Little glitz in New York mayoral race

May 07, 2001|By Jules Witcover

NEW YORK -- Mayors of New York like to say they have the second-best and second-toughest job in the country, next to the presidency. While that is a considerable stretch, it certainly is a high-visibility post that has produced such colorful political stars as Fiorello LaGuardia, John Lindsay, Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani.

Until, that is, the end of this year when "Rudy," as everyone calls him, will be out of office, thanks to term limits. Four Democrats, on the outside looking in for nearly eight years as Republican Giuliani has occupied City Hall, and two Republicans who want to succeed him are all poised to run in the September primary.

All four of the Democrats are prominent city officeholders: Mark Green, the public advocate currently ahead in the polls; Alan Hevesi, the city comptroller; Peter Vallone, speaker of the City Council, and Fernando Ferrer; the Bronx borough president. There is no African-American candidate, although the Rev. Al Sharpton could still enter.

"There's no real giant in this field," admits David Doak, Mr. Vallone's political consultant.

On the Republican side, one of the prospective candidates, media mogul Michael Bloomberg, is a political neophyte, and the other, Herman Badillo, is an old Democratic retread. After eight years of Mr. Giuliani, the pack seems particularly bland with the exception of Mr. Bloomberg, and he is rated a long shot.

Bland, however, could be what the doctor ordered for a successor to Mr. Giuliani, the tough, outspoken and controversial former crime fighter who has been widely credited with cleaning up New York and making its streets safer while setting voters' teeth on edge with his words and methods.

Charges of police brutality have cast a long shadow over Mr. Giuliani's tenure, most recently with the acquittal of four police officers who in 1999 repeatedly shot, and killed, an unarmed West African immigrant. They said they thought the man, Amadou Diallo, was reaching for a gun when it turned out he was taking out his wallet.

Racial tensions, particularly between whites and African-Americans and Hispanics, "pre-dated Rudy Giuliani, but he's done precious little to alleviate them," Mr. Green told a Young Democratic Club at New York University the other day.

He accused Mr. Giuliani of being in a "defensive crouch" in dealing with police brutality and public fear and hostility toward men in blue. Mr. Green told the NYU students of a cop in Queens, speaking of strict enforcement measures, asking him: "What good does 20 more arrests do if they hate us?"

But Mr. Giuliani's continuing public approval ratings temper criticism by the men who seek to replace him. In the most recent Marist Institute poll, 56 percent of registered city voters gave him a grade of excellent or good and another 26 percent rated him fair, to only 15 percent who said he was doing a poor job.

As a result, most of the candidates settle for mild pokes at him, and more at his irascible personality than at his performance. "They say he's obnoxious but he's done great things," says David Axelrod, political adviser for Mr. Ferrer. "They say, `I'm not obnoxious, and I'll do great things.'"

David Garth, the longtime New York political consultant who worked for both Lindsay and Mr. Koch and is now readying Mr. Bloomberg's race, describes the anti-Giuliani message thus: "We like what he did, but he could have done it in a nicer way." Then he adds: "This is New York, and you don't make nice and win in New York."

The Democratic primary race is rated close, with Mr. Green slightly ahead. A runoff after the primary between the two top finishers is deemed likely, with no candidate expected to exceed the 40 percent of the total vote required to avoid it. Mr. Garth says he expects a Democratic runoff between Mr. Green and Mr. Hevesi, but Mr. Hevesi has been showing weakly in the polls and others see Mr. Ferrer, with his strong Hispanic base, making the runoff in his place.

As for the wealthy Mr. Bloomberg, he has vowed to spend whatever it takes and is conceded to be the Republican nominee, probably with Mr. Giuliani's backing. Mr. Axelrod says Mr. Bloomberg has been assembling a "Noah's Ark -- two pollsters, two of everything" to win in November.

But Mr. Green says: "He can't beat me in a 5-to-1 Democratic city. He's not Giuliani."

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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