Back to the Future For Mayoral Hopefuls

It’s back to the future in New York. It’s 2001, as Freddy Ferrer again looks poised to elect Michael Bloomberg, and it’s 1997, as an uninspired Democratic field is setting itself up for defeat in a low-turnout general election. Democrats never doubted that they’d return to Grace Mansion once Rudy Giuliani was term-limited out of office. Mr. Giuliani, for all his triumphs, had left behind no successor and no organization. “You would think that people who worked for the Giuliani administration would have rushed to run for office [in 2001],” said political consultant Joseph Mercurio. But except for City University board chair Herman Badillo, who ran unsuccessfully against Michael Bloomberg in the Republican primary, none did.

It took no less of a politically anomaly than 9/11 for the city to elect a second consecutive Republican Mayor. And even that wouldn’t have been enough for Mr. Bloomberg to win if he hadn’t also benefited from a $73 million campaign, Mr. Giuliani’s endorsement, the decision by Mr. Ferrer and the Reverend Al Sharpton to shiv Mark Green, and Mr. Green’s own politically disastrous announcement that he’d allow Mr. Giuliani an extra 90 days in office.

Having lucked into office, Mr. Bloomberg has hardly impressed. While he and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly do deserve great credit for maintaining the drop in crime, the Mayor has ignored the city’s chronically bloated payroll and spending and its decaying infrastructure.

He has raised taxes (breaking a campaign pledge) and governed with an incoherence that leaves even his supporters little able to articulate just what is Bloomberg’s New York. We know it involved the Olympics, an unpopular and now failed idea.

And while Mr. Bloomberg has been lauded for gaining Mayoral control of public education, that victory was set up by Mr. Giuliani’s relentless bashing of the Board of Ed. Mayor Mike’s incoherent policies and appointments haven’t improved matters: While those tests offered only in the city have gone up in an election-year miracle, every test that can be compared to national results shows a decline or an improvement that’s less than the national average.

Yet in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 5 to 1, Mr. Bloomberg is popular even among Democrats-meaning we’re likely on the cusp of an unprecedented 16 straight years of elephants in Gracie Mansion.

What happened?

Of course, the narcoleptic lollipops of incumbency (suck on this subsidy and shut up) have strengthened his position, as have his own deep pockets. His charitable giving-much of it spent on worthwhile causes, to be sure-buys a lot of silence from potential critics. As Mayoral press secretary Ed Skyler put it, “Like anybody else, the Mayor expects to have the support of his friends.”

But the Mayor’s strong position has less to do with his (limited) accomplishments and (generous) endowments than it does with his Democratic foes, who bring to mind an old cartoon that showed a candidate under a banner reading: “This Time, Why Not the Worst?”

Some time ago, I called Council Speaker Gifford Miller for comment on a piece I was writing on a tight deadline. After 10 minutes of rhetoric so vapid I didn’t bother to type it, Mr. Miller went on background.

Finally, I thought, something worth hearing. “I care deeply about the city,” he then told me. This is the extent of his vision, which might be more accurately conveyed as: “I care deeply about becoming Mayor of the city.”

The rest of the field is equally impressive. C. Virginia Fields is by all accounts a lovely woman, but she has run a campaign befitting a borough president-an office so vestigial as to make the appendix and the Public Advocate seem like useful organs. Anthony Wiener is doing his best imitation of Ed Koch, which would be fine if it wasn’t third-term Koch. Mr. Ferrer has Jekyll-and-Hyde’d his way between moderate outer-borough Catholic and fire-breathing “other New York”–er, while remaining unimpressive in both incarnations.

Part of the problem is the Democratic primary, in which the handful of voters who turn out-mostly liberal ideologues and city employees-get to vote for their own boss or patron.

Mr. Bloomberg is running on an “It Could Be Worse” ticket that, given the alternatives, is awfully compelling-though the city may suffer buyer’s remorse when it realizes that it’s re-elected a lame-duck Mayor whose signature policies they’ve already repudiated.

vNew York still has a reputation as a dynamic city, of which Mr. Bloomberg has often said: “Smart people have to be here if they want to be successful.” But this is less true with each passing year. Quick-what’s the last significant artistic trend to emerge from here? The last major new industry to locate here?

Given a choice between “Why Not the Worst?” and “We Could Do Worse,” the city will reluctantly re-elect Mr. Bloomberg in a high-margin, low-turnout affair. But if these remain the choices, the next election just might resemble 1989. Back to the Future For Mayoral Hopefuls