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
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.