A Tense City Hall Girds for Swarms of Virgin Servants

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

Council members.

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

Snyder A Tense City Hall Girds for Swarms of Virgin Servants