not only Mr. Giuliani out of office,
but more than two-thirds of the City Council’s 51 members. One of these hapless
Council members happens to be Mr. Vallone, also a Mayoral candidate, who has
exercised near-dictatorial control over the Council since 1986. His departure
as Speaker is likely to leave a power vacuum in the Council, setting off a
struggle for succession to the Speakership, splitting the Council into
competing factions and temporarily weakening it as a check on Mayoral power.
Adding to the confusion, the power blocs within the Council
are likely to be redrawn along racial rather than geographic lines, as the
power of minorities grows and the influence of county chairmen wanes. In short,
even as the man who transformed the culture of City Hall leaves office, a host
of other unprecedented changes are reshaping municipal government. In power
terms, no one knows who-or what-is coming next.
“Predicting what City
Hall is going to be like come Jan. 1 is harder than picking Lotto numbers,”
said City Council member Ken Fisher of Brooklyn, who is running for Brooklyn
borough president. “There are just as many balls being shaken up, and there
will be just as few winners. Everybody’s going to be bouncing off of each other
in new ways. No one even knows what the competing factions down here are going
to be, let alone which ones are going to have the most power.”
So what will City Hall be like next year? For one thing, a
host of rookie Council members-35, to be exact-will be walking into City Hall
to replace the veteran members, some of whom have been serving since the
Lindsay administration. Although pundits love to get a cheap laugh by trashing
the Council, developers, business executives, lobbyists and others rely on
Council members and experienced staff members to keep city government
functioning smoothly. It may seem hard to believe, but some of these power
brokers are deeply worried about the pending departure of a generation of
City Council 101
To keep City Hall functional
next year, some of these top executives-including Alair Townsend, the publisher
of Crains’ New York Business ,
lobbyist John Lo Cicero and Joe Strasburg, the head of a powerful landlord
group-are sponsoring a kind of quickie course at Baruch College for would-be
Council members. The students have listened to lectures about the City Charter,
the budget, local government and, in one case, an extended seminar on
street-naming. (This does not bode well.)
“What business likes above all is stability and predictability,”
Ms. Townsend said. “We certainly at this point don’t have predictability.
Whether we’re going to have stability is anybody’s guess. People can only
imagine the worst.”
Having a new crop of
Council members being helped out by inexperienced staff members and led by a
new Speaker, Ms. Townsend said, could turn out to be “the blind leading the
blind.” Which, if nothing else, may make for some interesting copy for the Room
9 crowd. “The whole city is going to turn upside-down,” said Elisabeth Bumiller,
City Hall bureau chief for The New York
Times. “Two-thirds of the City Council is going to be new. All the borough
presidents except one are going to be new. It would be really exciting to
“It’s hard to imagine
the next four years being boring,” added Daily
News senior political correspondent Joel Siegel. “I can’t imagine any
reporter saying, ‘I don’t want to cover City Hall.'”
The turnover in the
Council could make the next Mayor far more powerful than anybody expected.
Conventional wisdom has it that the next Mayor-who is expected to tone down Mr.
Giuliani’s autocratic governing style-will have a hard time amassing the amount
of power that Mr. Giuliani enjoyed. But Mr. Giuliani’s successor could prove
even stronger, particularly since the Council’s ability to act as a check on
Mayoral power may be hobbled by factionalism and an inexperienced Speaker.
“It’s going to be very
hard to organize the next Council as a counterforce to the next Mayor’s
agenda,” said Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.
Adding to the confusion
is the fact that the city may never again see a Council Speaker as powerful and
as influential as Mr. Vallone became during his 15 years on the job. Mr.
Vallone inherited a highly professional staff and a sizable budget with which
to build a power base. He centralized his own power by building a cadre of
loyal operatives who ran the Council for a decade and created a
political-action committee that sought to reelect members loyal to the Speaker.
Unlike Mr. Vallone, who
had an instant majority handed to him, his successor will have to cobble
together a power base at a time when no one controls whole blocs of Council
members, as the county leaders once did.
“The support of the next
Speaker will come from a broader and much less stable coalition than Vallone
had,” said Evan Stavisky, a Democratic consultant. “Instead of two guys in a
back room, there will be a whole multitude of new interest groups and power
brokers trying to decide on who the new leader of the Council should be.”
In addition, Mr.
Vallone’s successor will be trying to guide a Council made up largely of
freshmen who are familiar neither with governance nor Council etiquette.
“There’s going to be
chaos, and it’s going to come from ignorance,” said Council member Bill Perkins
of Harlem. “The Speaker will have a harder time getting things done-not because
of a defiance from the new members, but more from the governing processes that
will be new to so many people at once.”
The next Speaker also
has another serious obstacle: the disappearance of Mr. Giuliani, a Republican,
as the perfect foil for the overwhelmingly Democratic Council.
“Peter was able to round up votes whenever he got into a
fracas with the Mayor,” said Upper East Side Council member Gifford Miller.
In the end, the tenor of daily life at City Hall will
reflect the tone and balance of power throughout the rest of the city, as it
always does. Union leaders, social-service providers, black leaders, homeless
advocates and AIDS activists were rarely seen at City Hall during the Giuliani
years. This was a sharp departure from the days of former Mayors David Dinkins
and Ed Koch, when someone like Mary Brosnahan, the homeless advocate, could be
spotted on the steps of City Hall every other day.
But the disappearance of these people didn’t happen simply
because Mr. Giuliani restricted access to the City Hall steps. It also happened
because the day-to-day life at City Hall is a reliable guide to which
constituencies in the city have access to power, as well as a sign of whose
concerns are finding their way into the city’s daily conversation. In the
post-Giuliani era, many of those groups are almost certain to become a presence
again at City Hall-a sign that they have regained power, or at least that the
mood of the city has shifted a bit in their direction.
“The biggest difference
is that the people who have been out of power for the last eight years won’t
have to convince the police that they’re allowed inside the building,” Mr.
Stavisky said. “It’s not like they’re going to be running things all of a
sudden, but at least they’re going to be allowed back in the door.”
-Additional reporting by Jason Gay and Gabriel