Big Apple Democrats sow seeds of discontent But mayoral hopefuls in primary unlikely to unseat Giuliani

September 09, 1997|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK -- She is standing amid the broken glass on a crumbling sidewalk, across the street from Bushwick High, the most violent school in Brooklyn. Down the street, a drug dealer loiters on a corner -- a clear quality-of-life crime -- but the police ignore it.

Ruth W. Messinger, who is running for mayor of this city of 7.3 million people, wouldn't want to be any place else.

With today's Democratic primary, the two-month roller coaster that is New York's mayoral race begins in earnest. So far, by Big Apple standards, this has been a quiet year. Messinger, a former City Council member and currently the Manhattan borough president, and her two primary rivals -- Brooklyn City Councilman Sal F. Albanese and the Rev. Al Sharpton -- have run campaigns that are shocking for their measured dignity.

Republican incumbent Rudolph W. Giuliani seems headed for almost certain re-election. But the Democrats, while failing to raise much popular outrage, have together made a significant point. The Big Apple renaissance trumpeted by Giuliani and the nation's news magazines is something of a hollow phenomenon, running wide but not deep.

"If you agree with Rudy Giuliani that this is as good as it gets, then vote for Rudy Giuliani and the status quo," Messinger said during a TV debate Sunday. "But if you're troubled. then Rudy Giuliani is not the mayor for you."

There are objective standards to support this view. The overcrowding in the city's school system is crushing, in part because of Giuliani's decision to cut construction budgets to balance the city ledgers and fund his crime initiatives. Bushwick High has 2,400 students in a facility built for 1,000. Classes in other schools are being held in trailers, closets and, if Messinger is to be believed, bathrooms.

And despite the mayor's talk about the city's rebounding economy, the economic data paint a bleaker picture.

Unemployment

People who don't live in New York are often surprised to learn that the city's unemployment rate has risen a full percentage point this year to 10 percent, more than double the national figure, and the highest unemployment level of any of America's 20 largest cities. The Wall Street boom has not trickled down. According to a recent study by city comptroller Alan Hevesi, who a Giuliani supporter, most new jobs created on the mayor's watch have gone to suburbanites, not city residents.

Even the mayor's crime fighting is receiving some mild criticism. The number of police patrolling Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn has decreased recently, according to city figures.

And then there is the mayor's always fragile temperament, which has grown hotter under the summer criticism. Last week, he accused the Citizens Budget Commission of supporting Messinger after it issued a mildly critical report on education spending. The mayor's attack struck many as paranoid; the commission is dominated by Giuliani-leaning businessmen, including several who have contributed to his campaign.

But the mayor's eruptions are so routine that they have lost the power to shock.

And his hold on the electorate is strong, because of the sharp decrease in crime.

High aspirations

There were fewer than 1,000 murders in New York last year for the first time since 1968. Giuliani partisans whisper of a run for Daniel Patrick Moynihan's U.S. Senate seat in 2000.

After that, perhaps the mayor will fulfill a life-long ambition: to be the first Italian-American president.

"You might not want the mayor over for dinner, and you wouldn't want to be married to him," says Laura Spalter, co-president of the neighborhood association in Riverdale, an upper middle-class section of the Bronx. "But you'd be crazy not to vote for him."

Albanese, the Brooklyn councilman and former city school teacher, had appeared to be a tough opponent for Giuliani. For 15 years he has represented Bay Ridge, a conservative outpost of police officers.

But like Sharpton, he has had trouble raising money. His campaign advance work is amateurish; aides forgot to call the media when he showed up at his old high school last week.

At a recent mayoral forum in Harlem, he was asked only one question: Whether he would endorse Messinger after he loses the primary.

Sharp critic

At the same forum, Sharpton drew most of the attention. His campaign is centered on criticism of Giuliani's crime initiatives, which have led to an increase in brutality complaints against New York police. Sharpton stays close to police brutality victims such as Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who has accused police of sodomizing him with a toilet plunger in a Brooklyn station house.

Sharpton is by far the most engaging debater of the three Democrats. ("The Giuliani administration is not diverse, it's like the Rocky Mountains," he said at one debate. "The higher you go up, the whiter it gets.")

And he is predicting victory. "There will be people coming from the four corners of the earth to watch the showdown between Rudy Giuliani and Al Sharpton."

In today's primary, Messinger is expected to win the 40 percent necessary to avoid a run-off.

Albanese and Sharpton have some hope: polls also show more than a third of voters are undecided.

Messinger seems puzzled by her inability to generate any outrage in a city that is such a Democratic stronghold. Last Wednesday, the mayor was the host of an event for New York-based TV actors, on his way to an evening at the opera, while Messinger stood in front of Bushwick High.

She had arrived late and missed the high school students filing out.

Less than a week before the primary, only one TV camera, from a cable news station, recorded her speech, which was delivered in the driveway of a garage where a sign said "No Parking."

A cold wind blowing through the microphone made it hard for the camera crew to pick up the speech, and she was asked to begin again. She forced a smile and complied. "Real school spending is down per capita," she said. "These conditions are unacceptable."

Pub Date: 9/09/97

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