Maybe the 2009 mayor’s race simply struck Rudy Giuliani as too boring.
And so, at an Oct. 18 breakfast in Borough Park in honor of Holocaust survivors, a black-yarmulked Mr. Giuliani told his audience that he has “worried daily” since leaving office that “the city might be turned back to the way it was, to the way it was before 1993. And you know exactly what I’m talking about.”
The city had been governed since the 1970s by Democratic mayors, the last being David Dinkins, who, like Mr. Bloomberg’s Democratic opponent this year, is African-American. Mr. Giuliani was elected amid racial tensions that boiled over in days of rioting between African-Americans and Jewish residents in Crown Heights.
“Absolutely abhorrent, sick, and very unfortunate,” Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Democrat who was among Mr. Giuliani’s earliest supporters, said of the former mayor’s comments. They were aimed at stoking fears about Mr. Bloomberg’s Democratic rival, Bill Thompson, he said.
“Would he have said the same thing if Thompson was white?” asked Mr. Hikind.
“[I]t looks like Giuliani is going back to the old days of racial polarization,” said Bill Lynch, a deputy mayor under Mr. Dinkins who came under particularly fierce criticism for his handling of Crown Heights at the time. “What makes him say that it’ll get worse under Billy Thompson? Because he’s a candidate of color?”
The mayor and his campaign seemed caught off-guard by the Giuliani backlash.
When first asked, on the day of the Borough Park breakfast, if he shared Mr. Giuliani’s concerns, Mr. Bloomberg said that he did—and came up with an unfortunate comparison to Detroit.
“I think our freedoms in this country are always under threat,” Mr. Bloomberg said.
“Domestically,” he added, “we all know cities have gone through great boom times and then turned around and collapsed. Take a look at Detroit. It’s as good an example of a city if you ever want to know. That was really because of economics as opposed to some other things, but Detroit went from a great city with lots of good-paying jobs to a city that is basically holding on for dear life. All of our gains are always in danger of being turned around.”
By the next day, at an Oct. 19 event near City Hall to announce an endorsement by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Mr. Bloomberg had become considerably more cautious.
Asked again about Mr. Giuliani’s comments, Mr. Bloomberg spoke only about his own record, and his desire for harmony. He used the word “I” 20 times, and mentioned Mr. Giuliani’s name a total of zero times.
“I think we successfully resisted attempts to divide this city for the past eight years. I’ve worked with virtually everyone. I don’t point fingers. I try to lower the volume and the temperature and not raise it. I’m not going to start trying to raise it now,” Mr. Bloomberg said.
The following day, it was more of the same. While at the South Street Ferry terminal in Lower Manhattan, where he was endorsed by Democratic Representative Mike McMahon, a television reporter asked Mr. Bloomberg if the critics had “misinterpreted” Mr. Giuliani’s remarks.
“I don’t know,” said Bloomberg. “I’ve got to work on trying to bring people together, which is what I’ve tried to do, and continue the progress that we’ve made in this city.”
Bloomberg campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson suggested that that was about as far as the mayor was going to go.
“People know what his record is, people know what he stands for,” Mr. Wolfson said.
Mr. Giuliani, by contrast, didn’t back off an inch, telling the New York Post his comments were “historical” and his critics were motivated “because they’re losing.”
Mr. Thompson’s underfunded campaign did its best to keep the controversy going.
At a press conference the following day in City Hall Park, Mr. Thompson said “the mayor and Rudy Giuliani have resorted to the politics of division and the politics of fear,” but declined to go as far as to say the comments were “race-baiting,” as did Bill de Blasio, the Democratic nominee for public advocate (and former Dinkins aide under Mr. Lynch).
Mr. Giuliani’s reference to the New York of the early 1990s has made his critics, and some allies, cringe. But Mr. Giuliani’s appeal is not without its proven effectiveness. After all, the high crimes and racial tensions Mr. Giuliani so easily evoked haven’t entirely been forgotten. But, critics argue, so have the gains.
“The racial divisions that made for some success in a different area won’t work now,” said Ken Sunshine, Mr. Dinkins’ first chief of staff. “It’s a very different era.”
“I think the rhetoric and surely racial appeal that worked with some segments of the white community won’t work again. Society matured,” and “people’s attitudes change,” said Mr. Sunshine.
While invoking the horrors of urban life in the ’90s, Mr. Sunshine said Mr. Giuliani also “forget how America changed in the early ’90s.”
Fred Siegel, a history professor at Cooper Union and longtime Giuliani booster (he is the author of The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York, and the Genius of American Life) said, “It’s smart to have Rudy out there, but not in this way. You want a positive appeal to draw ethnic voters to the polling place. But the overtones here are double-edged.”
“We’ve had a long period of tranquility in this city, post-Giuliani,” Mr. Hikind said. “We don’t need something throwing grenades. It was surely not helpful.
He added, “At that point, things were rough in the city. Things were out of control, crime was the No. 1 issue. It was a different world in 1993. The mayor did a lot of great stuff. We got to give credit where credit was due. But there was a lot of tension in the city. But all of that has changed.
“It’s not 1993. We don’t have the issues of 1993. Bloomberg has done an incredible job on that. We don’t have racial tensions. Why come and throw this into the equation?”
George Arzt, a political consultant who worked as an aide to former mayor Ed Koch (who lost to Mr. Dinkins in the 1989 primary), said Mr. Giuliani’s strategy is outdated.
“Times have changed. Giuliani is out of touch with the city,” Mr. Arzt said. “The city is not polarized, and to come back into it and try to polarize it is unwelcome.”
Mr. Arzt noted that days ago, the city’s broke new ground in its racial history, nominating an Asian-American, John Liu, to be the Democratic candidate for city comptroller, and Mr. de Blasio, who publicly displayed his interracial marriage, for public advocate.
“It goes to my point that he’s out of touch with a new New York, with a different New York than he knew,” said Mr. Arzt.