Rivals Attack, Mayor Defends As Campaign Begins
In New York City in 2005, the war is a mayoral campaign, which will culminate Nov. 8. The mayor’s State of the City speech last Tuesday can properly be viewed as the opening round, as the political conflict enters the stage of declarations of combat. There has been sniping, of course, for several years, as aspirants legitimately seek to attract attention to themselves, mostly by attacking the mayor, because that gives them the most attention.
Candidates who should know better make endless assaults, often over trifles. The administration denies any errors, and finds itself without culpability for any problem. It is a ritual dance, with both sides performing roles that could have been written for them.
Using the platform, resources and staff of the City Council, Speaker Miller has spent the last three years asserting his leadership, and seeking to attract public attention to himself and his positions. He rides around the city in an elegant black limo or SUV, accompanied by police officers and aides. In fact, he has quite a posse. Like a bee traveling from flower to flower to gather nectar, he travels around the city, speaking at meeting after meeting, trying to build a network of friends and supporters. There is nothing wrong with any of this; it was what Ed Koch did in 1977 (without the police - he was only a congressman, not an officer of the City Council), and what Michael Bloomberg did, on his own, in 2000 and 2001.
The nature of Miller’s position prompts the speaker to attack the mayor whenever he can. If he did not do that, why would anyone vote to throw out an honest, decent, relatively unexciting but successful public official, and replace him with a 35-year-old who has never held a job outside of politics? It is a situational imperative for him to find fault wherever he can, and pass bills he knows will be vetoed, so he can show authority by using his position on the Council to override the mayor.
But before he can take on the mayor, he must first defeat Fernando Ferrer, the well-known former Bronx borough president, narrowly defeated by Mark Green in the 2001 Democratic primary, a symbol of Latino pride and more important, frontrunner in the polls. Miller’s chances are further weakened by the candidacy of Anthony Weiner, an aggressive young, but not too young, congressman from Brooklyn and Queens, who is trying to put together the Koch coalition.
Ferrer’s prospects are impaired by the candidacies of Virginia Fields and Charles Barron, although Barron is not expected to stick out the race because he would have to abandon his real job, his Council seat. Fields is term-limited out of the borough presidency and is in an up-or-out situation. As African-Americans, each of them would damage Ferrer’s ambition to be the candidate of all minorities.
Mayor Bloomberg, on the other hand, is playing defense. He stands up for his administration and the people he appointed to commissionerships and other offices. When they are disingenuous, he sets them free, as he did with the Local Conditional Release Commission. Then he explains why he did not know, indeed could not have known, about their propensity for misconduct. In this area, the mayor has done well.
The mayor has responsibility for about 300,000 employees (the real number depends on how many you count, and whether housing and transit are, or are not, defined as municipal agencies). It is the nature of the universe that some of them will be crooked, some lazy and some incompetent. It is also true that insufficient resources will be available to do their jobs, or to maintain a level of service that people want. The media are vigorous in calling problems like this to the mayor’s attention, and he must respond with sufficient intensity to show that he cares about the situation, and is doing his best to resolve it.
With incumbency comes resources, convenience, and great media exposure. But it also carries with it the burden of responsibility - for issues you can control and for issues beyond your control. The mayor of New York City is a more visible public official than the governor of New York State. For that reason, some failures of the state, or state-controlled authorities, are in the public mind mistakenly believed to be failures of the city.
In this election, the Democrats will make much of the fact that he ran on the Republican line. He will be linked to President Bush and every other right-winger in an effort to frighten New Yorkers and capitalize on their feelings of rage about the 2004 election, which some delusionally believe to have been stolen. The truth on that issue comes from former President Bill Clinton, who said: “I voted for the other guy, but we lost fair and square.”
The observer who tries to be objective should never believe that one candidate is perfect and the others are wicked. On the other hand - and that seems to be a phrase we use often in the quest for fairness - it is quite possible that one candidate can be substantially better than the others, and that one or two can be substantially worse. Running the government involves making many decisions - on people and on programs - and choices are sometimes limited by the realities of politics and the availability of resources. Selecting a candidate to support is an important decision, which should be based on a judgment on the record and character of the people in the race, and their capacity to govern effectively.
A line that Ed Koch often used in his campaigns is, “If you agree with me on nine out of twelve issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on twelve out of twelve, see a psychiatrist.” When you make a choice, think of what he said. And remember that you can change your mind until you pull the lever.
Henry Stern can be reached at: