After Primary Day, It’s Amateur Hour

I didn’t think I’d get weepy-eyed as this year’s Democratic

Mayoral primary drew to a close, but here I am, slobbering all over my keyboard

as I contemplate the end of three long careers.

Public Advocate Mark Green, Comptroller Alan Hevesi, Council

Speaker Peter Vallone and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer have been

around government and politics since the 1970’s, but come Sept. 12, at least

two of them will be calculating their pension benefits and contemplating life

after politics. A third may survive another two weeks, until a runoff primary

puts an end to his career, too. Only one veteran Democrat will get out of this

summer alive.

The conventions of modern journalism insist that your

devoted correspondent bid the losers a properly sarcastic good riddance. After

all, it’s not as though any of these men actually do anything important, like

recite words in movies. They are not young, well-dressed and famous, and thus

deserving of our love and adoration. They ply the trade of politics, a field in

as much disrepute as, er, journalism itself. Together, they have eaten

approximately 780,000 catering-hall dinners, given 950,000 Memorial Day

orations and attended to the problems of 1.7 million citizens, of whom only a

handful or so were celebrities or public-relations handmaidens to same. You can

see, then, why they deserve only fashionable contempt as they work so

desperately to avoid career extinction.

At the risk of being declared out of touch with modern

mores, I must confess that the imminent dismissal of three veteran politicians

does give me pause. New Yorkers are about to turn over city government (except

for the Mayor’s office, and that’s assuming a Democrat and not a certain

Republican businessman wins) to rank amateurs, and-thanks to the decidedly

mixed blessing of term limits-those amateurs will be running for Mayor

themselves in four or eight years. New York

will then look back at this election season with the same combination of

affection and respect that some of us hold for the great election dramas of

1973 and 1977. The four leading Democrats of 2001 may

not be the most charismatic bunch ever to grace New York

politics, but they are pros who understand how government works. If you think

that means nothing, or if you think such knowledge deserves only scorn, just

wait until 2005 or 2009, when the incoming City Council class of 2001 is

preparing for graduation.

Mr. Hevesi and Mr. Vallone won their first elections in the

early 70’s, and not until now did they consider themselves seasoned enough for

the top job at City Hall. Mr. Green, in another life, was a student of politics

before he became a 

paid practitioner. And Mr. Ferrer will be the last Mayoral

candidate to have served on the long-gone Board of Estimate. All four would

have passed the scrutiny of the late Bronx boss Ed

Flynn, who used the word “amateur” as an epithet of the most obscene sort.

But the 35 newcomers who will be elected to the Council this

fall will be scrambling for higher office long before they master the tricks of

legislating, thanks to term limits. Few will have attained an important committee

assignment; some will have never sponsored a meaningful piece of legislation.

The dimmer types will have only begun to figure out the difference between the

expense budget and the capital budget. But as they climb the proverbial greasy

pole, each of them will have a wonderful story, a moving personal narrative,

which they have been trained to think of as an acceptable substitute for wisdom

and experience. All politics is autobiography these days, especially to the

chattering classes, who have insulated themselves against the vagaries of

public policy and who view politics as a mere subsidiary of Entertainment Inc.

And the substitution of narrative for experience will be truer still once we

begin to dismiss from office those who have spent a lifetime mastering the

details of government.

Perhaps by 2005, certainly by 2009, New Yorkers will wonder

how they came to put their faith in the gospel according to Ron Lauder, the

sponsor and financier of the term-limits law. Mr. Lauder’s only contact with

real-life city politics came during his hired-gun primary campaign against Rudy

Giuliani in 1989. From this embarrassing experience, he decided that city

government needed more amateurs and fewer professionals. That this will only

benefit the city’s army of unelected lobbyists, deal-cutters and favor-seekers

surely was an unintended consequence.

So, on primary night, when two (possibly three) veteran

Democrats deliver their concession speeches and bid farewell to public life,

only fools and the elites will watch the proceedings with delight. The former

are blameless in their ignorance; the latter will bear some responsibility

when-not if, when-city government is overrun with hapless lawmakers trying to

figure out where the bathrooms are. After Primary Day, It’s Amateur Hour