Long echoes of Giuliani in New York's mayor race

Almost every handshake by the six candidates has an endorsement or criticism of the current mayor.

You won't see any signs that say "Vote for Rudy!" in New York this summer, but you might as well.

As the race to replace the formidable but term-limited Mayor Rudolph Giuliani heats up, it's clear that despite the presence of four Democrats and two Republicans, "Rudy" continues to dominate New York's politics. And he's already made an indelible mark on the direction the nation's largest city will take when it elects a new mayor this year.

Mike Bloomberg, Republican newcomer and billionaire entrepreneur, "wants to build on what's been accomplished over the last seven years." Bronx borough president Freddie Ferrer is running "to give voice and hope to those who have been shut out ... marginalized, and demonized for the last eight years."

Indeed, in almost every campaign handshake is the implicit endorsement or criticism of the way the feisty mayor conducted business in City Hall.

"It's a referendum on Rudy," says pollster John Zogby. "Do people want a third term or don't they? And with the exception of Freddy Ferrer, everybody's running to be the next Rudy."

Under Mr. Giuliani's reign, crime plummeted, the streets were cleaned, taxes were lowered, and business flourished. But race relations also soured, along with the Police Department's reputation in the minority community. Housing prices spiked high above middle-class means, and the city's school troubles continued unabated.

Keep the strengths, not the baggage

"People are looking to support somebody who embodies the strengths of the current administration, without any of its baggage - the racial profiling and the ruling with an iron fist," says Daedre Levine, a New York Democratic consultant.

Put another way, it's the search for the kinder, gentler Giuliani. Mr. Bloomberg, of all the candidates, is the least shy about pitching himself that way directly. He's a Giuliani admirer who wants to make "this great city ... even better." Both were one-time Democrats who switched to the Republican line. Like Giuliani, Bloomberg prides himself as a man of action, who can sometimes be brusque. And like Giuliani eight years ago, he's running as a political outsider.

"I can show government how to respond ... quickly, efficiently, and in a language that people can understand," Bloomberg told a crowd of seniors earlier this month. "I've built a business on listening and responding. That's what this city needs."

But there are also key differences between Bloomberg and the mayor. While Giuliani wasn't a politician, he was a prosecutor who knew the ins and outs of city government long before he got to City Hall, and he spent time building his base.

He also had the support of more than the Republican Party. Key to his election and reelection in this city, which is 5 to 1 Democratic, was the endorsement of the Liberal Party. This time, that's gone to a Democrat, city comptroller Alan Hevesi.

Bloomberg, who's facing perennial mayor candidate Herman Badillo in the Republican primary, is a genuine novice.

For the four Democrats in the field, it's more difficult to finesse their relationship toward Giuliani. All are fairly liberal, experienced public servants. None can deny the remarkable change in the city, and all insist they've got the experience needed to keep the city on track.

At a forum with senior citizens last week, they pretty much agreed on everything from the need to keep the city safe to improving education. But the palpable bonhomie isn't expected to last through the September primary.

Mark Green, the city's Democratic public advocate, is currently at the head of the pack with about 30 percent in polls. Giuliani's harshest critic during the past seven years, he's toned down his rhetoric to appeal to more moderate voters.

City Council Speaker Peter Vallone has also clashed regularly with the mayor but worked closely with him on an array of issues from tax reform to educational incentives. His refrain about why he's the best man to replace the mayor: "This is what I do for a living. This is my day job."

The Democratic comptroller Alan Hevesi (motto is "MEBQ! Most Experienced, Best Qualified) argues that his range of experience - from state legislator to college professor to holder of the city's purse strings - makes him the best one to take over where Giuliani is leaving off.

The shadow of David Dinkins

But the Democrats also have to finesse their relationship with another mayor: Giuliani's predecessor, David Dinkins. It was under his watch that the city seemed to spin almost out of control, with soaring crime rates and failing schools. Republican political consultant Jay Severin says that creates a serious dilemma for New York voters, arguably some of the most Democratic in the country.

"Even for the most dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, the real question is whether they're ready to trust the city to another Democrat again," he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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