NEW YORK — Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has the Big Apple's Democrats exactly where he wants them - competing against one another.
The 1997 mayoral race, which is starting to heat up, now consists of four Democrats waging war against one another for the right to take on the city's combative mayor.
The battlers may have to spend most of their war chests just to get into a runoff between the top two vote-getters. And, by the time the Democratic challenger faces Mr. Giuliani, fund-raising could divert their effort from campaigning in a race that could cost as much as $15 million for Guiliani's opponent.
At the same time, Giuliani, a Republican, is raking in contributions from big spenders. He has collected more than $7 million so far in a city that has a 5-to-1 Democratic Party voter advantage. "This should not be happening, a Republican should not be getting this level of contributions," says Joseph Mercurio, who heads New York-based National Political Services, a Republican consulting group. In addition, Giuliani is expected to win the Liberal and Conservative Party nominations. "It's unprecedented," says Mr. Mercurio.
At the moment, none of the Democratic candidates has an advantage. In the hunt are: Fernando Ferrer, who is mainly known in the Bronx where he is borough president and considered to be a factor in its revival; Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, a West Side liberal who is well known for her attention to constituent service; Sal Albanese, a Brooklyn councilman, with some union backing but very little voter recognition outside of his district; and the Rev. Al Sharpton, an African-American, who has never been afraid of controversy.
In a poll taken late last year by Quinnipiac College, the Democratic candidates trailed Giuliani by 12 to 14 points. However, Giuliani never polled more than 50 percent of the vote. "Anything can happen," says Maurice Carroll, director of the poll.
Former Mayor Ed Koch, who supported Giuliani in his successful fight against David Dinkins, says Giuliani is vulnerable. "I believe he has been a good mayor in some areas and terrible in others, and he has not been a nice person," says Mr. Koch. After Giuliani interfered in the judicial nominating process that Koch had set up to try to minimize political influence, Koch turned against Giuliani.
Koch and the candidates say Giuliani is vulnerable on the education issue. Over the past four years, Giuliani has pared $1.3 billion from the Board of Education's budget and he pressured former Chancellor Raymond Cortines to resign. But this fall, the mayor found some unexpected money in the coffers and added $70 million to the education budget for textbooks.
Mr. Ferrer is trying to denigrate the mayor's achievements at lowering the crime rate. At his kickoff on Monday, Ferrer observed that homicides are up in 37 percent of the city's precincts and rape is up in 42 percent of them. "That is unacceptable," says Ferrer. Those statistics, however, don't tell the entire story - crime is down significantly in the city as a whole.
The major Democratic players have yet to start to back any of the candidates. Mark Green, the city's public advocate, said the contenders will have to fight it out without his support. And Carl McCall, the state controller, is likewise staying on the sidelines.
To try to help her campaign, Ms. Messinger has hired Mandy Grunwald, a Washington-based consultant who is known for getting then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton on the political road map.
Complicating the picture for Ferrer and Messinger is Mr. Sharpton. Although Sharpton only polled 6 percent of the votes last year, he could do better in November. "Al could destroy the Democratic candidate, depending on what he demands to support the winner," Koch says. "That could cause people to say, 'We don't want someone who makes concessions to Sharpton.' "
So far, says Koch, he hasn't seen any sign yet that any of the declared candidates can unseat the mayor. But, Ms. Grunwald says there must be something unsettling the voters: "[Giuliani's] the incumbent and he's below 50 percent."